A practical guide to the future of farming

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Farms Future bookFarms With a Future; Creating and Growing a Sustainable Farm Business, by Rebecca Thistlethwaite, foreword by Richard Wiswall, published by Chelsea Green in White River Junction, Vermont, 2013; paperback, 336 pages, $29.95.

Reviewed by Bethany M. Dunbar

Rebecca Thistlethwaite has put together one of the most useful and entertaining books about farming I’ve read in a long time.  Everyone who dreams of starting a small farm needs to check this book out.

The author is not modest about her intentions:

“This book is about creating a new paradigm for doing business, one that will last into the future, taking care of both our planet and all of our inhabitants (human or otherwise),” Ms. Thistlethwaite declares at one point.  That comment came on page 226.  If it was on the first page, I might have stopped reading.  But by page 226 I knew that it was an accurate statement, and that her efforts could and probably actually will bear fruit.

With the local food movement in full swing around here, there are all kinds of people hoping to get involved and seeing farming as a romantic lifestyle.  If you know anyone with those feelings, urge them to read Ms. Thistlethwaite’s book before they get in too deep.  She includes information on bookkeeping, marketing, pricing strategies, building up the soil, employees, working with family members, and many other practical matters often neglected at first.

“I don’t want you growing or raising a single thing until you have some concept for where you will sell it, to whom, for how much, and who your potential competition might be,” she writes.

But if the book was only a “how-to” I might have become bored after a few pages.  Instead, the book was written by a woman who has farmed herself and decided to take a year off those endeavors to travel around the United States and interview some of the most successful farmers out there about their ideas and methods.  These stories will be of interest to anyone with an entrepreneurial spirit, not just aspiring farmers.

Butterworks Farm in Westfield, the Lazor family, is one of the farms she has profiled.  In a chapter called, “Scaling up while keeping true,” Ms. Thistlethwaite tells their story.

“What first started out as a homestead for this couple of back-to-the-landers has turned into one of the most successful organic farmstead creameries in the nation,” she writes.  They bought their 60-acre farm in 1976 for $20,000.  It was money Anne Lazor’s parents’ had saved for her to attend graduate school.  Instead it was their initial investment, and Butterworks Farm has grown from there.

Jack Lazor has written his own book, and on Sunday in Newport from 1 to 3 p.m. at the Gateway Center his new book, The Organic Grain Grower, also published by Chelsea Green, will make its debut.  Eliot Coleman, an organic farmer and writer from Maine, and Brent Beidler, president of the Northern Grain Growers Association, will be on hand for the event.  Mr. Coleman wrote a foreword for Mr. Lazor’s book.

Butterworks is one of 15 case studies of farms across the nation in Ms. Thistlethwaite’s book.   She interviewed the farmers featured in case studies and a half dozen others — people who are growing and selling everything from soup to nuts.

The book is packed with ideas for creative financing, marketing, and production.  It’s an encouraging book for those in the right frame of mind.  Those who just want to buy land and shiny tractors won’t like this book.  But those who really want to build a farm that can keep going will be glad of all the advice and ideas.

Some farmers might read it and weep, at least at first.  For example, Ms. Thistlethwaite tells of a chicken farmer who paid an employee to water the chickens without considering the cost of hiring that help versus buying an automatic waterer.

“Oblivious to this information, he will continue to spend around $11,000 a year on labor costs for watering (his employee is paid $15 an hour).  An automatic system would be just a fraction of that cost and last him for many years to come.  This particular farmer is not currently profitable and is always on the verge of throwing in the towel.  He could be putting $11,000 in his pocket each year, which might turn his business around for good.”

Ms. Thistlethwaite’s take-away advice:  “Find out what a typical enterprise budget looks like for the crops and animals you produce.  If your income or expenses look dramatically different than those budgets, do some research to find out why they vary so much.  It may be that some of your expenses are way beyond the norm.”

If you as a farmer don’t like bookkeeping or can’t afford to hire a bookkeeper, maybe you can trade food for services, she suggests.  The potential for barter is a common theme in Farms With a Future.

“USDA Economic Research Service report estimated local food sales totaled $4.8-billion in 2008 (direct to consumers or direct to restaurants/retailers), and the report predicted that figure would reach $7-billion in 2011.  Because of the nature of data limitations, it is more likely that local food sales, including the value of barter and trade, have a much higher economic value than this and are continuing to grow by leaps and bounds.”

Farms included in Ms. Thistlethwaite’s case studies include Shady Grove Ranch in Jefferson, Texas.  It’s the story of a young couple, Matt and Jerica Cadman, who were studying engineering and came to agriculture through health issues that led them to find better food.

“Matt was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, an ‘incurable’ inflammatory bowel disease,” she writes.  The couple spent two years battling the illness with conventional methods, including hospitalization and drugs, and doctors suggested that at age 22, Matt should have his colon removed.

“In their research on alternative therapies, the demise of vitamins, minerals, and health fats in the American diet became apparent.  The Cadmans started adding grassfed beef, pastured poultry and eggs, and raw milk to their diet, but had to drive all over the state to acquire these products, which were hard to find in East Texas.  By creating their own farm, they were able to get Matt healthy and provide healthier food for people around them.

Ms. Thistlethwaite is clearly devoted to organic and old-fashioned methods, but she urges new farmers to seek help and advice from conventional farmers as well:

“You can glean good information from even the big guys, so don’t write them off just because they are conventional.  With their years of experience, chances are they know more about your animals than you do,” she writes.

Matt and Jerica Cadman have something in common with another couple Ms. Thistlethwaite interviewed, Jennifer Argraves and Louis Sukovaty of Crown S. Ranch in Winthrop, Washington — an engineering background.  Both spent ten years working as engineers in Seattle before deciding to start a farm.  Their research led them to read pre-World War II agricultural research about farming methods before chemicals and nitrogen fertilizers were so heavily used.

Not all farmers have a background in engineering, but this couple came up with an idea that would have been labeled Yankee ingenuity if someone in New England first thought of it:  a solar-powered chicken tractor which drags broiler hens slowly over pasture land.

“A solar panel mounted on the chicken tractor slowly charges the battery, which runs a small motor that moves a set of wheels.  This moves the chicken tractor in small increments, about four inches every half hour, so that the broiler chickens inside can always have access to fresh pasture.”

Farms With a Future is full of this kind of idea.  My only complaint about the book is that in all its discussion of marketing and getting to know your consumers, and so much emphasis on the web and social media, it barely mentions local newspapers as a good way to draw new customers and bring the old ones back every week.  I know what you are thinking — I’m biased.  But the fact is, print media works.  Neglecting it means losing out on new business, and current customers might forget to come back.  So my two cents here is this:  don’t forget your local newspapers when you think about how to sell your local food.

Congratulations to Rebecca Thistlethwaite and thanks — for writing a book that will be useful for lots of people.  It could help some farmers get started, help others to decide they don’t want to invest a lot of money in a difficult enterprise, and help someone struggling to figure out ways to turn his or her business around.

contact Bethany M. Dunbar at bethany@bartonchronicle.com

For more free articles from the Chronicle like this one, see our Reviews pages. For all the Chronicle’s stories, pick up a print copy or subscribe, either for print or digital editions.

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Hoagland novel tells tales of human courage

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hoagland review-1Children are Diamonds, by Edward Hoagland.  Published by Arcade Publishing, New York, New York, 2013.  213 pages. $23.95.

Reviewed by Paul Lefebvre 

What to think of a 30-something-year-old schoolteacher who got fired from his job in New Hampshire, absconded from a sinking ship with his company’s money, and went on the lam into central Africa, where he became a jack-of-all-trades, bringing food and medicine into a ravaged war zone where boy soldiers cut the intestines out of their dead victims and wear them around their necks like a necklace?

Or a woman in her early fifties, a relief worker with Protestants Against Famine, manning an outpost in the bush overrun by refugees speaking many tribal tongues, where she mothers orphans, treats diseases, war wounds, and all the myriad health complications that go with malnutrition and starvation without cutting any slack for herself?

“You have to believe in heaven, and I don’t know if I do,” she says at one point.

Ruth and Hickey are the two riveting characters in Edward Hoagland’s admirable novel, Children are Diamonds.  Each is flawed in ways both morally and spiritually, and each bring to Africa a different kind of American than we are used to seeing, either in other works of fiction or in the history of Western imperialism or colonization.

When it comes to novels set in faraway places few can match what Hoagland achieves in a story that unflinchingly comes to grips with the courage it takes to be human in the face of a time when there is so little to gain.  That it’s a story set in what was once called the “Dark Continent” makes it all the more daunting.

The Africa that Hoagland sets his novel in is the Africa where war and hunger have become the norm of daily life.  It’s the Africa of Idi Amin, whose brutal rule of Uganda has been replaced by tribal warlords who run outfits like the Lord’s Resistance Army, which kidnaps children during village raids and turns them into soldiers by a gruesome ritual that forces them to eat the organs of their murdered parents.  It’s an Africa where the people have been uprooted and displaced, strafed by Russian MiGs in service to the same Arabs who hire blacks from Darfur to do their fighting in the bush.  And it’s an Africa where there are no second chances.

“In Africa, everything is an emergency,” Hoagland writes in the first line of the novel.  “Your radiator blows out and as you solder a repair job, Lango kids emerge from the bush, belonging to a village that you’ll never see, reachable by a path you hadn’t noticed.”

Although one is armed with a Kalashnikov, they are not depicted as threatening, only hungry.  Survival for a white man like Hickey depends on his ability to keep a balance between “friendliness and mystery.”

As a writer, Hoagland cut his teeth on essays and travel pieces, with a novel tossed in every now and then, like the fisherman who fishes in streams for brook trout and occasionally tries his hand spin-casting for bass in still waters, using what he has learned about fish and his own ability to catch them.  In Children are Diamonds, Hoagland combines the wisdom of a seasoned traveler with a novelist’s imagination in writing a book that takes us through a country few of us have seen, through emotions we have seldom if ever felt, and delivers us into a troubled land where unspeakable atrocities suddenly explode.

What better setting could there be for a rolling stone character like Hickey, who moves back and forth between guiding tourists and bedding airplane stewardesses to trucking food into relief camps, “pussyfooting slowly through Lord’s Resistance Army rebel territory in northern Uganda?”  Hickey may be a likeable survivor — the kind you might enjoy talking to over a beer in a bar — but he becomes endearingly heroic when he throws caution to the wind for a woman, a hard-nosed relief worker, who could be his older sister.

Courage is often what we think of when someone risks life and limb for some greater good or noble purpose.  Hoagland tell us that you don’t have to be a doctor to hand out aspirin or Kaopectate, and that it takes very little to be human or brave in the eyes of those looking for a shred of hope.

“The old stone-and-concrete ruins of a Catholic chapel that had been forgotten since the colonial powers had left could be reoccupied, if you chased the leopards and the cobras out and joy, I think, is, like photosynthesis for plants, an evidence of God,” he writes.

Against his belief that the laws of survival are poised to turn against him, Hickey goes into the bush where doom is about to descent on Ruth and her outpost.  A temporary truce in the fighting has ended.  Two white Norwegian doctors and a nurse already have been killed, and everyone who can flee — from aid workers to refugees — is fleeing, except Ruth.

She is the novel’s Mother Courage.  “She shouldn’t be stranded,” says an accomplice of Hickey, who may or may not be a CIA spook.  In one of their early encounters, Hickey watches her as she mixes powdered milk while a toddler clings to her — a malnourished toddler with a “head disproportionately large because skulls can’t shrink.”  Leo, named after a missionary priest, becomes her African diamond.

So into the fray Hickey goes.  The fact that he and Ruth are both white may or may not be a plus.  There is the spearman who warns the fleeing whites of mines in the road, but refuses to guide them.

“He’s telling you you people have the atom bomb so what do you need him for?” says one of the African assistants who, though loyal to Ruth, has no love for the West.

As the opposing armies close on one another, those in the know seek a solitary escape route as “they slid into the forest like fish wiggling into a reef.”  But for Hickey and Ruth there is no looking out for themselves first.  Their jeep is loaded with crippled passengers, and leading the way are the healthy children ready to warn any guerrillas waiting in ambush that the vehicle behind them contains white people who are “not to be casually shot.”

In the end there may be no possibility of escape for Ruth and Hickey who defined themselves by “where we were.”  And they are in Africa, where “everything is an emergency,” which is something each appears to desire and need.

Aside from being a novel about courage and morality, Children are Diamonds is a novel about landscape — a landscape of rivers and their feeder streams, of mountains and valleys that Hoagland renders with the deft touch of a cartographer and the imagination of an artist.  If you want to visit Africa close and up front and don’t have the wherewithal to get there, reading this novel may be your best option.

contact Paul Lefebvre at paul@bartonchronicle.com

For an interview with Mr. Hoagland, click here.

For more free articles from the Chronicle like this one, see our Reviews pages. For all the Chronicle’s stories, pick up a print copy or subscribe, either for print or digital editions.

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Book review: A requiem for Rocky

review crossing webReviewed by Garret Keizer

Crossing Jack Brook:  Love and Death in the Woods, by Paul Lefebvre.  Published by Beck Pond Books.  169 pages.   Paperback.  $20.

Your odds of finding a four-leaf clover on your first try are roughly on a par with those of being injured by a toilet seat, about one in 10,000.  You have at least a seven times better chance of becoming President of the United States than winning at Powerball with your first ticket, though in the former case multiple variables come into play, such as whether and where you went to college and in which rest room, ladies’ or gents’, you’re entitled to test your luck with a toilet seat.

However you choose to place your bets, few factors reliably alter the odds of surviving the love of your life.  No matter where you live, how many minutes a day you exercise, or whether your beloved is a Methodist, a lesbian, or a canary, those odds are essentially the same.  One in two.

For that reason, books about grieving a dear companion’s death — Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, C. S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed, and, closer to home, Edie Clark’s The Place He Made and Donald Hall’s Without — are among the most useful on the shelves.  That doesn’t mean they’re always the most readable or will all deserve to be called beautiful.  Chronicle reporter and columnist Paul Lefebvre’s Crossing Jack Brook is both.

It’s also three captivating stories for the price of one.  The most prominent is about the sickness and death of the artist Elin K. Paulson, Lefebvre’s long-time partner, which he tells without a trace of morbidity.  Nicknamed “Rocky” for her passion for collecting rocks, Paulson comes across as a fascinatingly complex character:  “a bohemian woman” who did not like to be called a hippie, a nature-lover who did not care to grow a garden, a pacifist who loved John Brown.  We can wonder about all of that, but we never wonder why Lefebvre loved Paulson.  After only a few pages, we’re pretty fond of her too.

In the symbolism of their love affair, Lefebvre fleshes out his second big story:  the initial clash and ultimate fusion of two tribes that occurred when the migratory counterculture of the 1960s met the indigenous counterculture of the Northeast Kingdom.  Lefebvre and Paulson come across as representative, if highly individualized, members of their respective tribes:

he an Island Pond native of French Canadian extraction with railway men and loggers in his family and roots in the Kingdom that go back as far as 1799; she the down-country daughter of a Catholic-Worker couple, artisans and homesteaders devoted to a movement that was talking about peace, love, and communal living before there were television sets and atom bombs.

Mixing these diverse elements, Lefebvre gives us a darker, more viscous narrative than that fancy-grade syrup that often gets poured over things “Vermont.”  He also introduces us to a motley cast of characters:  the Count and the Commissioner, “the girls of Lost Nation,” and the denizens of Mad Brook Farm, will-o’-the-wisp hermits and stoned entrepreneurs, gun-packing truckers and the activist priest Bob Castle, aka “Reverend Slick.”  At Lefebvre’s hunting camp we hear “anthems to those who have prepared liver and onions on a cookstove, brought bottles of whiskey to Thanksgiving Day dinner, and left the air charged with the pungent odor of Hoppes #9 oil from cleaning their guns at the kitchen table.”  Well, many of us have been to a hunting camp, but few of us could describe it like Lefebvre.

So we are not surprised that the third main story of Crossing Jack Brook is about becoming a writer, not only as a way of making a living but also as a way of fighting for one’s life.  The theme is clear from his first paragraph:

“When the woman I lived with became ill with cancer in 2005, I began writing about it in a column I had been writing for a weekly newspaper in northern Vermont.  When she died about nine months later, I continued to write about her because it was the only thing I could do.  I am not a religious man or a deeply spiritual one, but for years I have earned a living as a reporter and have come to rely on the power of words.”

Lefebvre’s columns about Paulson, their adventures together, and other features of their shared life in the Kingdom are interspersed throughout the book, dated and titled as they were when they debuted in the Chronicle.  Some readers might wish that Lefebvre had taken apart these pieces and reworked the material into one seamless whole.  I happen not to be one of them.  The juxtaposition of what Lefebvre wrote in his columns and what he writes in Crossing Jack Brook adds much to the texture — and pleasure — of his narrative.  In a book that is nothing if not a memoir, the technique works like memory itself, moving us backwards and forward in time.

We move easily because he keeps things clear.  Lefebvre is an unpretentious stylist, a straight shooter, never sentimental but unafraid of revealing his heart.  Like the best prose writers in what William Carlos Williams called “the American grain,” he knows about real stuff:  how to pitch a tent, fell a tree, build a deck.  He also knows the stuff of history:  You will learn about how ice used to be harvested on Island Pond and the etiquette of old logging camps.  You will even learn a thing or two about the Civil War.

And you will hear some funny stories.  Perhaps my favorite has to do with a chimney fire that erupts at the ramshackle house of one of the author’s drinking buddies just as they’re about to leave for a night at the bar.  “The fire will either burn out or the place will burn down,” his friend says.  “We’ll find out later.”  So off they go.

The result of Lefebvre’s use of lore and laughter is that we experience none of the claustrophobia that we’d expect from a book informed by a terminal illness.  (Nor, I’m relieved to say, is Lefebvre the type of eulogist who uses humor in an attempt to make mortality sound cute.)  Much of this expansiveness is achieved through the deft characterization of Paulson herself.  She is never less than a lively presence.  The writer Dorothy Parker’s famous retort to the news that Calvin Coolidge had died — “How can they tell?” — could never apply to Elin Paulson.

I never knew her, by the way, and except for reading some of Lefebvre’s columns and buying fresh fish from him in Newport many years ago (only lately did I realize that the wordsmith and the fishmonger were the same guy), I don’t know him either.  But his account of their life together reminds me of men and women I met when I first arrived in the Kingdom — too late, I’m afraid, and too conventional to know their world well, but impressed by it from a distance and, more lately, saddened by a sense of  its passing.  For Lefebvre that sense is even stronger.

“[H]ome for the past year was beginning to resemble more and more a place where my friends were dying.  More and more a place I feared I no longer knew.  The Kingdom I knew was shrinking.  Land on both sides of the road to my house had been posted against trespassing.  A chain had been strung and locked across the road to hunting camp.”  It’s much to the author’s credit that he is able to convey a profound sense of loss even as he restores our awareness of what hasn’t yet and needn’t ever be lost completely.

The artwork accompanying Lefebvre’s text lends a hand in this.  The striking cover image of  Elizabeth Nelson’s painting of a rutted Kingdom road in early spring opens onto a gallery of color photographs, some of Lefebvre’s and Paulson’s family and friends, many of her magical paintings and picture poems (reminiscent of Kenneth Patchen and Paul Klee), a closing shot of her decorated grave.  Stained glass by Paulson’s father, Carl, and portraits of her by the painter Peter Miles (along with a photo of Miles himself) make for a fitting artist’s memorial.  This is not a coffee table book by any stretch, but for a while after I’d finished reading it, I kept it close to where I drink my coffee, because I liked waking up with the pictures.

Needless to say (at least for anyone who knows Lefebvre or his previous writings), Crossing Jack Brook is not a how-to manual about surviving grief.  When I called it useful before, I didn’t mean that it aimed to be.  It aims to be true, nothing less or more, and we trust it because the truth it discovers is complicated.  At one point during his bereavement, the gregarious Lefebvre exhorts himself to greater self-reliance:

“Usually I go to town on Sunday mornings, get coffee and a doughnut, pick up a paper, and begin a round of visiting friends.  Some Sundays we take rides through the woods or to camp or sometimes we do nothing at all except sit around, drink beer and talk.  It is nearly always enjoyable and it fills in the time.  But this morning I pulled up short.  Look to yourself for a change, I said.  Stop running away.”

Yet, in looking to himself “for a change,” he also finds a deeper sense of human solidarity and purpose, including the courage to call wisdom by its rightful name.

“Thankfully, not all wisdom comes with great loss — who could endure it if it were so? — yet there is a wisdom that death demands as its own.  And while grief may fling us into loneliness, it seems equally true that it welds us to a common lot.  Time is short, I tell myself.  Honor the dead by the life you lead.”

In Lefebvre’s case, “the life you lead” includes the words you write.  In a column he wrote in 2007, and includes near the end of Crossing Jack Brook, he says, “For the first few months, I carried Rocky’s death with me at nearly every step.  Anything short of that raised the fear I might lose her.  Now nearly 18 months later, I know she will never be lost to me.  I know where she resides.”

Thanks to Lefebvre’s stirring tribute, she also resides a little in us, and the odds of our forgetting her are close to none.

Garret Keizer’s most recent book is Privacy (2012).

For more free articles from the Chronicle like this one, see our Reviews pages. For all the Chronicle’s stories, pick up a print copy or subscribe, either for print or digital editions.

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Freeman short stories tell small town tales

copyright the chronicle July 25, 2012

Round Mountain, by Castle Freeman Jr. Published by Concord Free Press, Concord, Massachusetts, 2012; 182 pages, softbound.

Reviewed by Joseph Gresser

Castle Freeman is an economical writer. His characters are stingy with their words and his descriptive passages are spare.

Economical readers, too, will be delighted with Round Mountain, a collection of 12 short stories set in Vermont, not just because it is beautifully written, but because it has an appealing price — free.

Actually, free doesn’t tell the entire story. Although the Concord Free Press does not charge for the book, the reader must promise to donate to a charity and to pass the book on to another reader with the same obligation.

Round Mountain is a book that a reader might well want to share. The stories center on Homer Patch, an unexcitable man of a distinctly practical bent.

The tales give glimpses of Homer’s life and the life of his community. They cover different periods of his life, from boyhood to early middle age.

In Round Mountain, though, the stories are not arranged chronologically. The reader has to reconstruct the sequence of events that, for instance, led to Homer’s complicated marriage to the much-younger Angela.

The couple has a son, Quentin, who, for unknown reasons, does not speak. The boy, who is not obviously disabled, wanders off in the title story. Townspeople join together in a search effort that, in a burst of magic realism, reveals to Homer his town’s real place in the world.

During the course of several stories, Homer serves his town as constable. Like the lawmen in Mr. Freeman’s other recent books Go With Me and All That I Have, Homer is not a by-the-book officer. He is the kind of person others call on when they need help solving a problem.

In “The Women At Holiday’s,” a call to expel a trespasser from a summer person’s shed is handled effectively, but in a way that satisfies neither the property owner nor Homer’s boss.

A more serious problem, in the person of a threatening stranger, appears in “The Montreal Express.” Homer’s instinct, as always, is for inaction and the apparent danger goes as mysteriously as it appeared.

For Northeast Kingdom readers, Mr. Freeman’s Vermont will have a real resonance. Although the stories are apparently set farther south, the community he creates is more typical these days of Orleans or Essex counties.

As in the Kingdom’s small towns, everyone gathers a history that is quietly registered in his neighbors’ memories.

Certainly, people talk about Homer, but also about Makepeace, a city lawyer who finds a place in the community — not without making some hard discoveries along the way.

Two people who find no welcome in Homer’s town are a retired police officer, whose burglary prevention efforts prove too effective, and one of the thieves who see them as a challenge. By the end of “Bandit Poker,” both men have found leaving the area to be the wisest course of action.

In addition to being a cat-and-mouse story, “Bandit Poker,” is a gritty meditation on how society deals with young men whose level of energy far outstrips their judgment.

Round Mountain is worthwhile both as a work of literature and an effort to inspire generosity. Those who wish to participate in both aspects of this project can do so by going to the Concord Free Press’ website at www.concordfreepress.com/roundmountain.

contact Joseph Gresser at joseph@bartonchronicle.com

For more book reviews, visit the Reviews page.

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