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Resilience, insurance, water Summer lessons

Resilience (and not)

September/October 2017

It has long been a conceit of mine that our farm was resilient; that if the ewes had a poor lambing we could rely on hay sales; if the hay was poor quality we could make do with revenue from meat birds. The way I told myself the story, our small farm was too diversified to be vulnerable in the way that a big, single commodity farm was.

But somewhere along the line the hog side of our farm got away from us in what seemed like a good way, and grew and grew until the farm was, moneywise, 80% hogs and 20% everything else. I enjoyed what that growth bought with it—increased revenue took the big dips out of cash flow, we could hire a couple workers to help run the farm. Weird as it sounds, the more pigs we have, the easier it is for me to farm.

That was all fine, until we received notice a few weeks ago that the lease on our hog barns was not going to be renewed. Suddenly, the seemingly most successful part of the farm was the most vulnerable. You can count on one hand the number of other barns in our area that are suitable for pigs. Most landlords would rather rent space for vehicle storage than for livestock, so our options are limited. Though traumatic to even consider, getting out of pigs altogether is a possibility.

At the time of writing, the outcome is not clear. We have put an offer in to purchase the rented barns. Much remains in limbo.

My point here is not to whine but to emphasize that diversified farms really are resilient. Oddly, though, nothing on a diversified farm can be wildly more successful than the other things, or the farm will almost surely lean away from diversity and more towards imbalanced production, thus becoming….less resilient!


If I had any sort of judgment I wouldn’t grow grain at all. Between drought, poor soil, the ravages of Canada Geese and our tiny fields, it seems ludicrous. On average two of five crops fail for lack of water, or goose damage.

But I was raised on a grain farm, and I love both the look of the crops, and the thought of feeding our own grain to our own animals, so I persist.

Of the above reasons for a crop to fail, drought is the most common. If drought happens at seeding, germination is poor, if germination is poor there are thin areas in the fields that attract geese. Once the geese get into the crop it is all over. When that happens we open a gate and let the sheep in. Better to get some value than to see the birds eat it all (see resilience, above).

So as an insurance against drought I invested in an irrigation reel this spring. Though we irrigate hay fields with standard aluminum piping, for reasons of reach and pressure a reel was more suited to the grain.

I suppose you could say our sprayer is a form of insurance as well—we only use it if necessary—but somehow the irrigation reel feels like the first time I’ve spent a really meaningful amount of money on something I hope not to use—at least for the purpose for which it was bought.


Meanwhile, out on hay fields we are seeing, or coming to see, a few interesting long-term consequences of irrigation. Obviously, we benefit from two and three cuts of hay. Fields get better use; equipment otherwise underused, such as the mower and baler, get more use; sheep get high protein hay at lambing. But in addition, there is superb grazing between the time when we stop cutting hay (typically mid August) and when the first autumn rains have greened the summer-dormant grass (typically early November). Irrigated fields planted to commercial grasses are slower to give way to invasives that non-irrigated fields. I am coming to think irrigation economically and effectively doubles our productive land—so 10 acres becomes, 20 acres, etc.


I didn’t write any of the above this morning with a theme in mind; rather, I wrote what is on my mind. But upon rereading I can see that the farm, and this farmer, is trending towards those things that reduce risk—of drought, or crop failure, or major trauma.