Of Farms and Fables combines the efforts of professional and non-professional artists by engaging artists in farm work and farm workers in storytelling and acting. The result will be an original performance in October of 2011 which will engage performers and audience in dialogue about local agriculture, farming, and the future of small family farms in Maine.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Ag Trade Show: Part 1 (Jennie)

On January 12th, I drove to the 70th Maine Agricultural Trades Show in a blizzard. When I arrived at 10:30, the parking lot of the Augusta Civic Center looked like this:

And when I returned to my car at four o’clock in the afternoon, it looked like this:

And what happened in the intervening hours of relative warmth amid the fluorescent glow of stadium lights? Well, the show was sparsely attended, to say the least. This is in sharp contrast to Tuesday, which as I heard from one exhibitor was “mobbed”. Organizers were expecting roughly 5,000 attendees at this year’s show, and I’ll bet a good number of them made the trip on Tuesday. One highlight of my trip was a chat with Bib and Jodie Jordan. Bib said he thought most people were attending on Tuesday or Thursday, due to the weather. He implied that I probably should have made the same choice, and I can’t really argue. “Whatcha doin’ here?” he says. “Just crazy enough to come out in a storm?”

That day, in the quiet and the lull, leadership of convening organizations were filling in for missing presenters, “winging it” through lecture schedules missing half the key players. And yet talks were given, and productive conversations were had. I got to see some really, really shiny tractors. People nervously checked the front doors at regular intervals to see how the storm was coming, conferring about the safest plan – stay until it slows, or get out before it’s worse?

I attended one talk at the Maine Grass Farmer’s Network Annual Meeting. It was about a trial in “direct-cut silage” and was given by Rick Kersbergen of the Cooperative Extension. Apparently, “direct-cut” silage systems are not heavily used in the US, nor have they been generally recommended by the Extension in recent years. I have difficulty following the details (and there are many details), but it has to do with the water content of forage immediately after cutting, and subsequent moisture loss from seepage during storage. The wetter it is when you store it, the more likely it is to seep. Here’s what I find on the North Dakota State University website:

The high moisture level in direct-cut silages can cause an abnormal low-temperature fermentation producing conditions favorable for undesirable clostridial organism growth. This produces silage that has an unpleasant sour, butyric-acid smell which severely reduces livestock consumption.”

What most Maine dairy farmers use is a “wilted silage” system – forage is left to dry a bit in the fields and then either wrapped in round bails or chopped and pressed in a bunker (the Bensons do both). The stated concern for small operations farmers (those with a small herd of sheep, for instance) are the costs involved with wilted silage systems. The machinery involved in cutting, gathering, baling and wrapping the feed is expensive. With the machine that was the object of this trial, a farmer can cut, gather and store the feed in a single pass through the field. The machinery looks like this:

A full description of the results of the trial would be lengthy, and coming from me - inaccurate. The primary goal was to compare the nutrient content of feed produced with this direct-cut system to that produced with a traditional wilted silage system. Though not completely sold on the system, Mr. Kersbergen seemed pleasantly surprised by the results. Though the direct-cut feed from one field of alfalfa was effectively butyric to the point of poison, a sample of direct-cut ryegrass (I think?) compared favorably to its wilted counterpart. There’s more information about the trial here.

I was fascinated to hear and to partially absorb the details of feed testing and optimum fermentation conditions. However, what was most exciting for me about this presentation, and the photos from the trial, and the comments from the farmers in the room was the sense of curiosity, experimentation, and problem solving that drove the conversation. While the fairs serve this purpose in a competitive environment, the trade show gives farmers and leaders and educators and advocates a chance to sit down and share what they’ve tried, what they’ve learned, and how they’ve failed. The farmers in this room were eager to compare practices and commiserate over frustrations. Observing the easy manner in which this community laughs and marvels together gave me a chance to see that famed farmer ingenuity in action.

There have been other examples for us. Eddie and his boys fashioned a travel milking parlor from a neighbor’s old compressor so that Dolly and the other show cows can be milked right in the stall when they compete at the fairs. I learned at the trade show that it’s fairly common practice to control weeds with a propane weed burner. Pictures showed one Maine farmer’s home-built propane-holding backpack. The farmer that ran the direct-cut silage trial designed and built his own trailer to collect the feed. John and Stacy haven’t got a lot of irrigation built into their fields, so in the drought last summer they loaded water-filled tanks onto a tractor and drove to the parched cabbage beds, distributing water to thirsty plants through a garden hose. Techniques among farmers may be similar, but individual approaches will depend on the farmer and what he/she has in front of them. Watch out, industrial designers, farmers have been solving their own problems for centuries. Farmers are industrial designers. Farmers are inventors.

Some related thoughts from my brother (a designer) in a slightly different context: mhahndesign.

That’s all for now. Look for a lively discussion of farmland preservation practices in the upcoming Ag Trade Show: Part 2.