An Education in Material Life, not “Vocational Tech”

I have a love/hate relationship with education, but the truth is it’s a genuine passion. In fact, I am very protective of the term. “School” and “education” are not synonymous with each other, nor are “degree” and “qualified.” Of all my interests, my fascination with education goes back the farthest. I have spent most of my life either getting educated, educating others, or, as a teenager, resenting the education I was coerced into.

One of the things I have come to believe is that we don’t learn nearly enough about the material world and the practical skills required to interact with it. These used to be learned as a matter of course on the farm, or even in the urban home back when people repaired their own goods, sewed their own clothes, and cooked their own food from scratch. Our upward-looking educational system was built on this, a foundation which no longer exists and which seems to have been forgotten. The implications of this go far beyond not knowing how ot fix a car or grow a tomato — I believe that we have lost the finger that kept us in touch with the pulse of the world, and that without that finger on the pulse we make decisions that are uninformed by a familiarity with the rules of nature.

In short, I believe nature is full of patterns that might be called laws, and they apply across contexts, and that we learn them best by first interacting with the world on its terms, then abstracting what we learn into principles that can be applied elsewhere. Higher education is predicated on these abstractions, but all too commonly these days we start with the abstractions, skipping the foundational intimacy with the world.

And yes, the lack of familiarity with material life also makes us less confident in our sense of the world. We feel like we have to lean too quickly on specialists, and we forfeit our own opinion to adopt the opinions of others who “know better.” We don’t feel like we can walk out our door and make something of nothing, because, frankly, we don’t know how anything works. Self-efficacy is born out of accomplishment and confidence, and I believe the most accessible place this is to be found is in the realm of making and producing material things.

That said, I have made a grievous mistake up till now in conflating “vocational tech” with a true education in material life.

An important distinction came up yesterday when talking with David (we talk most of the day, most days). He was advocating the value of a liberal arts education at a four-year university vs. vocational education at a community college. His example of a vocational degree — studying to be a radiologist — made me realize that when I speak of bringing back vocational tech, I am interested in vocational training for what it teaches us about the material world and the tools at our disposal for interacting with it — I am not interested in vocational tech in the narrow sense of being trained for a particular role in a particular industry with particular tools, and that’s often what it is.

The value of an education in practical skills — as opposed to vocational skills — is the transferrable nature of what you learn. As an example, rather than learning how to assemble cabinets, you could learn about the essential properties of wood, and concepts and techniques in woodworking. When we reduce the value of a practical education to be training for a specific job, we are doing a disservice to the individual and society. Frankly, job training should happen on the job.

I believe we should all be competent or at least have the opportunity to be competent observing, understanding, and problem-solving in the material world. Vocational tech can teach this — welding and fabrication skills gleaned in getting an A.S. in Aeronautical Technology, for example — but it does not necessarily do so. A radiologist likely learns only how to use one technology in one place. This does not contribute nearly as much to the human capital of a society as a set of foundational skills, in that a person trained in the fundamentals of a field is more likely to take what they’ve learned and innovate with it.

David pointed out that we can’t all learn everything. Excel and computer programming are also practical skills, no? But I wonder if we can. We take years and years to study history, and learn very little of it. What we should do is learn a small bit of history, intensively. We should learn how to study and think about historical events. We should bother very little with attempting a survey of human history. We have the rest of our lives to go more deeply into subjects that interest us. The best we can expect from an early-in-life education is to be on a good basic footing with most of the subjects, and know where to start when we want to learn more.

We live in an information-rich age. Information is a click away, or a book away. What most needs to be fostered is critical thinking, and we can do this in any field, with any subject, at any time. We should do it at all times, in fact, whether critically analyzing an engineering problem to see it in a new light, critically re-assessing an employee hiring process, or critically considering the role of cattle in a diversified small farm operation.

I suspect we could learn everything, if we reduced most subjects to their essence. We could study the world through the lens of time and human behavior (history), through the lens of the material world (practical skills and materials), the virtual world (computers and networks), the biological world, and so on. These courses would offer a broad survey and intro to techniques for each subject, followed by focused application in an in-depth project. I believe a solid footing in each subject — including and beginning with an education in material life — would provide a solid start to life-long and self-directed learning, as well as societal innovation and growth.

Mind the Bollocks! This Herd’s Got Balls.

When I am a farmer responsible for animals of my own, I will try to the best of my ability to give them the life they’d prefer to live if they were wild. Putting beef and dairy cows on pasture is the most important move towards this, a move away from the unnatural crowding and containment of feedlots and the unnatural feed that goes with it. Keeping my own breeding bull would be another step in this direction; allowing the bull to live with the herd a further step still.* There is one more practice, however, which is not widely questioned but may deserve to be. Castration.

We castrated a couple weeks ago, It shook me more than I expected. Granted, I have a new baby boy, so I may be particularly sensitive at the moment. Still, the truth is I found castration more disconcerting than slaughter. There is something honest about slaughter — predators kill, and as farmers we fulfill the role of predators, a role which has an analog in nature — but castration, on the other hand, is mutilation. No farmer wants to call it that, but that’s what it is. Predators may mutilate their prey, but only because they’re not perfect hunters. Can we aspire to be more perfect farmers?

In Biodynamic terms, a bull which is castrated cannot fully express his bullness. He becomes a steer. Maybe he can fully express his steerness, but it seems to me a steer is just a bull with no balls, which, by definition, is a bull not fully expressed.

This morning, with work cancelled due to flooding, I jumped down a research rabbit hole and spent hours investigating dual-purpose cattle breeds or the possibility of raising dairy boys for beef, and in the process I discovered that raising young bulls to slaughter is not only possible, but eminently justifiable. It’s not even a fringe idea. They do it in Europe.

I’ll back up a step. I was researching dual-purpose breeds and dairy beef because I am designing a herd as the core part of a farm that will provide both meat and dairy for 25 members. The subscription would run for 40 weeks, providing a quarter cow per member (2 lbs. beef per week), a half-gallon or gallon of milk, and 1 lb. of cheese weekly. I wanted to figure out if it would be better to raise separate beef and milk herds, or a single dual-purpose herd. Either way, I was designing the ultimate integrated herd.

Three objectives for the efficient biodynamic herd

  1. Balance milk production with meat production for 25 members
  2. Keep the herd in as “natural” a state as possible
  3. Avoid castrating

Mind the bollocks

“Bollocks” /ˈbɒləks/ is a word of Anglo-Saxon origin, meaning “testicles”.

Apparently, there is little to no difference in flavor if bulls, or bullocks as they’re technically called between 12-24 months of age, are slaughtered when a little bit younger than usual. This is 24 months at the oldest, though most experts advise between 16-20 months. Not only does the meat taste the same — if a bit leaner — but bulls put on weight 15% faster than steers. They convert feed more efficiently. On the management side, you’d think a bunch of bulls penned together would be dangerous to each other or the farmers, but apparently behavior problems are minimal if young bulls are kept apart from the cows and their pens aren’t too small.

You don’t want the young bulls with the cows once they approach sexual maturity, anyway, or they might mate with their moms. So, then I got curious — what do young bulls do in a “natural” environment? I looked into their wild relatives.

As it turns out, a feral herd of once-domesticated cattle live on the grounds of Chillingham Castle, in England. The young bulls live with the herd of cows and calves until they approach sexual maturity, at which point they split off into small bands of two or three young bulls. The herd will occasionally tolerate an older male among them year-round. The American bison behave in a very similar way. The takeaway from this is that it is perfectly natural to isolate young bulls from the herd, as long as they have the company of each other.

This is beginning to seem like a win-win.

As for the dual-purpose breeds, I think the primary argument for using a milk breed and raising the calves for meat is that you don’t have to milk as many cows. Dual-purpose breeds, producing less, would take longer to milk. That said, I only need 3-4 milk cows for the dairy needs of 25 members, and I’ll need 7 heads of beef per year to produce a quarter cow per member as well as a couple of quarters for the farmers. That means we’ll keep 3-4 cows in addition to the milk cows to produce the requisite beef. They don’t have to be a milk breed.

So, here’s my idea for an efficient, Biodynamic herd

First of all, I want Jersey’s (or Guernsey’s or Brown Swiss) for milk, but, recall, I only need 3-4 milking cows, which includes at least one at any given time that’s not lactating.

My other 3-4 cows will be Angus or another beef breed that puts weight on quick on pasture.

I will keep a Jersey bull with the herd, and he will sire calves with all 7 cows. 3-4 of them will be pure Jersey calves, and the others will be Jersey-Angus. Angsey. They will have the ol’ hybrid vigor, and probably put on weight quite a bit better than pure Jersey. However, they will have the Jersey’s propensity for marbling, which is another apparent win-win: Jersey’s rank higher than any other breed for the quality of the marbling in their meat. They just don’t produce very big cows.

My goal, however, is good meat. The quarter cows don’t have to be huge.

The efficiency in this herd comes from the fact that I only need one breeding bull, a Jersey, rather than a Jersey and Angus bull. That saves me 3 acres, and I can keep the whole herd together as one, except for the bullocks, but I’ll get to that in a moment. This compromises some on efficiency because we will be managing two herds for some of each year, but if we had separate beef and dairy herds, too, that would give us a total of three.

And an extra boon: Jersey’s are small, Angus are big, which means we can keep the bull as long as he lives because he won’t get too heavy for the Angus girls.

The herd as a whole will be about 30 animals — 7 mama cows, 7 calves, 7 yearlings, 7 beef (or replacement heifers), and 1 bull. This amounts to a little over 20 Animal Units (1 A.U. = 1000 lbs.), which will require about 40 acres of pasture.

As for the bullocks

I will remove the boys from the herd at 12-15 months of age, before they exhibit any serious sexual behavior. They will be walked away in pairs to a separate pasture area of about 8 acres which is fenced with heavy, bull-proof fencing material. There they will live, going around in their separate rotation in their little band of 3-4 young dudes until the fateful day they meet their maker, balls and all.

* I have worked with a farmer who kept his breeding bull with his herd year-round. Many would advise against this on the grounds that it’s better to keep him apart except for a month each year, to ensure calves are born in spring. This farmer’s calves are born when they are born, and everything works fine. For my purposes, I think I would keep the breeding bull apart, with the bullocks while they’re around, and by himself when they’re not. This is not ideal, but in a system where I’m not castrating, it’s essential that the bullocks be slaughtered at a precise time, and if they’re going to keep them together, we need to make sure they are born at the same time and slaughtered at the time. We also need to compromise with reality here — a slaughter unit can only come to the farm so often, and you want them to do more than one animal when they’re there.

[Adam Klaus has this to say about it over at Permies: "...I am more interested in educating my customers about the value of non-castrated meat animals. Particularly bull beef. My experience is that young bull beef has an energetic power and nutritious flavor that is absolutely superior to steer meat. I believe in the concept, you are what you eat. Who wants to be a dickless steer? We need more 'balls' in our society, these days. So bull beef has a density of flavor that belies its underlying strength. I want the strength and courage of a bull. I eat to achieve this goal."]

A Sunday Morning 5-Acre Homestead Fantasy, Right Here

I frequently dream about buying the little chunk of the farm that our trailer is on. It is approximately 5 acres with plenty of water seeping out all over it. It is inclined to the Northeast, meaning it gets little afternoon sun and little sun when the sun is very low in the winter. I know from moving the cows through here that the pasture is of fairly low quality, especially later in the season. All that aside, though, I like to imagine the homestead I would make if I were own it.

Perimeter

Perimeter

Our trailer, the little white thing on the left

Our trailer, the little white thing on the left

It is about a 5-acre chunk, sloping to the East. The middle area is fairly open, and there is about an acre of flattish land or so in the middle. There’s a nice grove in the NW corner, and a bunch of gorgeous old cedars, maples, and a spruce along the Eastern side, down by where the swamp begins. It is bordered by the swamp along the eastern line, the road along the south and west, and a perennial creek along the north. The middle is pretty sunny, so there is maybe an acre of potential planting space, but it’s also the best pasture.

The old stumps are great for kids and grownups alike

The old stumps are great for kids and grownups alike

We would always have more than enough water here, and would swale the land to control seepage. A couple of dairy goats and their edible kids could be moved around the pasture and periodically graze the willows and alders in the swamp. We would have coppice groves for goat fodder. We could keep a pig and feed it on household excess, and extra corn. Some dual-purpose ducks and or chickens for eggs and meat. We could shoot a deer every year.

The acre of garden space would grow corn and beans and vegetables. 1/10th acre of beans and chickpeas, 3/10 acre of corn and cereals, and 1/10 acre of vegetables should be more than enough for the whole year. The remaining half-acre could be used for herbal leys for the livestock. We’d dig out the many rocks from this acre over time and stack them to make paddock walls.

Among the coppices we’d grow our fruit trees, nut trees, fruit bushes, nut bushes, and useful plants for stakes, posts, and fuelwood. We could interplant nitrogen-fixers for coppicing, such as black locust, among the fruits and nuts, with the added benefit that the goats would love the branches.

We’d have the place set up real nice with certain tent pads kept away from the animals under the cedars so we could have a summer pig roast and invite all our friends for a long weekend every year.

We could replace the trailer with a nice little wood-heated home, or a newer trailer, with a woodstove, a carport, and a shop/garage.

It would be cold and dark and damp in the winter, but in the summer we’d harness the high sun and bright mornings to grow what we needed, even if our yields were lower than they would be in the open or on a south-facing slope.

Economics is Not About Money

Economics is about complexity, diversity, connections, development, pathways, exchanges, reservoirs, relationships, and flows. Money tracks those flows, and that’s why we use it as a unit of analysis. It is a way to map an economy.

Economies are fascinating things. They are man-made and they are not man-made. On the one hand, clearly people are the ones doing everything. On the other hand, economies are an outgrowth of our aggregate actions, and the way they “grow” seems to follow certain natural patterns, meaning the same patterns that nature also follows.

One interesting way to think about economies is in terms of mobility. Long ago–actually, in the scheme of things not that long ago–human beings could move to new places when we faced constraints in our current place. This was true when we were hunter-gatherers, and true again for certain human beings during various migrations. At a certain point, however, we ran out of geographical locations to move to. At that point, human societies have tended to stagnate. The Dark Ages is a classic example of this in Europe. The places were taken up, people were sedentary farmers, and without any economic growth, social roles remained static and the population lived at the edge of starvation for centuries. People were stuck.

The thing that breaks this stagnation is the development of a more robust economy. Economies create virtual “places” and pathways to those places. Mobility is restored, though it is no longer necessarily geographic. It is, in a sense, virtual. Economies expand space within cities and regions for making a living, much like computers create great space inside of tiny objects for things which formerly required real space, like documents.

To be concrete, if a hunter-gatherer ran low on food, he or she could move to a new place, and if they encountered other human beings there, they could choose to fight and claim it, or move on.

If a Dark Ages farmer ran low on food, he could exert pressure on his lord to go hunting for grain reserves in the limited international market. That was their only recourse.

In a modern economy, however, if a person runs low on food, they can find other ways to generate the income necessary to purchase it without ever leaving their place. A city is full of pathways that exist independent of the geography.

What is The Integrated Life Project about, again?

To be frank, I reformulate the answer to that question every time I’m required to give one. Does that seem fickle? Far from it! The Integrated Life is a moving target, and I have a gut sense of what it’s about. But readers, I understand your desire for clarity.

So in this post I’m going to nail it to the wall.

To begin with, I acknowledge that I range broadly through just about every subject: farming, gardening, lifestyle design, personal finance, sociology, economics, history, ecology, work & training, education, business, homesteading, self-sufficiency, and spirituality. Am I distractable? Yes! Am I unfocused? Sometimes. Do I have any idea where I’m going with all this? ABSOLUTELY. The Integrated Life is about integrating everything that matters into a coherent life. Period.

But what does that mean to me? Well, I made a mind map.

This is what goes into and what comes out of an Integrated Life:

IntegratedLife_mindmap

The proper way to understand this mind map is to realize that The Integrated Life both facilitates Creativity, Innovation, Resource Conservation, Family Focus, and Community, and results in Creativity, Innovation, Resource Conservation, Family Focus, and Community. In other words, all of these aspects are both inputs and outputs.

They are self-reinforcing feedback loops. Creativity creates The Integrated Life, and The Integrated Life facilitates more opportunities to practice or enlarge Creativity. Innovation makes The Integrated Life possible, and The Integrated Life results in more Innovation. Family Focus is a core driver for The Integrated Life, and The Integrated Life creates a lifestyle more conducive to Family Focus. Resource Conservation is both a design constraint on The Integrated Life, and a benefit of pursuing it. Community is leveraged to create The Integrated Life, and The Integrated Life develops stronger Community.

The Integrated Life is both a process and a goal. It is an approach to work, to social good, to responsible living, and to self-actualization. It is goal-oriented and values-based.

It is a template based on a vision upon which a life can unfold.

This blog rhythmically

  1. returns to the vision
  2. refines the template, and
  3. maps the unfolding.

If this is something you can relate to, I encourage you to return regularly, and you can subscribe by inputting your email into the little box in the upper right corner of this page. I would also love to hear from you — you can contact me through the contact form, or comment on the posts. The fun thing about this blog is that it is chronicling our journey while sharing what works.

Valentine’s Day, 2014

valentinesDay2014
A little over four years ago, I met the woman who fit. I don’t think “love at first sight” is an absolute prerequisite for successful partnership, but it sure helps. I never expected it to come so effortlessly, after so many years of hoping. In fact, I had started to accept that it might not come, and started “growing up,” readying myself for a relationship with a respectable person in which I made commitments and followed through on them, communicated maturely, and made it work. The funny thing is, that preparation paid off.

When I was younger, I would have been unable to sustain such a powerful, natural love, because I would have tasked it with carrying the relationship. True Love is like a river–to follow it all the way to the sea, you need a good boat. If you just jump in, you won’t last long. So my advice to anyone who is in the early stages of love, or still looking, is this: Take responsibility for everything you can within your own sphere of control, expect nothing more from the other but what they freely give, and then take all of that energy you conserve by doing the first two things, and use it to give, give, give.

I love you, Elana Dix! You are my love, my partner, and now, the mother of my child. In other words, you complete my life.

Why Organic is Not Enough

“Organic” as a brush stroke is just too broad.

We need to move past this notion that organic farming practices are inherently better than conventional farming practices. Research supports a number of other factors besides whether a crop is organically or conventionally grown that contribute to yield differences, nutritional differences, and sustainability.

For example, crop-specific growing practices often determine yields more than whether or not a crop is organic or conventional, indicating that a high skill level is important, and knowledge is what makes the difference.

Nutrition may have more to do with fertilization methods (solid vs. water-soluble) and mineralization, as well as plant varieties, than with a crop being grown organically or conventionally.

I like to think the take-home from all this is that you need skilled farmers who know their crops, their land, their technologies, and their techniques. You need farmers who are also systems thinkers — stacking functions, recognizing synergies, and taking seriously any unintended effects of their actions.

This is what results in good food and good farming.

I would guess that there are conventional farmers who strictly follow IPM guidelines for pesticide use, minimize fertilization and run-off, properly mineralize their soil, and make every effort to incorporate organic matter and avoid surface compaction. These farmers are doing just as much good as an organic farmer who only applies manure and lime, or who leaves his fields bare for months at a time.

And I like to think this conventional farmer would make a fantastic organic farmer.

Kitbashing Life

There are people who take a kit, a model for example, and make it better than anyone else. They assemble it flawlessly, apply decals, paint it, and make the surface look weathered and natural to bring the quintessential character of the model out. They take the model as is and actualize it. As lifestyles go, this is the type of person to choose an existing vocation — doctoring, for example — and excel in it.

There are people, too, who know what they want to build even though there is no existing model for it, and go about quite deliberately pulling certain pieces from certain kits to assemble the pieces they need, then fabricating any remaining elements from scratch in order to arrive at the completed model. My dad is this sort of person. Kitbashing like this allows him to model exactly the real buildings he wants to model — he’s a model railroader, so in his case this whole analogy is literal, and he builds old Los Angeles. As lifestyles go, this person takes the things they love to do or want to do and turns them into a vocation, which is exactly what my father did in making a name for himself as a garden writer, editor, teacher, and TV host.

Then there are those people, like myself, who are more interested in using parts of a kit. Rather than complete a model, I mess around with it until a certain piece that fascinates me starts to make sense in the context of the model, and I’ll pull that piece out and put the rest of the model down. Often a piece fascinates me because it seems to be the piece missing from another kit I’ve messed around with, or because I’ve started pulling the fascinating pieces from every kit and sitting them next to each other on my desk, having some vision of what they could form that is truer to a form in my mind than any existing model, but with no clear prior notion of what that form is. As lifestyles go, this person — me — neither accepts a packaged vocation nor has a clear vision of how to assemble their interests into one. I believe the real boat-rocking innovators come from this category, but it is also a wide sea across which the sloops of frustrated visionaries tack endlessly back and forth.

The Expert.
The Original.
The Visionary.

What determines the success of the visionary?

Right now I have on my desk pieces of farming, wilderness, education, social work, the arts, and the trades. I love the system design aspects of farming as well as the partnership with nature, the unassailable honesty of the wilderness, the endless possibilities in education, the social good of social work, the integrative intelligence practiced in the arts, and the constructive craft of the trades.

There must be something that puts these together, because I can’t quite bring myself to put any of the pieces down to focus on fewer of them. The whole feels compromised when I consider it. They just fit together. Somehow.

The Farm in Winter

The Big Pig Lady sleeps in a shaft of sunlight

We seeded leeks last week, the first act of 2014′s growing season. And so the lull of December evolves into something less lulling. We orient forward. I can’t say we’ve really picked up any steam yet, but we made our first little puff — the engine wheels creaked forward an inch on the track, then stopped again.

For the most part it still feels like deep winter. Our nine-hour work days are bracketed by darkness; we must get stuff done on time or work by the headlights of the tractor. Three days a week we bed cows. As in: muck out the feed alleys and put down fresh bedding. This begins with a shlop as my boot sinks several inches into fresh manure. I always resent that first step, then five minutes later I’m spattered with shit and I’ve forgotten all about it. It takes an afternoon with two of us. We put down 50 bales. This is the winter slog.

The other days we find things to do. We spread manure in the greenhouses and till it in. We pick up the pieces of the wind-battered propagation house. We collect plastic mulch from the fields. We clean out rotten squash from the stores, clean out the walk-in refrigerator, pressure wash the tractors and the back pad. We feed the cows, feed the pig, feed the ducks, feed the cats. We scratch our Big Pig Lady behind the ears and talk sweetly to her. We talk to all the animals, a lot, often when the other person’s around. David and I are the only ones working. We talk endlessly about most things, coming back around on some themes, often just downright repeating ourselves. But we don’t tire of it; boredom is relative. Plus, we keep things interesting by surprising each other with enthralling questions like: “If you could only have three firearms in the zombie apocalypse…” That one kept us giddy for an entire afternoon.*

And I’m not often bored, even when working alone. When it really threatens, I listen to podcasts — my favorite are the London School of Economics’ Lectures and the Long Now Foundation’s ‘Seminars in Long-Term Thinking.’ But often I’m just quietly going about the day. It’s raining, or misting, or freezing. My hands go numb sometimes, and I go to the Honey Bucket, and after I’ve shaken off, I let them spend a little bit of time down in my long johns. Yeah, TMI, I know. But it’s winter. We’re honest in winter.

I’m almost always a few minutes late in the morning because I always forget to warm up my truck and scrape the ice off the windshield before it’s time to leave. I always come home covered in mud. I wake up every morning excited for my cup of coffee and it’s like Christmas morning every morning. And Christmas lunchtime every lunchtime. And I could sleep forever but I don’t cuz we have too much to do prepping at home for B-Day. I don’t sleep enough, but then when I do — WHAM 10:30AM WTF!? I haven’t done that in years.

Life is good on the farm. We’re nesting. We live in a box but it’s a cozy box. Imagine going up to a cardboard box with a panel on the side and opening the panel to find a cozy little dollhouse interior. That’s what our trailer is like. I’m just hoping the big, bad wolf doesn’t stop by.

On that note, I’ve lost two ducks to an unknown predator. It wasn’t the ducks’ fault, but they’re on house arrest now. For their own good. I try to tell that to the cows in the barn, too, but they just say

mMmoOOooo

which also means “Where the eff is my food?” and “I’m hungry!” and “No fair, feed me first!” and “I want what she has,” you get the idea. Silly cows.

Are you still listening? Don’t mind me, just talking to myself again.

* For the interested, I would take a 12-guage semi-automatic shotgun, a sawed-off pistol-grip version of the same, and an AR-15 with a scope and silencer. David likes the AR-15, too, but would complement it with a Tommy Gun and a .45 calibre pistol. What would yours be?

And some pics from the farm in winter: