Pigs Are Smarter than People

With my paying job taking up a good bit of my available daylight hours, I haven’t been spending as much time with the pigs as I ought to. In fact, a couple of days ago, I allowed the feed trough to go empty for a solid twenty-four hours. The boys were not in a cheerful mood.

To set matters right, I took a bag of feed out to the pen. Rather than pouring a portion of that bag into the trough, though, I decided to take it easy on myself, while also trying to mend fences with the boys, and dumped the whole fifty pounds into the reach. If you know pigs, you’ll know that they weren’t shy about starting to consume that feed.

Today, two days later, I went out to the area of the pig pen to cut up some potential firewood. I greeted the boys and rubbed their ears a bit, and then I noticed that they had a good portion of their feed still sitting in the trough. It’ll last them at least until tomorrow.

That’s when I realized that pigs are smarter than people. Today, Olivia baked some cookies with white chocolate chips. They weren’t as good as Penny would have made, but they were good. I think I ate 37 of them. Honestly, after snarfing down a couple, it took incredible restraint, and the knowledge that she intended some of them for her boyfriend, to not finish all of them.

Sometimes we say that somebody “ate like a pig.” That’s really unfair to the pigs. Pigs have the sense to stop eating when they’ve eaten enough. People often fail to do that. A local eatery has a challenge: eat their five-pound burger and a five-pound order of fries, and it’s free. At least two people have tried and failed to meet this challenge. They didn’t eat like pigs. The pigs would have more sense.

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The Jefferson Experience: Day 4

We visited Monticello today after traveling from D.C. on a vehicle that we affectionately tagged “the Disco Bus.” What could be better than getting off of a dreadful bus ride to be treated to a free lunch and then touring the house immortalized on the back of the nickel?

Jefferson’s house and its surrounding estate is magnificent, even today, 200 years after it rose atop that mountain. Not only are the individual rooms in the house intriguing and well designed, Jefferson filled them with all manner of clever gadgets and processes. Plus, the place is gorgeous. Look at the photo at the top and tell me this isn’t a beautiful home. And the grounds surrounding the house, perfectly laid out, planted, and manicured, will take a person’s breath away. Sure, Mr. Jefferson lived out in the boonies, but they were beautiful boonies, the sort of place that anybody would want to visit even if a fascinating man did not reside in the house.

But the question I have at the end of the day is, “What was the price of Jefferson’s beautiful house?” I don’t mean how much did he spend to do all of the fancy things he did. That in itself is a worthy question as Jefferson struggled with debt throughout his life. I’m thinking instead of the moral cost.

If the cost of Monticello was the enslavement of human beings, then it was no more worthwhile than was the cost of Versailles, built on the backs of suffering Frenchmen, or the cost of the most opulent British houses, built on the foundation of empire. At Monticello, Jefferson fathered children with a slave girl who had no ability to say “no,” no opportunity to object, “not tonight, I have a headache.” He separated families, beat (although rarely) troublesome slaves, and sold human beings without regard to their desires. As slaveowners go, Thomas Jefferson was probably one of the more decent, but that’s rather like calling someone compassionate as genocidal maniacs go.

The high cost of amazing things is something that hit me flying into Las Vegas by night a few years back. Vegas is a glittering, impressive place. It’s cool to see the huge hotels with their fountains and flames. But the cost is too high. In fact, for most amazing and impressive cities, there’s a hidden cost that had to be paid. It’s true in Chicago’s Grant Park, Times Square, the National Mall, and along Market Street in San Francisco.

In fact, in every home, on every farm, there’s a price paid in land cleared, soil eroded, and so on. I don’t have an equation to determine when that price is excessive, but I feel confident that in the extensive use of slaves at Monticello, the price of glory was too high.

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The Jefferson Experience: Day Three (a day late)

For the past three days–and for some weeks through reading–I’ve been encountering all the things that Thomas Jefferson did. He wrote the bulk of the Declaration of Independence, he served as President for eight years, he founded the University of Virginia, and, not least of all, he brought both ice cream and pasta to the United States. There’s no doubt that Mr. Jefferson was an accomplished fellow, but I have a bit of problem with some of the other statements about his accomplishments.

Jefferson built his home at Monticello. To accomplish this feat, he first leveled an area, two hundred and fifty feet square atop the mountain. He dug a well that sometimes provided water for the mountain. He dug several cisterns to capture and store rain water around the property. He grew some 250 varieties of vegetables in the garden. When did he find time to study architecture and sit for portraits?

Of course Jefferson only built Monticello in the sense that he told others to do so. He contracted with a neighboring farmer to level the site. His slaves dug the wells and the cisterns. While I’m sure Jefferson got his hands dirty in the garden, the vast bulk of the vegetable cultivation happened because of the sweat of the slaves of Mulberry Row.

The typical farmer, even employing occasional outside labor, cannot do the amazing and far-ranging work that Thomas Jefferson pursued. The typical farmer cannot dump his labor off onto others. Even those who farm vast tracts of land with the help of hulking tractors, combines, sprayers, and other equipment have outsourced much of the labor of their farm to others.

I’ll remember this when I drive into my home on Saturday. When I see the areas along the driveway where I’d like to thin out the woods or smooth the ground, I’ll remember that there’s a limit to what one family can accomplish. I may not be a Thomas Jefferson, but Jefferson was not really a farmer.

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The Jefferson Experience: Day 2 (a day late)

I spent more time in the last two days in the Library of Congress without having a book in my hand than I ever hope to do again. Am I seeking to gain your sympathy? I don’t know. Some of the books that have been in the Library of Congress, I will never hold in my hand. Why? Is it because my disreputable background makes me an unacceptable security risk to the high priests of the bibliographic temple? That’s not it. Instead, it’s because of a number of fires.

In 1814, the British army decided to set fire to the U.S. Capitol when they dropped by for a visit. The resulting blaze knocked out the entire collection of law books (and three maps) that Jefferson, John Adams, and others had selected for the initial library. Then Jefferson sold his library of some 6,700 books to the United States to give the place a new start.

Did they learn from the past? Apparently not. In 1851, a fire in the Capitol, then the home of the Library of Congress, put a huge dent in the stacks, including a third of Jefferson’s core collection.

Despite strong security measures and vigorous things still decay and disappear from the library. Most famously, four irreplaceable notebooks by Walt Whitman walked out of the library in the 1940s, returning in 1995. I considered trying to slip the Gutenberg Bible under my shirt, but decided not to be selfish.

The point of all this is quite simple. In Washington, D.C., the government attempts to make the nation, exemplified in its monumental city, appear magnificent and utterly permanent. In reality, of course, things fall apart. Today, as I walked around Washington, I saw construction going on in several places that have been around a lot briefer time than the nation. Apparently, the sea wall at the Jefferson Memorial, built in 1939, was crumbling into the Tidal Basin. The 1922 Lincoln Memorial reflecting pool had a serious leak and other problems. This suggests that, left to nature’s forces, Washington would look more like Imperial Rome in the space a couple of centuries. The library, without strong efforts to conserve, would crumble.

And still things fall apart. The city falls apart, but the land endures. The collections of man deteriorate, but life marches on. Washington appears quite impressive–and it is–but we the rural should not forget just where that strength flows from.


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The Jefferson Experience: Day 1

A few months back, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Community College Humanities Association, decided that sending me to a week-long seminar on Thomas Jefferson would be a great way to spend your tax dollars and mine. With that in mind, and feeling a trifle guilty over (a) leaving my lovely wife at home to tend all the chores and (b) contributing to the impending default of the U.S. government, I’ve resolved to provide several posts as I spend my time in the bowels of bureaucracy.

Today, I cannot report on the goings-on of the seminar. I flew into Reagan National Airport this morning at 9:30 and registration for the week doesn’t begin until–well–twenty minutes ago. Since check-in time at the hotel didn’t roll around until 3:00, I had a nice six hour block to stroll about D.C. and take in the sites.

I could tell you about the wonders of the four Smithsonian museums that I visited, but since none of those had anything to do with the matters on top of Shamayim Hill, I’ll resist that temptation. Instead, I’d like to ponder a bit on a building I passed by between museums. The offices of the Environmental Protection Agency, just north of the American History museum, occupy a full-block of multi-story, neo-classical stone. As I looked at this place, it occurred to me that the EPA hasn’t been around long enough to be have built a building in this style. Instead, in the true spirit of environmentalism, this agency has recycled a building. The previous tenants? The United States Postal Service.

As I discovered this bit of trivia, I started to consider the enormity of the US Postal Service. These are the people who deliver letters and packages to virtually every address in the United States. They maintain thousands of local offices, all sorts of trucks and airplanes, and employ a small army. It’s not surprising that this enormous outfit should need a big office complex from which to deploy their troops. But the EPA? Do they really need this terrific spread of real estate?

Couldn’t the same be said for the sprawling offices of the Department of Agriculture? What sort of a world would we inhabit if the energies of the EPA were deployed more in the environment? Or if the powers of the Department of Agriculture made their impact upon the land? That’s my crazy notion, but I’ve been up since 3:30 am. Maybe it’s just sleep deprivation.


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You Ungrateful Pigs!

As the kids were sweeping up the leavings of last night’s fireworks barrage this morning, they noticed something, a not unremarkable thing for teenagers. Olivia brought this chunk of information to my attention: “Dad, did you know one of the pigs is in with the chickens?”

Our current pigs live in a high-security compound that has pretty effectively protected our lawn this summer. The first layer of enclosure consists of a half dozen hog panels, wired together and supported by t-posts. That worked reasonably well last year, but when the previous inhabitants of the pen began conspiring, they managed to escape and root up the lawn, so we relocated the pen into the electric fence with which we surround our chickens. To date, when the boys have busted out of their pen, they’ve stayed inside the electric wires, testing it several times that I’ve seen.

Why would these pigs not want to remain within their capacious and shady pen? It seems that they expect to both eat and drink every day. How unreasonable is that? Today, I poured five gallons of water into their trough and watched one of the inmates, after drinking his fill, take considerable pains to spill the remainder. After several gallons sloshed onto the ground, like the pig he is, he wallowed in the resulting mud. So not only do they expect to be fed and watered, they want to be cooled!

I guess, since my intention is to make bacon and chops out of these guys in a few more months, it’s not unreasonable to attend to their needs–and even their wants. They don’t ask a great deal. They want to drink water. They want some wet ground to wallow in. They want food, which I want them to want so they can put on weight.

A pig farmer might cram the absolute maximum number of animals into an uncomfortable space, feeding his hogs medicated and hormone-drenched food to unnaturally inflate growth. Or, a small-scale farmer might just get lazy about keeping food and water in front of the animals. Since they quickly grow tasty meat and, if allowed to do so, reproduce quickly and prolifically, I can think of no excuse for either behavior.

Whether you’re the greedy big-time hog guy or the lazy small-timer, I have to wonder who is really the ungrateful pig.


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Farm-based Entertainment

Saturday night witnessed a decidedly non-agricultural happening at Shamayim Hill. My son scheduled a “barn show,” inviting several bands, including his new one, and a gaggle of Facebook friends to journey up our driveway and mosh into the night. As Jude, Tom’s group, sang their first song, I went up to the barn’s loft and counted heads. I got up to 72. With late arrivals and some who hadn’t come inside at that moment, I know we got over 80. There were cars parked everywhere. Dreadlocked kids stepped over the electric fence to check out our chickens.

All in all, the night was a success. Tom had more money at the end than he started with. The band got a chance to show their chops before an audience. His old band slept well into Sunday morning on our trampoline, hopefully leaving before the rain started. For the most part, the kids left the joint reasonably tidy. And I got a decent night’s sleep.

When my son leaves home–and he will almost certainly not pursue a semi-ag life like his father–I hope he’ll look back fondly onto this experience. I know I will.

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Wasp Season Is Here

I’m not sure what the Missouri Department of Conservation says, but in my book, it’s wasp season 365 days a year. A couple of years back, after contending with the runaway population from the previous summer, I determined to hit these flying marauders early and often. You see, if you study the life cycle of the wasp, you learn that a kill in April will eliminate dozens of the beasts in August. To commemorate my heroic efforts, I created this scorecard. To keep myself honest, I refused to count any wasp that did not fall in my sight. Therefore, I probably had other kills who, sprayed, flew off to die in the woods. Although I did not keep a separate tally of them, the half dozen or so that I killed by actually hitting them made me feel extra tough.

I will confess that while no wasps stung me in 2009, I did get hit by a yellow jacket who had taken up residence on a bale of spoiled hay. Still 60-0 or 60-1 would both be good scores. You can see victim #60 preserved beneath packing tape just above the word “Wasps.” Honestly, he wasn’t much sport, having been stupefied by cool autumn weather. Still, a dead wasp is a dead wasp. Last year, the population was much more reasonable. So far this year, the ladies (they are all female at this time of year) have been few again.

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Shamayim Hill Immortalized

With my daughter as Director of Communication at a large church, it was only a matter of time before our animals made their large-screen debut. On Easter Sunday, the video announcements at First Baptist Raytown featured our three dogs, two pigs, one goat, and 70-some pullet chicks.


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Useless Farms–Online and Afield

A story on NPR this morning got me thinking–always a dangerous thing. The segment covered the phenomenon of online content farms. These are the sites like eHow that provide marginally useful information packed with oodles of ads. For example, if you search for “how to tune up a car” on Google, you’ll get a result from eHow very near the top of your results list. That page has a 12-point set of instructions for tuning up a car. That sounds great, right? It’s great until you start paying attention to the points. Let’s look at item six:

Adjust the valves as needed (unless your car has hydraulic valves). Be sure to replace the valve-cover gasket as well, especially if you see oil on top of your engine.

Do you notice anything missing here? How about where the valves are, how to adjust them, how to tell if you have hydraulic valves, or how to know if adjustment is needed? In short, this “instructive” piece of text will only be comprehensible to people who already know their way around under a car’s hood and thus don’t need the instructions. Of course the ads on the page are not quite as amateurish. The NPR spot describes the situation well:

“Content farms pay people almost no money to turn out very mediocre content that can serve up very cheap ads. It’s pure Google arbitrage,” he says. “Google arbitrage” is an amazing way to think about this industry. Like speculators who make a killing exploiting simple supply-and-demand markets, some companies try to game Google’s algorithm.

So what is this entry doing on an ostensibly agrarian blog? It was that term “content farm” that caught my attention. The “farmers” at eHow produce a largely useless product, a product that does not effectively nourish its consumers. They pay their field hands a pitiful amount. And they operate under a business model that will only work through the availability of someone else’s assets: namely, Google.

How different is this from the giant agriculture corporations who produce a less-than-stellar product, paying a tiny margin to the actual workers, and depending on external benefits–government subsidies, an extensive transportation system, etc.–for viability.

The online content farm is not simply a nonentity to be ignored. Their presence clutters up the landscape and makes actual productive websites less visible and less profitable. The same could be said for the mega chicken operations or sprawling cornfields of contemporary agriculture.

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