Not In My Backyard

The way I was taught, if a person wants to lose money, he or she should go about it honestly and try farming. I was raised in a household where gambling was still one of the Baptists’ four deadly sins–the other three were drinking, dancing, and cutting grass on Sunday. But I suspect most people don’t see anything wrong with gambling anymore, given the crowds I have to wade through to get to the gas station counter. Everywhere I look people are chain-scratching lotto tickets, trying to get rich quick.

Not to say I haven’t had my own problems with scratch offs. As a child, I spent all my hard-earned wages from mowing yards on baseball cards. As soon as I had cash in hand, I was begging my mom to take me to K-Mart, so I could purchase packs of Topps or Donruss. The baseball card companies often included their own version of a scratch off in the pack to get  kids addicted early. If you got lucky, you could win a free pack of cards or, better yet, an autographed card by a superstar who was likely on steroids. I’d hate to know how much money I wasted on now worthless baseball cards. In hindsight, if only I’d invested that money in Microsoft or Apple, I’d be a millionaire now.

Speaking of investing, I’m not exactly sure what the moral difference is between gambling and investing. My dad tried to explain it to me once, but it seemed complicated. Plus, my dad had his own set of problems with get-rich quick schemes. “Beep, Beep, Beep!” and he was digging up a fine specimen of pull tab, rusty nail, or contorted piece of unidentifiable scrap. My dad loved to metal detect, and he took me to some swell derelict farmsteads to hunt for buried treasure. We never found any treasure, but ever since, a passion for rusty junk has been in my blood, for which I’ve had many tetanus shots.

Anyway, the reason I’m talking about gambling is because less than ten miles from my house the Catawba Indians are now building a fancy new casino. It’s supposed to bring 3,000 new jobs and be a boon for our local economy, at least if you believe what the Catawba leaders and our local politicians say.  However, if you read a piece of junk mail I got the other day, you’d know the “The shady Catawba Casino is a bad bet for North Carolina.” 

Design for the new Catawba Casino.

The mailer was from a mysterious group called DefendNC. At first, I experienced a rather nostalgic bout of curiosity–could it be a conservative grassroots organization mounting a moral high horse to once again crusade against the old foe of gambling? 

But, alas, how foolish I was. I forgot it couldn’t be a conservative grassroots organization because they sacrificed all their moral high horses to the altar of an “utterly amoral man” (Ted Cruz’s words, not mine) who not only owned, but bankrupted a casino (I don’t give our former president credit for much, but bankrupting a casino is a pretty impressive feat of fiscal irresponsibility, one I fear may only be rivaled by our current president’s gazillion dollar infrastructure plan–can Fort Knox go bankrupt? Can I withdraw my social security before it does?).

Nope, it wasn’t conservatives or liberals behind DefendNC, but merely the Cherokee. They’re upset because the new Catawba casino will siphon gamblers from their old casino, which just provides further evidence that most moral compasses are merely guided by hypocritical self-interest. And I have to admit that mine is too. Personally, I believe if people want to donate their money to slot machines, that’s up to them, but I do hate to see the urban sprawl that will come along with the casino. A big housing development has already been approved nearby. So the main reason I don’t want the casino is because it’s in the vicinity of my backyard, which was previously the Catawba’s backyard, at least before most of them died of smallpox, which kinda adds another layer of hypocrisy to my moral compass. 

Anyway, to sum up, here is my self-revelation after this rambling post: The reason I oppose the casino is not because strip clubs, beer joints, and tattoo parlors may follow the casino into our community and defile our citizenry (let’s face it, we’re already pretty defiled as is). I simply don’t want McMansions defiling the landscape.

How To Get Out of Weddings

Weddings, ugh. For some reason, uncomfortable dress clothes, sappy songs, and awkward small talk appeal to otherwise rational women, my wife included. She actually smiles when an envelope brings tidings of forthcoming nuptials. Of course, the invitation inside also requests the honor of our presence, by which it really means her presence. I know the  bride-to-be just put my name on the invitation to be polite. And sometimes they don’t even waste the gold-foil ink printing my name–they just put Mr. and Mrs. Natalie Bishop. 

So forget feeding the world: the best reason to own cows is to get out of weddings. I hate to  spill the beans, but cattle prices have been in the dumpster for years now. Economically speaking,  we’d all be better off donating our cows to PETA and letting them foot the bill for hay. Currently,  the only advantage to keeping cows is a man (or woman if so inclined) can accidentally leave a  gate open. Thus, an hour before the union of two dear friends, really slight acquaintances if we’re  being honest, a prized heifer can get loose and need wrangling. And a loose cow emergency trumps attendance at weddings. Just don’t overplay the loose cow card, or else your significant other will suspect something’s up and ask you to repair the pasture fence, and repairing fences is tedious work best procrastinated. 

Unfortunately, many bridal magazines have caught on to the fact that men hate weddings and are now advising readers to get hitched in barns to re-attract the missing male demographic. Recently, I attended one of these barn weddings. Here’s my firsthand report: Still, ugh. 

First, it was definitely not a working barn. I never caught the slightest waft of manure or  saw the first mouse. Second, there were no wasp nests anywhere or yellow jackets hiding in old  hay bales. Third, the barn was absent dust-filled cobwebs and, in fact, dust. The barn was spotless.  It had fluorescent lights and stainless-steel fixtures. It was the first barn I’ve seen that could double  as an operating room. Sadly, that bride probably spent a fortune hoping for a true-to-life barn  experience and left with a white dress unsoiled. In a real barn, nothing attracts grease, oil, or grime faster than white clothes. 

So, brides, if you’re seeking an authentic barn wedding, please feel free to contact me to tour our venue featuring a barn built in 1940 and many dilapidated out-buildings. For a meager  upcharge, you can meet the raccoon living in the hayloft. For a small intimate wedding, the old  smokehouse accommodates eight people and a hundred mice. 

Right now, I have widespread availability, though this is liable to change once word gets out about the affordability of my authentic venue. In fact, you could probably rent our whole  facility for a fraction of those fancy barn venues, so long as you remember to feed the cows and  empty the mouse traps.

Our Facilities

How to Talk UFOs and Farming

For those of you who don’t track sasquatch sightings in your spare time, my county is home to a bigfoot named Knobby. His last sighting was about ten years ago when he was caught snooping through a cabin window. The owner of the cabin called 911 to ask if he could shoot “the beast,” but decided against it on advice from the dispatcher. Instead, he resorted to telling the sasquatch to “Git! Git away from here!” The sasquatch turned and fled, but the man noticed the beast had a “beautiful head of hair.” (This really happened: youtube the video, “CNN: See Bigfoot? Call 911”). 

A local gas station used to sell Knobby T-shirts at the local gas and grocery, but the shirts have been discontinued. These days, bigfoot hunters are few and far between. Instead, they’re all out searching the heavens for UAPs–if you didn’t know, Unidentified Flying Objects are now called Unidentified Aerial Phenomena by the government. (Apparently, the Navy released a video of some flying triangles, a.k.a. UAPs, that has the paranormal community salivating and really polishing up their tinfoil hats.)

But the transformation of UFOs to UAPs is what I’m really concerned about in this post. The transformation is a classic case of the deterioration of the English language by jargon, and I know all too well about the harmful effects of jargon. I work at a government agriculture office. 

Sound and Agribusiness Lingo

Agriculture is ground zero for jargon and its fallout on sentences. In fact, the other day I was talking to a young farmer when I realized I couldn’t understand him at all. It wasn’t that he was mumbling. It wasn’t that he spoke a dialect different from my own. It was just his words–words full of sound and agribusiness lingo, signifying nothing. The young man was fond of utterances like the following:

“What the public doesn’t understand is that modern agricultural producers are utilizing the latest technologies and materials–we’re deploying the safest chemistries and best genetics to maximize revenue and increase productivity, just to feed the world.”

Young Farmer

Admittedly, I didn’t have the heart to tell the young farmer that what the public doesn’t understand are his verbs and nouns. And it’s only a matter of time before the last bastion of his understandable lingo, “to feed the world,” is transformed into some monstrosity like, “to replenish the planet’s gastric capacity.” The oddity is that when the young farmer talks of other topics, not related to agriculture, his sentences are both clear and intelligible, but the moment agriculture is broached in conversation, a switch flips and he speaks in riddles.

Of course, the government is partly to blame for this. For decades, the USDA has referred to farmers as “producers” or “operators.” I think the intention is to make farming seem more modern and business-like, to leave behind the pitchfork and overalls stereotype. So highfalutin farm words are, in a sense, an innocent way to puff out one’s chest, to say “I’m important.”

But concocted words like producer and operator do more harm than good. They only exacerbate the separation and increase the distance between non-farmers and farmers. A child will never comprehend an “animal unit” if it can’t comprehend a heifer or steer. 

And not all separation is so innocent. Words are purposefully manipulated to soften and hide meaning. Thus, killing becomes depopulate; slaughterhouse becomes processing plant; pesticides become chemistries. My favorite metamorphosis is the transformation of the word lagoon from a waterbody in a tropical paradise to a manure pond at the end of a loafing shed. 

To be fair, alternative agriculture is not without offenses. Words and phrases like biodynamic, regenerative, and beyond sustainable are now bandied about with such frequency and carelessness that one never knows exactly what they mean. I am often left wondering if these words are merely hip, feel-good marketing terms. Often they’re used vaguely and all-inclusively, for anything from moon crystals to cover crops–just more words meaning everything and thus meaning nothing.

Farm talk didn’t used to be this way. Listen to any old-timer talk about farming and you’ll immediately notice a difference. You’ll notice farmers are farmers, not producers. You’ll hear nothing of “animal units” but plenty about cows, or more specifically the twenty brood cows grazing the back pasture. You’ll hear idioms that are both illustrative and clear, like “meaner than a Jersey bull” or “madder than a wet hen.” And forget feeding the world—you’ll hear about the struggle to feed the family when the boll weevil came through in 1949.  And you’ll not only hear the words, but you’ll see images and know meaning. That is how to talk farming. 

But back to the point of this post: if you’re talking about flying triangles (that look remarkably similar to Imperial Star Destroyers), you should call them UFOs, not UAPs. 

UFO, not UAP

Brace Yourself: A Wonkish Agriculture Deep Dive

An ancient wise man once said, “A calendar is a tool best used for kindling.” I don’t know many biographical details about this ancient wise man because I just made him up, but likely he was a beekeeper. Indeed, a nice glossy calendar burns well in a bee smoker, where it does much more good than it would hanging on my wall. In fact, I consult a calendar so infrequently I still have a 2020 edition hanging in my office–only six more years and the days of the week and month will match up again.

The thing about beekeeping is that the calendar doesn’t really matter. Bees use a calendar even less than I do. In the past, I’ve tried to jump the gun by doing early grafts for new queens, only to be disappointed by a cold snap that caused the bees to abandon the queen cells. And I’m sure glad I didn’t try it this year. The freeze we had before Easter weekend was devastating. It’s not even mid-April yet, and many commercial blackberry growers here have already filed complete losses on their early varieties. Several weeks of warm weather had the blackberries forming flower buds early. Then it got down to 26. Not good. 

And it’s heartbreaking for these blackberry growers. They won’t grow broke because of crop insurance, but any hope for a bumper year is dashed, replaced already by worry for next year. And though one bad year won’t break them, several in a row could. 

Which brings me to my second wise man: Charles Brannan (brace yourself–what follows could rival watching paint dry in terms of entertainment appeal). 

The Wonkish Part

Brannan was the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture under Harry Truman. I’m not sure if he said anything quotable and pithy, but he did come up with the Brannan Plan, which was basically a plan for an unabashed farmer subsidy.

Under his proposed plan, which was never approved, when prices of commodities dropped below a fair price, determined by averaging prices from the last ten years, the government would pay farmers directly to make up the difference. The government, however, wouldn’t buy the surplus causing the price drop. Instead, the government would let the free-market determine prices. Thus, if farmers flooded the market with eggs, the government wouldn’t buy eggs and let them go rotten just to keep prices up. Instead, the consumer benefited from a flooded market of eggs, with lower prices per carton at the grocery store, and farmers received a fair price. Eventually, the ten year average would drop because of the lower free market price. In the meantime, farmers weathered the down market and had time to pivot to another crop without going out of business. That was the grand idea within the Brannan Plan. The idea is the basis for modern-day crop insurance, except the subsidy is now funneled and hidden through private crop insurance companies.

In Brannan’s day, as now, the word subsidy doesn’t play well. In the age of Joseph McCarthy, Brannan’s plan was attacked as socialism. But perhaps the most controversial aspect of the plan was the limitation on that subsidy. The plan would only subsidize production on farms for what a “family unit” could produce to avoid encouraging “large, industrial farming.” The conservative Farm Bureau and Grange opposed, wanting instead a “food stamp” plan which subsidized consumers’ purchases of surplus foods. The liberal National Farmers Union supported Brannan’s plan. And, yes, conservatives and liberals have now switched sides. Liberals often rail against subsidized agriculture and promote “food stamps.” Conservatives often lobby for more farm subsidies and bemoan food stamps.

The two biggest criticisms of agricultural subsidies today are (1) subsidies are based on production and acreage, so the biggest farms receive the most subsidies, increasing their ability to buy out small farms, and (2) subsidies benefit field crops, like corn, wheat, and soybeans, more than other sectors of agriculture, like livestock and produce. Brannan foresaw both of these problems. He wanted to solve the first with the aforementioned limitation on subsidies based on what a family could produce. He wanted to solve the second by subsidizing nearly everything, based on the fair price approach. 

With the decline in small family farms, I sometimes wondered what America would look like had Bannan’s plan been approved. But it never happened. Instead, the philosophy of Earl Butz, another US Secretary of Agriculture, eventually won out. His mantra to farmers was, “Get big or get out.”

Beware of Beginning Olive Growers

One of the occupational hazards of working in a government agriculture office is the increased likelihood of encountering, if not being cornered and trapped by, a beginning olive grower. At our ag center, every agent who provides some form of government-sanctioned farming assistance–from the Farm Service Agency to Cooperative Extension, NCDA, Soil and Water District, and even the Forest Service (olives growing on trees)–has been ambushed once or twice by our local would-be olive grower, a serial ambusher whose ability to hold hostages through the spoken word is downright frightening. 

At first sight of his car pulling into the parking lot, the ag center reverberates with the sound of office doors closing and the clatter of government employees diving under desks, only to be followed by a hushed silence as the olive grower traverses the hallway in search of a victim to waylay. Sometimes a benevolent soul, usually a career public servant seeking to prank a new hire, will assist the olive grower in his search for the best employee to answer olive-growing questions. 

One morning, as a new soil conservationist, nary had I yet leaned back in my chair and kicked up my boots before the local field crop agent, who was set to retire in two weeks, guided the olive grower into my office. “Good morning, Stephen,” said the agent, “I’d like to introduce you to Tyler Wilson. He wants to start growing olives and has a few questions.”

To be honest, I was caught by surprise, completely unprepared for any discussion on olives. Had I had time to open my mouth, I would have admitted I knew little about olive culture, only enough to doubt they would grow well in our climate and soils. Thankfully, I didn’t betray my ignorance because I was quickly informed that the foothills of North Carolina was a prime olive-growing region. Tyler Wilson told me so himself. 

Tyler told me a lot. He talked non-stop for two hours about olives and was possibly the foremost expert in the olive-growing industry, despite the fact that he had yet to plant his first olive tree. Eventually, I feigned the symptoms of food poisoning and politely declined Tyler’s offer to drive me to the hospital to continue our chat. The last time I saw Tyler in the ag center, he was interrogating our janitor about the best sanitation practices to prevent disease in olive orchards. And judging by our janitor’s dazed expression, I would say Tyler’s long-winded discussions about olives should probably be outlawed by the Geneva Convention