Fail—And Keep Fighting
My combat engineer squad leader crouched next to me with two sets of wires ready to touch off to a battery. I looked at my watch and then at the sergeant.
I nodded. “Now.”
My entire rifle company hunkered out of enemy view in two wadis, coiled to attack while the desert sun rose behind us. Our engineers had set explosive breaches in the two enemy minefields that blocked our paths. The whole attack would kick off with a dummy breach in one minefield, followed by 81mm mortars and artillery dropping the smoke and high explosives on three known enemy strongpoints. With the enemy thinking we were coming from one way, and unable to see our attack, the engineers would blow the second breach —the one we now crouched behind—so we could begin our assault on three enemy positions.
Months of training as a company and days of planning, orders, and rehearsals all led up to this moment.
An enormous “CRACK” just over the berm threw dust and gravel into the air. The shockwave smacked the entire company with a collective What-The-Fuck, but I yelled the words out loud.
The sergeant had blown the wrong breach. He looked at me wide-eyed and hands shaking.
A major wearing a blaze orange flak jacket and carrying a clipboard raised his eyebrows above his sunglasses. This wasn’t a real attack, it was Range 400 at Twenty-nine Palms, California, a collegiate-level exam in a rifle company’s ability to shoot, move, and communicate. The major looked at me with a wry grin, “What now, Captain Erisman?”
I radioed my Fire Support Team leader and all the platoon commanders on the net, “Wrong breach. Wrong breach. Go with the same fire support plan. Start dropping smoke and H-E. The enemy still won’t know the dummy breach from the real one. Hell, they’ll be just as confused as we are.” The major smiled and jotted something on his clipboard.
I looked back down at the sergeant. “No worries. No worries,” I yelled over the steady crumpf of mortars and duh-duh-duh-duh-dum of heavy machineguns. “We’re gonna roll with this.”
And roll we did. Evaluators called it one of the better attacks they’d seen in a long time.
In Iraq, I learned to roll with life-and-death failures: getting called for last-second missions with almost no time to plan, making amends for an airstrike that killed family members in the tribe we had just partnered with, having key Marines wounded just before starting a major operation, having Marines killed. Lima Company developed a reputation for being able to adapt to anything that the insurgents—or our own chain of command—could throw at us.
With that kind of background, you’d think (because I sure as hell thought so) that I could roll with the punches around here pretty easily, but the second year of farming has been harder than I anticipated. I already had most of my cover crop/pasture established. I knew where I wanted to plant corn. I knew my pasture rotation for the pigs. I grew up around farming. I know that weather alone can make and break a plan.
I’ve written “farming in partnership with Nature” more than once on this website, but Nature keeps outmaneuvering me. The pigs are already on high ground, but when we’re twenty-five percent above our rainfall average for the year and another 1.87” falls in three hours, the pigs turn every paddock into a mud hole. I’ve tried spreading out the damage by moving them daily, but the physical effort and losing several days of planned pasture in less than a day takes a toll. Sometimes I keep them in place, deciding to offer up the decimated paddock as a “sacrifice area”. I reseed sacrifice areas. There’s a seed and labor cost, but the soil needs cover with diverse plant life to to make pasture next year and to support the soil food web below ground. I’ve already reseeded a few sacrifice areas.
It’s not just the pastures. My cornfield rows are as thin as the lines at the Dane County Fair yesterday afternoon when it started to rain. I had a checklist of planter problems confined to two acres -slipping planter transmission, broken shaft keys for each row, seed too deep, seed to shallow, mis-sized kernels that a plate planter turned into cornmeal (and yes I did test the planter -it worked beautifully when I tested it).
It’s not efficient to raise your own feed at small scale, but I plant a couple acres of open-pollinated corn for a few reasons: the corn has higher nutritional value than modern hybrid corn, it gives me some control over the feed and feed quality my pigs get, and being able to save and replant corn seed gives me some independence from the agricultural-industrial food complex.
Without much of a corn stand, I decided to focus on next year —making sure it would become a good pasture. I wanted to till between the rows first to knock back some weeds (cultivating with a tiller -tilltivating) and then broadcast seed with the truck. (Check out the Facebook page for Videos -July 11th) But if I tilled first —which takes a few hours—and then it rained before I could seed, the truck would have been a disaster in the field. The corn was already pushing the height limits of what the truck can drive over without snapping stalks. (Because rains had already kept me out of the field.) So I broadcast 20 lbs of pasture mix first and tilled it in as shallow as I could, which was already putting the seeds a little too deep. The predicted light rain came in a pounding 3/4” —burying the seeds. Knowing that wasn’t going to lead to a good pasture stand, I went out the next morning and hand-broadcast another 10 pounds of pasture mix per acre to compensate. The good news is that plenty of little grass and clover seedlings have popped up between the corn rows. There is hope.
Maybe it’s the primacy-recency effect, but this seems harder than combat. There’s no snapshot decisions under fire and the adrenaline rush of a new split-second plan to still accomplish the mission. There’s no going home if I make it through a 7-month deployment. Mistakes unfold over the season, the compounding results hanging with me into the next. I also realize that the strength and resilience I had in Iraq was really the the strength and resilience of Lima Company behind me, “the Force” if you will, of brotherhood forged under fire. It’s very different to work alone.
If you’ve had a shitty week or month or year and reading this helps you step back and put your failures in perspective with your purpose, then I’m glad. But I didn’t write this with any particular audience in mind. I needed to write this down for me.
In the long view, I’m still doing some good things here, despite all the setbacks. I’m producing high-quality, healthy, happy animals. My pastures are as good as I’ve seen on other pastured pork farms. All the feed I use now is organic or transitional organic (I won’t purchase any Non-GMO feed after last year. Non-GMO still uses pesticides that harm native pollinators, herbicides that kill soil life, and synthetic fertilizers that choke our waterways with algae bloom). I’m building soil. I’m building soil life. I’m healing the land. I’m raising food that feeds my family and a small circle of friends, old and new.
I’m gonna roll with this.
Stick Your Snout In Our Business
If you want to really comparison shop, go see how various farmers raise the food you buy. Farm visits -if they are truly open to your questions- let you see behind the curtain. Every time I visit another farm, I learn something. Sometimes it's a pleasant surprise—sometimes it’s a disappointment.
There's no scripted farm tour here. It’s a chance for you to get a snapshot of what we do well—raising happy, well-fed pigs—and our challenges—my Boxelder and thistle problem in the front pasture because I don’t use herbicides.
Email, call, or text me to set up a visit so I'm not mowing back fence lines where I won’t hear or see you.
So come and stick your snout in our business and see how we make delicious pork.
Out to Pasture
I moved pigs this morning from their training paddock—where a second fence contains any pig that goes through the electric fence—to the open pasture. From now until they go to processing, they'll get moved to a fresh paddock every 2-3 days. The pasture in the photo was last year's open-pollinated cornfield. The strips are different cover crop mixes broadcast into standing corn last summer (the darker strips) or frost seeded over stalks in late winter (the lighter strips with more oats). I left half an acre of corn standing. More than two thirds of my Reid's Yellow Dent was still upright after its first birthday. I wanted to turn the pigs out into cover cropped corn and let them knock down the stalks themselves, but weather delayed me so many times that I had to mow the cover crop, and thus the stalks, before things grew out of hand. As they graze and root in the paddock, the pigs squeal and grunt every time they find an ear of corn under the clover. They still have access to ground feed, but they are eating less right now, so the corn on the ground is making up for some of that. Encouraging pigs to forage and rewarding them with something to find makes happy pigs (and tastier pork).
Former Marine Infantry Officer. Iraq Vet. Interested in Regenerative Agriculture at any scale.
Odyssey Farm, LLC.
The Odyssey Farm Journal
Odyssey Farm, LLC
Dane County 2022 Climate Champion
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