By Jim Hogue
Will New England localities ever need to produce enough food to feed themselves?
Does the fire department need a new ladder?
Do we need library police, armed guards, and surveillance cameras?
Do we need a program to eradicate hemp and to imprison those who grow it?
Should we build wind farms to generate electricity?
We all take steps to protect ourselves – to mitigate the effects of catastrophe. But let us acknowledge that the fear of catastrophe is sold to us, and that sometimes, in the selling of protection, real threats are missed. Indeed the protection racket is still the protection racket, and the advertising campaigns are the same as always.
This article is an attempt to sell you protection against food shortages. But unlike other sales pitches, the promoters of this idea have little to gain, and this insurance could repay itself ten fold.
The point is that people routinely insure themselves against the unlikely, but that most have given neither thought nor preparation to the biggest problem facing most of the world: famine.
This article shares the wisdom of Karl Hammer of Montpelier VT, whose successful business is feeding the soil (Vermont Compost) and, as a by-product, getting eggs to market.
Karl Hammer has 1400 free-range, egg-laying hens. He lives in Montpelier VT where temperatures drop to -40 degrees F. His barn is unheated. His hens lay for 12 months out of the year. The fecal matter from the chickens does not pollute. Coyote, fox, fisher cat, skunk, raccoon and aerial predators make their livings in the same niche. This is not Karl’s primary business. He turns a profit.
Living in the State Capitol, Karl has access to all the garbage his flock could ever want, especially when the legislature is in session. He charges a tipping fee to local restaurants, which supply him with appropriate food refuse. He feeds this to his chickens (Australorpes, Buff Orpingtons, Wyandottes and Rhode Island Reds) mixed with nutrient-rich and seed-rich late-cut hay. This mixture is 1) fodder, 2) heat source, 3) compost.
The chickens add to the food mixture a nitrogen-rich substance that chemists refer to as chicken manure. The food/hay buffet provides a bed for the efficient collection of nitrogen, and the ammonia gasses (that in a factory farm would resuscitate the dead) are released so slowly that they are unnoticeable and non-toxic. The product (not to mention the eggs) is a nitrogen-rich addition to Karl’s compost that is further refined into potting soil.
But mention eggs I must, because that is the story.
Wholesale, Karl gets $2.40 a dozen for his eggs, which retail at $2.95. That is what people will pay for extra-large, fresh, free-range eggs. The reason the eggs taste so good is the infinite variety in the food source.
Anyone observing free-range hens can watch them select from nature’s table with individual and decisive discrimination. What I have noticed is that they prefer meals that are moving. Karl’s hens are free to roam, or leave, in search of whatever they like. In winter, when confined by sub-zero F temperatures to the barn, they still get a good supply of live, varied and tasty food. And even in winter they are able to choose from the constant, ever-growing buffet.
The environment in the barn is a metabolizing ecology: a constant succession of species that live off of the decaying matter and off of each other.
The environment of the farm is also particular. It must take advantage of the climate and the geography, considering water sources and drainage. It is, like all farms, situation specific. Karl collaborates with chickens. The more they are able to do what chickens do (express full chickenhood if you will) the more successful he is. It is a study in the sociology of chickens. It is, by necessity, a way of taking advantage of the work done by 7000 lbs of chickens every day.
There is also something to be said for the healthy and humane conditions that Karl affords his flock. 1) They choose their food (which they get to play with), 2) They are free to leave, 3) They live ‘til they die, 4) They are protected by a large German Shepard.
I know folks with tiny flocks who have lost everything to predators. And these flocks were not even free range. So . . . do not try this without a good dog. The skunk’s aroma may linger, but that is a small price to pay.
The other part of Karl’s formula for a ready New England food supply relies on a local wildflower called the Jerusalem Artichoke. Acres of community plantings would protect us against the worst case scenario of food shortages - from transportation slowdowns to natural disasters to financial meltdowns. And the billions spent on homeland security should spare a few thousand to get things started.
Jerusalem Artichokes are a herbaceous perennial, the only “vegetable” native to New England, 6-10ft tall, propagated from tubers, blooms in the fall, stalks and flowers resemble sunflowers. They are easy to cultivate and produce large, edible tubers if separated and planted in rich soil. They provide their own compost and mulch by dropping their leaves, and seem to produce tubers forever. The tubers may by eaten instead of potatoes, and are marketed as “sun chokes.”
Says Karl, “If you suddenly discovered in February that you were short of food, you could follow the stalk and find the tuber. So if you were trying to lay out strategies that were relatively inexpensive to feed the population of Central Vermont, acres of Jerusalem Artichokes would be one of them.”
They are, furthermore, (and here is where we cleverly integrate the chicken story) an effective filter of leachates because they are ravenous utilizers of nutrients. The more nutrients they get, the bigger they get. They work well with high carbon substrates in preventing leachates from getting into the watershed. A good design is a layer of bark filters with Jerusalem Artichokes planted in them.
They are a fantastic chicken habitat for several reasons. 1) It is cooler in a dense Jerusalem Artichoke thicket. 2) Worms collect in this environment, as Jerusalem Artichokes manage their own ecology. 3) They like chicken manure. 4) Chickens eat the foliage.
In a pinch, they will become currency. Furthermore, they are a starch source for fuel (ethanol), they aid in nutrient/sludge management, and they form a hedge that produces a pretty flower. (If the wrong people read this, Jerusalem Artichokes will become illegal.)
Good advice is, of course, plentiful. Bad planning is the rule. Economic collapse is always predicted by the few and ignored by the many. Here we are at a turning point in history: Peak Oil, Global Warming, and ruthless Empires grabbing the last resources from the weak.
It is ironic that those who can function as did their grandparents, with less, with Yankee ingenuity, with barter, and with knowledge of the natural world are much more likely to make it in the coming years.
It is possible that, soon, many people in New England will find it hard to get food. That doesn’t matter or register on the radar screen of the Agriculture Department or our elected officials. But it will when people get uppity.
Karl warns, “A populace that has no control over its food supply is hard put to describe itself as free. Eating is one of those things people do pretty often, and need to. It’s hard for Americans to imagine how that could affect their freedom, not having had a situation where money couldn’t buy food. Central Vermont has a food supply of 72 hours, and within 24 hours there’s a shortage of fresh produce. I don’t know if you’ve seen the co-op when the truck doesn’t come for a day. It gets pretty lonely and empty in there. Three days without food and peoples’ values shift. They give you the keys to their BMWs for a glass of water and a bagel. We need a shift in resources: from surveillance equipment for the constabulary to food planning. Many understand that the stalwarts with their fingers on the trigger still need to eat. The Swiss articulate food planning as part of their national defense strategy. And they articulate it carefully. But, for myself, constantly belaboring the obvious is getting kind of old.”
If there is a universal in the ongoing “Story of Karl Hammer,” it is that knowledge and the ability to objectively observe, measure, analyze, and apply data are crucial. Each part of the puzzle is important.
Another lesson, which goes against what so many have been taught for so long, is that economy of scale does not mean racing to enormous size. The Amish have shown us this. But many in the business of agriculture and in the governance of agriculture refuse to learn the lesson.
In an age of “peak oil” and potentially devastating climate changes, governments cannot let the serendipity of Karl’s success be a substitute for careful planning and for supporting rural entrepreneurs who, by going back in time, are preparing for the future.
Jim Hogue (aka Ethan Allen) is a former high school teacher, now an actor and farmer living in Calais, Vermont, and a frequent contributor to Vermont Commons. He has a weekly radio program on WGDR Plainfield 91.1fm.