Re Rustica

  (Squaw Valley, California)
love your food!
[ Member listing ]

Almost Spring?

When we're looking for summer, we head down the mountain.  When we look for winter, we head up hill.  The increase in altitude leads to a decrease in temperature - there is less atmosphere to hold in heat!  In Squaw Valley, the difference is pronounced.  We own and rent land in the area, and our rental field - just down the street - is more than 1000 feet lower!  It's been spring there for about a month, and now it is just starting to be spring up on top of the hill.  Down in the valley, it is more than 2300 feet lower than it is at our camp on top of the mountain.  It's mid summer there!

Changes in altitude are one thing, but changes in latitude are another.  Going north means going colder, and going south means getting warmer (until you get to the equator, that is).

It is important to stagger fields north and south, uphill and down hill if you want to supply similar foods all year long.  Spring has come and gone in the Valley, but is still coming up in the hills.  On the plate, it's spring, spring, spring!  Summer is also easily found.  So is winter!

The nomadic farmer is not a new thing under the sun.  The Egyptians invented the technique, boating up and down the Nile, hiking up and down the hills.  The Egyptians even went so far as to bring their bees from pasture to pasture, increasing their honey production: some farms today still do this today, trucking bees from Colorado's Western Slope to California's Central Valley with the change in seasons.

Back in ancient days, bee spills would happen as much as in modern days.  But then, there's an argument for sedentary farming.

Jethro Tull Guest Writes on Roots and Circulatory Systems of Plants

We’re taking the day off from writing blogs - and are glad to present to you today Jethro Tull, in his very first blog. Though he died in 1731, by this active and energetic assay into the blogosphere, he seems just as innovative as when he perfected the seed drill in 1701, doesn’t he? Fairly spry for a dead guy…

Seriously, this is an excerpt from his amazing, ground-breaking (forgive the pun) book on agriculture, “the Horse Hoeing Husbandry.” It was supposed to have been named “the Deep Hoeing Husbandry” but his publisher got creative and didn’t tell him. It improves (partially) on Columella’s “Agriculture,” and brought the scientific revolution to bear upon the art of crop production.

We have updated his book with modern science, and completed Mr. Tull’s work of improving upon Columella’s “Agriculture,” and will be publishing it this year. This, as all our books, will be available for free online download ( We’ve got a lot of good books for free - for you.

But without further delay, here is Mr. Tull himself, now speaking fully modernized American English, on the subject of determining the distance from the plant that roots extend, and on his amazing experiments with mint, demonstrating a circulatory system.

1. The Distance to which Roots Extend Horizontally

By this method the distance of the extent of the roots of any plant may be discovered. Dig a piece or plot and make fine in whole hard ground, the smaller end (A) two feet and the wider end (B) twelve feet. The length of the piece should be 60 feet. Plant twenty turnips (labeled “1” through “20”) at equal spacing. Hoe as closely as possible to the first plants with a spade and with each successive plant, hoe a foot further distance—six inches to each side. Make sure to dig deep each time, so that it will be the finer for the roots to enter when they are permitted to grow that distance.

If these turnips are all gradually bigger as they stand nearer to the end B, it is a proof that their roots extend so far from their center: if the turnip 20 is biggest, it is because it draws nourishment from all the land six feet from its center; but if turnips 16, 17, 18, 19, and 20 acquire no greater bulk than the turnip 15, it is clear that the roots of the turnips extend no farther than those of turnip 15 do (about four feet).

There is another way to find the length of roots. Make a long narrow trench at the distance you expect the roots to extend and fill it with salt. If the plant is killed by the salt, it is certain that at least some of the roots entered into it.

What put me on to this method was an observation of two lands drilled with turnips in rows, a foot apart, at very even intervals. At both ends and one side was hard and unplowed soil. The turnips were not hoed and were very poor, small and yellow—except for the three outside rows (B, C and D) which stood next to the hoed soil (E). The soil E was hoed and harrowed at the time the soil A ought to have been and gave to the three outside rows (B, C and D) a very dark flourishing color. The turnips received so much benefit from it as to grow twice as big as any of the more distant rows. The second-nearest row C, being a foot nearer to the new plowed land, became twice as large as those in the further row D, but the middle row B, which was even nearer to the plowed land, grew much larger yet.

The land of hard unbroken ground (F) was about two perches in length and about two to three feet across. It is remarkable that for the length of this interadjacent hard ground F, the rows B, C and D were as small and yellow as any in the land E. That the turnips in row D, about one foot distance from land E received a double increase proves that they had as much nourishment from the land E as from the land A on which they were planted. In their own land (A) their roots must have extended at least three feet or else they could not have reached the land E.

In pulling up the aforementioned turnips, their roots seemed to end at a few inches distance from the plants, but one cause of peoples’ not suspecting roots to extend even to the twentieth part of the distance they actually do is from observing these horizontal roots near the plant to be pretty taper and assuming that if they continued to diminish at the rate they had until that point, they must soon come to an end. But the truth is that, after a few inches, the roots do not discernibly taper and pass to their ends very near the same bigness. This may be seen by experiment in growing roots in water.
Upon pulling up a carrot, I found an extremely small fiber on its side. It was much less wide than a hair, but through a microscope it appeared quite large. It was not taper, but broken off short at its end. It is probable that it never extended near as far as the turnip roots did. It had many fibers going out of it and I have seen that a carrot will draw nourishment from a great distance—though the roots are almost invisible where they come out of the carrot itself. These fine roots, as demonstrated by the land F, cannot penetrate soil unless the soil is broken open by tillage.
All roots—of trees and other plants—follow open soil. Roots can descend perpendicularly and mount again the same manner. In an orchard where the trees are planted too deep below the staple, the roots (at even a little distance from the stem) are all as near to the upper superficies as those trees that are planted higher than the soil’s surface. The damage of planting a tree too low in moist ground is that in passing through this low part the sap is chilled and its circulation is thereby retarded—not an inaccessibility to the staple.

I have observed the roots of a hedge to do this when passing a steep ditch two feet deep to reach the soil on the other side. When I dug five feet from the ditch, I found the roots there large—though this soil was very shallow and there were no roots below the good, open soil.

And I have seen a chalk pit (contiguous with a barn) the area of which was about forty perches of ground, was made clean and swept so that there was not the appearance of any part of a vegetable. Straw was thrown from the barn into the pit for cattle to lie on. The dung made thereby was carried away about three years after the pit had been cleaned when, at the bottom of it and on top of the chalk, the pit was covered all over with roots that came from a witch-elm that stood five yards above and six yards in length away from the pit. The witch-elm itself was only five yards tall, but in three years the roots grew themselves eight times the length of the tree beyond the extremities of the old roots. The annual increased length of the roots was three times as much as the height of the tree. I have seen this too in wheat: wheat, drilled, in double rows in November, in a field well tilled before planting, looked yellow when eighteen inches high. At two feet distance from the plants the soil was plowed. This gave such nourishment to the wheat that they recovered their health and changed their sickly yellow to a lively green.

2. Experiments with Mint
I. Experiments with Mints

That the color of the roots are different from the color of the leaves and other external parts of a plant is no argument against the circulation of the sap than to argue against a circulation of the blood by saying, “the color of the guts is different from that of the lungs and other parts of the animal body.” As far as I can discover, all roots (if they are properly described) are white. Even the red carrot sends out in the spring from all parts of it many fibrous roots, all as white as those of any other plant. The white color of roots comes from the vessels that circulate the chyle to the other parts of the plant.

When a good number of mint stalks had stood in water until they were well stocked with roots from their two lower joints (some of them from the three lowest joints) I set one into a glass (marked “A”) full of salt water. This mint A was perfectly dead within three days.

Another mint (marked “B”) I put into a glass of fair water, but I immersed one string of its roots (being brought over the top of another glass) into another glass of salt water. This mint also died very soon .

Another mint (marked “C”) stood in a glass of water and soil until it grew vigorously. I put one single root into a bag containing a spoonful of dry salt. Besides finding that this mint died also, I found that this salt was dissolved in water as high as the second joint of the root that was placed into it, and that the leaves of the mint tasted of salt.

I put a single root of another mint (marked “D”) into a small glass of ink as I had done when I put a root of mint C into a bag of salt. This plant was killed by some of the ink ingredients, but the blackness was not communicated to the stalk or leaves (which instead inclined to rather a yellowish color when they died, which seemed owing to the copperas in the ink).

For another mint (marked “E”), I made a very strong solution of water and the bruised seeds of wild garlic. I placed a couple of roots into this stinking liquor. This solution killed the mint after some time, but it was much longer in dying than the others were when exposed to salt and ink. This slower death may be because these roots in the garlic were small and did not bear so great a proportion to their whole system of roots as the roots by which the other mints were poisoned did to theirs. When the edges of the leaves of mint E began to change color, I chewed some of them in my mouth and found at first the strong aromatic flavor of mint. But that taste was soon replaced by the nauseous taste of garlic, which was very perceptible to my palate.

I have observed with another mint (marked “F”) that when mint has stood in a glass of water until it seemed to have finished its growth, the roots are a foot long and of an earthy color. When I put some fine soil into the water, it sunk to the bottom and soon there came from the upper joint a new set of white roots. These new white roots took their course on the outside of the heap of old roots downwards until they reached the earth at the bottom. Then they came to be of the same earthy color as the old ones.

Another mint (marked “G”), was well rooted from two joints about four inches apart. I put the roots of the lower joint in a deep glass of water and the roots of the upper joint into a square box of sand, which I had contrived for the purpose of standing over the glass of water: the box had a hole in it through which the mint stood, allowing the roots of the upper joint to be laid easily into one corner of the box of sand. The sand I filled the box with was first dried in a fire, but within only one night’s time I found that the roots of the lower joint had drawn the water up and imparted so much of the water to the dry sand above that the sand that the corner in which the roots of the upper joint lay was very wet (the other three corners were dry). This experiment I repeated very often and it always succeeded as it did the first time.

I prepared in my chamber a small trough (about two feet long) and placed a mint growing in a glass of water at each end of the trough (both marked “HH”). Half of the roots of each mint were allowed to stay in the water, the other half placed into the ends of the trough. I then covered the roots in the trough with loose soil and kept the glasses supplied with water. Whenever the roots would grow through the loose soil, I would put more on until the trough would hold no more. And still the white fibrous roots grew through the dirt, appearing above it. With a microscope I saw that these roots, upon coming above the ground, entered their ends into it again.

These two mints (HH) in my chamber grew three times as large as any other mint I had that stood in glasses of water (which were many!) and much larger than those which stood in water with earth in it (those being of an equal bigness when they were set in)—even though these two mints never had any water in their earth but what their roots sent up from the glasses. There was such a vast quantity of water these roots sent up that it was sufficient to keep all the earth in the troughs moist, though there was a thousand times greater quantity of soil than the roots that watered it. It is probable that the water passed out of the roots into the earth without mixing at all with the sap or being altered in any degree . The earth was always kept moist and even while in the hot weather there would not remain even a drop of water in the glasses after two days and a night, the roots in the glasses were never dry.

Demonstrating a Circulation from the Roots of Sap and Chyle
II. Remarks on the Mints

Though some marine plants are in some ways fortified against the acrimony of salt, the mints A, B and C each demonstrate that salt is poison to other plants. The reason why salts in dung, brine or urine do not kill plants in the field or garden is that their strength is diffused in the soil so that the no considerable quantity or force of the salts reaches the roots.

I tried applying salt to many potatoes growing in the ground. I undermined them and put a few of their roots into a dish of salt water. These roots all died sooner or later (according to their bigness). By these potatoes and the mints B, C, D and E, it appears that roots make no distinction between nourishment and poison. And, they are not brought to ingesting poison for lack of nourishment—they were vigorous and well fed at the time when the most inconsiderable part of their number was exposed to salt, garlic or ink.

The mint F shows that when new soil is applied to old roots, a plant sends out new roots for the purpose of feeding upon the new soil. The more earth that is given, the more roots will be formed and the greater the vigor of the plant. This addition of soil corresponds with the action of hoeing: every time the soil is moved about the roots, it is as if they have a change of soil (though it is true the soil is not new, the soil that has been moved is new to them).

The mint G proves that there is such a communication between the roots so that when any of them have water, they share of that water with the rest. This also demonstrates that the root of the lower joint of the mint had passages (or “vessels”) leading from them (through the stalk) to the roots of the upper joint.

The circulation of sap and chyle accounts for the great produce of the plants with long tap-roots, such as alfalfa and sanfoin in dry weather: the soil at great depths is always moist, even if the soil at shallow depths may be dry. It accounts for the good crops of these plants we have in dry summers upon land that has a clay bottom, for in that clay bottom the water is retained a long time and the lower roots of the plants that reach it do like those of the mint G and send up a share of that water to all the higher roots. If those roots of a plant that lie at the surface of the ground did not receive moisture from other roots that lie deeper, they could be of no use in dry weather and when the dry surface is loosened or fertilized, the plant would not grow faster if no rain fell. The deep roots communicate a share of the water to the shallow roots and in return the shallow roots send a share of the food: the two mints, marked HH show that when the upper roots have moisture (as they had in the earth in the trough, carried there by the lower roots), they impart some of it to the lower when the lower roots require water.

These mints demonstrate the circulation of sap and chyle and explain the benefit of the hoeing effects: loosening the soil encourages the plants to grow. Roots, by being broken off near their ends, increase their number and send out several where one is broken off, and roots increase their fibers every time the soil is loosened about them.


Altitude Matters to Crops

Altitude matters to crops in many ways. The higher elevations are cooler and grow several months behind schedule of the valleys: a farm that grows both at several hundred feet elevation and at the more than 3000 feet elevation of Squaw Valley can have winter and summer at the same time!


Cool nights are characteristic of high altitudes. With less atmosphere to hold in the heat, the crops chill somewhat. This increases sugar deposition in vegetables, making high altitude vegetables just slightly more sweet than low altitude vegetables.

Low altitudes are warmer longer and can yield more fruit longer. Fruit can ripen longer at lower altitudes, making low altitude fruit sweeter than high altitude fruit.

Mountain soils are different than valley soils, too, but this matters less to the flavor of fruits and grains and more to the flavor of vegetables. Which is better? It’s hard to say: some people prefer one to the other, other people like it the other way around. We like to compare it to water: some springs and wells taste better than others, depending on the minerals in the soil. This is why some people prefer the spring and well water of one mountain to another.

If you are curious, let us show you the difference! This week, one of our favorite foods - miner’s lettuce - comes into season and we are glad to show you the difference of high altitude versus low altitude with free samples.

We drive up and down hill all day, burning clean biofuel, spreading the smell of fresh produce and rotten french fries everywhere. Uphill is different than downhill for produce!


Questions on how CSA's Feed the Poor from CBS (Washington, DC)

We got a question from CBS (Washington, DC) on how CSA’s feed the poor.

CBS Writes:
My name is Valerie [last name omitted for privacy] with CBS Evening News in Washington DC and I’m working on a story about how despite the terrible economy people are still investing in Community Supported Agriculture (CSA’s) - many of them locally are sold out. CSA’s are not the cheapest way of getting local produce - no one does this to save money. They do it to participate in the local food movement. But it’s something of a luxury, so my question is, why do people keep participating when they’re giving up so much else? If you could reply and give me your thoughts on this issue that would be great.

Thank you for your time,

CBS Weekend Evening News Intern

We Reply:
Dear Valerie,
we’re sorry if this seems rude, but your question is a fair one and demands honesty. The reason why the situation is so puzzling is because you and CBS are approaching the story with the false premise of bias.

we submit to your consideration that
1): CSA’s are some of the most affordable ways to get food.
2): Fresh food is not a luxury.

Let’s do the numbers with two of our boxes.

Our cheapest box (per meal) is our 37 gallon (about 4 bushel) box. It is designed to feed a family of 5-1/3 moderately active people (based on USDA nutritional guidelines). Yes, it is bizzare, but keep in mind that some children and elders eat anywhere from 1/3 to 3/4 as much as adults and in a family that size, there will be an assortment of children and elders. It costs $1227.40 per month, $43.84 per day, $21.92 per meal (if two meals are prepared at home), and $4.11 per person per meal. And that’s a complete, nutritionally balanced meal! Quite affordable, considering the cost of fast food or grocery stores.

Our cheapest box (per box) is our 2 gallon (about 6/16 bushel) box. It is designed to feed a sedentary individual who cooks only one meal per day (based on USDA guidelines). It costs $96.67 per month, that is $3.45 per meal (with one meal per day). A balanced, complete, square meal. $3.45.

Now, we have some customers who complain our prices are too high. They shop at Costco, at Walmart or Sam’s Club, or get the old food off the discount shelf at the supermarket. We don’t deny that there are cheaper sources of food. The cheapest way of getting food is becoming the farmer yourself and growing it! But, through a combination of fresh and quality product, ease of acquisition (we’ll deliver it fresh to your doorstep while you’re at work or at play using negative-carbon gain fuels!), and ease of preparation (we can help you prepare your quality meals in less than 5 minutes!), we think our CSA offers a combination that is ideally suited for not only hard economic times, but for the best of times as well.

We don’t deny, either, that some CSA’s are overpriced. Some restaurants are overpriced, too. In any market - whether it is food or clothing or anything at all - there will be overpriced and underpriced options. Our customers appreciate that they get much more than what they pay for.

But is fresh food a luxury?

There’s three ways to look at this.

First, let’s look at it from a monetary standpoint. Disregarding that fresh food can be as cheap - pound for pound - as rotten, spoiled or damaged food, fresh food is used to more efficiency in the home than unfresh food. Simply said, more of it is eaten, more of it is digested and it is enjoyed better. Unfresh food is a source of disease, which is costly to any family in economic crisis. Families in crisis need their strength, they need to eat every last morsel of food. Nothing should be thrown out or wasted because it is damaged, spoiled or rotten. Though parents can prepare all the food - without carving away spoiled parts - and can require children eat all their food, there is simply no reason to do this when it costs the same to provide fresh food.

Second, examine it from societal perspectives. Children need to learn to love their food. They need to learn to eat well, to become strong, smart, beautiful citizens. They need to look forward to meals at home - with or without their parents. Fresh food does just that. Food is love, and we should all love our food.

Third, consider nutrition. Old, tasteless, dry beans make all of life seem old and tasteless. Rotten cabbages make life stink. Lettuce that is blooming with bacteria tints life with a lurid glow. Stale eggs in your pancakes are a killjoy. Oats should be flavorful and fresh! Tomatoes should be ripe all the way through. The nutritional quality of old food is inferior to fresh food. Water and fat soluable vitamins and minerals, essential proteins and other nutrients degrade in storage. Eating disease makes you sick. You would not choose unfresh food to fresh food if they costed the same or nearly so.

Please, if you have any doubts, let us send you a box of our food UPS. It can arrive tomorrow. If you have not tasted a farm fresh meal, it will be an honor and a pleasure to show you once again how you can love your food.

your farmers,
Aaron Brachfeld and Mary Choate
Re Rustica

Questions on Water and Democracy from the BBC World News Service

We got a call today from the BBC World News Service and they asked very important questions about the water crisis of California.

BBC: Are you suffering from the drought?

No: having anticipated the rainfall, we planted only those crops which naturally grow in desert conditions. Because our customers desire those crops which they are culturally used to, those plants which like lots of water, we also grow in areas which have more water, transporting the crop with fuels that burn with zero or negative carbon gain. To do this, we use techniques like renting land and contract-farming (in which we specify how the crop is to be grown).

BBC: Are other farmers suffering?

We don’t know: most other farms are private entities and do not publish financial or other information. However, they ARE complaining greatly and we notice they are inefficient with their water, allowing vast quantities of the water to evaporate before feeding the crops. Other farmers are more efficient. It varies by region and the technical skill of the farmer.

BBC: How are water rights allocated?

In the United States, each State owns all the water. The State then decides how to allocate the water resources. In California, the State cedes authority over the resources to both public (County) and private corporations. When publicly administered, as is the case usually with wells, a County grants permit, either unlimitedly or limitedly. If it is limited, the amount of gallons or the time which those gallons may be withdrawn or both are directed by regulations developed through undemocratic methods. If privately administered, shares in the right granted to the private corporation are bought and sold.

In both cases, the wealthiest farmers and cities and individuals get more water than the poorest. Whether limited or not, the water is not freely accessible and requires expensive wells and infrastructure to access, or the shares are expensive. Thus, instead of serving the public interest, right is made by financial might and the largest farms are able to acquire more water.

This would be a problem if the only crops that could be grown required water. While it is true that the wealthiest farmers grow wealthier because crops that require water have higher profit margins, the poorest farmers can afford to grow cash crops using only rain water - even in desert conditions. Different varities of plants and technical skill allow for more efficient water use.

In example, American Spinach (Lambsquarter) is more water efficient than European Spinach. It also sells for a premium because it is more nutritious and delicious. Dates, lemons, and other luxury foods all do better with water, but produce adequate yields without water (even under these drought conditions). Mounding - whether using moldboards or spades - and tillage in aisles and ditch planting reduce water need, and allowing weeds and other vegetation to grow increases water retention.

Are there crop failures because of lack of water?

Yes. Some farmers either don’t know how to grow without water or won’t. In Colorado, a vast number of wells were recently shut off, ruining the State’s potato harvest. However, other staple foods can feed the Coloradoans beside potatoes - wheat requires little water, millet and oats require even less. But if tubers are desired, there are plenty of native tubers! Palm vegetable, squash, beans and other starchy vegetables and fruits can also fill the gap in people’s diets left by potatoes.

It is not up to the suppliers of food - the farmers - to alter their crops. They must sell things to make a living and serve market demand. It is up to the consumer to demand those crops which grow in their new home. Though some of us have lived in North America for many generations, we are reluctant to give up those ties to our ancestral homes and those foods of our fathers and mothers. Yet we are in a new land now, and we ougth to learn to eat like natives if we are to remain here.


Shh! The trees are sleeping!

Sleep.  What we take for granted with animals and microorganisms to some people seems outrageous when considered a behavior associated with plants and fungi.  But it is a fact that the metabolism of plants and fungi changes periodically during the day or night to allow them rest. 

Plants explore their environment, communicate threats and opportunities with each other using chemcial and electrical signals, undertake interspecies communication, and have even sometimes been known to train each other and members of other species to adapt unnatural behavior (a process of domestication - especially common with sunflowers and ants, which can be summoned to a particular part of the plant under attack when the plant uses "ant" chemical language). 

Some flowers close and open as the temperature changes so their reproductive organs aren't damaged by the freezing or baking temperatures.  Some plants move very quickly: carnivorous plants like the Venus Fly Trap are quick enough to catch flies, and the Kudzu plant, the friend to all travelers needing shelter for the night, will grow you a house if you ask it nicely, or return your embrace at night.  

But, usually, plants move very slowly.  So slowly that most people don't even think about it.

Yet farmers have to think at plant-speed.  We trim the roots of our plants so they can eat better, we pile fresh delicious soil on them from the aisles so they have good food to eat where they want it.  We "listen" to their communications and meet their needs.  We help them get to where they are trying to forage, and even shepherd our vines and canes about our fields. 

Some of our plants need friends, others like to be left alone.  Some like friends of different species, others prefer the company of their own kind.  Some plants are male and others are female, others are both male and female, others are neither male nor female.  Of course, sexual plants get lonely if they are only among their own sex, and require a particular ratio of male to female for proper socialization. 

When we walk among our trees at night, we like to talk softly - not because our trees will wake up if they hear us (trees cannot hear sound vibrations), but because we like to listen to them sleep.  We listen to the grasses and the trees - those mortal enemies - resting in peace, the joyful songs of the coyotes and bobcats as they work in our fields, protecting our crops from the herbivores that would destroy them.  In the heat of the day we listen to the screams of the eagles defending our plants against the herbivores, the roars of the lions, the clucking of our insect-hungry birds, the symphony of singing arachnids (yes, spiders sing various songs of victory, hunger, loneliness, territory, homemaking, and others). 

Herbivores ourselves, we like to look at our fellow herbivores as enemies, but they do offer essential services to our garden, fertilizing and controlling weeds, thinning our crops to proper densities, and other things that we would otherwise have to do.  Every creature is our friend, and if left to do their work, they leave little for us to do but walk among them in awe, glad to offer what little assistance we can.

We can and do offer the hospitality of food and shelter to all the plants, animals, microorganisms and fungi in our fields; we medicinally treat all the creatures that require aid.  This is our job.  None of our friends can do it.  Humanity was born to serve the world, which so patiently provides us food.


Consider the Poppies of the Field

We take time every day to learn, and when we saw some poppies growing along the roadside, we couldn’t resist the opportunity to learn. Out comes the camera! Look at how they grow together, what crops - er - wild plants grow between them, the way the wild boar has tilled the magnificent bed to improve the yield - er - show, and the innumerable creatures that depend on the beautiful blooms for their lives! Farmers study from nature because She is the best teacher!

Notice the biodiversity? We do. In our fields we encourage biodiversity for a reason!


question from the Bee

We had written to the Bee a news tip after hearing some perncious piffle on the radio.  We posted our objections previously to our blog under the same. 

Today we got a response back from Mr. Downing, of the Bee:

Rustica, Thanks for the tip.  I question your calculations, and ask you: If pastured eggs are so cheap to produce, why do they sell for $7-$8 a dozen?  I completely agree that they are a superior product, but I do think they're expensive to produce. Best, Jim

Dear Mr. Downing,

Thanks for your question - it is your willingness to follow through to report truth that earns our respect for the Bee!

The two questions are somewhat unrelated and will be addressed independently. 

<strong>The answer to your second question first, </strong>

in free markets, commodities will sell at the highest price the market will bear and for the lowest price the producer can afford IN A GIVEN MARKET.

Demand side first.

If you take a trip of even a few miles outside of Sacramento, you'll find that the relative supply of pastured eggs to caged eggs is reversed and there is a surplus of pastured eggs.  Eggs sell for as low as $1 per dozen in some places!  This is because the cost of producing eggs by pasture is so low and easy that the producers have to sell cheaply to compete with the home grown article.  The cost of caged eggs is increased by shipping, and may sell as high as $4-$8 per dozen.

In the city, it is quite the opposite.  Transportation systems from centralized production centers (which specialize in cage production) reduce the cost of transporting caged eggs and the laws that prohibit the production of pastured chickens within city limits increase the scarcity of the pastured egg, and raising the price accordingly.

<strong>Now, supply side.</strong>

Economists generally agree that there are two efficiencies of scale in any industrial production.  The first, made possible by roboticization and mechanization, is the efficiencies of "mass production."  The second, made possible by biological training, is the efficiencies of "small run production."  Mass production and small run production enjoy the same efficiency when undertaken at the proper scale of production: the marginal cost for small run producers has its minimum far earlier than the marginal cost for mass producers due to the variability of production.

An objection which should be dealt with very first and before discussion of the production efficiency of grazing versus caging chickens is that small run production cannot produce the same TOTAL eggs as mass production.  This is true, however, it does not account for the market encouraging a cooperative of many small run producers.  This cooperative system is more common in plant production.  Examples are many: many small wheat producers organize to feed the nation, sunmaid buys from many small producers, coors buys from many small barley producers, etc. 

This was the principle mode of industrial production until the industrial revolution.  It is still common in many industries today, examples can be given upon request but will be witheld from this particular discussion to simplify our response.  Many small run producers create the same TOTAL eggs as one mass producer, and for the same PER UNIT cost.

Mass production is preferred by noncooperative ("designed") market systems that aim to monopolize markets for the interests of the State, whereas in "free" markets, the high cost of machines and robots encourages mutualistic cooperation to "capitalize" and overcome the would-be inability of small run production to meet TOTAL demand: in capitalist systems, demand is high and prices are higher until the cooperative producers begin to fill total demand.

"Cooperative" does not imply communist marketing, where various small producers are enpartnered.  However, "cooperative" does suggest natural mutual production and marketing goals and interests.

Back to the supply side discussion:

Cages require a system of mechanization and roboticization.  (Definition: mechanization is the process of using machine labor, which is a methodical, tireless laborer - usually inorganic - designed to use a particular tool repeatedly.  Roboticization is the process of using robots, which is a mechanized manager of machines).  The cage is a tool used by the biological laborer (chicken) (the egg falls into a predictable, tireless, methodical location regularly), and the human and inhuman labor undertakes processes of robotization by collecting, standardizing, and otherwise processing eggs, feeding chickens, cleaning waste, culling birds, etc.  The birds cannot be allowed to act even semi-randomly, and none of the processes from feed to chicken to egg carton and broiler can be variated.

Grazing is a small run system.  The chicken can be taught to lay eggs in one place every day, and trained roosters and human labor are relied upon much the same way that machines and robots are relied upon in mass production.  The producer increases their flock size until such point as pasture is maximized or other resource constraints (more usually labor) is overwhelmed.  For us, this cap is about 500-800 hens, a production level of about 250 dozen per month on average.

Much more than that and it becomes too expensive (for our own operation's constraints) to produce eggs at a profit.  However, by advances in technique, we are becoming more efficient and are gradually increasnig production.  Yet we will never produce by ourselves as many eggs as a roboticized and mechanized farm and rely on contracts with our neighbors to supply what surplus demand is to be had.

Advances in transportation technology (especially recent advances in biofuels) have reduced our costs of transportation so we can bring our eggs to markets where they are in even higher demand, allowing us to capitalize upon the efficiency of our production and transportation by selling at a market price above the economic equilibrium of our home economy.

At peak efficiency, both large scale and small scale production will employ similar laborers per hen.  The efficiency per laborer is held constant by the limitations of husbandry not yet overcome by technological advance.

Now, to your first question about feed.

We raise chickens and are diversifying currently into ducks and geese.  We have excellent data for our chickens, and only national statistics for our ducks and geese.  Our data for the chickens meshes fairly well with national expectations, and so we trust the national statistics generated by veterinary schools and can provide those to you if you like - but the question for the voters was on chickens, so we'll stick to that for simplicity.

In a cage, each bird will eat 0.18 pounds of feed per day using our high energy feed that we mix ourselves.  This meets all caloric and nutritional needs at a cost of $0.36 per day.  This works out, at current prices, to be $131.40 per year.  With grain prices doubling last year and expected to perhaps double this coming year and perhaps not, a high expectation (~60% of doubling) we would budget about $210.

Each of our birds eats a combination of pasture and grain.  The grain is used primarily for training, and suppliment food in the winter (we have snow and there is little for these tropical birds to eat).  Our birds eat about 1/4 as much on average (for those keeping score at home, a total of ~$52 per bird per year).  When we maintain in our flock a popultion of about 1/3 roosters, the price PER HEN increases to about $80.

The machine of cage producers cannot rest, so they heat their birds and provide artificial light in the winter.  Our hens lay much more in Spring and Autumn than they do in Summer and Winter and so we need no heat.  The birds don't idle in those periods, but build up their strength to lay eggs cyclically, raise baby chicks (we do sometimes get a few broody hens, though training can reduce or nearly eliminate the risk of chicks, and harvesting eggs daily certainly eliminates chicks.  However, our customers demand we treat our birds ethically in such a way that broody hens are allowed to brood).  Mortality rates are equivilant between pasture and cage production. 

There are innumerable minor differences, adding costs to cages or to pasture, and resulting in greater returns to cages or pasture.  These are held to be equivilant in our data, and not seeing professional researchers at universities undertake the necessary tests, we encourage you and all other amateur scientists to undertake independent trials.  By the nature of the production, we are sure that the data will agree: small run grazing is as efficient and profitable as large scale mechanized egg production.  The price per egg when the State does not interfere (beyond city limits) bears this truth.

If you have further questions please let us know

Please let us know if we can provide more support.  We hesitate to take up your time, but the strong lobby of the large producers in this State are endangering both the will of the people and the interests of a free capitalist society.  By flooding the market of ideas with half-truths (yes, mass production is cheaper, but so is small run production on certain scales, etc.) they demonstrate that their monopolistic interests lie in the dominance and extermination of their competitors, not in the well being of society, the free market place or our national economy.

These large producers, having enjoyed special privilage from a socialist State that encouraged their monopolization through the illegalization of small scale production near to centers of demand and through other fees, taxes and regulations that only are compensated by large scales of production, are obviously terrified at losing their competitive edge by regulations that now, insetad of helping them, discourage them in favor of small producers. 

That the State is now promoting the small scale producer instead is only marginally better than the fostering of monopolies: at least the capitalist system will be freely preserved under the new law.  However, the sooner the people and State of California recognize that a free economy is the best way to secure their interests, the better it will be for all producers.  And the sooner that larger producers recognize that their interests lie in the betterment of all producers - large and small - the sooner they will profit better.  There is plenty of room in a free market for small and large producers.  The greed that motivated them to influence the public towards regulating the market for their benefit has come to bitter fruit, but it is not too late to undo the damage - if journals like the Bee will only investigate the whole truth of the matter for the advisement of the public.

please let us know if you'd like to borrow our personal books on economics, or would like references for your own access at the public library.  We are

at your service,
Aaron and Mary


Free Home Delivery

Shameless promotion alert! (but don’t worry, it’s not all our own promotion - we’re also stumping for some friends - the Southern California Biodiesel company) Of course, if this blog entices you to order from us, as well, well… you’ve been warned!

B.D. asked us by email an excellent question, suitable for our blog!
Why and how do you undertake free home delivery?

BD already recieved a personal email answer, but we thought we’d share this wonderful question and its answers with everyone. Why and how we undertake free home delivery every week is, in fact, two separate questions.

Why? Because we love to drive, and to rest assured our customers are getting the personalized attention they deserve. We get a book on tape or some fresh release of music, roll down the windows for the fresh air and zip about at a mile per minute, a revolution of ecologically friendly farming, community-centric food and experimiental fuel surrounding us.

How? We use cheap “experimental” biofuel. Though the diesel engine has run on vegetable oil since Dr. Diesel invented it, and America relied on veggie oil to propel its fleets in dire emergencies (especially during Vietnam), the EPA regulations on this “new” fuel are excessive: multimillion dollar testing is required - a price no one can afford to undertake. So, the State of California and other forward-looking communities across the USA have declared it in the interests of the people to allow exemptions to those people brave enough to take advantage of this cheap, domestically produced, clean fuel.

While you can collect your own waste oil from restaurants, we go through so much that we simply buy (at about the price, when labor is calculated, it would cost us to collect it and process it ourselves) from the Southern California BioFuel company The amount we save on fuel allows free home delivery!

The biofuel burns better - we get more MPG. It burns with no or negative carbon gain. It is locally and domestically produced. It gets you cheap, delicious, farm fresh food!

Statistical Encouragement

There is no shortage of bad advice, and though good advice is rare, caution is never bad advice.


We have farmed many places over the years and though our neighbors have always tried to urge us caution, though their words can be in effect discouragement.

“The gophers will eat your crops!” “The hawks, bobcats, lions, coyotes and dogs will eat your birds!” “Colony collapse disorder will kill your bees!” “The drought will dry out your soil!”

Among the advice we offer to new farmers and gardeners is caution.

A cautious farmer undertakes experiments and collects data to learn the truth of a matter. The cautious farmer understands from their data not only whether or not the gophers are eating the crops (perhaps it is the mice, or some other critter entirely?), but why (lack of alternative foods?)…and then is able to overcome the problem entirely!

Statistical analysis allows a complex understanding of the world that then prescribes solutions to even the greatest problems. This is because every phenomena you can observe has causes, and understanding the factors that influence the outcome of a scenario allows you to effect a more desireable outcome.

So, cautiously collect all kinds of data. For plants, there are several factors that are most important to the success or failure of the crop: the nutrition of the plants (water, soil composition and structure, and the presence of microorganism “friends” who help the plants eat), the predators of the plants (micro and macroorganisms), and the weather (espeically temperature and cloudcover). For animals (birds especially), you must also consider closely the nutrition of the animal, its predators (especially in regard to hygiene), and the weather (especially daylight).

Yet, minor factors should also be considered. We pay special attention to those minor factors that describe larger phenomena beyond our ken. Among these is the presence of organisms that pass through our farm as they migrate from place to place (as observed through footprints, excriment, and other impacts and pollution), and the global weather.

There are also non-numerical data to be considered. These must be translated into numerical values. If you observe, for example, that the plants look very “green” this year, create a coefficient of “how green?” by making a scale of green, from 90% white to 90% black tint. If you observe that the goats are acting very “goaty,” identify what “goaty” means in numerical terms to you.

You must also collect data on your impacts on the growing environment. These “controllable” factors might include the width of beds and aisles, the planted biodiversity, the maintained biodensity, and irrigation, supplimental feed, supplimental heat or light, etc.

When you have all the data, perform regression analysis and correlative analysis. You will quickly learn how the various factors you are observing impact each other, and how you’re helping or harming your production. Converting the terms into costs allows you to learn how to be more profitable!

We love statistics - they encourage us daily. A farmer who collects statistics on their operations understands that every problem has a solution, and has the confidence to undertake improvements to their practices. They are always learning, loving their world through observation. The stastistically impowered farmer works eyes wide open, ready to behold the wonder of the world - and kindly treat all creatures with whom they share it.


How wide to make aisles and beds?

The decision of how wide to make beds and aisles is a question of economics, ergonomics and of biology. The plants must be able to reach the aisles with their roots so they can eat from them, so the beds cannot be too wide. The beds must be no wider than human hands can reach to harvest from the middle of them and aisles must be big enough to walk through and till. The beds and aisles must be big enough to produce maximum yields.

The question of how far human hands can reach into the middle of beds for harvesting is easily answered. The average person can reach 2 feet from a squatting position easily, and so the beds cannot be wider than 4 feet across.

How wide the aisles must be depends on the machinery to be used in tillage and the width of the people tending the beds. A human can easily walk and kneel in a space 2 feet wide, and so this becomes a minimum width of the aisle. A shovel is about 1 foot wide – smaller than the minimum width.

But what if shovels are not the primary form of tillage? Two horses pulling a plow are 6 feet wide – if this is the primary form of tillage, than the aisle must be at least 6 feet wide. Our tractor is 6 feet wide, but sometimes we use shovels. So, sometimes we have 2 foot wide aisles, sometimes 6 foot wide.

Based on ergonomic analysis, it would be good if the plants can reach at least 2 feet from the middle of the beds to the aisles.

The question is tested by tilling a wedge shape into untilled ground. The dimensions of the triangle shall be a length of 20 feet and a base width of 20 feet.

Plant the seeds of the crop in question in a line down middle, from the apex to the base every 12 inches so that the first seed is 0 feet from the hard ground, and the last (20th) seed is 10 feet from the hard ground, so that every seed from the apex has more tilled ground surrounding it.

You will notice that the seeds closer to the base are larger. This is because they have more tilled soil to eat: their roots can penetrate further, eat better and have more fertile soil to eat. Measure the yield or biomass of the vegetation as it travels down the line. You will notice that at a point, there is no longer an increasing rate of return for more soil. This point represents the greatest width you’ll ever want to have your beds.

Depending on soil conditions and species, we have found this ideal bed width distance to lie somewhere between 4 and 6 feet, on average. Clearly, the 2 feet the plants must traverse is within this maximum bed width.

But how wide should the aisles be?

Examining the same data with different objectives, you can observe that each plant does best when it has about 4-6 feet of soil to eat. This suggests that the aisle should be 4-6 feet wide for maximum yield, for most crops.

There are exceptions: some crops (especially sprouts!) need less soil to eat, and others need much more. Experimentation must be done on each crop to be grown if the exact data is to be learned. A good rule is, however, aisles of 4-6 feet wide, and beds of 4-6 feet wide, and if human hands must reach the middle easily, the beds should be limited to 4 feet wide.

We prefer beds 4 feet wide and aisles 6 feet wide because our tractor is 6 feet wide and we can till easily in the aisles then, and reach into the beds.

Is this an inefficient use of space?

Using the same data gained in the experiment described before, you can calculate anticipated yields based on aisle width and bed width. You will find that the point of decreasing marginal returns is the point at which you will earn the most money. Well fed plants are the best use of space: it is better to have fewer well fed plants than many starving plants – so long as you don’t have too few plants per bed. Aim for the maximum number of plants you can feed well – the point of decreasing marginal return for aisle and bed with… 4-6 feet per bed and aisle.

On some of our lands we maintain a 2 foot aisle and 4 foot bed. Why do we till less than the ideal width?

We combine those plants with condensed root systems so that we can maximize the use of land. All those plants that have extensive root systems enjoy the 6 foot aisles, but for many crops, this is more than necessary. Spinach, radishes, lettuces, peas, sprouts, onions, tomatoes, peppers, and potatoes, among other high-water crops, need less root space than plants like squashes, beans, small grains, large grains, lambsquarter, and other “xeric” or low-water crops.

Tillage helps plants grow

You can learn a lot about farming from looking at your car or truck in the early hours of the morning.

Sometimes, they are covered with a fine layer of frozen water because the air inside is of a different temperature than the air outside.  This forces the water in the air that touches the vehicle’s shell (usually the windows, for they convey the temperature best) to solidify upon the surface in the form of ice. 

When it warms, it melts and sinks into the soil.  This is water that would have never entered the soil otherwise.

When you till your fields, you create many such small air pockets.  When the temperature changes every night, the air inside the air pockets remains about the same, and forces water to condense on the field and within the numerous pores your tillage has made.  This increases the amount of available water, and increases your crop yields.

Tillage also decreases evaporation by insulating moist lower soil levels with moist air, and also decreases run-off when rain occurs. 

Some scientists have found that the act of tillage can, when done poorly, reduce soil moisture 25%.  But regular tillage improves soil composition and structure to increase moisture levels.

Tillage changes the soil composition in two ways.  The first is by adding water, the second is by adding air.  By adding these two ingredients together, the microflora in the soil are able to produce the chemicals plants need to live and grow, Nitrogen, Phosphorous, Potassium, Copper…everything that is required for life.

But tillage also affects plants directly.  Trimming plant roots by tilling in the aisle results in the damaged root putting forth new, smaller roots.  These small roots have more mouths per inch and are able to eat better than older, larger roots.  They also have loose soil to eat, which is easier for them to ingest.  This soil is better fertilized by the microflora.

Tillage is good for plants!

For further reading, we suggest the excellent work of Dr. M.J. Goss, especially his “Losses of nitrate-nitrogen in water draining from under autumn-sown crops,” printed in the Journal of Soil Science, 1993,44,35- 48

Also, read Jethro Tull’s experimental data published in his “Horse Hoeing Husbandry,” 1731. 

You can also do your own research to confirm these results!  Contact us for FREE experimental instructions and supplies:, or 559-977-7539.

RSS feed for Re Rustica blog. Right-click, copy link and paste into your newsfeed reader