Let’s learn about the farm bill!

Since about – oh, let’s just say November 9, 2016, not to be too precise – many Americans have found themselves much more interested in politics than in times past. And while that’s a good thing, it’s an understatement to say American politics can be rather confusing. As in, we don’t really get what’s going on, but it doesn’t seem to have that much impact on our relatively comfortable day-to-day lives, so we just go along, merrily forwarding cat videos, virtual-signing critical online petitions that have absolutely no real-world impact and binge-watching the new season of Stranger Things.

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Finding Quiet Farm tries hard to both educate and entertain, so today we’re going to talk about the farm bill. Oh, I can hear you rolling your eyes right now all the way across the Interwebs, but bear with me. The farm bill, which as Michael Pollan says “should actually be called the food bill,” really does affect every single American, every single day. Multiple times a day, to be honest, because each bite of food you eat in this country is directly tied to the farm bill. And if you have kids, and if they eat any food at all in a school environment, then you’re affected even more. Without further ado, then, a brief, (hopefully) simple introduction to the farm bill, and why you should care about it.

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Let’s start with the basics. What is the farm bill?

The farm bill is a “multibillion dollar tangle of agricultural subsidies, welfare programs and environmental patronage,” or, more simply, it’s legislation that connects the food on our plates, the farmers and ranchers who produce that food, and the natural resources – our soil, air and water – that making growing food possible. It costs just under $500 billion – that’s half a trillion U.S. taxpayer dollars!

It’s a multiyear omnibus (meaning it covers many different programs) law revamped about every five years and the current farm bill will expire in 2018. That means it’s time for our beloved politicians to start crafting a new farm bill.

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What does the farm bill do?

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition puts it best:

“In the simplest terms, the farm bill has a tremendous impact on farming livelihoods, how food is grown, and what kinds of foods are grown.  This in turn affects the environment, local economies, and public health.  These are some pretty good reasons to become involved in advocating for a farm bill that supports health and sustainability!

Through programs covering everything from crop insurance for farmers to healthy food access for low-income families, from beginning farmer training to support for sustainable farming practices, this powerful package of laws sets the course of our food and farming system – in good ways and bad. It’s our job to make sure the farm bill reflects what our country’s farmers and eaters need for a sustainable future.

Every five years, the farm bill expires and is updated: proposed, debated, and passed by Congress and then signed into law by the President. (The current farm bill, The Agricultural Act of 2014, was signed into law on February 7, 2014.)

The farm bill got its start in 1933 as part of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal legislation. Its three original goals –  to keep food prices fair for farmers and consumers, ensure an adequate food supply, and protect and sustain the country’s vital natural resources – responded to the economic and environmental crises of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. Although the farm bill has changed in the last 70 years, its primary purposes are the same.”

Basically, the farm bill does many things, but its most significant elements are the federal food stamp program (officially called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), crop insurance and crop subsidies. There are other, smaller aspects, but these are by far the most important (and costly).

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How does this affect me, or more literally, why should I care?

You should care if you either 1. eat food in the U.S. and/or 2. pay taxes, because you’re funding this monster. And if you’re concerned about our rapidly escalating health care costs, or that for the first time in modern industrial history the current generation has a lower life expectancy than their parents, or even if you only care about just your own household food budget, then the farm bill (and food policy in general) should matter to you.

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What’s wrong with the farm bill?

Where to begin? It was implemented in the 1930s, and modern agriculture is vastly different now than it was during the Great Depression and the ensuing years. After World War II, we got really, really good at growing vast quantities of corn, wheat and soy with the help of leftover nitrogen, which was made into powerful fertilizer. And in the 1970s farmers were encouraged to “get big or get out,” so the small, diversified family farm started to disappear, and farmers were paid to constantly increase their production of cereal grains, again primarily corn and soy – now used as inexpensive animal feed and as the primary ingredients in processed foods and drinks.

Now, fewer than two million Americans live on farms, while crop yields – and pesticide, herbicide and insecticide usage – continues to increase. Huge monoculture farms cover most of the Midwest, reducing natural diversity and vastly increasing the chances of another devastating Dust Bowl. Large monocrop farmers are millionaires many times over, and small farms are going under. We produce far more cheap, high-calorie, nutritionally-devoid food than we need in this country, and the result of that overproduction includes massive dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico, sick animals raised in their own waste, and a population ridden with heart disease, obesity, diabetes and other lifestyle-related ailments. Plus, many low-income Americans cannot afford fresh fruit and vegetables and other whole foods.

Without question, the farm bill needs revision so it can better impact our current crises, including our food-insecure population and the serious health and environmental burdens our country is facing. But Big Ag has a lot of money and a lot of influence, and the 2018 version is unlikely to offer any significant improvements.

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What can I do to help implement changes in future farm bills?

Well, I’d love to end this on a super-positive, grassroots movement note and tell you to write your elected representative! Call your elected representative! Stand outside the office of your elected representative! But let’s be truthful here: all of our elected representatives are on someone’s payroll, and lobbying is a lucrative career. So the best you can do, to be perfectly honest, is vote with your dollars, because that’s the only vote that really matters. And you vote every single time you spend money.

If you value small farms, find your local farms, know your farmer, and buy directly from them. Skip the middleman. Search out local CSAs, and patronize them. If you believe more federal dollars should support organic farms, buy organic. Read labels, and ask questions. If you want to eat animals that have lived a good life and had a humane death, stop buying cheap commodity feedlot meat and battery eggs. Buy from companies who honor the same values you honor. Do some research. Don’t buy heavily processed foods and drinks made from soy and corn derivatives. Grow your own food, if possible. Anything helps, even a few windowboxes of herbs. And above all else, refuse to believe that something is in your best interest just because someone tells you so. Stand up for yourself, your family, your health and your values – because everyone is out to sell you something, and it’s your responsibility to figure out whether you really should buy it.

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Food politics book club

Our house is filled with books. On shelves, stacked by the bed, in my office…the only place that doesn’t contain any books is the kitchen. N reads a lot of military history mixed with an eclectic selection of farming books and autobiographies, and my choices tend to be modern fiction plus just about anything on food. I feel as strongly about books as I do about food: if they’re not good, I won’t finish them. I have no sense of obligation having started a book; there are simply too many stellar books out there to waste time on the appallingly bad ones. I’ve written before about how choosing books for our trip was one of the toughest parts of packing; I didn’t care at all about which tattered shirts and frayed cargo pants I brought, but I cared a lot about the reading material.

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Because I talk a lot about food politics both here and in my cooking classes, I’m often asked for book recommendations. I’ve put together a compilation of some of my favorite books on food politics and America’s desperately compromised food system. Know that there are many more great selections out there, and if you have recommendations for books I haven’t included, please share them! If you’re looking for an even more comprehensive list of some of the best books on food politics, go here.

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It is not possible to have a discussion about food politics in America without mentioning Michael Pollan. In my opinion, no author has done more to explain how what was once just “food” evolved into “industrialized agriculture.” I think Cooked is by far his most accessible work; even for me, The Omnivore’s Dilemma and The Botany of Desire get a little…technical. But really, anything by Mr. Pollan is guaranteed to get you questioning your assumptions. And if you can’t commit to reading his books, watch his Netflix series based on Cooked. Plus, his breathtakingly simple manifesto “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” is by far the best seven-word statement on food I’ve ever encountered.

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Four FishPaul Greenberg

It is virtually certain that certain species of fish currently used as food will become extinct within our lifetimes; our visit to Japan’s famous Tsukiji fish market simply stunned us with the sheer quantity of seafood caught and sold every single day. There isn’t much positive that can be said about the world’s fishing industry, but this book explains it in a clear, simple manner. (Please, if you’re in the U.S. and you choose to eat fish: consider buying only sustainably caught or responsibly farmed American seafood. Or eat much, much lower on the ocean food chain, like sardines and anchovies. Whatever you do, please don’t buy farmed fish from southeast Asia; their abuse of both humans and the environment makes ours here in the U.S. look positively benign.)

The Meat RacketChristopher Leonard

One of the best and most difficult books I’ve ever read on our industrial meat supply, The Meat Racket exposes the brilliantly cruel “bracket” system used in modern CAFOs. This book is a carefully researched and shockingly grim portrait of the massive corporations like Tyson currently controlling the vast majority of America’s meat market, and of the farmers trying desperately to stay afloat in a game totally rigged against them. Read at your own risk; you’ll have a hard time buying frozen chicken nuggets after this one.

Fast Food Nation, Eric Schlosser

This book, published in 2001, is subtitled “The Dark Side of the All-American Meal” and could be rightfully argued as the one that started it all. No one really has anything nice to say about fast food in general; it is toxic to the people who eat it, the people who work there, the animals sacrificed for it and most definitely the planet. But it’s great for shareholders…or at least it was, until the fast food industry started slowing down after decades of growth. This is one area where there may actually be something positive on the horizon: fewer Golden Arches across our country.

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Twinkie, Deconstructed, Steve Ettlinger

Ever been curious about sodium caseinate? How about modified food starch? Hydrolyzed soy protein? Polysorbate 60? Learn more than you ever wanted to know about how our processed food is made. (Remember, food at home is “cooked.” Food in packages is “processed.”) And we wonder why our gut microbes can no longer handle anything.

The Third Plate, Dan Barber

Last December, N and I had the honor of attending the Young Farmers Conference, held annually at Chef Barber’s Blue Hill at Stone Barns just outside of New York City. I’ve admired and respected this chef since his early days of farm-to-table cuisine; in the professional chef world, he is at the forefront as an advocate for less food waste and a more conscious approach to cooking and food overall. Simply one of my very favorite food books.

Tomatoland, Barry Estabrook

This book sort of pretends to be just about tomatoes and is actually much more about the workers planting and picking them, but it’s still worth a read. We’ve had out-of-season produce in supermarkets for so long that we rarely think about it anymore, but it’s not just the earth that takes a beating – the people do, too. This book almost singlehandedly brought about a very public and (somewhat) successful battle with fast food companies and supermarkets over fair pay for farmworkers; learn more here.

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, Barbara Kingsolver

Kingsolver might be more known for her fiction, but when she and her family packed up and left Arizona for rural Kentucky, then documented their attempts to eat solely from their own land for a year, the food cognoscenti paid attention. It’s a deceptively simple book (with recipes!) that explains why modern turkeys can’t reproduce naturally and why organic certification is almost impossible for small farms to get and why you should bake your own bread, but there is a lot more under the surface. If you’re thinking about running away to your own piece of land as we are, this book will push you farther in that direction.

Other books I recommend not pictured here (most likely because I loaned them to someone):

The American Way of Eating, Tracie McMillan

Eating Animals, Jonathan Safran Foer

Salt, Sugar, Fat, Michael Moss

Anything by Marion Nestle

Anything by Joel Salatin

 

Interlude: Indian book club

(Forgive our extended absence, friends; we’re in rural India and Internet access is sporadic at best, and we need a really strong connection to upload photos. How about a suggested reading list to keep you busy until we return?)

Prior to a five-month trip, some people might well worry about how many pairs of shoes they can bring, or whether their hairdryer will fit in their backpack. Me? I stress about books.

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I am aware, dear reader, that there apparently exist magical devices powered entirely by witchcraft that allow one to carry dozens – nay, thousands! – of books on a tiny little computer. I, however, am an avowed Luddite and therefore refuse to succumb to the temptation of this modern silliness. I like books. Actual books. I like paper and covers and words printed on a page and I find e-readers inordinately difficult to, well, read. And I love reading so much that I don’t want anything to detract from my enjoyment. Plus, traveling in underdeveloped countries means on-demand electricity isn’t always a given, so what am I supposed to read once my e-reader fails? At least I have a battery-powered flashlight with which to read my paper books. And a lighter after that, although it’s admittedly a bit risky.

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So, I pack books. Lots of books…like ten, which takes up a seriously ridiculous amount of space in my backpack. And I pack with the expectation that those ten will maybe set me up for the first couple of months of travel but I’ll certainly be able to swap books out along the way…if in fact there is anyone else in the world who still reads books on paper. When we traveled New Zealand by campervan, I was thrilled to find that almost every campground we visited had a great book swap.

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This photo was taken in a used book store in Phnom Penh and not in our house, although the quantity isn’t far off. Also I haven’t labeled the shelves…yet.

In preparation for the trip, I scoured the hundreds of books I have at home to find some that were in some way relevant to where we’d be traveling. I read mainly modern fiction, but am pretty open-minded in my literary tastes and will read just about anything that crosses my path. I grabbed a couple on Japan, couldn’t find anything set in New Zealand, struggled with southeast Asia, and hit the mother lode with India. India-themed fiction has become quite popular in the past twenty years or so, and I already owned a good sampling.

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Without further ado and in no particular order, brief reviews of the selections chosen for my ongoing one-member Indian book club!

Shantaram, Gregory David Roberts

This book had been recommended to me repeatedly for years, and though it’s been on my bookshelf for some time I never got around to reading it. I grabbed it for this trip and am so glad I did. Shantaram is lengthy and twisty and convoluted and involves about ten thousand different characters, and yet the story grabs your heart and won’t let go. Bombay (now Mumbai) is its own vivid character in this book, and although Shantaram‘s claim as an accurate autobiography (is there such a thing?) has been repeatedly disputed, it absolutely holds up as a novel. I’m still thinking about this one months later, especially since we visited some of the book’s key locales while in Mumbai.

What Young India Wants, Chetan Bhagat

An unexpected find at a book exchange at our Mumbai hotel and by far the best book I read on India while in India. This book is intentionally simplistic: it’s a collection of very short non-fiction pieces by an Indian author who is essentially begging the youth of India to stand up and care about their country. India is without question the most complicated, difficult place I’ve ever traveled, and I’ll admit that I was often infuriated here. This book helped me to understand some of the country’s issues better, and I can only hope that young Indians are paying attention.

The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing, Tarquin Hall

Light, fluffy Indian detective fiction, in the vein of The Number One Ladies’ Detective Agency series. This is gentle social satire and although perhaps not particularly insightful, it gives a good feel for the scents, sights and – most importantly – the unrelenting heat of Delhi.

The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy

There is nothing light and fluffy about this book. It is a stunning debut novel that took the author four years to finish, and it’s dense, layered, challenging and brutal. It won the Booker Prize…in my opinion, that committee loves books like this. Not an easy read; this one is firmly in the difficult-but-beautiful category.

The White Tiger, Aravind Adiga

Also a Booker Prize winner. I read this towards the end of our first week in India on a lengthy bus/train trip between Darjeeling and Varanasi, deep in the throes of severe culture shock. While the book’s first-person depiction of the sordid underbelly of India’s servant-to-master relationship intrigued me, I couldn’t get past the infuriating, hopeless, complicated frustrations of the country – mostly because we were experiencing them in real life one after another. And that was because I hadn’t yet learned how to see India for India, rather than what I expected India to be. I suspect if I read this book again, I’ll have a different opinion.

The Space Between Us, Thrity Umrigar

This is the story of two Indian women: a middle-class Parsi in an abusive marriage and her servant, who lives in a slum. At its heart, it’s a tale of class and status and the roles we’re born into, but it’s also about how women are treated as disposable property in much of the world (most definitely in India). I should have loved it, honestly, but it left me completely cold. I didn’t care about the characters and found the overwrought writing tedious. This book definitely didn’t represent the color and warmth of India for me.

Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie

In the U.S., at least, Rushdie is most famous for his controversial 1988 book The Satanic Verses and for introducing Americans to the concept of fatwa, which in his case was a Khomeini-issued death sentence that earned him British police protection after numerous failed assassination attempts. Midnight’s Children was released in 1981 and won Best of the Booker twice, which is pretty remarkable. Like all Booker Prize winners I’ve read (see above – maybe the committee really likes books set in India?), this one is complex and messy and confusing – like India itself – and just a huge, broad tale of a man and his beloved country. Midnight’s Children is considered magical realism, and Rushdie’s writing style took a bit for me to get into – I had to work at this one more than I usually do when reading. (It would help greatly to have a working knowledge of Indian history since Partition to assist in reading this book; I didn’t and it was more difficult because of that.) Ultimately, a complicated love letter to a complicated country.

Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand

Not Indian-themed, obviously, but I’ve read it numerous times and have taken – and given away – copies on all of my big trips. If you’re reading this in an airport or other public venue, I can almost guarantee you’ll be approached by someone who wants to discuss it, which has happened to me on more than one occasion. Really, there isn’t anything else to say about this one that hasn’t already been said. It is a love-it-or-hate-it manifesto and it’s about a thousand pages. Please don’t cheat and watch the film.

On the to-read list for when we return: The Things They Carried and A Rumor of War. I’ve realized how little I know about the Vietnam War, and visiting Vietnam has made me exceptionally curious to learn more.

Have any book recommendations? I would love to hear them, so please share!

P.S. If you’re an avid reader (and live in the U.S. – sorry) and you’re not a member of this site? Get there now.

Temples of boom

We thought of calling this post “Angkor what?,” but it’s a bit of a cheap shot. To sum things up rather simplistically, tourism in Cambodia exists primarily because of one place:

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The famous view of Angkor Wat at sunrise. 

Over two million tourists visit Cambodia each year, and the vast majority – like us – make Angkor Wat and the nearby temples central to their trip. Last year, the government-run organization that recently took over management of the temples (some sources claim this cultural treasure is actually owned by a businessman) announced a dramatic increase in the price of a one-day temple pass, from $20 to $37.

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You’ll want to arrive early, since you’ll be jostling for space with hundreds and hundreds of other tourists angling for the same sunrise shot.

Based on the throngs of people already at Angkor Wat at 5AM, it seems very few tourists have been put off by this price increase, despite concerns to the contrary. Although there are hundreds of temples in the immediate area, most tourists – like us – visit just a few and if we’re speaking honestly, it’s because this is a tourist attraction we’re supposed to see, rather than one we’re really interested in. It’s easy to get “templed out” here very quickly, especially in the blistering heat and pervasive dust of the dry season.

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One of Angkor Wat’s towers.

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Stone carving detail, Angkor Wat.

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Angkor Wat is the largest and best-preserved of the main temples, hence its overwhelming popularity.

As good tourists with unlimited access to travel guides and “places to go before you die” lists, travel too often becomes a series of boxes checked off, mostly based on others’ experiences (or glossy Instagram photos). Angkor Wat and its compatriots are UNESCO World Heritage Sites and regularly cited as one of the world’s most important historical monuments. The reality, however, is that unless you’re a devoted student of history, archeology and/or crumbling stone, you might actually find the endless piles of rubble and maddening crowds rather underwhelming.

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Temple entrance at Banteay Srei.

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Banteay Srei is carved from red sandstone, making it particularly unique amongst other temples in the area.

It’s also difficult for us, at least, to feel charitable towards a government who might have made somewhere in the neighborhood of $30 million last year (based on a conservative 1.5 million visitors buying $20 temple passes) plus about $35 a head for visitor visas (again, conservatively about $70 million) but can’t seem to find the resources to organize clean drinking water or trash collection for its citizens. Where, exactly, are these millions going?

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Stone guards on duty at Banteay Srei.

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Carving detail, Banteay Srei. The temple’s name roughly translates as “citadel of the women;” one possible explanation is that men couldn’t have managed the intricacy of the carvings.

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Some of the thousands of tons of rubble at Beng Mealea.

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Beng Mealea’s grounds were only recently cleared of landmines and opened to the public.

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Crumbling walls at Beng Mealea.

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It’s a bit of a fixer-upper…

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Need any more convincing that nature rules absolutely?

Please don’t misunderstand: the temples are absolutely amazing. Most were built during the 10th or 11th centuries, and the Angkor area once comprised the world’s largest city. The history and craftsmanship carved into this stone is palpable. But it’s also hot, crowded and dirty, and it’s essential to acknowledge that when you travel, you will probably visit some “touristy” spots.

Look past the trash and the hordes, close your eyes and imagine what life might have been like in these temple complexes over a thousand years ago. Birth and death and war and famine and joy and love would all exist then, just as it does today. The main challenge we as tourists face now is how to appreciate significant places like this while still preserving them for future generations. Is there really such a thing as sustainable tourism?

Mad about ewe

It is impossible to overstate the importance of the humble sheep in New Zealand. The famous Captain Cook first introduced sheep here in 1773; meat and wool, as well as numerous other byproducts, quickly formed the economic background of this young nation. Even today, New Zealand is well-known for its lamb and wool, and the oft-cited statistic that New Zealand has a lot more sheep than people (about 27 million to 4 million) still holds true, although the animal numbers have fallen dramatically in recent years. The worldwide introduction of synthetic fibers understandably had a massive impact on the wool industry.

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One of the great joys of travel – especially on road trips – is stumbling upon something amazing that wasn’t in the day’s plans. We were on our way to camp on the beach at Clifton, in Hawke’s Bay on the east coast of the North Island, when we drove by Wool World. My head immediately filled with visions of a slick, American-style theme park devoted entirely to sheep, hopefully with a petting zoo, roller coaster and extensive gift shop. The reality was far different, and much better.

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Clifton Station, Hawke’s Bay.

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The dogs are coming…

Clifton Station (ranches in the U.S. are stations here) was founded in 1859 and has been run by the same family since. It encompasses about 2,000 acres on the east coast of the North Island. Despite the signage outside advertising shearing and herding demonstrations, Wool World is now only open for large groups of pre-booked cruise ship passengers. We got lucky, however, and walked up while a station hand was treating lambs in a gated paddock near the road. These lambs had just been taken off their mothers and were headed out to munch on fresh new pasture; the abrupt change in diet causes their delicate little lamb tummies to go a bit haywire, so they’re essentially given a pre-emptive antacid.

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The station hand gave us free rein to walk into the old shearing barn, built in 1886 and still in use today. This barn is true living history and it was incredible to see the pride that this family takes in their property, their animals and their way of life. Places like these are becoming more and more rare, and recognizing the past is especially relevant because modern agriculture is changing so quickly. The opportunity to see this space will be one of the highlights of our trip to New Zealand.

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Blade shearers in 1893 with shedhands and shepherds. The records indicate that 25,000 sheep were shorn in the shed that year.

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Horse-drawn wool bales headed to the railyard for transport to Wellington or Napier.

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Bales of wool bound for a local wool sale.

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Not much has changed in this woolshed since the late 1800s.

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Shearing stalls.

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Belt-driven machinery allowed multiple sheep to be shorn at one time.

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Wool bales are stenciled with their station origin, destination, pack year and grade. Low-grade wool (and the sacks) were often used on walls for home insulation.

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A helpful identification key for bale stencils.

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Ye Olde Spinning Wheel. Avoid at all costs, princesses.

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If you should ever have the opportunity to see a herding demonstration, do not miss it! Watching the shepherd and the dogs run the sheep is truly remarkable.