Why farmpunk?

A farmpunk could be described as a neo-agrarian who approaches [agri]culture, community development and/or design with an anarchistic hacker ethos. "Cyber-agrarian" could supplant neo-agrarian, indicating a back-to-the-land perspective that stands apart from past movements because it is heavily informed by conceptual integration in a post-industrial information society (thus "forward to the land" perhaps?) The art and science of modern ecological design—and ultimately, adapting to post-collapse contexts—will be best achieved through the combined arts of cybermancy and geomancy. In other words: the old ways of bushcraft and woodlore can be combined with modern technoscience (merely another form of lore) in open and decentralized ways that go beyond pure anarcho-primitivism. This blog is an example of just that. Throughout, natural ecologies must be seen as the original cybernetic systems.

**What we call for at the farmpunk headquarters**
°Freedom of information
°Ground-up action + top-down perspectives
°Local agricultural systems (adhering to permaculture/biodynamic principles) as the nuclei of economies
°Bioregional autonomy
°Computers are optional but can be used for good—see peer to peer tech, social media for direct popular management of natural or political disasters (e.g. Arab Spring), or the mission of the hacker collective Anonymous
°You

"Municipal liberty is the first and most important [principle] of democratic institutions, since nothing is more natural or worthy of respect then the right which citizens of any settlement have of arranging themselves the affairs of their common life and of resolving as best suits them in the interests and the needs of the locality." - Emilio Zapata

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The American Dairy Industry: Now in Technicolor

Well, technically it's in Kodachrome. :P




{{click the picture to watch the film}}

The part where "Professor Chapman" is like "Say there TOM, have you given any thought to the dairy industry?" -- I am immediately reminded of a guest lecturer at one of my Animal Science classes. He was like Mr. Big Dairy-Biz-Man. More on that later. In the meantime, watch some dairy recruitin' propaganda. It gets a bit repetitive after the first five minutes.

Getting Permacultured in Vermont


I have to take a moment to be an emissary for Yestermorrow Design & Build School in Warren, Vermont. I took their Permaculture bootcamp course this past weekend... and it was worth far more than I paid for it, in great part due to the expertise of my instructor, Andrew Faust. He's quite a jack-of-all-trades (and master of many of them) - naturalist, builder, designer, gardener - I suppose I'd call him a "medicine mason", because he is someone who heals by design. Bucky Fuller, for example - who I will probably refer to incessantly, btw - resides in my personal mythology as one of the modern progenitors of medicine-mason consciousness...

Among other things Andrew teaches Permaculture Design Certification classes - one of which is a 12-day course taught at Yestermorrow - and has recently started an edible garden consulting and design business in Brooklyn (his main game is called The Center for Bioregional Living, which was previously born from the generation of his biodynamic homestead in West Virginia)

And yes, the Yestermorrow creature is just as fantastic as it has always sounded. This place is the local Jedi training grounds. Every flavor of green craft is available in forms easily digested and expressed by the brains and limbs of earthlings, respectively. There are also a lot of courses that focus on the more psycho-spiritual side of green-craft, like applications of sacred geometry and dowsing, or naturalist know-how like tree identification, reading the landscape & general geomancy. They just added a course on Farm Design, too. It looks delicious, and yes, I cry every night because my job as a professional student prevents me from participating. (You can transfer credit from some of the 1 and 2 week courses to UVM now, too!)

Here's Yestermorrow's blog, in which they mention the upcoming exhibition at UVM's Fleming Museum that chronicles the design/build movement in Vermont in the sixties and seventies - our local incarnation of the first post-industrial back-to-the-land movement.

::teleport to the exhibit's webpresence::

Monday, September 22, 2008

My positionality...

The blog is an interesting type of narrative because of its nature as a veritable log of mental events that are made available for an audience relatively near the time they have been transubstantiated into text. Blogs don't contain beginnings or ends unless we choose to fabricate them - thus they tend to begin "in the middle" of the story, so to speak, and often a narrative can only be inferred by observing patterns (over time!) that emerge in these rivers of digital print. Indeed, there is something organic about them because they reflect a process that teaches you why it does things only through its own continued unfolding... it is a rare example of entelechy in media (needless to say the majority of media is framed in quite a different way). In the strange synthetic landscape that is the internet, which is always at various stages of decay and growth, and in some places even fossilized, blogs are like these things that somehow seem more alive and autonomous than the other edifices of code that populate cyberspace. They have roots in another world, and it is from there that they are fed, and like a taproot - it is there where they mostly exist.

The reason I'm waxing poetic about blogs as narratives is because I've been thinking, in light of what I've written here so far, about how I might be perceived by someone who doesn't know me and happens upon this blog. Indeed, that is in one part a purpose of this writing project - to reach people who I can't touch with speech, people whose existence and spirit I could never possibly be aware of. I am sensitive to the fact that it is difficult to impart through text things like cynicism and sarcasm -- and I like to entertain myself by devising textual techniques by which to do this, as I value the music of live speech so very much.

I suppose I'm visualizing this entry as an addendum particularly to my post about wheat & grain. My treatment of the Green Revolution may come off as somewhat unmindful. I want to be clear that cynicism should not be mistaken for demonization. I'm not saying that poor Norman Borlaug, or dwarf wheat varieties, or any cause, effect or component of what we now call the "Green Revolution" is or was 'bad', per se. What you see written here are eddies, bubbles, tiny manifestations of a much vaster dialectical river - and as the wetware component to this local dialectic, I have to tell you straight up that I see no phenomena - social, ecological or what-have-you - as inherently good or bad‡; what I am much more inclined to think of as detrimental to my own health as an earthling is something deeper than such superficial phenomena - something that cannot be captured live or seen by any one pair of eyes at one time. This beast is infrastructure. It, like every other system outside of fiction, evolved - however industrially - in response to various pressures; in this case human needs. But whose needs, exactly? Yours? Mine? I can only speak for myself, and I can surely say not mine. This infrastructure is exceptionally good at presenting itself as in servitude of you - it hopes that you will think of it as a process that leads to you and ends with you. But in my experience this is very far from the case. Large artificial systems that replace ecological processes with mechanical ones are uninterested in human health and happiness. And yet (!) I'm still not trying to demonize them by saying that - because they aren't interested in being a detriment to human health and happiness, either. We encounter a challenge when we, with our language that has been designed for human-to-human interaction, come up against a corporate entity that seems to be alive, because it speaks to us by proxy - (through advertisement) - but is in fact not alive the way we are and therefore does not possess the agency of an individual. I know this may sound obvious, but honestly, we do not escape the effects of this continuous mis-communication.

So you have to ask yourself, for example, who does big Agri-biz benefit, and HOW does it benefit them and what is benefit? I certainly know that what I think of as benefit might be very, very different than what someone else might think of as benefit. And honestly, I do not know that any two people might see this word in exactly the same way. All I can know is that it's quite unlikely that its actually a word that has any real meaning given the state of affairs right now.

...I can't help but think, though, what would a plant say, if asked what benefited it? My guess would be, to be concise: Sunlight and water, and nutrients from the soil - moderated to the "right" levels by the natural function of the surrounding ecosystem. It needs not just raw commodities (water and sunlight) to be healthy - but it needs the co-thriving and co-benefiting of other animate beings in its local ecology. IT NEEDS THAT!

We could learn a thing or two from these blade of grass guys.

For example, it does not benefit me that record harvests of grain or corn are being made in the Midwest - in fact, if I check out the EPA's data on how contaminated all of our rivers and streams are because of Agri-biz - then I would find that the extent to which it hurts me far outweighs any way it would "benefit" me (when I say "me", I suppose I mean an earthling sharing a continent with an infrastructure that farms with pharmaceuticals...)
It does not benefit me as an earthling that cows are injected with rBGH so they can produce more milk. Actually, it benefits (the definition of benefit here is "gives money to") industries of scale because when they crunch their numbers they find that they will save money by getting more milk out of one cow as opposed to going to the trouble to feed more cows. I highly doubt that industrial dairy organically benefits ANY human being, much less any plant or animal being. When rBGH was approved in '94, we did not need more milk in this country. The whole market for rBGH was created by its coming-into-being (you can thank Monsanto for this, btw). The reason rBGH was adopted so readily wasn't that Americans wanted or needed more milk - it was because dairy farmers needed to pay the bills. The minimum price processors can pay farmers for milk per hundredweight is set at the government level - if you are a dairy farmer selling liquid milk, you basically have control of what goes into your cow and that's all. Once rBGH existed it was a no-brainer for many. (IOW: You want control; make a value-added product with your milk and SELL IT LOCALLY.)

More food is NOT better in a centralized and vertically integrated food system. It will NOT solve world hunger, or even come anywhere close, I am [not really] sorry to say. It will at best provide short-term "give a man a fish" solutions, much to the detriment of any long term ones. It will also continue to convince people of its own false validity and worth because of the illusion of abundance that it constantly churns out. Sorry, but this is the WRONG KIND of abundance. There are different kinds, see.

We are creatures of habit, yes... and Agri-biz has made a habit out of us. The design of environments and systems that we live within controls our behavior and does a great deal more to dictate our needs than we even realize. For me, deprogramming is as simple as going out into the woods and asking myself "what do I need?"

We have an incredible amount of power as individuals in the space where we choose to act (or not act!) in relationship to the food industry. If you try and explore this power during your walk on earth - you'll never get bored. Guaranteed best game ever.

an expansion on "good and bad", courtesy of the Foreword from "Critical Path" by Buckminster Fuller.

**Warning: He reads like e.e. cummings writing particle physics**


"(Foreword) It is the author's working assumption that the words good and bad are meaningless. This is based on science and not opinion. In 1922 physicists discovered a fundamental complementarity of disparate individual phenomena to be operative in physical Universe. This was fundamentally amplified with the subsequent discovery of the always-and-only-different, always-coexisting proton and neutron which, with their always-coexistent electrons, positrons, neutrinos and antineutrinos, are intertransformable.

No longer valid was "the" building block of the Universe. It was discovered that unity was plural and at minimum sixfold. All the intercomplementations are essential to the successful accomplishment of eternally regenerative Universe. Science's discovery of fundamental complementarity has frequently occasioned individual scientists' realization that the word negative used as the opposite of the word positive is at best carelessly and misinformedly employed.

Since complementarity is essential to the success of eternally regenerative Universe, the phenomenon identified as the opposite of positive cannot be negative, nor can it be bad, since the interopposed phenomena known heretofore as good and bad are essential to the 100-percent success of eternally regenerative Universe. They are both good for the Universe."

(Yes, you read it correctly; he doesn't like using the definite article in front of "Universe". Hence things are "in Universe" (as in, interbeing, or in symphony (in poetic VERSE)) instead of being in "the Universe", which would suppose that the Universe is a noun. To Bucky, it is a verb - as are we.)

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Sod houses and earth shelters

The relationship that grass has with the soil can bear many fruits for the one who can use sod or living earth as a structural component or building medium for their dwelling. You may be familiar with the term "sod", which is basically living grass along with the soil it is rooted in. You often hear about sod or "turf" as a commodity created on large facilities that essentially grow lawns for people. Then there is just the "wild" sod that exists as the topsoil in prairies and grasslands. When Americans were first colonizing the prairies, sod houses were common - as they were quick to erect and the incredibly thick, dense root structure of the wild prairie grass made them rather bombproof. They served as both permanent and temporary shelters -- the ones intended to last longer often had their walls reinforced or sealed with a combination of wood, stucco and plaster. Here's an example of the very simple, ad hoc design:


(from the Nebraska Historical Society)

This is a reconstruction of a Viking settlement in Newfoundland:

This is an example of a potentially longer-lasting design. The A-frame is more of a natural form than a cabin-type design, and you can see that the living roof connects seamlessly with the ground. This will be much more resilient than the previous example to natural elements like rain, wind and earthquakes.

In rare cases colonial North American sod houses have lasted an unusually long time, due to original innovations in design by individual builders. An example of this is the Addison Sod House in Saskatchewan, which is over a century old!

Today, this type of organic building - cutting large blocks of sod out of pastures or prairies to use as the primary component for walls - is not ecologically viable, and the same effect and functionality can be achieved avoided by using cob for walls.

***

The term "earth shelter" does not necessarily refer to a house made entirely of sod, although I suppose it could be. Earth shelter building usually takes advantage of the features of the landscape in order to construct a dwelling that is recessed into a hill or partially underground. Indeed, living sod is of utmost importance to earth shelter ecology; grass is inevitably the vegetative ground cover that holds the soil together as well as keeping it cool, managing rainfall, etc. Living sod is an excellent insulator. Moreover, these types of shelters utilize the thermal mass of the earth extremely efficiently. In principle, the earth is always around 55° Farenheit at a depth of approximately 40 inches (those numbers are probably slightly different in tundra and the antarctic). This geothermal temperature is very static regardless of the changing weather conditions above the ground. Even a house that is built completely above the ground can take advantage of the thermal mass principle by earth berming, in which earth is excavated and piled in a slope against the walls (and then inevitably seeded with grass or some combination of ground covers). A popular earth shelter design involves having three recessed, or bermed, walls and one exposed wall, usually south facing so as to take advantage of passive solar heating.

Example:


A stone house on a dairy farm I apprenticed at just had one bermed wall on the back side, and they only benefited from it!


As with most building methods, there are climate-specific challenges for earth shelters. But in any case they alleviate the need to invest in extra energy to both heat and cool the dwelling space when the outdoor temperature fluctuates, which is something that - in a temperate, 4-season climate like Vermont - we are faced with annually.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Small scale grain farming

Preface: This is based on a blog entry that I recently published on my facebook profile. I know. It is probably such bad blog karma to do this. But you have to forgive me. I'm trying to ameliorate some of my intarwebs-stage-fright, here.

So, we've all heard the praise for cheeses and wines with terroir... but what about something a little more intimate? That off-whitish powder in your pantry? Yes, flour has rights too.

So much of grain production since that whole "green revolution" riddle has been shaped in one part by the so-called "high yield" I-can-grow-anywhere-if-you-pump-me-full-of-drugs stuff, which kind of eliminates that whole thing that nature likes to do... you know, recombining thingies so she can best adapt to herself (a brilliant idea, we should all take a page...)... and grain production has also been guided along, in another part by the animal feed industry (you can use your imagination for that tirade). ;)

Wheat was one of the first plants domesticated by humans; Einkorn and Emmer wheat were two of the three cereals known to have been cultivated as far back as 10,000 years in the Fertile Crescent. The other cereal crop was barley, which is also a grass, but of a different genus. Einkorn is the oldest cultivated species, and has 14 chromosomes like nearly all wild grasses do. Emmer wheat has 28 chromosomes, deriving from wild emmer; which is the only 28-chromosome wheat to occur by natural selection. Then modern bread wheat is a 42 chromosome variety that has only occurred through artificial selection; a hybrid of 14 and 28 chromosome wheats.

So the wheat that is grown in vast monocultures in the American midwest is inevitably some modern variety of Triticum aestivum, variably referred to as "common wheat" or "bread wheat". The modern wheat industry classifies the stuff into six groups: hard red winter, hard red spring, soft red winter, durum, hard white and soft white. The flour obtained from milling hard wheats is favored for making bread, pasta, pizza dough, and the like; Soft wheat flour often finds itself in the Little Debbie section of the supermarket - coveted for the fact that it doesn't have as much annoying protein as the hard wheat varieties. Who loves cake?

All today's industrially-grown wheat varieties are actually dwarfs. I apologize. The less wheat-offending term is "reduced-height". This is the result of a man named Norman Borlaug, who I think is called "the boss of the Green Revolution". That was a joke just now. Anyway, Borlaug worked for the International Wheat and Maize Center in Mexico from 1940's onward as part of a project funded by the Rockefeller Foundation that sought to help farmers in Mexico increase their wheat yields in the face of unfavorable social conditions (poverty) and ecological conditions like plant disease and drought. There, he lead research that culminated with the development of dwarf, "high-yield" and disease resistant wheat varieties. The need to create a dwarf variety arose during the course of the project, as the use of chemical fertilizer (a lovely little byproduct of WWII-era weapons research!) caused growth that traditional varieties of the wheat plant could not support. Stems would bow and bend under the weight of the grain-laden ears and the stress of fertilizer-induced growth spurts. Thus a variety with a shorter, fatter stem was sought after. "High yield" is somewhat of a misnomer; so-called "high yield" crops only do so with unnatural inputs of nitrogen. As one of my professors says, it's more correct to call these super-crops "highly responsive", because they are designed to utilize certain artificial inputs for maximum growth and without any apparent injury to the plant.

Indeed, Dr. Borlaug and his gang of "high-yield" crops have been credited with saving one billion people from starvation. (What does that even mean?) Between 1960 and 1990, due in part to the agricultural initiative that he had spearheaded, world food production increased by %1000. Statistics creep me out, by the way, because they can often oversimplify things and take them out of context. Actually, that's what statistics are sort of FOR... Ok, back on track: As "improved" as many claimed these crops to be, the situation in countries that had welcomed the Green Revolution has shown that the cost of production is unsustainable. These 'supercrops' NEED fertilizer, pesticides and irrigation to do their whole high-yielding thing - an infrastructure that doesn't just magically appear once a farm family starts planting a high-yield or GM crop. (And who, pray tell, sells these now-necessary commodities?) Borlaug's wheat, for example, needs three times the water input of most heirloom varieties. Needless to say, these crops are not adapted to any bioregion. They aren't native to any place. They are Borg. Borlaug, even.

Dr. Borlaug would like you to know that - and I quote - "the 'greenies' have nothing to do with the Green Revolution, which is all about alleviating world hunger." Ah, Señor, you are right, I am just a 'Western greenie' who doesn't know what it's like to feed the multitudes. Admittedly, my personal strategy involves learning how to feed myself first. And as to models for feeding the multitudes, I can't help but evoke the old "give a man a fish" chestnut... I believe the model adopted by the Green (un?)Revolutionaries would be filed under 'giving a fish' rather than 'teaching how to fish'. Too much exchange of technological artifacts and not enough teaching. In fact, not only is there NO teaching, but it's like there is un-teaching going on - the transfer of knowledge into technology, the commodification of that technology, and the inevitable loss of local knowledge located in human wetware. Jesus is really mad about this!

In our country today, various "wheat quality laboratories" work to develop wheat varieties that meet the needs of large food processors. Needless to say such laboratories are in fact funded by said food giants. These needs are undoubtedly not intended to meet nutritional requirements of human individuals, but rather to meet corporate goals like preservation, uniformity, texture and other scary benchmarks that I don't want to know about. One example is the exciting new waxy wheat, which apparently promises to not only help you forget what you're eating by improving mouthfeel, but to also "improve the rollability and flexibility of flat breads such as tortilla and pita bread". My favorite part is when the company's president talks about cake: "'This is quite a big area for exploitation, and could well present new opportunities in baked products, especially cake,' he added."

***

Indeed, mass-processed flour from monocultured wheat is another farmpunk frontier that is starting to become visible to our eyes, evidenced by these local grain growers and millers springing up here in New England!

And visible enough for the New York Times to weigh in, much to my delight! (This article is very worth reading and actually what inspired me to do a little more wheat-research, which then resulted in this blog post... so please do check it out!)

One of my favorite mentions is the Hungry Ghost bakery in Northampton, MA. For lack of local wheat farmers and gristmills, they have encouraged many of their customers to grow home-plots of wheat. Outsourcing that would do Mama Nature proud. Now THAT is the undictionary definition of synergy!

...Several months ago I realized there was local flour available at Burlington's City Market, from Gleason Grains. The wonderful and IMO best-in-show Red Hen Bakery in Duxbury uses Gleason grain to make one of their CSA-specific breads! :D

Salt Spring Seed's website gives some helpful tips on growing your own small plot of wheat, and they also sell heirloom seeds. Another great resource for seeds is Bountiful Gardens in Willits, California. Both places sell seeds for many other grain crops.


"Cast iron grist mill". Say that out loud. Doesn't it just feel good in your lexicon? More things should have hand-cranks. Even ornamental hand-cranks would make lots of things easier on the eyes.

(I know you want one, and you can buy it here.)

/the faun

All your base are belong to grass.

Okay, so first of all let me tell you that I am not a plant scientist. I don't possess what you might call 'textbook knowledge' of these things. However, I have lived and worked among some wonderful farmers who are graziers at the core. I have a vague plan of continuing to live and work within such systems until I collapse in a pasture somewhere. Plus I really like laying in grass. Call it a hobby.

Really though - you know what I realized the other day? That most of my seemingly disparate passions (cloven-hoofed critters, cheese, biodynamic agriculture, bioremediation, Monsanto-hating, etc.) can in fact be reconciled by one great common denominator: GRASS. This epiphany was a big relief to me, because then I realized that maybe I had finally stumbled upon a pretext that I could sort of unite various ramblings under - thus tricking people into thinking that I must have some sort of vision for a better world. Blogging seemed like an appealing outlet for me (as opposed to the 'talking to one person at a time' game) as well as an opportunity for synergistic communication with the new, and next, generation of farmers. Maybe you are one of these and do not yet know it. I do so hope that this is true.

Hookay - grasses in a nutshell... and go! There are around 10,000 species of them on spaceship earth, classified by us humans in the family Poaceae (also called Gramineae). They now make up a whopping 70% of all cultivated crops. Some celebrity grasses include rice, wheat and maize. These, along with other staple food grains, have basically controlled economies in all human civilizations. In fact, they were what gave humans a chance to settle down and stay put and form economies in the first place. I mean, the second we started threshing and milling stuff into a concentrated starch and then discovering that we were able to store it, there has been nothing but drama. Grass is like the mother of all drama queens. If you aren't convinced yet, just go read the resumés of corn or sugarcane. Them two gals got a LOT of irons in the oven! Seriously.

I want to emphasize that I see this blog as a primarily a pedagogical tool for myself...and for others, if I'm lucky. So please accept my admission in advance that I'm an apprentice at everything I'll discuss here. I'm not too bad with words, though. I think they like me.

to the little green gods, with love,

~the faun