Cow update

Last year we decided to breed our cows in August so they would freshen in May. One reason was that we thought it would be kinder to the calf to be born in late spring. Another was that by milking the cows mid-May through mid-March we hoped to avoid the dreaded taint of spring onions in the milk. It also means that any steer we can feed a steer for one winter and then take him to the slaughterhouse the next fall at sixteen months old, a good size.

One of our cows, Dory, had her calf Thursday evening. Maggie proved herself to be a true cowgirl that afternoon when she told us that she thought the calf would come that evening, and then after supper went out to the field with a lawn chair to watch it happen. It did, about 8pm, and the birth was uneventful. The calf is a girl, and since her mom is half Jersey and her dad full Jersey, she has that Jersey look about her. Since we’re hoping to raise up our girls to be family cows for other families, the Jersey look is a real advantage, because that tends to be what folks want in their family cow.

Last year we kept the calves with their mothers, and the calves took way more milk than we liked. This year we will try separating them after three days. Chris and Maggie fenced off two small adjoining sections of the pasture, and in each they placed a simple calf hutch that Chris had built from plywood and metal roofing. The moms will be able to come over and nuzzle the calves whenever they like, but the calves won’t be able to nurse; instead, they’ll be fed part of the milking from a bottle.

This afternoon the new calf (still unnamed) went into her pen, and by evening was hungry enough to take some milk from the bottle. Dory seems puzzled about why the calf won’t come to nurse, but doesn’t seem especially upset.

Dory is giving a bit more than two gallons at each milking; that’ll be scary if it keeps up, since last time around we weren’t even getting that much from both cows together, and it was still too much milk for us. For the first three days we’ve discarded her milk, but beginning tomorrow we’ll be saving it. After three months without milk, we are definitely looking forward to those first glasses.

The strip grazing is going well. We aren’t grazing the pasture as intensely as Joel Salatin would, but it is much better than simply letting them range over the entire pasture all the time. We have way more pasture than necessary for our cows, so we are able to experiment and learn without the risk of doing much damage when we mess up. I don’t think we’re ready to try raising and cutting our own hay, but we will probably do a bit of stockpiling, namely setting off sections of pasture to grow up and be available for the cows to eat during the winter.

We will probably be getting our bull back from Jimmy Ellis soon. Jimmy says he has filled out well, but also gotten ornery. We have a section of pasture fenced off just for him, and we will turn the cows in there in August when they need to be bred. Then we will probably sell the bull; Jimmy thinks we should get what we paid for him, maybe a bit more since he has grown. And then next summer I guess we’ll go in search of another young bull.

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The origins of consumer culture

For awhile now I’ve had a pretty good understanding of what it means that we are a consumer culture. And I knew that consumer culture was something newer than the industrial revolution, coming about somewhere in the early years of the 20th century. But I never knew exactly how it happened until now, as I finish reading a book by Stuart Ewen called Captains of Consciousness: Advertising and the Social Roots of the Consumer Culture.

Although the book taught me many valuable things, I can’t recommend it. Not because I think it is bad—I really can’t say, because many of Ewen’s arguments and observations went off in directions I wasn’t able to follow. Ewen is a Marxist historian (I think), which is good because it makes him an astute critic of capitalism but bad because it encourages him to write impenetrable prose. At least I often had a hard time plodding through it.

Most of what I learned from the book came not so much from what Ewen had to say as from the primary sources he cited in making his arguments. Here’s are some of the things I learned:

  • For the average person, the transition from agrarianism to industrialism (beginning in 1830 or so) was strictly a transition from providing for one’s own needs directly to laboring for wages which would buy the things one needed; the needs themselves did not change significantly.

  • Around 1910 industrial techniques became so effective that to run factories at full capacity would mean producing large piles of stuff that would go unsold, since people needed much less than the factories could make.

  • Although this could have been viewed as a blessing—the people’s needs could be met with ever decreasing amounts of labor, leaving them increasingly free to do other things—the industrialists viewed it as a curse, an obstacle to maximizing their profits.

  • Beginning after 1910 and peaking in the 1920s, industrialists deliberately embarked on an effort to turn people into consumers, using advertising to inflame their desires and prey on their fears. By 1930 the effort had achieved total success; people were eager to buy as much as the factories could produce, and more.

This last point may sound extreme, and all I can do is recommend that you look at this book or some other history of advertising to see for yourself. Ewen offers many examples of products which prior to 1910 were advertised strictly on the basis of their usefulness but after 1920 were sold as antidotes to social problems that resulted from urban industrial living—soap, toothpaste, clothing, mouthwash, movies, even baby food.

And he offers plenty of quotes from advertisers of the time, who were shockingly frank about the fact that they were deliberately manipulating the public. Here’s how one agency head instructed a new copywriter to do an ad for baby food:

Give them the figures about the baby death rate—but don’t say it flatly. You know if you just put a lot of figures in front of a woman she passes you by. If we only had the nerve to put a hearse in the ad, you couldn’t keep the women away from the food.

Strong measures, but industrialists were up against some deeply ingrained habits and traditions that made the average American unacceptably self-sufficient. Ewen offers this great excerpt from the diary of a nineteenth century New England farmer:

My farm gave me and my whole family a good living on the produce of it and left me, one year with another, one hundred and fifty silver dollars, for I never spent more than ten dollars a year, which was for salt, nails, and the like. Nothing to eat, drink, or wear was bought, as my farm produced it all.

Letting go

On Sunday I decided to unplug from a number of online controversies I have been following. In his sermon one of our pastors mentioned the command to pray for our enemies, and later it occurred to me that although I didn’t consider anyone in these controversies to be my enemy—I had no direct involvement in any of them—I was still prone to take sides in my mind, which makes it difficult for me to have sympathy for those on the opposing side, much less to pray for them.

(By the way, this is exactly the reason I refuse to take any interest in politics. What little weight my vote or my opinion carries is far outweighed in my mind by the spiritual dangers that partisanship poses for me.)

I decided the most effective way for me to do this was to add a free plugin to my browser that allowed me to block access to a list of websites. As I started filling in the list, I was surprised. So far I’ve blocked fifteen websites, representing five different overlapping controversies. I don’t expect that no longer visiting these sites will save me much online time, but it will save me a lot of offline time, time I spent thinking through all the issues raised by the different sides, issues that really have no relevance to my own life.

Weekend in Cincinnati

Chris and I drove up to Cincinnati this past weekend, to attend the 2008 Appalachian Festival, held at Coney Island. It’s about a three hour drive from here, and we were on the festival grounds by 10am Saturday. The weather couldn’t have been better, sunny and dry and in the low 70s.

For once we were members of the audience. Primarily we were there to see Ginny Hawker and Tracy Schwarz perform; if they are playing within three hours of us, it is a given that we will be there. And at this festival they played four sets over the two days, a real treat. Only as the festival approached did we find out that Dan Gellert was also on the schedule. Gellert may not be the best old-time fiddler and banjoist in the world, but he is on the short list, and he is probably our favorite just because his approach to both instruments is unique. So we were particularly excited about seeing him in person for the first time.

We always bring our instruments just in case we’re invited to help out, and we did have the opportunity to play with Ginny and Tracy a couple of times.  During one set she introduced us as being from Adair County, Kentucky, and after the set some folks came up to introduce themselves, saying that they were originally from Clementsville, about four miles from our house. We compared notes and learned that they were quite familiar with our particular hollow and the folks who populate it. They encouraged us to see about playing music at the big July 4 celebration in Clementsville, which serves as a sort of reunion for everyone who has ever lived in that tiny little town, and I do plan to ask around about that.

On Saturday we got a few small doses of Dan Gellert, once at a fiddle workshop and again at a banjo workshop. Then late in the afternoon he played an hour-long set, which was just the most astonishing thing. I can’t adequately explain what appeals to us about his playing, except maybe to say that he is rhythmic beyond what anyone expects from either a fiddler or a banjoist. In fact, as he played a particular piece on the banjo it occurred to me that he approached it as a percussion instrument; I could imagine the same sounds coming out of a marimba or a steel drum. Here are some songs he recorded:

Of these, I think “Black-Eyed Susie” gets closest to what is unique about Gellert; the pulse he creates is irresistable.

After his performance we had just enough time to stop for a quick supper at Camp Washington Chili Parlor; it was our first time eating Cincinnati 5-way Chili in its hometown, so it seemed appropriate to stop at the birthplace. Then we headed over to visit with Matt and Sora Colvin for the evening. We planned on limiting it to a couple of hours but ended up staying twice as long, only breaking off because we were all too tired to continue. The main topic was agrarianism, and we covered a lot of ground.

On Sunday the weather turned nasty—rainy and windy and cold. Attendance at the festival (which is primarily a crafts fair) was way, way down. But the shows went on, and so we were part of a great gospel sing led by Ginny and Tracy, and then later in the afternoon we were at their final set, lightly attended but well done as always. Then we drove home in the wind and the rain.

Recapturing the spirit of worship

The Mises Circle announces an upcoming renewal service in Seattle, entitled “Capitalism the Creator.”

The Mises Circle goes to Seattle to address contemporary issues in liberty, and the role of Capitalism as the main Force for every form of progress in our age. We live amidst its fruits—technology, culture, philanthropy, human well being—and have yet to appreciate the Source. Indeed, among the most passionate opponents of the Free Market are those who have benefited most enormously from it. Here we have a profound failure of understanding at work.

Looking under the hood

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m still looking for an opportunity to celebrate the thinkers who led the Y2K frenzy—not for the responses they championed, which I think were largely foolish and short-sighted and un-Christian, but for having the courage to shake off mainstream complacency and take a hard, skeptical look under the hood of modern industrial society, to see how the machine works and what keeps it running and think about what might happen if various monkeywrenches were tossed into it. I think it is prudent to understand these things, even if the monkeywrenches end up not being tossed in, during our own lifetimes or ever; even if we don’t ourselves suffer the consequences of our complacency, we may be visiting those consequences upon the children we raise to continue further down the same path.

Despite appearances, I don’t count myself among the doomsayers, but only because I don’t consider even the worst possible outcome to be any sort of doom. The only circumstances I can imagine are circumstances that have existed somewhere at some time, and I don’t know of any such circumstances that God hasn’t seen fit to place some of his children in. I wouldn’t exactly look forward to living out my life in a gulag or in Egyptian or Babylonian bondage or as a third-world sweatshop worker or California lettuce picker, or an Eskimo or a Bedouin or a Siberian exile or a Maasai warrior. But these are lives that Christians have led, and so I have to assume that the blessings are there for those who live them.

So I try my best to imagine my way through all the likely outcomes of the current crisis, not committing myself to any one of them but doing what I can to align our way of life with those possibilities. And I watch for signs that others are doing the same. When I see such signs, I have an odd reaction. Part of is it delight that other people are putting aside their own complacency and thinking a bit about these troubling times and what the implications may be for their own families. And part of it is concern that, given that people have been deliberately oblivious for so long about these things, the fact that they are now waking up may signal that things are actually much worse than I assumed.

One example of this is the recent reports that people are trying to unload their gas guzzlers:

Menicocci, a resident of the upscale Miami suburb of Palmetto Bay, recently placed his 2003 Chevrolet Tahoe with leather seats and 39,000 miles for sale on Craigslist for $16,000 — roughly $2,000 less than what his research determined was the Kelley Blue Book value.

He bought a 2003 Kia Spectra for $5,000 because he was tired of paying so much for gas with his heavy Tahoe. “I was wasting $30 a day compared to $10 a day,” he said.

“Everybody is like, `What is that? Is that the maid’s car?”‘ said Menicocci, who sells marble and granite for a living. “But I don’t care. At this point, I’m way past looks and appearances.”

I love that comment: “At this point, I’m way past looks and appearances.” But I fret about it too. One person’s comment doesn’t make a trend, but if it indicates one then I’m surprised that the American public’s thinking may be shifting even before gas hits $4 per gallon. I would have guessed it would have taken much higher prices—but then again I may be seriously underestimating how thin the margins are in most people’s lives these days.

I also like that this development points up a hard fact that we may no longer be able to avoid: our bad choices sometimes have inescapable consequences:

Now owners of SUVs and other gas guzzlers who’ve seen the price of a fill-up climb sharply are getting a second shock when they try to trade in their behemoths. Used car dealers don’t want the big vehicles on their lots anymore because hardly anyone is buying them. Some won’t take them at any price.

Oops. I think most of us approach a major purchase such as a house or a car assuming that not only is it not a lifetime commitment, but when we buy the next house or next car that the previous one will have a fair amount of equity that can be rolled over into the next purchase; in fact, the next purchase can’t be made without that equity. So the owner of an SUV that nobody wants is stuck with it. Ditto for the owner of a suburban home thirty miles from town, once daily sixty-mile commutes become prohibitive; nobody will want such a house, leaving the owner with no equity to purchase something more sensible for himself.

Last night I talked with a friend about the current crisis, and had a surprise. He told me he has realized he is far too dependent on a cash income, i.e. almost all his needs are supplied via cash that he earns from his business. He makes custom cabinets, and his orders have fallen off as residential and commercial building activity has slowed. His young sons contribute quite a bit to the family economy by helping him in his work—when there is work to be done. But when there is no work, there is no way for them to help. So they are looking to move to a place where they will be able to raise food.

What surprised me about the conversation was that my friend, who has little interest in an agrarian life for its own sake, had seen the dangers of cash dependency, while others I know who are much more agrarian-leaning are still a long way from understanding this.

Changing economics of the middle class

Harvard Law professor Elizabeth Warren was a pleasure to watch in the film Maxed Out, a documentary about predatory practices in the credit industry. Not at all your standard media-savvy academic, her onscreen persona is quirky and a bit awkward but ultimately engaging, and her explanations are crystal clear.

I’ve just watched a video of Prof. Warren giving the 2007 Jefferson Memorial Lecture at UC Berkeley, entitled “The Coming Collapse of the Middle Class: Higher Risks, Lower Rewards, and a Shrinking Safety Net.” The lecture is far from an alarmist polemic, but rather a careful examination of economic statistics showing how life for a family of four was radically more difficult in 2003 than it was one generation earlier in 1970. I didn’t expect to watch more than a few minutes of this video, but ended up watching the entire hour, even taking notes.

Prof. Warren’s most striking statistics concern the spending shifts in different categories between the 1970 one-income family and the 2003 two-income family. The latter family had 50% more income than the former family. Here is how the spending changed in nine categories. First, the decreases:

  • clothing: 32% less in 2003
  • food: 18% less
  • appliances: 52% less
  • car-related expenses (per car): 24% less

And then the increases:

  • mortgage: 76% more in 2003
  • employer-sponsored health insurance: 74% more
  • car-related expenses (per family): 55% more
  • taxes: 25% more
  • child care: infinitely more (i.e. new expense)

Warren points out that the first group of categories is somewhat flexible, i.e. open to cost-cutting when times are tight,  while the second group represents more or less fixed expenses. Given this, she says that the 1970 family spent 50% of their income on fixed expenses, while the 2003 family spent 75% on them, and the 1970 family had more absolute dollars left over after fixed expenses than the 2003 family.