How portable farms can help buck Big Food paranoia

The following is an excerpt from “The Marvelous Pigness of Pigs.”


All businesses, including farm businesses, can only be as successful as their personal relationships. You can’t have a thriving farm when members of the team don’t communicate.

It’s hard to pull together when you’re pulling apart. Agreeing on a common mission statement is more important than anything — even ecology. Even an ecology-minded farm can only be successful if its team members feel comfortable in their roles. That includes knowing what each other’s dreams are and working together to realize them.

The beauty of ecological farming is that it creates a safer environment for everyone to spend more time together. On our farm, we don’t have to worry about the children finding the pesticide room and splashing around in a deadly liquid. They can splash around in some fish emulsion or guzzle some liquid seaweed without killing themselves.


pigs, agriculture and ecological farming

How many industrial farmers can’t wait to take their toddlers up to the confinement poultry house with them to check the 15,000 birds crammed beak‑to‑toe in a fecal pall?

Just like industrial farming compartmentalizes food production, it segments the farm team and makes myopic specialists rather than eclectic participants. With softer, quieter tools and infrastructure come more opportunities to talk while working. And to let the children be intimately involved without fear that they will be gobbled up by noise, dust or machinery.

I’ve never seen a child drown in a compost pile. But I’ve seen whole families knocked out in manure lagoons. The increased disease consequences from exposure to common farm chemicals is documented beyond question. I’ve never seen someone get cancer from moving chickens through a garden to debug it.

Relationship nurturing requires fellowship, and fellowship rarely happens when the working environment is noisy, stinky, dusty or dangerous. Working with nature rather than against it turns our farm environment into one that better stimulates healthy relationships.

That’s forgiving.

Emotional forgiveness

Ever notice how paranoid industrial farmers are? If you attend any conventional farm conference, nearly all the lectures and all the impromptu hallway discussions center around “things that are coming to get us.”

Diseases. Low prices. High costs. Imports. Bankers. Lawyers. Organic farmers. Liberals. Environmentalists. Animal welfare groups. Industrial farmers are fixated on bad things.

From soybean rust to avian influenza, their whole lexicon concentrates on things to fear. They walk around every waking minute emotionally drained. Rather than having a focused attention on success, they look around timidly, furtively, to see what goblin from “out there” may be lurking to doom their farm. Constantly complaining and never praising, they drive away their family and, finally, their joy.

A factory farmer who escapes the pathogen goblins one more day breathes a sigh of relief that he may live to stand another day. But he won’t be victorious. He will only be not defeated … maybe.

An ecological farmer once told me that he quit industrial farming when he realized that his first waking thought every morning was: I wonder what’s dead up there in the hog house today?

He couldn’t hear the birds chirping. He couldn’t enjoy the sunrise, or the rainbow after a thunderstorm. And his kids wanted nothing to do with the farm.

But after this epiphany, he closed down the pig concentration camp and devoted himself to pasture-based farming. Suddenly his children wanted to be involved. His thoughts turned lofty. He developed a can‑do spirit. And his emotional zest returned.

The sheer mystery and majesty of heritage wisdom, contained in each cell, each mitochondria, instills in the farmer who respects and honors the pigness of the pig a daily emotional high. The satisfaction of being nature’s nurturer always trumps the short-lived adrenaline high of being nature’s conqueror. Such an attitude offers spiritual ascendance over physical domination, which never really happens anyway.

And that’s why the industrial farmer, for all the smoke and noise and horsepower, never feels in control, but always dreads being drowned by the nature he thinks he’s controlling.

Ah, what emotional forgiveness awaits those who marvel at the food web’s intricacies and the compost pile’s miracles? Every day is a day of discoveries, satisfaction, and fulfillment as the Creator’s design endorses our efforts, gently nudging us with a “Well done, thou good and faithful servant” (Matthew 25:21).

Infrastructure forgiveness

Capital-intensive, single-use infrastructure is extremely hard to retrofit when it no longer is financially or emotionally profitable. Multiple-use machines and buildings can be adapted to the next production permutation without jeopardizing the farm’s viability.

As pasture-based livestock systems become more widely used, large confinement dairies and large feedlots will be the last to join the new paradigm. The sheer emotional and financial investment in these structures requires 24/7 throughput, even when farmers see a better way.

That is why anything you build or buy today should be multiple-use, adaptable and as simple as possible, including the ability to be modified.

That’s one reason I like pole buildings. They have fairly open spans and can be outfitted easily for different kinds of animals and uses. The more concrete you pour, the less likely you are to abandon the structure if and when that production model becomes obsolete.

When infrastructure drives our decisions, it’s not very forgiving. This is the problem with huge ethanol plants and factory farms. While nothing is wrong with bio-fuels or raising animals, the problem is that the scale of these facilities enslaves us emotionally and economically.

In fact, we’ll destroy the environment surrounding them rather than abandon them because we invested too much time and money in them to abandon them. These massive single-use facilities dominate the land-use decision making radiating out many miles. That is not forgiving.

I know a fellow who started a pastured poultry enterprise on a nearby rented piece of land. Everything went along great for two years and then the landlord decided to sell the property. No problem. The farmer found another piece of land to rent just up the road, loaded his portable shelters on a lowboy trailer and hauled them over to the new place.

Welcome to the portable farm.

How many farmers can do that with the factory chicken houses? A compost pile is far more forgiving than a manure lagoon. A handful of electric fence and a Rubbermaid water trough with cows on pasture are far more forgiving than a $200,000 combine and all the equipment that goes before it and the feedlot after it.

The farmer simply cannot afford to owe his soul to some monolithic piece of infrastructure if he is to be free to adapt to tomorrow’s new context. Forgiving infrastructure offers adaptability and freedom.

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