Archive for the ‘systems’ Tag

The Reductionist Trap   19 comments

An entry in How To Be Poor

One of the primary troubles with living well in a time of peak oil and deindustrialization is the tendency in our society to think in reductionist patterns rather than within the context of whole systems. Reductionist patterns of thinking have often—though certainly not always—served well within the context of industrialization and, as such, they’ve become one of the more dominant tendencies of our time. When faced with problems or predicaments, we often devolve into arguing over the details in an attempt to build a perfect response to the problem at hand. Seeing a list of troubled variables, we focus on them one by one (or simply focus on one of them at the expense of all the others) and attempt to mold said variable more to our liking. But in doing this, we too often ignore the effects such moldings will have on the other variables affected within the system and it’s there that we run into trouble.

As a prime example, let’s consider the question of how to eat well in a world with diminishing energy and resources, fraught with economic contraction and ecological destruction. Some years ago, I took a college class in sustainability and, to this day, I remember particularly some of the discussion around what sort of diet we may be able to provide the population in a world seriously lacking in fossil fuels and more focused on sustainability. The problem was defined largely as thus: we will need to feed somewhere between seven and nine billion people without destroying the environment and with reduced energy availability, so how shall we do that? The solution, as it turns out, was a textbook response in reductionist thinking.

The solution proffered, in vague and general terms, was that the world’s population would have to shift to eating mostly a plant-based diet. Prime farmland would be used for growing staple grains for human consumption, rather than animal consumption, and the eating of animal protein would drop dramatically. It would not be eliminated, though. Certain range lands that would prove inadequate for growing staple crops or fresh vegetables—due to poor soil and a lack of water—could be used as grazing lands for cattle. That would be the main source of meat for the world’s hungry mouths, and it would come more in the form of ground beef than steaks, because the range lands wouldn’t provide for nice, juicy cuts. (Yes, I specifically remember that point being made, which even at the time seemed strange to me.)

You can clearly see the reductionist thinking behind this solution. It boils down to a few variables: the number of mouths to feed, the amount of land available for farming, and how we might maximize that land to provide a certain number of calories per mouth. That was the entirety of the approach to the question of how to feed the world. It took an entire planet, reduced the uncountable number of ecosystems down to one large number accounting for the world’s arable acreage, and started making calorie calculations of staple grains, perhaps of mixed-crop rotations. You can see this sort of reductionist pattern in other approaches to sustainability issues. There’s no shortage of people concerned about fossil fuel energy who will comment on the amount of solar energy that falls on this planet in any given day, the conversion efficiency of the latest solar panel technology, and from there whip up a quick calculation to note how many acres of the world’s land we simple need to cover in solar panels to start generating all our electrical needs from the sun. If you really want to get fancy, you can throw in climate variables, ideal sitings of the aforementioned solar panels, and so on.

This is reductionism run amok and it’s a particularly unhelpful way to grapple with our future. The simple reality is that being a reductionist in the deindustrializing future is not going to pay the same sorts of dividends as it has in the industrialized past. Going forward, we’re going to be losing our access to the sort of energy and resource reserves that have allowed us to consistently approach our problems with reductionist methods, and that reality is going to leave us more at the mercy of whole systems than we have been. Or, more specifically, we’ll continue to be at the mercy of whole systems, as we always have been, but our ability to create problems one variable at a time is going to go away.

That last sentence might be a bit obtuse, so let me better explain. In Wendell Berry’s fantastic essay, “Solving for Pattern,” [pdf] he notes that attempts to solve problems on a variable by variable basis tend to cause “a ramifying series of new problems, the only limiting criterion being, apparently, that the new problems should arise beyond the purview of the expertise that produced the solution—as, in agriculture, industrial solutions to the problem of production have invariably caused problems of maintenance, conservation, economics, community health, etc., etc.” (p. 135 in The Gift of Good Land.) For instance, in attempts to create better economies of scale for raising livestock, an industrial solution has been to take cattle off pasture and put them in feed lots. Setting aside the question of whether or not this was a “problem” that needed solving (that set aside answer, by the way, is “no”) this caused a number of new problems. Placed in a confined environment, fed a diet unnaturally heavy on grain, and left too often to mill about in massive amounts of their own manure, the cattle begin to experience poor health. With a reductionist focus on the problem of poor health, divorced from considerations of changing the root cause of it, the reductionist solution was to provide steady doses of antibiotics to the cattle. This creates a host of new problems—increased costs for the farmer, the eventual evolution of antibiotic-resistant microbes, and so on—which are then either ignored or dealt with in the same reductionist manner, which then creates still new problems. And, of course, that’s just one path of problems. There’s a number of other paths meandering off from the decision to confine cattle, from the problem of waste disposal, the need for imported feed, the heavy environmental costs of ignoring the land’s carrying capacity, the overproduction of meat, the declining health value of the resultant meat, the abuse of animals, the centralization of agricultural production, the resulting economic impacts, and yet more. It spirals out everywhere—confined animal feeding operations lead to industrial-scale slaughterhouses that horrifically abuse both animals and humans, an industrial form of grain production arises to feed the CAFOs, which abuses and degrades the land, which in turn abuses and degrades farmers, which in turn abuses and degrades rural communities and economies, which in turn abuses and degrades urban communities and economies. In our blind focus on variables, we tend to degrade and oftentimes destroy the entire system.

Yet, as Berry argues in his essay, there are more elegant ways of solving our problems, and those tend to be rooted in whole systems thinking. He notes that such solutions that take into account the health of a system, rather than focusing exclusively on independent variables, cause “a ramifying series of solutions—as when meat animals are fed on the farm where the feed is raised, and where the feed is raised to be fed to the animals that are on the farm” (p. 137.) In solving for pattern—engaging in whole systems thinking, in other words—one often can discover solutions that nestle within one another, increasing the strength of the entire system and restoring much of its health. If there is a problem of poor health with animals in a CAFO, then perhaps eliminating the CAFO and returning the animals to pasture is a holistic response to the problem rather than in attempting to control the illness without confronting the source of the illness. In returning the animals to pasture, we will necessarily have to reduce the number of animals to the point that the land’s carrying capacity is not exceeded. In scaling back the number of animals being raised for meat, we help to reduce the problem of over-consumption of meat and offer opportunities for more balanced ways of eating. In doing so, we are reducing the impact on the environment and the ecological destruction that so easily arises from CAFOs. Further, we decentralize our agricultural system, providing the opportunity for more people to make a living farming, which then provides for the reemergence of healthy rural economies and communities, which then benefits the health of urban economies and communities.

This is not the end of the story, though, and neither are those final few sentences a resolution to the issue of eating sustainably. Let’s go back to the reductionist solutions proffered to the question of how to feed the world’s population. It seems to make sense that if the world’s population subsisted on a diet lower on the food chain, then less energy will be required to feed the world. And indeed, you can consistently find arguments in support of vegetarianism as an appropriate response to ecological destruction and unsustainable ways of living. We are reminded again and again that eating animals is eating higher on the food chain and that, therefore, every calorie taken in is necessarily the result of a greater number of calories of energy expended than if we had taken in a calorie of plant food.

I obviously don’t dispute the simple fact that one calorie of animal protein is the result of multiple calories of plant protein. It follows that to eat the calorie of plant protein requires less calories taken out of the system as a whole. That’s logical enough, and just because it’s rooted in a certain reductionism doesn’t make it untrue. (Reductionism does have its uses, after all.) However, how one plant or one animal calorie gets to my mouth is dependent on a wide variety of variables, so each calorie is not made the same. The whole system of food arriving in my stomach contains a number of variables beyond simply what segment of the food chain it came from.

In this sense, the question of diet has to be considered in a whole systems context, rather than a reductionist context. I already argued this point to a degree in an earlier post in this series, There are No Vegetarians in a Famine, but if we’re going to grapple honestly with the question of what’s the most sustainable and coherent way to eat, it’s going to involve a lot of consideration of personal context, local landscape, and the local ecology. How does killing and eating a local wild animals compare to eating locally raised beef that lived on pasture? How do those options compare to beef from the industrial agriculture system? And how does all that compare to eating organic staple grains from a monoculture operation in California or Canada or the Midwest? What about conventional staple grains? Or how about an array of locally grown, organic vegetables? An intensive organic vegetable operation, a permaculture homestead, a mixed-crop and animal rotational system? The question of which of these foods or methods of production are most sustainable are rooted in locality and each individual person, as is the question of the health and satisfaction of a particular diet.

The trouble with using reductionist thinking to come up with a solution of staple grains and range land beef is that it presupposes a number of other variables that may or may not be viable in a deindustrializing future. The number of calories of energy it takes to produce a calorie of beef is usually calculated based on industrial agriculture rooted in the feed lot system. How does that compare to small, local farms utilizing a rotational grazing system and not feeding their cattle grain? The number of calories necessary to produce a calorie of soy or corn or oat or wheat is dependent on the way those plants were grown, what seed was used, what pesticides and fertilizers were or were not used, where it was grown, where it’s being consumed, and perhaps even on whether or not a person feels more satiated on an equivalent number of calories of grain versus meat or any other type of food (assuming the person in question has options, which is not an assumption that can be blithely made in a deindustrializing future.) Most of these examinations of the most sustainable ways to eat are rooted in assumptions of industrial agriculture, as well as in assumptions that we can just pick and choose our diet without concern for our local realities. All of those are also assumptions that cannot be blithely made in a deindustrializing future. We don’t know if the future will allow us centralized forms of agriculture that can create a somewhat consistent diet for the world at large. I would argue that it won’t. A sustainable diet in the future may boil down to what’s produced locally, and that will vary widely if local production is rooted in natural systems, on-site recycling of nutrients and no or little more energy than is provided by the sun that falls on the land. In such a system, you’re a lot more likely to find systems of food production that utilize a mix of locally-appropriate annual and perennial crops along with various types of livestock. That’s one of our better approximations of a natural ecosystem, and the natural ecosystem is the model that we’re going to have to use if excess energy becomes scarce.

This brings me to a question I’ve been considering of late, which is how I might eat locally and sustainably, with the least amount of money. It’s a question rooted in my attempts at voluntary poverty, my concern for the health of our world, and my desire for a graceful and sustainable future. The best solution I can come up with is not one that’s overly concerned about the food chain, but one that’s overly concerned with my particular context. It seems to me that the best way I could eat would be a diet that focused primarily on locally-grown, organic vegetables, berries and fruit, both from my own garden and from local, small-scale farms; pasture-raised meat from the two small farms I currently work as a farm hand for; my local source of raw milk, which I can also make butter, yogurt, and cheese from; chicken and duck eggs from local sources; some organic staple grains from the local grocery, including wheat from which I can bake my own bread; and some trade at the farmers market for other items, such as honey, fruit, cheese, and perhaps some baked goods. My diet already is partially made up of these particulars, but I have yet to embrace it completely.

The benefits of this diet are multiple. For starters, it’s enjoyable and healthy. It’s a diet I would and do take pleasure in. It strikes me as sustainable in the sense that it is focused mostly on food grown and raised within a radius of 15 miles of where I live, and it’s food raised well, food the production of which I know intimately. It’s whole food, and thus it eliminates much of the cost in energy, resources and money of processing, and greatly reduces packaging. It’s also resilient in that most of it is not as reliant on long supply chains as the food in the grocery store is (though there is still reliance—all the local farms I know of use at least some inputs, though nothing like what industrial agriculture uses.) It strengthens the community by supporting local farms and farmers and it even strengthens my own work, as two of those local farms employ me. Relatedly, I can reduce my need for cash by gaining a good amount of that food via work-trade or other forms of trade. Furthermore, this diet solidifies relationships, care, and good work. It is inherently of my context, completely unique to me. I think that’s important.

I’m not saying this is the perfect diet. And there may be a diet available to me that overall uses less energy and is a bit kinder to the environment, in certain ways. But this strikes me as a uniquely good diet for me, rooted in the consideration of the entire system in which I live and from which I gain my sustenance. Furthermore, this strikes me as a particularly resilient diet in the face of an uncertain future, and that’s of the utmost importance. Perhaps just as importantly, this is a diet that works with and largely accepts my local limitations, rather than resorting to the blunt attempts at control that so often underlie reductionist thinking.

In fact, the resilience of this diet, the idea of resiliency in general, the folly of strained attempts at control in a deindustrializing future, and the necessities for engagement with community are all important considerations of both reductionism and whole systems thinking—as well as voluntary poverty and any response to a post-peak oil world—and those are the topics about which I’ll be writing in the next entry in How To Be Poor.

Why I’ll Pay $10 for a Gallon of Milk   31 comments

When I lived in Portland, I paid $10 for a gallon of milk.

This wasn’t store bought milk, of course, but raw milk. It came from a farm south of the city—a piece of land leased by two wonderful women, Karyn and Carissa, who kept a couple milking cows and a small flock of chickens. These two women deeply cared for their animals and treated them—as well as their customers—as part of their family. Initially, their milk came from a Jersey named Opal; later on, Kaycee, a Fleckvieh, joined the family. They both produced amazing milk, but I started with Opal and she always remained my favorite. Often I would find myself faced with a shelf full of half gallon Mason jars, each one labeled with a name—Opal or Kaycee—and the date of milking. Given the choice, I always snagged Opal jars. The richness of the milk was one of the reasons, as the milk’s fat content had been measured at close to six percent in one test. But affection played a role, too.

The first time I met Opal, I fell a bit in love. She was small—for a cow, anyway—and brown, had those long Jersey eyelashes, was calm and clean and on grass, looking the picture-perfect cow. I came near her and put my hand against her hide, spoke to her. Karyn and Carissa raved about how easy she was to milk, about her gentle demeanor. I could sense that gentle spirit when I met her and something about that moment—about putting my hand on her, seeing her eyes, knowing that this was the creature who provided me good food and nourishment—struck a deep chord.

Looking back, I think part of that was a small awakening of the agrarian in me. At that time, I had never farmed and had only started to learn more about food, to better understand what it could and could not be, to better understand the care that could be taken in growing and raising it or the destruction that could be wrought in the same process. It also was a moment of connection unfamiliar to me. Much of my life, I didn’t know where my food came from, though throughout much of my childhood we did have a large garden that I worked in. Still, I ate so much from the store and so much fast food and processed food. I grew up mostly in the suburbs and had never known farming, or ever been much interested in it. For a good portion of my life, food had been little more than a requirement and I had literally said numerous times that if I didn’t have to eat, I happily wouldn’t.

Now, I farm. I’ve worked on three vegetable farms and currently work for two farms that raise pastured animals for meat, one of which has a dairy component, as well. The presence of cows is routine for me these days. I’m much more familiar with the sight of them, their smell and feel, their sound and behavior. But I still love to see a Jersey and almost every time I do, I think of Opal and I think of her milk.

— ∞ —

As I already noted, Opal’s milk had a high fat content, at nearly twice the fat of whole milk bought at the store. Her milk was sometimes so rich and creamy and sweet from the good grass she ate, it felt and tasted almost like drinking ice cream. It may seem silly to wax poetic over milk—it’s just milk, after all, such a standard food. Except that’s the point. There was nothing standard about Opal’s milk in comparison to what you would buy at the store. The store milk couldn’t compare. It couldn’t begin to. The sweetness of Opal’s milk, the freshness, the lack of that subtle burnt flavor often imparted by pasteurization (which one generally needs to drink raw milk to begin to detect in pasteurized milk) the creaminess of it, the health and vitality—it was all there.

It had flavor, and that flavor changed over the course of the year. The changing grass—Opal’s fluctuating diet—effected the taste of the milk. It evolved, as well, as it sat in the fridge. Each day it grew a bit different in its taste as it would slowly work its way to the point of souring, which is a natural process in raw milk rather than the putrification that happens with pasteurized milk. Sour raw milk isn’t rotten; it’s changed. It’s going through the same sort of process that creates yogurt, though the result isn’t the same. But it still can be used once it sours and remains a healthy and living food.

As I became more familiar with raw milk, I began to understand how it offered a different experience than store bought milk. Raw milk was a real, non-standardized food that functioned within the same sort of systems and patterns that other living food does. It changed depending on its circumstances—the flavor and fat content altered by Opal’s diet and it’s taste and composition changing as the milk aged and the bacterial ecosystem within it grew and evolved (with that bacteria generally being of the beneficial kind, along the same lines as the critical microfauna found in the human digestive system.) Leave the milk alone for a few hours and the cream begins to rise to the top. Shake it and you’re back to having it dispersed within the milk.

This milk hadn’t been homogenized or standardized. It hadn’t had the flavor burnt out of it or its unique bacteria profile killed via pasteurization. It didn’t have an exact expiration date. In many ways, it didn’t have any expiration date, as its evolving stages lent itself to changing uses. It wasn’t a conglomeration of hundreds or thousands of different cows’ milk and it wasn’t untraceable or virtually untraceable by dint of it being the end result of a vast, complicated and confusing industrial dairy system. It was Opal’s milk. It came from a cow I had met and spoken to and touched, it had been milked by the hands of two women whom I knew and am friends with, it was the result of eaten grass from a pasture I had stood in. I knew exactly where it came from and how it had come to me.

— ∞ —

Getting Opal’s milk took a community. In fact, learning about Opal’s milk took a community.

I first learned of the availability of Opal’s milk via a homesteading group I participated in. Started by my friend Eric and his girlfriend, the group met once a month and covered a predetermined topic, taught by a few members from the group who already had knowledge of that activity or had been tasked with researching it and then presenting information to the group. I loved the group and learned quite a bit from it. As it happened, some of the members were interested in getting raw milk and Eric, via his work on an urban farm, had learned of Karyn and Carissa and the milk they had available.

Getting Opal’s milk was far different from going to the store. According to Oregon state law, you can only sell raw cow milk on the farm. There also is a restriction of only having two producing cows on the premises and advertising raw milk is illegal, so the only way for people to find out about it is via customer word of mouth. Due to these restrictions and because the farm was about a 35 mile drive from us, we needed to get together a group of people who could take turns driving to the farm each week to make the arrangement viable. We eventually cobbled together enough people so that, with each of us taking a turn, nobody would have to make the drive down to the farm more often than every eight or ten weeks.

All of this required communication and organization. We had an email list and a schedule worked out a couple months in advance. Everyone would sign up for a week and knew that on their day they would have to load up their car with coolers and ice packs, drive down to the farm, pick up the milk, bring it back, and store it in a central location in Portland where everyone would come to get their milk for the week. For the most part, everyone performed well. Every once in awhile some snafu would take place and there would be some frantic rearranging or a notice would go out that the milk was running late. In other words, our little community functioned as you would expect a community to function: mostly well, but with the occasional hiccup. Everyone took these hiccups in stride.

We had a shared goal, after all. In our small way, we were a community working for our own common good.

— ∞ —

Picking up the milk was not a chore. It was a visit and, in its own way, a small celebration.

On the appointed day, I would make the drive down to the farm and visit with Carissa. Sometimes I visited with Karyn, too, but she was often at her job as a dairy tester, so more often than not it was Carissa’s company I kept. The beautiful thing about Karyn and Carissa is that they seemed to love the visits and always treated them as one of the high points of their week. On arrival, I was almost always offered tea, with fresh raw cream of course available for it. It was not uncommon for there to be a snack, as well—cookies or brownies or something else delicious. Most important, though, was the conversation. I would arrive, come in, sit down and we would start to chat about the farm, the cows, whatever was happening in our lives. I spoke of my interest in farming, we talked about food issues, we sometimes talked a bit of politics or other news. We shared our observations on society. We chatted about gardening, about chickens, about the weather. The conversations were easy and a joy and they usually ended upon the realization that I had to get the coolers loaded up and the milk back before the official start of pickup time. They always seemed to end out of necessity rather than desire.

Sometimes we would go and visit the animals, saying a hello to Opal and Kaycee, walking in the pasture. I regularly saw the source of my food and always Opal looked happy and content, usually munching away on grass, often paired with Kaycee.

On one of my visits my friend Peter came along, as he was looking for a source of raw milk. He grew up on a dairy farm in Pennsylvania and spoke with Carissa at great length and with much enthusiasm about dairy farming, chatting about different breeds and the differences between the larger farm he grew up on and the very small operation Karyn and Carissa ran. We went out and visited Opal and Kaycee and Jazmine, a young calf. Jazmine came up to Peter and he put out a few fingers for her to suck and attempt to nurse on. She bucked against him so hard that he soon found his hand bleeding. Yet, as far as I could tell, he loved every moment of it,  his enthusiasm boundless, the visit bringing back a multitude of memories from his childhood.

— ∞ —

The land Karyn and Carissa farmed was not their own, instead being leased. As time went on, they became less certain about their ability to stay on the land long term. That led to a period of transition in which they started to look for good homes for Kaycee, Opal and Jazmine. They didn’t take them to the auction or sell them off to a high bidder. They researched and looked around and put out the word, visited farms and farmers, and patiently looked for the perfect fit. Giving up these members of their families wasn’t going to be easy and they certainly weren’t going to make it worse by sending them to less-than-perfect new homes.

Throughout this process, all of us who were getting milk or had gotten milk in the past from this family were sent email updates and given all the latest news. We were told what was happening and why it was happening, and given a window into the process of finding new homes from the cows who had so steadfastly fed us over the months and years.

As Karyn and Carissa found new homes for Kaycee, Opal and Jazmine, they told us where they would be going and gave us updates on the transition. The new owners sent out emails as well, offering updates and providing those of us who wanted to stay with the cows we knew the opportunity to sign up to buy their milk from them. I didn’t sign up—not, of course, because I didn’t still want Opal’s milk, but because I was moving to the Oregon coast to begin work on my third farm. And yet, despite the fact that I didn’t sign up to receive milk, I still receive the occasional email update about Opal. When Opal calved a year ago, I received an announcement and a picture of her beautiful daughter. It brightened my day.

— ∞ —

I’ve seen someone, a skeptic of raw milk, wonder why on earth someone would pay $10 for a gallon of milk. Well, all of the above memories exist because of $10 a gallon milk.

Every time I received Opal’s milk, I knew where it came from. I knew who it came from. I knew Opal lived a good life. I knew what I was paying for: care and affection, love, good work, good food, community, friendship, authenticity and an overriding ethic that touched everyone involved. I paid to know that the milk I drank was the healthiest and tastiest milk I would ever drink. I paid $10 a gallon to know that I was supporting a farm that made the world better, that I was supporting farmers who bettered their community, that I was supporting an entirely different model rooted in a love and respect that the industrial model of farming can’t even comprehend, much less engage. I paid $10 a gallon to live and eat well. I paid $10 a gallon for connection and for a weekly joy that arrived steadfast and unerringly. I have drunk store bought milk uncountable times in my life and never did I know the cow it came from, the people who produced it, or how it came to me. Correspondingly, I never felt a real joy drinking that milk. But almost every single time I drank some of Opal’s milk, I felt an honest-to-god joy, a satisfaction I cherished.

Of course I would pay $10 a gallon for that. It’s not even a question. And I’ve never made much money. But I always found the money to pay extra for milk that was worth it—for a community that was worth it.

I wrote in my post on making butter about patterns and systems and it’s those exact patterns and systems that have led me numerous times in my life to happily pay more for Opal’s milk, for milk that’s rooted in my local community and provided to me via love and affection and the sort of good work that’s become rare in our industrial economy. Of course that’s worth the money. If anything’s worth buying—if anything’s worth supporting—it’s that.

Now I have a source of raw milk that’s less expensive. I have over a gallon of milk in my refrigerator right this moment. And I have very limited income. But if someone were to walk up to me right now with a gallon of Opal’s milk, I wouldn’t hesitate to pay $10 for it. I wouldn’t hesitate to part with $10 for the chance to taste her milk again, to relive some of those memories she’s given to me, to remember the community that we all built around her milk and the amazing women who provided us with it.

If I can’t use what little money I have to help support and build these sorts of communities, what the hell good is it? This is why we’re here, folks. Someone asks why I would pay $10 for a gallon of milk? Community and affection is my answer. If we can’t be bothered to support those—even when it costs more, or it’s less convenient, a greater challenge—than we’re in dire straights, indeed. We have to think about and see the patterns. A gallon of milk is not a gallon of milk. A carrot is not a carrot. A human being is not a human being and a community not a community. They’re all dependent on context. They can be happy or miserable, healthy or diseased, abundant or denuded.

As Wendell Berry recently said, and E.M. Forster said before him, it all turns on affection. We can’t have a good world if we don’t love.

We can’t do this if we don’t care.

Opal's Calf

Opal’s baby girl, born about a year ago.


Other posts you may be interested in:

How To Make Raw Butter   27 comments

An entry in The Household Economy

I love butter. I grew up eating margarine, but those were dark days indeed and I try not to think about them now. Instead, I think about butter, and I eat it. I slather it on toast, on cornbread, on pancakes, on pretty much any sort of baked good. I love cooking eggs in it, sauteing onions with it, roasting potatoes in it. I love baking with it. It’s my main fat. Sure, I’ll use olive oil at times and occasionally something else but butter is my standby and I go through a decent amount of it. I hardly know what I’d do without butter.

This seems appropriate to me for a couple reasons. First of all, I feel right eating butter. Animal products as part of my diet just work for me. I feel better eating that way, more satisfied, more satiated, with greater energy. Something about the combination of my genetics, heritage, childhood diet, and so on comes together in that way. Second, I live in dairy country. I live right on the Tillamook county line in Oregon, home of Tillamook cheese and with a fine history of dairy farming stretching back many years. It’s a tradition that continues to this day and fits this land—and taking advantage of that local resource only makes sense.

In other words, my personal and local context fits butter. It doesn’t fit, say, olive oil. That doesn’t mean I don’t have a bottle of olive oil on my counter, but let’s just say the butter is in a more accessible location. It’s the old standby, after all.

I wrote about that context in my previous entry in The Household Economy. In that post, I used an overabundance of thought about butter to come to a philosophy of homesteading that hit on three main themes: context, education, and patterns. While other aspects will inform the homesteading adventures I’ll be writing about in this series—personal enjoyment and interest, for instance, is kind of a big one—those were the three tenets that I thought I would focus on in the hopes of making this series a bit more than just a number of how-to guides.

I already covered the relation of butter to the above tenets in the above-linked “Considering Butter,” but I’ll hit on the high points again. In terms of context—aside from the aforementioned relevancies of personal taste and local tradition—I receive a gallon of raw milk each week from a local dairy. The milk is delicious and healthy, the cows grass fed, and the milk’s fat content higher than whole milk from the store. Left alone for a couple days in my refrigerator, I can skim around a pint of cream off the top and use that as my base ingredient for making butter. I use an already-existing resource, bring a small bit of my living into my own household, and increase my personal resilience. It’s coherent.

In the sense of education, I noted that butter is a mix of butterfat, milk proteins and water and that it’s created by agitating cream so as to join together the molecules of butterfat by breaking down their surrounding membranes. That simple knowledge, combined with the knowledge that I can skim cream off the top of my own supply of raw and non-homogenized milk, allows me to see the context in which making my own butter makes quite a bit of sense for me. It’s basic knowledge, but even much of our most basic knowledge in regards to homesteading has been lost over the last couple centuries.

A steel pail full of fresh, raw milk, straight from grass fed cows. So delicious. I can’t tell you how happy this sight makes me, every time.

In terms of patterns, I noted the local abundance of quality dairy farming and the attendant access to raw milk and cream. If I want to live in a local context, then it only makes sense for me to gain access to locally-produced milk—either through money, barter, trade or gift—and then to use some of the cream from that milk to provide myself butter. It helps wean me from globalized supply chains and an industrial economy that I don’t believe is well-designed for the future and it increases my integration into the local community, as well. It works in patterns and systems, cycling in on itself and rippling its effects throughout my life. Something as small as butter can do so much.

This sense of pattern and reinforcement, in fact, is something I want to talk a bit more about. It exemplifies much of the ideal behind homesteading. Yes, there’s the intense satisfaction of making something with your own hands and providing for yourself, but it really goes beyond that. There’s little in going to the store and buying butter. Perhaps you’ll run into someone you know or make some small talk with the cashier. You’ll help to support a local business and likely will support some non-local businesses, as well. It’s not devoid of impact, but it doesn’t burrow you into your community in the way that making your own butter can.

In making highly efficient and focused, globalized supply chains, we’ve largely insulated the recipients of those supply chains from the ripple effects of their patronage. When I buy butter at the store, I often don’t know the dairies involved, the people who run them, the cows who are milked, what they eat, what the land looks like, how that butter was made, who made it, how they’re treated or where they live or if their work supports them well, and a thousand other bits of information that are intricately a piece of that one pound box of butter. But if I bring that into the household, I begin to better understand these ripple effects. For me, it’s particularly pronounced because I get the milk, and thus the cream, locally. I know the farmers who produce my cream, I know the cows whose bodies it comes from. I know what they eat. I’ve touched and talked to them. I’ve walked on the same land they walk on. I know whom I support and I much better understand the context and ramifications of my decision to drink milk and eat butter.

Skimming the cream off the top of the milk, which has been sitting undisturbed for a couple days.

My getting that milk integrates me more into my local community, building connections. My making butter thus does the same. However, beyond the local community and land, my making butter also informs my understanding of the natural patterns that butter has always been placed in under the best of circumstances. It helps root me in an entirely different way of thinking.

Buying butter at the store places me in the industrial economic context of making money at a job, spending that money at a store, and consuming what I spend. The connections are frayed and broken, or so spread through an intricate web of globalized commerce that I could never track down the ways in which they intersect, reflect and amplify each other. And that lack of knowledge, in my mind, is a huge piece of the broken world we live in now. We don’t understand our actions, we don’t understand the ramifications, and we find it increasingly hard to live our lives well when we don’t even know what our living does to the rest of the world. By bringing more and more of my economy into the household and rooting it in a local and personal context, I’m better able to gain a grasp on those ramifications, those intersections. I begin to understand how to better live my life. I begin to see the patterns.

The farmers raise the cows, who eat the grass in the pasture and the hay in the barn, who walk the fields much as the farmers do. I trade my own labor—or money from labor at another nearby farm—for the milk, which I take home in a steel pail. Already, by knowing well the place where my milk comes from and how I acquired it, I have a far more complete understanding of how I’m living my life. But it doesn’t stop there. I bring the milk home, skim the cream, and make the butter. Now I know the production of that butter and how it got to me. I also understand the process of making butter and begin to see why this was such an integral practice in times past, when cream was produced on the homestead and of course you would turn it into butter for other uses.

Furthermore, I know that after you make butter, you have the leftover buttermilk. Unlike with buying butter at the store, I get to keep that resource and, even better, I get to find out what happens with it. For me, what’s been happening with it is I’ve been using it in the baking of cornbread or the making of pancakes, and soon I’ll try baking some bread from it. The ripples from my butter continue to spread, informing my life and playing out in the days to come. The buttermilk goes into the cornbread, then the butter goes on the cornbread. These small patterns and systems emerge. One action leads to another, and before you know it you’re filling your life with good work and good food.

Suddenly, in this small ramekin of butter, I begin to find some semblance of being human. It sounds melodramatic, I know, and . . . well, it is. Yet, it also feels very true. Maybe I have too much of a sense of romanticism about the past, but the idea of having a small homestead and raising a cow, milking that cow, drinking that milk and turning it into other food such as cheese and yogurt and butter; using the byproducts of those activities to make still other kinds of food, some of which then recombine with the previous food; even taking the leftover milk from the cow and feeding it to other animals such as hogs or chickens, which then you eventually eat as well and turn into various other forms of food within the household; and all this providing you work that makes your living and provides your life meaning and satisfaction; that seems like a coherent human existence to me and one that provides ample opportunities to build and reinforce community, to live and work well, to understand and worship this world a bit more each day. The alternative industrial system that we’ve built and allowed to devour this older way of life doesn’t feel coherent to me at all. It feels empty and destructive, for the most part, and the pattern I most often see in it is degradation and alienation.

Maybe asking butter to build a community is asking a bit much. But the amazing thing is that it actually can help do that, even though it’s so small, this one dish of butter. One more reason I love it.

So let’s make some. Here are the steps.

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Considering Butter: A Philosophy of Homesteading   24 comments

An entry in The Household Economy

A few months back, I read a Sharon Astyk post in which she wrote about a new cookbook of sorts, Make the Bread, Buy the Butter by Jennifer Reese. In the book, Reese engages in a wide variety of food-centered homesteading activities, like making butter and baking bread, making her own prosciutto and camembert. As she tries these different tasks, she documents the process and makes recommendations for which to take the time to do yourself and which to go on purchasing from others, trying to figure out where one’s limited time is best invested.

I haven’t read the book but found the concept fascinating. About the same time I read about the book, I found myself thinking about this series of posts on homesteading, The Household Economy, and how exactly I wanted to approach the writing of it. While I’ve made clear that the intent of the series is to focus on the various ways in which I engage my own household economy in pursuit of my broader goals of voluntary poverty, self-reliance and a modest life built on minimal money and energy, I wondered in what exact way it made sense for me to write about these activities. A series of posts as little more than step-by-step guides didn’t seem logical to me, mainly for the reason that such guides already are abundant on the internet for most of the activities I’ll be engaging in. Indeed, many of my activities will be carried out with the help of online guides, as well as with certain books I own. Simply duplicating that information makes little sense.

These considerations at some point dovetailed with thoughts about Reese’s book and the idea of making the bread but simply buying the butter, assuming you didn’t have time to do both. Since I had surmised butter-making would be one of my regular homesteading activities this year, I wondered if the effort really made sense. The difference in taste between store bought butter and homemade butter did seem somewhat negligible and making butter—while not particularly hard—was a bit of a messy affair, and did require quite a bit of cream (at least to create the supply of butter I tend to use, with it standing in as my cooking fat most of the time.) Perhaps making my own butter didn’t make sense, after all.

Despite these uncertainties, I made my own butter anyway. I wanted to at least try it, if nothing else. The first time I made it was with cream bought at a co-op in Portland, from a small scale Oregon dairy. The process proved extremely simple, though I did make a mess of a number of dishes and it did require a bit more time than I expected. But despite the clean up, I wanted to make butter again.

Time passed before that happened, but I finally made a new batch of butter a few weeks ago. The cream for this butter came from my weekly supply of raw milk, skimmed off the top after sitting in the fridge for a few days. For some reason—perhaps due to some difference created during the pasteurization or perhaps because the skimmed cream was a lower fat content than the store bought cream—the process of making the butter took longer. However, since the agitation was done in a food processor, that proved to be the most minimal of inconveniences. It was more a curious occurrence than a problem.

The final product was quite tasty and I enjoyed eating the butter smeared on bread. I couldn’t say it was an order of magnitude better than store bought butter, though. Better, yes, but not to the same degree as, say, eating fresh baked bread right from the oven in comparison to bread from the store. Furthermore, for my gallon or so of raw milk, I skimmed off a little over a pint of cream and ended up with around a quarter pound of butter. The next week’s process proved more successful, with a better skimming of about a pint and a half and around six ounces of butter, but I still realized that it takes a lot of milk to produce a modest amount of butter.

I considered all these factors as I debated with myself as to whether or not to make butter regularly. The more I thought about it, the more variables I considered, until I finally managed to turn my consideration of butter into something of a philosophy of homesteading to be used for this series of posts. The philosophy is rooted in many of the same themes and considerations that have been and will continue permeating my How To Be Poor series on voluntary poverty, as well as the thoughts and ideas behind this blog in general. As such, the major underlying tenets that I’ll be using for this series are that I’ll be taking into account my own personal context, I’ll be looking to educate and demystify with these posts, and I’ll be focusing on patterns and systems. All of those tenets need further explanation, so if you don’t mind, I’ll now break out the bold.

Personal Context
The matter of butter illuminates this tenet well. I’m already receiving a gallon of raw milk each week. Raw milk, for those who may not be familiar with it, is simply milk that has not been pasteurized or homogenized. My milk comes from a local farm, it has a fat content higher than whole milk in the store, and it’s delicious. It comes in a steel milk pail that I return each week and which has a wide mouth lid on it. That means that each week, I can bring home my milk and leave it alone for a few days in the fridge until a good amount of the cream rises to the top, then I can skim off that cream and use it to make butter.

Already receiving that milk is my context—with that context being that I already have available to me a weekly source of high quality, locally-produced cream and it even comes in a container that makes it easy for me to skim off and separate that cream. Since I have that source available to me, it makes sense that I make use of it to provide myself with butter. If I didn’t have this available to me, then making my own butter at home might involve simply going to the store and buying cream, bringing it home and then using that to make my own butter. While there’s nothing wrong with that, I’m not really creating the benefit of cutting out the middle man since I’m still buying the cream from the store, I’m probably not creating butter much different than what I could buy at the store, and I’m probably spending more money on it. What I’m doing instead, to a large degree, is simply introducing an extra step into my life for minimal benefit.

Now, that doesn’t mean it might not be a great step to introduce. If I simply really enjoy the process of making the butter, than that’s great. Homesteading is fun outside of moral, ethical or financial concerns, without question. But while that fun is going to be present in this series, I also am intent on rooting it in context, in what makes sense, in the sort of activities that my life already is arranged for. I want to take into account my context and work within that context, rather than creating habits without concern for the rest of my life.

In fact, this strikes me as the root of many of our problems in our society, and it contributes greatly to the unsustainability of our lives. I’ve written about this before and will write about it again, but it’s the fact that we don’t take into account our context and our personal situation when making so many of our decisions that brings us trouble. While personal debt, for instance, can arise out of situations out of our control, a good portion of it arises out of decisions made while ignoring our context, our personal reality. I know that has been the case for me before and there’s no question that our society and economy encourages this type of behavior. Our economy, in fact, is based on debt and expansion, regardless of the availability of resources for that expansion.

If we find ourselves with so much stuff that our living space is overflowing, we too often look for a bigger living space rather than getting rid of some of our stuff. We consistently, in this society and economy, default to bigger and more expensive, to growth and physical abundance, when we could just as easily default to smaller, more limited, constrained, and cheap (in the monetary sense, not the quality sense.) We’ve lost touch with thrift and have dismissed the idea of limits. When we have a problem, we as often as not look for solutions rooted in technology, energy and money rather than in solutions rooted in limitation and behavioral change. We look at the life we want and then do whatever we can to try to gain it, often to our detriment. We rarely look for the best life we are capable of having and then achieve it within the limits of our reality.

I don’t want to engage in every cool sounding homesteading activity just for the sake of doing it. I want it to arise naturally out of basic needs and my life’s circumstances. I want to make my butter not just because it’s fun—which, again, is a legitimate piece of this—but more importantly because it makes sense within the realities of my life. It flows from my circumstance and maximizes my resources. As such, it feeds my current goals rather than working against them. That’s important.

Education and Demystification
One of the critical goals that I think can be achieved through homesteading is the slow build of skills and knowledge used to make one’s own living. Every time we find ourselves purchasing something we need at the store, provided by someone whom we likely don’t know or care about and who doesn’t know or care about us, we make ourselves vulnerable. We reduce the sovereignty we have over ourselves and our livelihood, and we endanger our family and community. We put ourselves at the mercy of others—most often, at the mercy of massive and amoral corporations and too-often-corrupt bureaucracies. Meanwhile, these same corporations and bureaucracies are finding their supporting infrastructure weakened and at risk of collapse. The necessary resources for these massive entities are becoming more limited, more scarce, and in many cases are nearing full scale disappearance. Our state of dependence is an incredible danger, a huge vulnerability for most of us.

I’ve written plenty of times here on this blog about our need to reduce that state of dependence. Dramatically reducing the money, energy and resources we need is a big piece of limiting that dependence. Learning how to make, produce, or trade for many of our necessities is another huge piece and that’s the piece that I’ll be most focused on with this series. To successfully provide ourselves many of our own needs, though, we need a range of skills and education that many of us simply don’t have anymore. In just a few generations, we’ve lost a massive amount of knowledge and ability and now we need to relearn it as a culture as quickly as possible.

Assisting that need will be another tenet of this series. I want my posts not just to be how-to guides, but to attempt to break down the underlying ideas and theories that make these homesteading activities beneficial and even revolutionary. For instance, to understand why making butter makes sense for me, I need to know what butter is and where it comes from. Sure, I can decide that I want to make butter, look up a how-to guide on the internet, then go buy some cream and do the deed. But there’s still a dependency in that. If I instead have a more complete knowledge that tells me that butter is a mix of butterfat, milk proteins and water; that it’s created by agitating cream so as to join together the molecules of butterfat by breaking down their surrounding membranes; that the cream comes from milk; that cream will rise to the top of non-homogenized milk if left alone for a certain length of time; and that the cream can then be skimmed off the top of the milk with a ladle; well, if I know all these things and others, then I have the sort of knowledge that allows me to parse my own context and recognize that with my weekly supply of raw and non-homogenized milk, I also potentially have a weekly supply of cream, which I can then use to make butter.

Now, this may be known knowledge for a good number of people, but some out there don’t know it. But even if someone knows about butter, perhaps they don’t know anything about an enzyme cleaner, or why it is very effective at getting rid of certain stains and smells, or why it has many benefits over chemical cleaners, or how you make it at home, or the connection between why it gets rid of, say, the lingering smell of cat urine and why you can make it at home with some brown sugar and fruit trimmings. (Yes, I’ll be writing about this in a future post.) If you have all that knowledge, though, then you can begin to see and derive the sorts of patterns that effective homesteading make use of.

Patterns and Systems
Which brings me to the third tenet of these posts, which will be the exploration of patterns and systems. Let’s engage in one final consideration of my butter-making to better understand this.

If I want to reduce my energy consumption, save money, maximize my resources and better build my own self-sufficiency, I should absolutely make butter utilizing the gallon of milk I already get every week. The milk already exists. A good amount of cream already exists in that milk. I can bring the milk home, wait a couple days, skim the cream, and then make butter. In doing so, I’ve eliminated the need to buy at least some of my butter, if perhaps not all. That’s less butter that needs to be made by machines, brought to me by way of industrial farming. I’m eliminating one of my life’s inputs and I’m not creating a new one at all—I’m actually just more effectively utilizing another one. I’m reducing the fat content of my milk, granted, but I’m already operating at a calorie surplus. I can transfer that fat to the form of butter, cut out the imported butter, and not need extra calories to make that up. I’ve just saved money and energy by making my own butter from an already existing resource and reduced my consumption. In so doing, I’ve taken another step toward my goals of voluntary poverty, have created greater self-reliance, and am helping build a stronger community and local economy. That right there is the pattern of my behavior. But there’s a systemic piece to this, too, that I want to elaborate on.

If I’m anticipating a future in which large corporations and industrialism become less tenable and more expensive, and if I’m therefore looking to adjust my life so that it better fits into a local way of living—rooted in trade and barter, covenantal relationships and the sort of products and tools that can be made on a small scale, in a world of constrained energy and resources—well, then, my making butter fits that far better than my buying it. In such a world, there will almost certainly be a local dairy able to provide me a pail of raw milk each week. In such a world, there’s an excellent chance I could even barter or trade for that milk if I should need to, especially with the farming and ranching skills I’ve been developing. In such a world, I can just as easily skim the cream from my milk and I can even agitate it to make the butter without electricity if I should need to, transitioning from my food processor to a hand cranked mixer or just shaking the cream in a jar. Making butter at home currently uses some electricity, just by way of how I make it. But it doesn’t have to. There’s flexibility there and the adjustment could be made relatively easy if it needed to.

That sort of flexibility and resiliency doesn’t exist for the store bought butter. The butter in the store comes out of industrial systems, dependent on industrial-grade energy and resource feeds. They’re dependent on all the supporting infrastructure that comes with our industrial economy—all the infrastructure that would be very vulnerable in an energy- and resource-constrained world. That butter at the store is going to be much harder to barter or trade for, as well, if I should find myself short on money at some point. Nothing about that shelf of butter in the store makes much sense in a future beset by constraints on industrialism and it would be much harder to convert said shelf of butter to a low-energy way of life than it would be for me to switch from an electric food processor to a hand mixer or jar while making my butter. The systems I see us having to deal with in the future are going to be much different than the ones we deal with today. Making my butter at home fits that future system far, far better than buying my butter at the store.

Wendell Berry wrote an excellent essay some decades ago titled “Solving For Pattern” (PDF). In it, Berry writes, “A good solution acts within the larger pattern the way a healthy organ acts within the body.” Making my own butter seems like just such a good solution. It acts within the larger pattern, reducing my energy and resource usage while making use of already-existing resources and behavior, and further enhancing my life’s resiliency by increasing the flexibility with which I may react to the future. This small homesteading activity fits within the broader patterns—both existing and desired—of my life. It’s the exact sort of homesteading activity that I’ll be writing about in this series.

My hope is that by following the above principles, I’ll create a series that will prove a bit more holistic and informative than simply producing a number of how-to guides. While I still intend to include step-by-step instructions for these various homesteading activities, they’ll come after I provide the context of what I’m doing and how it fits into my goals. In this way, I hope this series will, more than anything, reinforce the idea of homesteading and a patterned approach to it that will prove beneficial in the sort of constrained future I think we face—or at least will prove beneficial for those looking to live their lives a bit more modestly, whether or not they think such modesty will turn into a necessity.

As should by now seem befitting, the first project I’ll be writing about is homemade raw butter. That will be the next post, arriving soon.

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