Chapter 43

Some Generalizations

At this point, let’s note some generalizations we can make concerning changes in farming and farm living from Great-Grandfather Booth’s time to the present. In his time there was only local supply of inputs to the operation, and very difficult export conditions to earn a significant amount of cash. His time was characterized by hard physical work, initiative, inheritance and the orderly family life that makes inheritance possible, and slow evolutionary development of traditional technology. Short of war, taxes and new diseases, there was little beyond the community the farmers had to worry about. The only media was newspapers, and most other information was obtained at the store or church.

The striking contrast to one looking at the picture today is the immense complexity of the present, relative to the past. Our farm is involved with several large equipment companies, a manufacturer of fertilizer, a very complex and flexible system that buys our calves and turns them into the final product to be consumed, beef. We have to deal with the gas utility that extracts gas from under our land, timber companies from time to time who take our trees, and in the recent past, coal companies, not to mention the several levels of government one must deal with. I don’t know whether Booth used credit. It has been most important to our last three generations, though, and adds another dimension to the complexity we deal with.

The fantastic importance of transportation and communication that extends all over the continent and beyond impresses me. The energy for transportation is so critical. Cutting off oil coming to us from the Middle East, South America and Africa at this point in history would make devastating changes few people can appreciate. We have a desperate need for energy that does not depend on oil. The same is true for secure supplies of other minerals, since so many exotic materials are needed in this economic process.

(Illustration 43-1)

Beckton Ranch (Wyoming) Red Angus bulls in West Virginia

We are barraged with information, not only by media but also by the internet, and advertisements by mail. We have media entertainment and news, the line between them being indistinct, as recognized by the term “edutainment.” This has an inseparable teaching component, comparable with the church connection of the past, which was less diverse in its “education.” The importance of religion has greatly decreased, and is increasingly fused to politics. People tend to react to media like information from other people, ignoring the fact that most of this information is directed by the self-interest of the individuals who control it. That is to say, folks don’t evaluate it for probability of truth, bias of the source, motivation, in the way they do with information from people, they just accept it at face value, a holy writ.

A change in farming, due to this complexity, is the increase in importance of management skills. The extended net of dependence on others far beyond the farm requires a more subtle kind of understanding. Dummies don’t last long nowadays. You can’t substitute additional labor for wrong decisions the manager makes. The two constant factors over the years are the high degree of initiative required and the necessity of continuity from one generation to another, since the necessary capital and know-how for a successful farm cannot be put together in one generation.

Aside Kentucky fescue is a grass introduced by the Government agriculture establishment that has caused a lot of problems for farmers. It works well if properly managed, but it is so aggressive that it will crowd out other grasses and make poor pasture in summer. The problem is that this fescue harbors a fungus, an endophyte (Acremonium coenophialum) , which is present in warm weather and poisons cattle with an alkaloid which causes the constriction of blood vessels in animals . If they are not too seriously poisoned, they simply don’t feel well and adults don’t keep up their weight well and young animals don’t grow well.

In early spring the endophyte is no problem, and after the first frost the grass not only is endophyte free, but apparently tastes delicious. It is quite useful in extending the grazing season. You manage it so that it is tall about the time it frosts and growth of grass almost stops. Then turn the animals in on it and they can utilize the fescue until it snows, even after. This reduces the amount of hay needed, and attendant cost and labor.

Some years ago I visited Kansas, which gets hotter and dryer in summer, and my host told me that there cattle are much more seriously affected with it, sometime loosing their hooves and the switch (long hairs at the end of their tail) to endophyte. The reason it is hard to manage is that it out competes other grasses, since cattle don’t like it in summer when it grows well.

It was propagated from a sample discovered on a Kentucky hillside barn lot several decades ago. I have seen a picture of that hillside, and it is steep and rough as anything in West Virginia. The grass was chosen by the agronomist primarily because it could survive under those conditions. It has been used a lot on reclaimed strip jobs and revegetation of excavated ground, at the recommendation of the Soil Conservation Service, now called the Natural Resource Conservation Service, as well as in mixes to reseed meadow and pastures, hence its wide distribution here. Of course it survived on that hillside, animals did not want to eat it! Of course it was great for strip jobs – animals did not want to eat it there, either.

The Government agriculture establishment has made a few rather serious mistakes like this, but by and large they have done a lot of good, especially in the early days when farming practices were so poor. Most of the SCS employees were people with farm backgrounds and sufficient intelligence to get a degree in agriculture, but insufficient inheritance to continue to farm. This is still sometimes the case, but increasingly the employees have primarily academic qualifications. These people act on information provided by others, rather than experience, just as high school teachers teach business courses or physics without doing business or physics. (A notable exception among Government employees is our County Agricultural Agent, Bruce Loyd, who both farms and does research.)

The mistakes I am complaining about have been made by people further up the hierarchy, and were due to inadequate understanding of the problems of transferring plants from one environment to another, something that is better understood today because environmental science is much further advanced than it was in previous decades .

Copyright © 1998, 2006, 2008, 2011 S. Tom Bond (stombond at