My name is Joel Huesby, and I’m a recovering farmer …. Our story is an American story. Way back in 1883, four generations ago, two brothers immigrated to America from Germany and followed their farming dream to the Walla Walla Valley along the Oregon and Washington border where we live today.
Our story is an American story. Way back in 1883, four generations ago, two brothers immigrated to America from Germany and followed their farming dream to the Walla Walla Valley along the Oregon and Washington border where we live today.
…our grandfather opened new ground with teams of horses and mules that he used until the 1940's. He hired a crew of 20 men to harvest wheat, and put up hay from the fertile soils. Our grandmother cooked large meals for the men, who slept in a bunkhouse on the farmstead.
They were never rich, but our grandparents managed to work long, hard hours to raise a family and make a living. They were good and honest people.
Over time, wagons gave way to trucks, horses gave way to tractors, and organic matter was replaced by chemical fertilizers. The new machinery required less labor and could work more land, so the work crews moved on to other jobs.
Wheat prices were high. There was plenty of food. These were good times. This was progress.
But our grandparents' path of progress 50 years ago, the same road that we took for much of our own lives, eventually led to unintended consequences. As it turned out, our land's natural fertility was exhausted by the 1950's; so fertilizers and pesticides came to the rescue. They may have allowed us to produce more for less, but they masked negative effects, which have been generations in the making.
Chemicals became commonplace…. But it was a Catch 22. The more we took from the land, the less the land had to give, so the more stuff we had to put on the land…. Sound suspiciously like an addiction?
A similar phenomenon happened in the beef industry. Cattle today are 30% larger than they were in our grandfather's day. Why? Bigger is better, right? But the more the cattle industry bred for bigger and faster growth, the more the markets were flooded with beef, contributing to flat-lining prices, further increasing pressure to produce more with less. In real dollars, the price of cattle today is worse than it was during the Great Depression. And the price of wheat is just as bad. So, we bought more land, spread more fertilizers, and increased our herds in size and number.
As our family farm limped through the 1980s and early 1990s, something happened to that would change the family farm forever.On a late summer day in '94, I had an epiphany. I was out burning a field of wheat stubble, trying to rid myself of what I thought at the time was the bothersome organic matter in my way, so I could plant alfalfa that fall.
Only two weeks earlier I received the yield results from a crop of snap beans. I had grown them under contract for a local cannery and yielded 5 tons per acre. This came to a little over $500 per acre.
Then I started to do the rest of the math per acre. Seed cost $100, fertilizer $60, water $120, weed control $35, equipment $80, land payment… operating loan payment… insurance… interest… taxes… Everyone was making a living from my land but me.
My choices were limited. Either I had to get a non-farming job to support the farm and my family, or borrow more money and increase the size of our business in the hope of spreading fixed costs over more acres and still fall further into debt.Something had to change.
I watched the land burning, turning to black, rising in a dark smoke, and fading into the sky. Up with the smoke in the stubble fire went my ideas about making a living from modern commodity agriculture. So it was that I resolved to do nothing the same again.
I continued to look for ways to rebuild the ability of the soil to feed itself. This led me to a contract with a local paper recycling plant where I applied a two-inch mulch of waste paper fibers over the course of a year.
On the marketing side of things, we knew that we wouldn't earn a living if we sold our product to someone else who would store it and eventually sell it to someone else who would put it on a train to somewhere where some wholesaler would sell it to a company that would use it to make something that they would sell to a retailer who would sell it to some customer 1,000 miles away.
Robinson lays out several compelling arguments for eating meats that are finished on the pasture. She also articulates the unhealthy effects of eating beef from cattle that are fattened on grains in feedlots for the last 1 to 4 months of their lives.
We would rotate cattle, goats, sheep, pigs, chickens and turkeys on our pastures, and market the meats directly to ... consumers ... The animal diversification would be wise both ecologically and economically...
Over the years, I came to see myself in a new light. My farm has evolved from the ground up, literally. I am only beginning to hear and understand the universal language of the soil and to listen to what the soil is telling me. It is hard to listen to the soil from the cab of a tractor. I must get on my knees. Look, smell, feel and observe.
So, ten years later, there are cattle, sheep, goats, chickens, and turkeys roaming our pastures. We haven't used chemical fertilizers or pesticides on our pastures since 1995. The living soil has returned. And we now enjoy many great relationships with our direct-market friends and customers.
The fire that burned the wheat stubble ten years ago has sparked a whole new way of thinking and living for us, and things will never be the same.