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June 2014 Archive for Agriculture's Edge

RSS By: Chris Bennett, Farm Journal

Covering all things agriculture; high-brow, low-brow and all points in between.

An epic survival tale you’ve never heard

Jun 26, 2014

When a helicopter pilot spotted a series of furrows in a clearing halfway up a mountainside in the depths of Siberia, he lifted the veil on one of the most astonishing tales of isolation and survival in history.

Agriculture, no matter how primitive, is the telltale mark of human presence, especially in Siberia’s 5-million square mile blanket of emptiness, and when the Russian helicopter crew (on an iron ore scouting run in 1978) reported the sighting, they were met with disbelief. The clearing, 150 miles from any settlement, was off the grid — truly in the back of beyond — and entirely unknown to any Russian authority.

A team of four geologists, camped roughly 10 miles away, were given the location of the clearing and set off on foot to find out exactly what the pilot had glimpsed. What they found was a scene locked in a 44-year freeze — a family tucked away and hidden from the world and forgotten by time.

Smithsonian relates testimony from one of the geologists, Galina Pismenskaya, as the team first walked up on a decrepit hovel beside a stream: "… the hut was piled up on all sides with taiga rubbish — bark, poles, planks. If it hadn’t been for a window the size of my backpack pocket, it would have been hard to believe that people lived there. But they did, no doubt about it … Our arrival had been noticed, as we could see. The low door creaked, and the figure of a very old man emerged into the light of day, straight out of a fairy tale. Barefoot. Wearing a patched and repatched shirt made of sacking. He wore trousers of the same material, also in patches, and had an uncombed beard."


For the Smithsonian article written by Mike Dash, see For 40 Years, This Russian Family Was Cut Off From All Human Contact, Unaware of World War II


The man, Karp Lykov, had been concealed in absolute isolation in the wilds of Siberia for 42 years — and he wasn’t alone. Pismenskaya continues: "The silence was suddenly broken by sobs and lamentations. Only then did we see the silhouettes of two women. One was in hysterics, praying: ‘This is for our sins, our sins.’ The other, keeping behind a post … sank slowly to the floor. The light from the little window fell on her wide, terrified eyes … "

The geologists had found a family of five nearing starvation: Karp, sons Savvin, 45, and Dmitry, 36; and daughters Natalya, 42, and Agafya, 34. Karp’s wife had died 17 years earlier in 1961.
The Lykovs were members of the "Old Believers," a fundamentalist Russian Orthodox sect, and Karp led his family (wife and only two children at the time) into Siberia in 1936 after communist soldiers murdered his brother just outside the family village. Karp grabbed what belongings he could, gathered up his family and kept going deeper and deeper into the wilderness — the realm of Gulags and merciless terrain. The communists didn’t follow and the Lykov family was forgotten, almost hermetically sealed from any outside contact.


More from Agriculture's Edge:

How to kill a country: Take away the farmland

Agriculture and farmers are killing us all

Burial Mounds: An agriculture venture like no other

Where's your pain relief medicine grown?


There are many survival/isolation tales that astound: the 1972 Andes plane crash survivors; Ernest Shackleton’s two-year Antarctic odyssey; the 1819 whaleship Essex disaster; Victor Aveyron’s feral childhood in the 18th century; Alexander Selkirk’s solitude on Juan Fernandez; and scores of other stunners. Yet outside of the Lykov family, no account features the mix of a 40-year duration, primal existence and religious fervor.

The shocking degree of seclusion and removal from basic societal awareness was immediately evident when Pimenskaya asked the Lykovs if they had ever eaten bread. Karp answered, "I have, but they have not. They have never seen it."

Their existence was dependent on extreme subsistence farming with a diet based on "potato patties mixed with ground rye and hemp seeds." (Their clothing was made from garden hemp production.) With no firearms or bows, game was difficult to catch and the Lykovs repeatedly came to close to starvation. Karp’s wife, Akulina, died from malnutrition in 1961, and the rest of the family only survived when "… a single grain of rye sprouted in their pea patch. The Lykovs put up a fence around the shoot and guarded it zealously night and day to keep off mice and squirrels. At harvest time, the solitary spike yielded 18 grains, and from this they painstakingly rebuilt their rye crop."

Even after discovery, the Lykovs refused to return to their old village or let go of the past. In 1981, Savvin, Natalya and Dmitry died in succession; followed by Karp in 1988.

Agafya, born in unexplored Siberia, is still living there — alone — roughly 70 years old. Even for her, the isolation takes a harsh toll and in a recent letter she has called on the Russian government to send someone to live with her — yet she won’t leave. From her letter, excerpted in The Siberian Times: "We prayed together, and only went out to do outside works after prayers. And whatever else others were doing, one of us was forever inside, to keep reading our prayers. We prayed together during holidays. And now everything is on me, both the prayers and the household."

Agafya will keep her "Old Believer" vigil to her dying breath. After 70 years in Siberia, the last of the Lykovs is going nowhere.


For more on Agafya, see Can anyone help the woman who time forgot?


More from Agriculture's Edge:

How to kill a country: Take away the farmland

Agriculture and farmers are killing us all

Burial Mounds: An agriculture venture like no other

Where's your pain relief medicine grown?


Where's your pain relief medicine grown?

Jun 24, 2014

The next time you reach for a painkiller, the pill you pop probably came from a farmer’s field filled with pink and white flowers on the other side of the world.

The poppy fields of Tasmania provide the opiates for almost half the global supply of pain relief drugs. Whether codeine or cough syrup, the arsenal in your medicine cabinet likely is derived from 62,000 acres of Tasmanian poppies. (Tasmanian poppy acreage is dwarfed by Afghanistan’s 500,000 acres and Burma’s 100,000 acres, but that harvest feeds the opium and heroin trade.)

Opiate paste is obtained from a poppy’s capsule and a few inches of the upper stem. The dried paste and poppy material essentially goes into the manufacture of morphine, codeine and thebaine — vital to the medical industry. Worth over $100 million to Tasmanian agriculture, poppies are only grown by farmers with special government licenses and manufacturer contracts. Each year, roughly 800 producers farm Tasmania’s heavily regulated 62,000 poppy acres — with yield averaging about 1 ton per acre, according to the Poppy Advisory and Control Board.


More from Agriculture's Edge:

How to kill a country: Take away the farmland

Agriculture and farmers are killing us all

Burial Mounds: An agriculture venture like no other


Poppy farming is a cash cow the Tasmanian agriculture industry wants to keep inside the paddock for as long as possible, but mainland Australia wants a piece of the profit, and acreage expansion to other states would spread risk in case of a lost season or natural disaster. It would also break Tasmania’s Australian monopoly.

Tasmanian farmers like Cliff Hingston are digging in. "Everyone that I know is dead against it going outside of Tasmania. It makes you nervous about future investments," he told The Examiner. "If we can't supply it, I wouldn't have a problem with it, but at the moment I think we can. I don't think they have explored the option of storage enough. It's a bit like setting yourself up for a drought; you fill your barns with hay and your silos with grains and they can do it too. All it needs is federal legislation to allow them to store in addition to what they do now.''

Trial plantings are currently underway in Victoria, but the Tasmanian government is calling for a five-year moratorium on interstate expansion. From AM: "Opium is the key ingredient for pain relief drugs such as codeine and morphine. Demand is growing as populations in the developed world age and developing nations get richer. Tasmanian farmers have been growing poppies since the 1960s but the industry is outgrowing the island state and looking to the mainland … There are 13 trial sites across Victoria, involving three companies. One company has also run trials in the Northern Territory. It has Tasmanian growers concerned that their share of the industry is about to shrink."

Arguably the most unique of specialty crops, one factor is certain for poppy farmers: Demand for pharmaceutical painkillers is going nowhere but up. No poppies; no opiates.


More from Agriculture's Edge:

How to kill a country: Take away the farmland

Agriculture and farmers are killing us all

Burial Mounds: An agriculture venture like no other


How to kill a country: Take away the farmland

Jun 17, 2014

Wanna wreck an economy or kill a nation? Just toss several thousand farmers off their land and wait a few years for the country to curdle when the inevitable food supply collapse comes. All it takes is a bit of "farmland redistribution" and a nation’s base will go wobbly — sort of like smashing your own ankles with a hammer.

It’s a page pulled straight from Robert Mugabe’s "How To Destroy Your Own Country" playbook. When Mugabe, dictator forever and a day of Zimbabwe, took power as prime minister in 1980, he inherited a thriving economy backed by a treasure trove of natural resources: coal, iron, gold, platinum, diamonds — and rich farmland.

In a few years, certainly by the 1990s, Mugabe had pulled the economic handbrake and Zimbabwe had reversed course in a smoking one-eighty, fueled by massive corruption, bungled leadership and the whims of a tyrant.

When your country is burning, what to do? For Uncle Robert, he threw on more wood and doubled-down in true avuncular fashion, shuffling the agriculture industry in 2000 by seizing white-owned farms in the name of "land reform" and in a racial game of mix-and-match, reallocating the land to black farmers. But despite Mugabe’s posturing, his land grab was not about historical wrongs — it was about Mugabe and his cronies (judges, military leaders, government officials, and loads of Mugabe relatives lining up with open hands) making off with all they could — over 2 million acres of farmland. In short time, most of Zimbabwe’s 4,500 white farmers were forcibly removed by Mugabe’s henchmen and put on the curb with no compensation. Fist in the air, Mugabe assured Zimbabweans that true change was nearing and in one of the rare occasions of his reign, one of his forecasts actually came true.


More from Agriculture's Edge:

Agriculture and farmers are killing us all

Burial Mounds: An agriculture venture like no other


Just as Mugabe promised, change indeed soon arrived, dragging with it an absolute economic nightmare.

From the New Republic: "Starting in 2000, Mugabe implemented a land reform program in which thousands of commercial farms were confiscated from their traditional (i.e. white) owners and gifted to Mugabe's friends and cronies. Few of the new owners knew how to run a commercial farm, and some simply fired all the employees and sold the equipment for parts. Agricultural exports, the backbone of Zimbabwe’s economy, went into free fall … The cratering of the agriculture sector cascaded through the economy."

Mugabe took a sliding economy and kicked it right off the cliff:

  • Per capita GDP of Zimbabwe = $600, third lowest in the world
  • Average monthly wage = $253
  • Unemployment rate = 80 percent
  • "By 2009, the private sector was operating at 10 percent of its former capacity. Other than a trickle of tobacco exports, farms withered back to prairies."


Mugabe’s farm snatch has left 2.2 million Zimbabweans currently needing food aid, according to the World Food Programme. Zimbabwe's economy is in shambles, marked by hyper-inflation and a monetary system desperate for cold, hard cash — any currency but its own. The central bank has opened the economy to a jaw-dropping eight currencies: Australian dollar, Botswana pula, British pound, Chinese yuan, Indian rupee, Japanese yen, South African rand, and U.S. dollar.

Once tagged by Christopher Hitchens as "Africa’s Worst Dictator," Mugabe recently turned 90 and paid $5 million to North Korea for two bronze birthday statues; one will beckon to the crowds in the capital city Harare, and the other will feature in his hometown, but neither is supposed to be erected until after he dies. (Zimbabwe may not have money for food, but at least they’re paid up when it comes to buying bronze.)

Even as Mugabe ticks into his nineties, age and ineptitude haven’t weakened his grip on power — despite monthly predictions to the contrary. Western pressure has held little sway with Mugabe and he tends to relish criticism, as he did in 2003 when the British press compared him to Hitler: "I am still the Hitler of the Time. This Hitler has only one objective: justice for his people, sovereignty for his people, recognition of the independence of his people and their rights over their resources. If that is Hitler, then let me be a Hitler tenfold."

Mugabe has taken a country once described as the "Breadbasket of Africa" and turned it into a state with bare shelves that imports everything. The irony couldn’t be much greater in VOA’s description of Zimbabwe: "Agriculture in the nation, once a major corn exporter in the region, was decimated by violent state-backed land invasions starting in 2000 that dispossessed white commercial farmers of about 1 million hectares (2.5 million acres).

"Ironically, the nation is importing corn which is now being grown in neighboring countries by the same farmers that it dispossessed."

Robert Mugabe — tyrant to the end.


For more, see Michael Hobbes’ New Republic article, How Did Zimbabwe Become So Poor — And Yet So Expensive


More from Agriculture's Edge:

Agriculture and farmers are killing us all

Burial Mounds: An agriculture venture like no other

Burial mounds: An agriculture venture like no other

Jun 11, 2014

Tim Daw is stretching the concept of agricultural diversification with a venture like no other in the world. He’s building a burial mound on his farm and when it’s completed, Daw will sell space to accommodate the ashes of 2,400 people.

Daw, 52, a small farmer with 220 acres in Wiltshire, England, is not just dozing dirt into a pile and selling holes — he’s going Neolithic, using massive stones "similar to those at nearby Stonehenge" (up to 1 ton) to form the mound base. His mound (on schedule to be completed in six months) will be 164 feet long and contain a series of chambers lined with niches — each capable of holding the remains of up to eight people and selling for about $2,500 (includes niche, lease fee and interment charge).


The walk-in mound will be aligned so the sun’s rays hit the central chamber on the winter solstice. "The sunrise will come up through the hills and shine right down through the length of the long barrow to the end of the passageway," he tells the BBC.


For more from Agriculture's Edge, see Agriculture and farmers are killing us all


According to The Independent, in addition to his farm, Daw has been working "as a steward at Stonehenge," for two years. His giant tomb will be the first mound built in England for 5,000 years and the pagan community may be revved up for a bit of Neolithic slumber.

Daw’s mound will be ideally located, playing to the crop circle crowd and the close proximity of Neolithic monuments — including Silbury Hill, at 131 feet high the tallest man-made mound in Europe: "I realized I had a very special site here on my farm, so it sort of made sense." Special indeed; the pagans are apparently grabbing their spots early, even before marketing and promotion. "We’ve already had five people sign up, and that’s without really pushing it at all."

According to Daw’s website, he hopes "to finish the first two phases and the landscaping in the summer of 2014." Initially, 300 niches will be available as burial niches.

Theater of the macabre or sign of the times, the afterlife is raining options: diamonds for the dead, outer space bliss, eternal reefs, or even cryogenics and a frozen Ted Williams. Hey, in an age when the Splendid Splinter is stored in pieces and awaiting regeneration, maybe nothing should surprise — not even a modern burial mound in the middle of a farm.


Agriculture and farmers are killing us all

Jun 09, 2014

We will all soon be dead if U.S. agriculture is not stopped, because in the realm of ill health, there is no sickness or malady that can’t be blamed on farming.

GM tumors, arsenic toxins, ammonia poisoning, Alzheimer’s, childhood behavior problems, cancer, sex hormone chaos, shrinking genitalia, deformities, poor digestion, obesity and a growing grab-bag of others can be dropped on agriculture’s doorstep. Just to be safe, throw syphilis, athlete’s foot, and ingrown toenails in the mix as well. (It’s only a matter of time before someone contends they are causally linked to agriculture.)

There’s really no need to quibble over cause-and-effect, because condemning agriculture for the world’s ills is as simple as taking a page right from old-time televangelism. It’s merely a borrowing of the "Name it and claim it" gospel: Name the malady and consign the blame to farming. Evidence and testimony are a bit sticky and problematic, but can be ignored in the short-term and buried in the long-term.

A few of the latest suspects to emerge:

-- Pyrethroids are an insecticide ingredient commonly found in a few thousand household products, but also used in farming. They may cause behavior problems and attention disorders in children, including hyperactivity. Pyrethroids offer a great opportunity for fathers and mothers to ease away from the burden of parental responsibility and shift it to agriculture.

-- Phthalates, chemical compounds found in chicken, are a factor in small penises. PETA has gone to great lengths to combat diminished genitalia, warning pregnant women on the shortcomings of eating chicken wings.

-- GM corn causes tumors and death in lab rats. This claim has been pilloried even by the journal that published it, but no matter, constant repetition of the claim will guarantee that at least someone will believe it.

-- Atrazine, a popular weed killer, causes hormone disruption, neural damage, cancer, and most eye-catching of all — hermaphrodism in frogs. Trannie frogs — nuff said.

-- Each year, U.S farmers are responsible for 5,100 premature deaths and $36 billion in ammonia-related sickness costs. United States agriculture, scaled to supply foreign markets, is to blame due to fertilizer use and manure accumulation. (Agriculture exports are the perfect arena to attack farmers; an absolute win-win. If exports are up, claim farmers are killing Americans. If exports are down, claim farmers are starving foreigners.)

-- DDT linked to Alzheimer’s. Even though Alzheimer’s has been around longer than DDT (and DDT has been banned in the U.S. since 1972), this one will create plenty of smoke with no fire.

No Claim is a Lie

-- U.S. rice is packed with arsenic. The FDA has repeatedly stated that arsenic levels are miniscule and pose no health hazards, but this claim is a bomb and should be repeated ad nauseam.

-- The introduction of GM cotton to India is responsible for a phenomenal farmer suicide rate. Forget the veracity of the contention, the mix of GM crops and suicide has great legs.

-- GM golden rice causes allergies and packs no nutrition. Greenpeace believes that claim, so it can’t be wrong. (Do not mention that millions of children die and go blind each decade from lack of vitamin A; any moral inconvenience or incongruity tends to cloud the issue.)

-- Obesity and general poor health is a catch-all category to drop on Big Food and Big Ag. Holler for more government mandates: Sugar taxes, soda bans, and GM food labels must go nationwide.

"Name it and claim it" is a wonderfully elastic science -- unbounded by validity -- that exposes agriculture and doesn't require a shred of truth to perpetuate. Just remember, no assertion is too outrageous and no flavor-of-the-week claim is a lie as long as even a single person believes it -- even if that person is wearing a straitjacket.


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