Thursday, July 07, 2011

An Afternoon with Gene Logsdon

[Note: I originally wrote this for the now defunct Hen and Harvest web site, back in August of 2008. Since it no longer appears anywhere on the web, I wanted to save it here.]

I knew that Peter Hurd was a famous artist and that he had married into the Wyeth family. I loved his paintings, especially The Dry River (1938). That’s about all I knew about him. I was just at the beginning of my notion to write a book about Andrew Wyeth, and when I learned that Peter Hurd was his good friend besides being his brother-in-law, I thought: What better place to start? I was naive enough to think that all I had to do was contact him and, because at that time I was working for one of the foremost farm magazines in the country, he would fall all over himself to grant me an interview.

Actually, against all odds, it happened sort of that way. When I would think back later with the perspective of one who has learned a little more about the difficulties of inverviewing famous people, I believe that Hurd granted the interview because I really did work for a farm magazine. Peter Hurd was a farmer, or, more accurately, a rancher, and because he took his ranching seriously, he was willing ot give a little time to a farm magazine.

- Gene Logsdon, The Mother of All Arts (p. 41)

I decided to ask Gene Logsdon for an interview, mostly on a whim. I had some pretty meager writing credentials, and no connections. I knew he lived in my home state of Ohio, and not more than 100 miles from me, and I had met him and chatted with him at a conference. But he just seemed like the kind of person who might agree to an interview with an underqualified, inexperienced interviewer. Especially since he had three new books hitting the shelves that summer.

I first read Logsdon’s The Pond Lovers because at the time, we were looking at buying a rural property with a pond. As I was reading it, I could tell that this was the kind of author I wanted to read more from. At that point, I didn’t know he’d also written extensively about small-scale farming, something else I had a budding interest in.

Soon I found myself tearing through The Contrary Farmer, All Flesh is Grass and several of his lesser-known works. My vision of our post-suburban family life was shifting with each turn of the page.

Before long, we moved from a fairly typical subdivision on the outskirts of Cincinnati to almost nine acres in the countryside of south-central Ohio. Based largely on Logsdon’s ideas, with a good mix of other influences, we spent about a year raising goats, started a small flock of chickens, and watched our garden expand exponentially each spring.

After some research, I found what I thought was probably his address. I wrote him a letter, and got a very thoughtful and personalized response. Certainly no form letter. I crossed paths with him again in early 2007 at a conference put on by the Ohio Ecological Food & Farm Association.

At the conference, I found him to be very approachable, and just as amiable and intelligent in person as he seems in his writing. I asked him if it felt good that the Extension services are now advocating the things he’s been writing about for years, and he agreed that it was a good thing. Then again, he said he learns so much from experience every year even now, that he gets embarrased by some of his older writings. I did lobby for him to republish, or revise his old “Small Scale Grain Raising” book. He said it had been discussed, but that his publisher figured that an audience of about 500 people probably wasn’t enough to justify it. [Note: I’ve since learned that an updated version of this classic should be available by Spring 2009.]

Gene was surprised to learn that you could download “Small Scale Grain Raising” for free. “Hey, that’s illegal, you know!” he said with a grin on his face. (Oops!) But after discussing it, and telling him where we got it (”Oh right, those guys”), he concluded that either his copyright had lapsed or he didn’t have a royalty contract on it. He seemed a bit amused by the whole thing.

Later that spring, based on these very loose connections, I wrote asking him for an interview. He wrote back and said, “I notice that your letter doesn’t have a stamp on it and I figure anyone with that kind of pull with the powers-that-be may be able to do me some good.”

Funny, humble, and obliging. Maybe I could actually pull this off…

As I arrived at Gene Logsdon’s home in north-central Ohio, I found him sitting in a lawn chair under a shady tree, snapping beans. Or was it shelling peas? I was too distracted trying to take in everything and figure out how to proceed. I don’t think he knew what to make of me. “I didn’t remember you from the conference,” he said. “I thought you were older.”

“Maybe I am older,” I replied, thinking of the many comments about my baby face over the years.

Apparently so. He missed a guess at my age by almost 10 years. Then he asked me a few questions, trying to gauge where I was coming from. Was I a city kid trying to get into a hometown newspaper? Did I know anything about him? Or about small scale farming?

I do know a little. And the fact is, much of it I learned from his books. That meant we could skip the basics and get into some more details. But first, a quick tour.

The house itself was modest, with some beautiful mature trees and a gravel drive. Buff Orpington and Comet chickens were gathered by the shrubs to one side of the garage.

In front of the house, but well off to the right was a sizeable garden, which included, among other things, succession-planted sweet corn, some trellised grape vines, pole beans, various attempts at deterring deer, and not a weed in sight. Then we walked to another large garden bed at the other end of the front yard, which had tomatoes, potatoes, and some transplanted wild black raspberry bushes covered with protective netting.

Nearby was a rectangular stack of cinder blocks surrounding a compost heap. He said he used it for seed starting, but that his seedlings sometimes had problems with ammonia buildup when it was covered with plastic in late winter and early spring.

From there we walked through the back yard and into the woods - A beautiful swath of mature trees, with a curving lane for vehicle access to the back part of the property. About halfway through the wooded area, we came to some outbuildings: Two modest barns, a three-sided shed, a chicken coop, and two tractors.

“I’m overpowered,” he said, referring to his tractors. I commented that at least that doubled his chances of having one running at any given time. He laughed, and agreed that was exactly the case. “I always just have to make sure one or the other is running.”

We continued down the path through the woods, and came out upon his pastures. Despite the lack of rain - under two inches in almost two months - his pastures were green and healthy.

If you happen to have a copy of his book All Flesh is Grass, you can follow along using the diagram in Chapter 2 - page 30 in my copy. (You can also follow along here through the magic of Google Book Search). If you’re not looking at the diagram, just know that lettered paddocks are permanent pasture, and numbered paddocks are cultivated every fifth year.

Image courtesy of Organic To BeWe walked through Paddock A. At the far fenceline, The land sloped down away from us, giving us an excellent view of the fields below. Paddock B was freshly mowed - he always mows after moving his sheep out. We walked over to Paddock 1, which was growing rectangular blocks of corn, with wide aisles of clover in between. He explained that he’s experimenting with clover and corn rotation schemes. On the back edge of this paddock, along the treeline, was a haystack.

On the way back to the house, we stopped at a tiny pond, teeming with life: Fish, bullfrogs, plants, dragonflies… Logsdon spotted a beautiful golden double-wing dragonfly, saying he’d never seen it’s kind before, and planned to look it up later.

At the edge of the path, I asked him about a weed that I’d seen thriving in my garden. Smartweed, he determined, but was curious about the darkish spots I’d pointed out in the middle of each leaf. He hadn’t noticed it before, and planned to look it up later as well. I was sensing a theme.

Once back at the house, we sat in his office - a long room with one whole wall of bookshelves, some boxes of his latest two books (Lords of the Folly, and The Mother of All Arts), comfortable seating, and a small computer desk.

We had a long, rambling conversation about a wide range of inter-related topics. Below are some highlights, by subject.

The state of the world today

I asked him if he thought we were reaching a tipping point with sustainable farming, local eating, environmental awareness, and all that goes with them. He said he thought we definitely were.

So what triggered it? He gave several possible reasons. For one thing, back-to-the-land movements seem to be cyclical, he thought. For another, people have started to dislike feeling so far removed and disconnected with nature, and with where things come from. He thought that the 9/11 terrorist attacks probably made people want to feel more secure, which led to more desire for self-sufficiency. And finally, he thought that many artists and thinkers tend to be ahead of the cultural curve on such topics, which explains why we’ve seen a flood of books like Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma, Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle or Bill McKibben’s Deep Economy. They must have all been started before the current interest in local food and local economies. So they weren’t just riding a trend, but were leading the charge.

Local food

With a big grin, he told me he was happy to see that, just like with grass farming, people are finally coming around to the things he’s been saying for twenty years about eating locally. He said he’d read excerpts from Omnivore’s Dilemma, but not the whole book. Apparently everyone he knows had been bugging him to read it, along with Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. He acted miffed that Barbara Kingsolver mentioned every other person who writes about sustainable farming but him. Laughing, he said, “I’ve exchanged letters with Barbara, and she didn’t even mention me. I’m not buying her damned book!”

Big mistakes

His biggest mistake, he said, was thinking he could make a living solely as a small farmer. Land is too expensive, and food too cheap. He said he thought if you asked a big farmer whether he was hurting the little farmers, he’d say he hoped not. But with subsidies and economies of scale, it can be hard to break even, much less profit. It can be done, he assured me, but not without a fundamental change in lifestyle. He told me about his friends Jan and Andy (of Jandy’s), who he said probably live off of $12,000 a year. That’s a major adjustment from a typical American lifestyle, and most people aren’t willing to do it. There are advantages to a lifestyle built on minimal spending and minimal income - a $2,000 profit on lambs is suddenly a 10% raise for somebody used to living on $20,000 a year.

His second big mistake, he said, was being too dogmatic about organics. He thought some of his readers would be shocked to learn that he uses RoundUp occasionally. “There’s a difference between spot spraying invasive weeds and drenching your fields,” he said. “I spent three years cutting weeds out of my pond with a corn knife. Have you ever tried swimming with a corn knife?” He said he’s extremely cautious with it around the water, because it’s known to harm aquatic animals. But he thought that the difference between 98% organic and 100% organic was trivial.

Religion & Politics

Just like with strict organics, he thought it was troublesome to be dogmatic about anything - including religion and politics. “If you’re only listening to Rush Limbaugh, or if you always vote for the best man, as long as he’s Republican, then you’re not thinking for yourself anymore.”

On religion, Logsdon said he wouldn’t call himself an atheist or an agnostic, but thought religion was generally on the wrong track. He said the closest match to his own beliefs was something along the lines of animism. He felt that the best description of his beleifs was that Nature itself was the source of spirituality.

Global warming

“I can graze much closer to year-round than I used to. I think maybe it has something to do with global warming,” he said, but then added, “I’m not convinced of the whole global warming thing yet. Bob Evans was the first to tell me, years ago, that we were going into a warming trend, so he knew something about this a long time ago, and he’s been right so far.”

Peak Oil

I asked him if he was familiar with the concept of peak oil. He wasn’t, he said, so I gave him a brief overview of the concept. He seemed genuinely interested, and as I explained, he said, “So when’s this supposed to happen? I’m on the edge of my seat!” I told him it depended who you asked, but many thought we were already at or near a global peak already. (I’ve since purchased a copy of Richard Heinberg’s The Party’s Over to send to him, since I could hardly do the subject justice myself.)


“The amount of waste in our society is insane! Aboslutely crazy! And it’s totally unsustainable. It can’t go on. It just can’t. I do think some kind of economic crash is coming. Well, maybe crash isn’t the right word. But I think we can’t go on like this, and I think there will be a downturn with some hardships.”


He said he though ethanol was a horrible idea - causing increased prices not just in corn, but in soy and other staple crops that get sqeezed out of fields by the ethanol rush. Those higher prices in turn cause higher prices across the entire food supply. “But you don’t need me to tell you ethanol is a bad idea. You can find a hundred other writers saying the same thing.”

The Internet

He was a little skeptical of technology when his family first got him a computer and gave him Internet access, but that he’s really come to appreciate its usefulness. He said he loved the fact that he could type any obscure agricultural topic into Google and get back ten thousand (or ten million) results. He discussed his participation in a blog about organic agriculture called Organic To Be. At first he thought any single person’s contribution would be lost in the vastness of the Internet, “like pissing in the ocean” - but quickly discovered that wasn’t the case. His first article was linked from Energy Bulletin (and others) and generated a huge response.

Eventually, we realized we’d better get back to our respective lives. He introduced me to his beloved wife, daughter, and granddaughter, and sent me on my way.

And so it was that I spent half a day chatting with an intelligent, creative, feisty old farmer who has more than once been called “a national treasure.”


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