Small Farmers vs. Big Ag

OK, I’ll try to catch you up on our expedition in a few short bursts…

It has been many weeks and several thousand miles since we left River Run Farm and Pottery in central Kentucky. We’ve milked cows, slaughtered chickens, built a wattle fence, cleaned a barn, built a solar dehydrator, split a couple cords of wood, ate a ton of lobster, caught a couple sharks, shared time with friends in Boston, New Hampshire, New York and Chicago and…well, I’m getting ahead of myself, let me start at the beginning.

After River Run Farm in Springfield, we drove south to Gamaleil, KY (it’s pronounced Ga-mail-ya…don’t try to figure it out) to visit my cousins, Hannah and Jesse. The young couple have a small farmstead and are making a go of it in the truest sense of the word…no running water, no electricity and, literally, only a pot to piss in. But what they lack in utilities, they make up for in kindness, goodwill and hard work.

Hannah and Jesse on their porch in the light of the setting sun

Hannah and Jesse on their porch in the light of the setting sun

The truth is, I don’t know if Hannah and I are truly cousins or not…my grandmother’s sister’s daughter, Rita, is married to Hannah’s uncle, Ralph…? Oh well, blood kinship seemed to matter little and she and her husband, Jesse, opened their hand-crafted home to us and we shared three fun days and nights with them and their big friendly dog, Wendell. Unfortunately, our stay was cut short when a rainstorm threatened and we feared that the Schwartz might not make it back out the pocky little dirt road that crosses two streams and one river on the way to their place.

Their farmstead is growing quickly…they have a small house garden for veggies and a brood of chickens for eggs and one ornery rooster who may have already found his way to the crock pot. Their simple and practical house is a work-in-progress, but whose home isn’t, really? I truly envy their commitment to living sustainably – it is no small effort to move completely off-grid and I am happy to find that they seem well-suited to the task. They really are a fantastic pairing, he got into farming to learn to make mead (wine from honey) and Hannah is a beekeeper…how perfect, right? If you have a minute, stop by their artfully-rendered website, Rough Draft Farmstead, and find out what it’s like to hack out an existence from the primitive forests of Kentucky…or grab a copy of Jesse’s book, Bringing Wine Home, and read his entire journey from Manhattan wine salesman to Kentucky homesteader. Our love and best wishes to you both, cuz!

As projected, the rainstorm arrived…and it followed us north. Fortunately, we were able to take refuge overnight with our friends at River Run Farm and Pottery where we had the opportunity to meet Kitty and Michael, the two new WWOOFers on the farm. After another big, tasty breakfast we bid a final farewell to Jonas and River Run Farm…or so we thought

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. (Lots of NEW pictures of River Run Farm in our Images Section)

Henry and Walt with hens at River Run Farm and Pottery.

Henry and Walt with hens at River Run Farm and Pottery

What’s That Smell?

On our way north to Red Sunflower Farm in Independence, KY, the Schwartz started acting funny. The exhaust smelled horribly and, literally (and I am using that word appropriately), I watched the needle on the fuel gauge head south while the Schwartz crept north at an increasingly dogged rate. We found an RV mechanic a few miles outside of Independence and headed in for what was to be the worst possible news…

After two days of diagnoses and scoping around, the mechanic called to tell me he found a crack in the engine block. The smell, he said, was unburned gas leaking out the cylinder wall. The power loss and reduced performance was due to running on only seven of the eight cylinders. Total cost to repair…$5,150.00. Or, to think about it another way…$150 more than we paid for the entire vehicle. We briefly considered our options and realized that we really had none…we had our entire expedition ahead of us and we had already put months of effort and plenty additional monies into the Schwartz. Besides, a new…well, rebuilt…Ford motor came with a 3-year unlimited mile warranty so…two weeks later we picked up our revitalized Schwartz.

The timing worked out perfectly…we dropped off the RV and picked up a small rental car and made our way to Independence and Red Sunflower Farm with a few bags of clothes and food and Mattie in her splint still…we were staying two weeks on the farm and the Schwartz was repaired before we finished our stay. Additionally, the rental car made for quick and inexpensive trips to Cincinnati for dinner, drinks and a visit to the Aquarium.

Barry at Red Sunflower Farm, Independence, KY

Barry at Red Sunflower Farm, Independence, KY

Barry and Mackey were gracious hosts while we stayed at Red Sunflower. They provided us with a rustic-looking but adequately-appointed apartment above the garage just 20-odd steps up a flight of wooden stairs. Anastasia and I took turns carrying Mattie up and down the stairs, though, truthfully, she spent most of her “free time” sleeping in the apartment….but all that was soon to end.

What’s That Smell?: Part II

I awoke in the middle of the night to the sound of Mattie gnawing and licking at her bandages. We had put one of those plastic cones on the dog for the first few days but those things are so damn annoying. The summer days in Kentucky alternated between balmy and rainy and outright hot and sweaty…90 degrees and 90% humidity I would venture…and the cone just made it hotter and more bothersome for everyone. Mattie had been fine without the cone for a few days but that night she chewed all the way through the wraps, to the skin and then through a small patch of skin and into her flesh…now she had a broken leg AND an open wound.

Really, people?

Really, people – there has to be a better way, no?

Dr. Cook had warned me that if her bandages got wet, they would start to stink. Other than the spot where she had been chewing at the wraps, they seemed dry to the touch…but, damn, did they stink. And her leg felt really hot…much hotter than the rest of her body…so, in the morning, Mattie and I drove that little economical rental car the 250 miles back south to Lebanon, KY to visit Dr. Cook.

In retrospect, her chewing through the bandages was the right thing for her to do. Unbeknownst to anyone, one of the nails on her bandaged foot had cut into the adjoining pad and her foot had gotten infected and the leg had begun to swell inside the bandage – she had simply tried to relieve the pressure by chewing her way out. All was good after the Doc had a chance to reapply the bandages and splint but the infection needed more attention and treatment than we could provide on the farm so we opted to leave her with the vet for our final 10 days at Red Sunflower.

Meanwhile, Back on the Farm…

Red Sunflower is a 35-acre oasis just a few miles outside of Cincinnati but you would never guess you were close to a city once inside the farm. Deer and a rushing creek and forest cover most of the land. A flat lot of a few acres is used for the home and structures and for growing produce – including the sweetest black raspberries I’ve ever tasted. They also raise chickens and ducks and the farm sells produce through a local CSA and offers educational opportunities for children to visit and tour the farm. (Lots more pictures of Red Sunflower Farm here)

Chickens at Red Sunflower Farm, Independence, KY

Chickens at Red Sunflower Farm, Independence, KY

While on the farm, we helped Barry prepare the property for very special visitors…a group of 30 or 40 extension agents were coming to visit Red Sunflower Farm. Now, many of you might not know what an extension agent is…they are agricultural “experts” hired by the state in order to inform people about current developments in agriculture, home economics, and related subjects. Extension agents in the U.S. were included as part of the Hatch Act of 1887 through each state’s land-grant university. The nationwide extension program was later enhanced by the Smith-Lever Act of 1914 which created a system of cooperative extension to be operated by those universities. (thanks, Wikipedia for the definitions and links).

It [agriculture] is the first in utility, and ought to be the first in respect…It is a science of the very first order. It counts among it handmaids of the most respectable sciences, such as Chemistry, Natural Philosophy, Mechanics, Mathematics generally, Natural History, Botany…The charitable schools, instead of storing their pupils with a lore which the present state of society does not call for, converted into schools of agriculture, might restore them to that branch qualified to enrich and honor themselves, and to increase the productions of the nation instead of consuming them.

Thomas Jefferson, November 14, 1803

Aiding and educating American farmers has been a large part of our cultural heritage and I agree with Jefferson…YES to programs to spread the wealth of agricultural knowledge to our  over-extended and underpaid farmers. YES to respecting and nurturing the creative process that truly is farming. And YES to recognizing that a nation of well-educated farmers would be a vast and longstanding benefit to our country.

Big Ag Invades the Farm

But what of those extension agents and educational programs today? To be truthful, the agents are nothing but shills for Big Ag corporations. And the universities they represent are merely breeding grounds for the corporate benefactors which fund their departments…Monsanto, Dow, Syngenta, Cargill, DuPont, Bayer, Kraft, PepsiCo, Archer Daniels Midland, Unilever, Nestle, Coca Cola and the other dozen or so corporations that constitute the entire world of Big Ag are firmly embedded in our academic institutions.

Rows of genetically-modified hybrid soybeans labeled to track yield

Rows of genetically-modified hybrid soybeans labeled to track crop yield

When the funds for “independent” and “academic” research come from the likes of Monsanto or Bayer or DuPont, the resulting reports and analyses do little but support the conclusions that the benefactor’s products and practices are sound. The universities simply receive too much money from Big Ag to be impartial and professors and deans have too much at stake to promote anything but Big Ag’s dogma. In academia, as in Washington DC, there is but one type of agriculture and it is big, industrial and corporate.

As scheduled, the extension agents visited Barry and Red Sunflower. They toured his organically-based, mostly human-powered farm. They might have noticed the water-catchment system. Or the holding pond. Or the elaborate drip system in the production fields. They might have smelled the air, which does not reek of diesel or glyphosates or pesticides or chemical fertilizers. They might have noticed how the chickens and their roosts are moved across the land to help fertilize the soil and scratch out insects and reduce the weeds. They might have seen the naturally healthy onions and turnips and lettuce and beets and squash and chard and corn and carrots and the vast assortment of herbs and berries. They might have noticed all of the labor that went into keeping the farm weed-free naturally and sustainably. They might have…but they didn’t.

Industrial agricultural sprayers replace depleted nitrogen in soil with anhydrous ammonia

Industrial agricultural sprayers replace depleted nitrogen in soil with anhydrous ammonia

What they did see was approximately four acres of flat land that could be tilled under and planted edge-to-edge with a single crop. They suggested that Barry could decrease his efforts and costs and increase his yield by spraying his land with a glyphosate herbicide (like Monsanto’s RoundUp). Essentially, they would have Barry turn his farm into a mining operation – to utilize his land to extract as many bushels of food out of the farm by whatever means necessary before the land became exhausted, scorched, poisoned and barren.

But Then What?

After talking to Barry about their visit, I did not get the impression that any of the extension agents actually appreciated what Red Sunflower Farm actually is or why a farmer might choose to farm in such a way. But, truly, how could they be expected to see anything beyond what they have been taught – and paid – to see?

When farmers follow the advice of the extension agents, do they tell the farmer what to do once the land had been sprayed and stripped of its naturally-occurring humus and fertility? Do they mention how many years the land would lay barren after repeated applications of petro-chemicals? Do they issue ANY warnings at all?

No, they almost never talk about the dead planet they are helping to create…they merely encourage farmers to spray, spray, spray. Even when the weeds continue to grow, spray more. And more. And more. (check page 2 of that last link – a University of Wisconsin and Iowa State University report with financial support provided by BASF, Bayer, Dow, Dupont, Monsanto, and Syngenta among others…wow, that’s what I call independent research!)

Barry and Mackey, Jonas and Julie, Hannah and Jesse – and all the farmers we are visiting on our journey – are doing a very honorable thing: They are growing food naturally and sustainably, without using petro-chemical poisons and fertilizers. And they have as much concern for the land that is left behind as they have for the food which comes out of it.

In the end, THAT is what farmers do – they care for the land first, because they know that without healthy land, there is no healthy food.

My thanks to all of our farmers.


Red Sunflower Farm, Independence, KY

Red Sunflower Farm, Independence, KY






About JC Jaress

JC Jaress has been looking for something his entire life and he's pretty sure it's been looking for him as well. Whether they find each other is not nearly important as the little dance they're doing.

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