My job has always been to make sure that my Great Uncle Ephraim, the fierce plowman, always had someone hammering away at the need for better farming. Don’t know that I have succeeded. I do know that events such as the Marsden Project offer the contradiction of a measure of good news weighed against the knowledge that it’s late and that we lost so much treasure when we lost all of those Uncle Ephraims, all of those Fierce Plowmen who were waiting to lend us their secrets.
to buy a fat pig
by Lynn Miller
A farming friend recently declared that in the Seattle area the concept of local farmers serving local consumers seemed to have reached a saturation point. She observed that sales were the indication and to illustrate spoke of her own case; with farmer’s market sales down two consecutive years – 20% down two years ago and another 20% dip in 2010. She suggested that while they might be needed elsewhere, at least in Skagit County Washington they did NOT need more farmers. In her view more farmers would just mean less income for each. I must respectively disagree and in the loudest volume I can muster on the printed page.
Several things are a play here, and together they spell confusion.
First; the great recession – sales are down most EVERYWHERE. (And the big dogs of commerce, watch their sorryand insidious scurry for advantage.)
Second; three years ago URGENT and FASHIONABLE demand for fresh clean local foods coupled with lots of cash sales resulted in a most unfortunate attitude of entitlement on the part of some local farmers. Entitlement as in “I’m not going to chase sales – either they want this produce or they don’t. They know where to find me. Don’t these people know that they have to step up and buy this stuff if they want us to continue farming?” This is a dangerous attitude in the best of times. In this economic climate it borders on suicide. Good, creative, personable, aggressive sales efforts (including appropriate pricing) ARE resulting in respectable sales. Adjustments must be made constantly. Extra effort is making a difference, especially with today’s tight purse strings. Standing and glaring at the passing customers doesn’t make the grade.
Third; consumers in developed(?) countries will always search for convenience. And large corporate retail chains compete very hard to provide that convenience. If the consumer can get “fresh? local? organic?” produce from Safeway, while they are picking up the processed foods they can’t live without, why would they go the extra miles to a farmer’s market? It is another sign of success muddying the waters.
Fourth: The real dillution in the fresh local organic markets comes back door from the ill-advised and mis-applied USDA organic certification which has lowered standards and allowed large scale industrial production to flood the conventional markets with “fresh”, “local” and organic” stamped goods which are highly suspect. Dangerous circumstance. And there is very little public notice of this. It is another sign of success muddying the waters.
Fifth: Within so-called alternative agriculture circles there are turf wars abrew with clubs, associations, coops, and marketing organizations all muscling-up to control the number of selling farmers and the amount of produce in an effort to protect “market share”. It is another sign of success muddying the waters. Counterproductive to say the least.
The simplest applications of the so-called law of supply and demand suggest that there is some illusory optimal ‘balance’. And that this balance wants to fall short. In other words if you have customers for 46 baskets of asparagus you need to have only 40 or 41 available to sell. This keeps demand sharp and price strong. If you have 50 baskets to sell and customers for only 46 the unsold will bring down the return to the farmer. But all of this works within some abstract finite notions of demand and customer count. The so-called law of supply and demand in our world of food production is an insidious apology, an excuse, a rationale for those who have already convinced themselves it can’t work. It’s destructive nonsense. With hundreds of millions of folks starving here and abroad, we have no moral right to speak of controlling production to keep “easy” and lucrative sales coming.
Even with only 50 customers in attendance, the farmer who has 75 baskets of incredible, tender, tasty and artful asparagus – and offers them each and all with a smile, a free soup recipe and a sprig of cilantro – will not only sell all of the produce but likely bring new customers to the market AND create a vitality that will entice new farmers. New farmers with increased urgency and goodwill bring more customers and some of those buyers will actually be farmers themselves.
The farmer’s market with a couple of farmers sprinkled in amidst a handful of crafters does not attract the number of customers that a market of many farmers does. And the savy consumer, the true epicurean looking for that ultimate produce at a killer of a price, will recognize that the wide variety of many sellers suggests great deals can be made. It would be counter-productive if stalwart market farmers were to work to limit their number because they wanted to hang on to “market share”.
If you happen upon a vendor with a card table displaying 4 sacks of homegrown oranges at a farmer’s market where 6 other vendors are showing off some soaps, knit hats, and assorted salad greens, would you be likely to make a concerted effort to return to this small market? If instead you happen upon a lively, active populous market where you have to wait your turn to even get close enough to see the mountain of oranges cleverly displayed in the back of an old truck adjacent to a booth presenting a wide variety of mushrooms alongside homemade pastas and that smack up against an adventurous and expansive display of stone fruits rung round by jars of preserves reflecting the silvered lights of adjacent fresh iced fish which are in turn absorbing the soft greens of mountains of brocolli, spinach, lettuce and cabbage all softening the sounds of the gutar music flowing from behind the display of herbs and nuts, would you be likely to return? Even if, or especially if, your cash reserves were low? There is a reason why, through the ages, the vibrant street markets of the world have always attracted folks poor and rich. One reason is that because here we can see and feel the truest pulse of an ever changing supply and demand, a pulse which informs and decorates our living cultures.
Farming is the singlest greatest invention of mankind. After farming and certainly because of it, humanity’s next greatest invention was the marketplace.
I’ve got two extra sacks of potatoes I don’t need – I have a sense of what they are worth to me – maybe some measure of what it cost to grow them. I have a hankering for lamb and eggs but am not set up to produce them on my little market garden plot. To buy that stuff would set me back a bag of coin I don’t have. So I set out with my potatoes to join lots of other farmers at a predetermined location where, each week, people come to swap goods. Once there I find myself tempted to swap for a fat little pig but, lucky for me, I don’t have what the pig farmer needs. Then I notice a scuffle as three women fight over a small display pile of San Marino tomatoes to the exclamations of the farmer/salesman who publically laments not having grown more of this savory fruit. Short time later I see that same tomato farmer leading that fat little pig home. A light bulb goes off and right there and then I decide to grow San Marinos next season. The marketplace made it happen. Independent farmers gathered together to swap and sell holding a living breathing heart pumping economy in their hands. A real and familiar economy. Not that tall, dead, contrived thing we know as the “general economy”.
It is too easy to blame it all on the general economy, but certainly there is the inescapable truth of this financial earthquake we all feel. We do ourselves a great disservice if we continue to think of this time, this great recession, as some natural phenomenon, some purely unavoidable correction in the general economic system. Yes, the baloon got too big and burst but that too was not inevitable. Though the opaque blankets and smoke screens may lead us otherwheres, I personally believe that what we are suffering through has been laid on us by a political and banking system gone berserk with greed, corruption and dishonesty. (And this has been allowed and even encouraged by the fourth estate, our press. Journalism no longer is journalism, its former practioners have taken cheap seats on the bus to pleasure island.)
So what has this to do with us, a farflung community of small farmers and folks who care intensely about small farms? Maybe just about everything.
The world needs millions of new independent small farms and it needs them NOW. What’s more, regardless of whether it is Skagit County or a rural county in Bangladesh, Los Angeles or remote Iowa, more farmers – more farms – and more produce will energize local markets everywhere. The industrial model of agriculture is failing in very big and nasty ways. Nasty weather, commercial fertilizer shortages, protection rackets, genetic mutatologies, wholesale industrial breakdowns, and many other elements are going into a mix that is aggravating the rapidly approaching worldwide food shortage.
As recently as a week ago I was in a large supermarket chain store and saw printed banners in the produce section warning consumers of coming shortages in certain produce brought on in part by weather problems. These banners made it very clear that there would be less lettuce and the price would be substantially higher! I suggest we will see more such banners cropping (pun intended) up everywhere.
I sit at my kitchen table, early in the morning, and look out the little windows at a completely altered landscape. Last night it snowed eleven inches, and today the familiar has been altered. Everything is weighed down, lidded by the quiet white cloak, soft and silent. Animals wait to see if this is temporary, to see if they need to remind themselves of old useful postures and routines. Wild rabbits wait in familiar little hidey holes as do the coyotes. Winter birds are backed under their covers glad for the wind to be gone, not yet worried about food. It is a pleasant time and lovely too. Twenty degrees before the sun is up, but who knows if today it will burn through the low fog thickened snow clouds? Who knows if it will continue to snow or warm up? Who knows if it will turn this beautiful ground cover to a raging destructive flood? Or allow it to remain for months as the first blanket of many? What we do know is that overnight what we took for granted has changed. We took for granted being able to walk leisurely, if sometimes cold, to the barn to initiate chores. We took for granted that we’d be able to find that shovel, that hose, that chain, easily. And now it is buried and hidden. This moment just after the big snowfall can be see as an analogy for this economy and the difficult and different moments we find ourselves locked in. We wait to know how to behave. If we are farmers we may even be thinking about ways to tighten up our sales. How do we sell more of what we produce? Do we need to dissuade others from joiining our ranks? No, not if our markets and the vitality of our cultures matter to us.
Why do farm markets matter? How is it that they insist themselves, haphazard – vaudevillian – corny – burlesquelike upon us? What do we risk by continuing to discount one of the oldest and most organic of social service partnerships? These questions go to the core of what I suspect is a deeply ingrained flaw in the human psyche. As we progress, or suspect we progress, up that transparent ladder towards questionable social supremacy we are quick to shed those skins that would paint us as ordinary, slow, common, dirty, and trapped. “Farming” is one of those things we seem too quick to shed. “market bazar” is another. So, its not just about our sales, its also about how we want to see ourselves in society. “Farming” that original nobility and “market bazar” the time-tested entry towards security, gave us this day and our daily bread. We need to constantly remind ourselves of this. We need to see ourselves as worthy. We need to always be ready to invite others into our ranks.
One thousand years ago a farmer’s market was established for the city of Paris. Today it is known as the Rungis International Food Market. Huge, bustling, modernized and archaic (when measured against the corporate world), it spreads out today to exceed the landmass of the principality Monaco! Up until 1969 it operated out of the heart of the great city of Paris and was fondly known as Les Halles. Today, out of the necessity of scale, it is 4 miles outside of the city near the village of Rungis and includes its own beltway, railway, banks, hotels, car rental stations and truck repair shop. It is its own city – a city that lives at night. Even extending to its more recent digs, Les Halles / Rungis has for ten centuries been the belly of France – the driving force behind one of the most dramatically epicurean societies in history.
Rungis is not a thing in and of itself, it is a thing in the aggragate – and that is a critically important distinction. Here is an example of how many independent produce and market ventures have come together with an economic vitality that has arguably shaped an entire nation to beautiful advantage.
Rungis is a fresh market, first and foremost. At 2 am buyers arrive in droves to select – from acres of giant, connecting halls – meats and cheeses, fruits, vegetables and flowers. Rungis feeds 11 million people in the Paris region every day, as well as supplying markets and restaurants around the world. Eleven million! Can you imagine having a discussion of how to limit the number of farmers delivering produce to Rungis so as to hold prices steady? Unthinkable. Have prices swayed? Of course they have. Does everyone benefit from the market being truly free and open? You bet they do.
Day in day out for over 1,000 years the farmer’s market of Les Halles / Rungis has had as much a hand in the evolution and development of French society and the city of Paris as any other cultural or social aspect. It is sobering to think what might have been had these markets been asked to “temper” themselves with a view towards protecting that original band of farmers, naturally concerned about their income levels. The French might say “let them fight for their corners for with that we will add more corners, many more corners. And we will grow our city, grow our region, grow our culture!”
Rungis market is big, very big. And some might observe, too big. But it is not the only farm produce market bazar. Others, much smaller serve neighborhoods, and these in turn feed off the success of all the others big and small. Overlapping concentric circles, small markets, medium sized markets and big markets. All of it is about economic vitality and the intrinsic independence of millions of healthy small farm ventures.
Instead of fewer farmers at farmers markets, we need MORE hustle and bustle at farmers markets – we need MORE farmers MORE variety MORE opportunity MORE thrivance MORE corners, many more corners. Perhaps then we can look forward, over time, to having recreated a genuine culture of depth and happenstance for ourselves and for our futures. LRM
By Lynn Miller
In one hand five wrenches, 3/8”, 1/2”, 9/16”, 5/8” and crescent, in back pocket a rolled and dirty implement manual, I walk that quarter mile back to the hayfield where I left the busted mower. I know what I need to do now, so I enjoy the luxury of thinking wide. It’s quiet here, quiet and lovely. No neighbors, no traffic, no sign of any insistent commerce, just a scittering coyote pup racing away from my approach. So I think of how fortunate we are and, try though I may, I cannot keep out of my old brain snatches of the terrible stories of starving Somalians, riots in England, wars and unrest in the mideast, tent cities in Haiti and across the U.S. as homeless jobless thousands wonder after a world gone stark raving nuts. But before the staggering list can be completed, I am saved because the distance to the mower has been covered and I am back to the work at hand.
Grease blotches scattered in odd places over torn clothing, dust hiding in the folds of the neck, ears, small of the back – jagged fingernails – a steadying fatigue – I hold a clear focus on the farming job at hand. A long lifetime of working at these jobs and sharing stories of other people at these jobs, I know that every moment begs to be watched and understood lest that one accident, that one quirk of misaligned movement results in breakdown of implement, animal and/or farmer. It is a vigilance that may hold us fast and firm and competent. Without it we are a bit of chaff in the wind of the work. We may survive today, tomorrow or the next days but we are, without that knowledgeable vigilance, just stealing a ride. Nothing earned, even less appreciated. Ironic that for me, this chosen, calm, steadfast vigilance gives me an arm’s width of purest freedom. I don’t want to be anywhere else. This is my moment.
And I know there is wider value in all of that, I know that efforts to do my best with this alloted slice of farming I hold adds in a very small but significant way to a better world. But, I have always felt drawn to those terrible pictures of inequity and ruin with a compunction-driven urge to do something more. Don’t know, even at this late stage, exactly what that means. But I see things, and feel them too.
I feel that our communities and neighborhoods are falling apart. I see that there is less and less evidence of any collective knowledgeable vigilance in our communities – and that absence is beginning to be felt in neighborhoods as well. There is that piece of a line in the Declaration of Independence which has always stopped me to think… ‘we hold these truths…”. We did, sometimes well, sometimes not so well, but we did. We held those truths… Seems now we don’t so much. We have come to take for granted the most basic of truths, the obligations of family, the possible sanctity of work, the human as a humble piece of a biological universe, the realigning and reaffirming power of beauty, the deep comfort of great friendship, the absolute primacy of life, and the list goes on. The money-changers, the creeps of commerce, the death-dealing ethos of the board-room, the criminality of store-bought science, the slithering subjective moral insolvency of a plastic humanistic psychology which puts the individual ahead of everything and ahead of nothing, the economic crutch of war and the emotional poison of digitized social networking, all of these things have driven us from our truer selves.
Ah, but then there is farming, that handmade farming which holds us in the wider patterns. In the heat of summer, crops calling out, we know persistence. If we are able we wear patience as we carry our persistence. And with farming’s required patience and persistence comes ample opportunity for clarity.
After all these years there’s plenty of things I should’a known, certainly many little things about farming. But the older I get the more clear it is to me that I know relatively little. Take knotters and neighbors for example.
My buddy Ed recently told me something about baler knotters, I’m sure it must apply as well to binder knotters. And the information seemed a metaphor of neighborliness as compared to community.
This is the way it goes; knotters have adjustable twine discs which hold the string during the knotting process, allowing the proper tension for the tying. If the string is sisal or if it is synthetic poly twine different relative thicknesses apply. So it stands to reason that a setting for sisal might account for too much space between those discs to properly hold poly-twine.
I’m seeing those twine discs as an adjustable filter of sorts. We can tighten or loosen them to make a certain dimension of string work and resulting in other string being held off. Now I see that as an analogy for neighborhoods. Some, by their design and ‘adjustment’, favor certain income and social brackets – while others are set to prevent certain people from any comfort in passing through. I feel held off from wealthy exclusive rural communities, I just don’t feel welcome, it’s that exclusivity factor, the ‘twine disc is set too tight’. Whereas a rural landscape peppered by thriving small farms and businesses welcomes me right in. (Twine disc set loose.) That’s just me talking. Cranky ol’ me.
You might observe that I should be speaking, perhaps, of communities rather than neighbors and here is where I would beg to differ. We, the wider western world, tossed the words around helter skelter these last decades and permitted ad agencies to make of them what they will but I wish to offer that ‘community’ by definition speaks to a group of like-minded, like-employed, or membership-bound people such as Carpenters, Orthodontists, Baptists or Shriners. Commonality is the guiding principle. Whereas ‘neighborhood’ speaks to proximity, shared environs, locality. Neighborhoods may contain a strong or absolute contingent of community, as in this is a black neighborhood or a Jewish neighborhood. But most neighborhoods are a mix of races, religions, sports preferences, fraternal memberships, income levels, etc.
Why these word distinctions might matter here and now? Some of our communities are solidifying, calcifying, thickening, getting stiff – especially as regards politics and cultural issues while many of our neighborhoods are becoming dark and forboding. Members of some church communities are becoming completely intolerant of other church communities. People in neighborhoods are feeling more and more threatened and/or are suspicious of others in their own locale. These are not good turns.
We, most journal readers, are a community of small farmers, farflung yet sharing many values in common. We, each of us, are part of local neighborhoods, which may or may not serve us as a market base for what our farms produce. It is ironic that while we may know other small farmers, living far from our locale, quite well – we have neighbors next door who we know little or nothing about.
I, for one, see the biological environs of our ranch as neighborhood. The eagles, the badgers, the mule deer, elk, cougar, coyotes mixed in with the bitterbrush, sage, pines, junipers, rocks, bitterroot, sky, dirt – every piece of it part of our neighborhood. And I have complete conviction that we need this fragile balance that is our local ecosystem – and that we in turn contribute to its balance and vitality.
But our case is somewhat unique in that we have no actual neighbors for five miles in any direction. We are ‘by choice’ isolated. But are we really? Recent efforts to create a wilderness area bordering our ranch on the east side and encompassing a stretch of the Deschutes River have played up the question in a most specific fashion. We have signed on to the proposal endorsing its objectives. Recently while visiting the local hardware store a young man approached me and said he could not understand how we would go against our “neighbors” wishes by our endorsement. The implication was that we were ostracizing ourselves by going against the wishes of the wider group that is seen as our neighborhood. Though five miles away as the crow flies, that community rests on a mesa the other side of a 700 foot deep river canyon. “You can’t get there from here.” I’ve lived on this ranch for more than 22 years and I have never been to that community. Our towns are Sisters to the south and Madras, across the lake, to the north both at nearly 20 miles away. We do business in those towns and we share many neighborhood concerns with them because our own business is there in Sisters and we do our annual auction in Madras. But the community to the east, the one bordering the wilderness proposal, we are completely separate from them and yet…
Many if not most folks have personal situations which incorporate jigsaw puzzle elements in how their chosen communities and their landed neighborhoods set together on a map. We think we have a say in what’s included or not. Sometimes encroachment changes definitions.
We have used predator control dogs to hold at bay the wildlife that would redefine our farmstead, garden crops, and livestock (in other words our immediate personal neighborhood). These days our Great Pyrennes no longer has the full use of his back hips and our old Australian shepherd has vision and hearing constraints. We will no doubt be replacing them soon because we feel each day how the wildlife have moved in closer. Where we seldom ever saw wild rabbits near buildings and in garden areas they now come and go at will. With them has come the pack of coyotes a dozen or more strong. Last week I shot and killed one within twenty feet of the house in the middle of the morning. (I don’t hunt them as a rule, I certainly don’t mind if other people do. Coyotes do a valuable service controlling the population of sage rats, rock chucks and, to some small degree, badgers but when they decide to move in on us with impunity, measures have to be taken. Enter the human predation element.) There is a natural balance to our neighborhood. How we behave with and within all the natural elements affects that balance.
The wildlife habitat we call our neighborhood extends to an area of about a quarter of a million acres, running from the Deschutes River canyon on the westside all the way towards the neighborhood of Camp Sherman and then around the north to the banks of the Metolius River. The south side is marked by housing developments and Whychus creek (formerly Squaw Creek). This area was prized hunting and burial ground for the Pauite Nation before the 19th century “discoveries” of Captain John Fremont and Kit Carson. The migrating mule deer and elk use this area for winter habitat, moving in good climes to the High Cascades which border. As all-terrain vehicles and human population pressures increase, the migratory patterns fracture and constrict affecting birthing cycles, feed supplies, and predator concentrations. In other words the balance is altered. We believe, and have seen how, the existence of our “low impact” ranch has actually improved wildlife habitat offering central watering and shelter during critical times of the year. Without the ranch’s working presence we are certain that this “neighborhood” would deteriorate quickly. But in order to have all of it work as well as it does we need to do our part to selectively and constructively “pressurize” our presence. What I mean by this is that when deer and elk come to our ponds for water and our field edges for grazing they NEED to feel cautious and ready to flee. Otherwise several hundred elk and several thousand mule deer would decimate the forage of this irrigated corner in no time at all. We don’t want them hanging around, comfortable within a protected area. We want them coming and going with normal caution, concerned about us and coyotes and cougars and great white hunters. It’s a tricky balance but one that has evolved over these short hundred years of shared dominion.
All of this talk about our wildlife habitat realities and thoughts are meant to suggest that neighborhoods are seldom simple. The best ones are a constant balancing of communities with sometimes conflicting values. We recognize that our wish to provide refuge for the wildlife seems in direct contradiction to our need to control their full access to our farm fields.
All human neighborhoods contain, to varying degrees, these elements of balanced conflicting values. Ethnic tensions around the world point to the challenges of maintaining some semblance of peace in neighborhoods made up of warring racial, religious, and political elements. Communities within these neighborhoods want to completely insulate themselves one from another but such efforts cause problems that go to the heart of continuing strife. What is needed is for communities inside of neighborhoods to work consciously to at least understand how they differ from each other, to understand how a measure of mutual respect can be earned from sharing the local news and calendars. Here’s an example of what I mean:
Last issue of this Journal Paul Hunter spoke of our visit to Hillcrest Orchard in Penryn, California. Steve Pilz, third generation on the farm, took us on a walking tour sharing his passion for the diversity and fragility of this lovely sheltered world. The farm sits atop a hill and cascades down its sides to a ribbon of encircling bottom land. On the crest of the hill is a naturally-filled reservoir supplying gravity-flow water to the citrus trees on the grade and finally to the market gardens down below. The waters are directed by buried tiles.
As we walked, Steve pointed down and said “watch out, don’t trip on that broken tile. I leave that opening there because it provides a home for our friends the skunks.”
“How”, I ask,” is it that skunks are your friends?”
Steve answers, “They are a beneficial member of the neighborhood of this farm, at night they come out and eat the snails. If they didn’t I’d have to find some way to control those snails because they could do a lot of damage.”
Our tour continues on down the hill as Steve talks about the intracies of the biology of an organic orchard, telling us of how it is that the best fruit always comes from the oldest trees. In his orchard the maturity of the tree is prized for the quality of each orange even though it may not produce as many pounds of fruit per year.
Coming down the hill it is hard not to notice that this lovely old farm in completely encircled by relatively new suburban tract homes, so I ask the direct question; “Steve talk to me about your neighbors there. How do they feel about your farming right across the fence?”
“Most of them identify with the farm positively. Over the years their kids have been coming here for summer jobs. But it isn’t always roses. You see that big house there, with the swimming pool? They don’t particularly like us and I guess I can understand why. You see, in the early summer we have large loads of livestock manure delivered to use for compost and fertilizer. It was on a windy day when they had a wedding for their daughter in their yard and we had a big load of fresh manure dumped up here. The strong odor gave an unfortunate flavor to that wedding.”
“Oh my,” I said, “that could not have been good.”
Steve smiled a sad smile and said, “They should have invited us to the wedding.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, “what do you mean exactly?”
“I would never have had that load delivered on that day had I known they were having a wedding in their yard. If they had invited us to the wedding we would have known.”
There it was in a nutshell, the whole story of what and why neighborhoods work and don’t. How can we hold what we don’t know? Ironic that a chosen, calm, steadfast vigilance and concern can give us a neighborhood’s width of purest freedom.
All of those thoughts coming to me in the farming; back and forth, across the field, slow monotonous back and forth until your old body says “I’m seizing up here – do something different or I’ll never let you bend freely again.” So you stop, get off, stretch and mutter to yourself. It’s easy to be cranky and ungrateful. I am not interested in what’s easy unless there is some fertile reward of lasting consequence. So, whether I’m old or not, I’m making big efforts to be positive and grateful. Because it sets the tempo for everything else. And truth is I am a most fortunate man.
Speaking of which, when friends made offhand remarks about so-called obvious signs of age, I reminded myself that I ain’t old until I can no longer put my experience to good use. And yes, for some of us that happens overnight. For others there may be that ober-season of “muleing” your way through with nothing to guide you but your glued-on inertia.
To paraphrase my friend, the poet Paul Hunter, you should love the work that loves you back. LRM
by Lynn Miller
Inertia: It’s more important than most of us imagine. Right now we are struggling on the ranch with a damaged irrigation system. Lightning took out the well pump motor and panel. Lot’s of work and expense to get it replaced with fingers crossed that insurance will cover it all. And now the county is dragging their feet to send out an inspector so we can turn the power back on. Up til this happened we had an outstanding spring with tremendous results. Hope abounded that this would be a great summer on the ranch; then the breakdowns. Now the hay crop burns up in the field and it’s all I can do to manage my depression over it all. It makes me just want to say “what’s the use” and take long naps. But that is worse than bad. That’s the death of inertia. The way I stay ahead of farming’s calamitous nature is to keep working, keep the projects flowing, stay out ahead of myself. Late in the evening is time enough to measure how these things can sometimes result in better days and ways. Right now, its time to repair a gate, fix the buckrakes, tighten up that wheel-line motor, put a new throat-latch on Prince’s bridle, and grease the implements. Right now its time to stay ahead of the game, stay ahead of the farming, because it will always get better.
Irrigation system back up now for just over a week. Repaired a couple of gates and put in a new corner fence. Weather has turned to glorious perfect summer and the grass, tomatoes, mint, brussels sprouts, baby peacocks and young horses are growing full blast. With any luck we’ll get our old house repainted soon and continue with farming and construction. Glad to be on the thankful side of fortunate.
Work you love: Yesterday I had a root canal redone. Nasty stuff. They said I might not be up to much for days or more. But the ranch is a steady drumbeat of work, most of which I love, and it helps me to forget minor pains and discomforts. That’s the ticket, really, work you love. Work that calls on you to get it done. Worked one of the young gelding teams today, hauling fence posts, mostly just wanted them to get legs back under them for the mowing that should commence full force next week. The horse work helped me to put the bad taste out of my mouth that came from arguing with an insurance adjuster about whether or not they were going to pay for the irrigation repairs. Tomorrow with any luck I’ll have both teams going through their paces. Yo ho, yo ho, the farmer’s life for me.
What’s a Small Farm Anyway? Couple of days ago I had to drive over the Cascade mountains to pickup an old piece of farm equipment I had purchased. Had me driving through parts of the Willamette valley I hadn’t been to in years. I saw several dozen new “small” farms – small in acreage – hosting vineyards, nurseries, wineries, and market gardens. Most were fancy places which seemed well-oiled and somewhat free of the usual struggles for new farming ventures. Gave me pause to wonder how these folks will contribute to their communities, how they’ll fit along side the usual run of hard scrabble farmers. That forty acre farm that has been built over night with tens of millions of dollars in the operating fund, how does it fit against that 60 acre goat dairy that was built from three families pooling their hard work and life savings ($65,000 towards land, livestock, seed, equipment, etc.)? How will those folks sit together at school board meetings, church socials, and summer picnics? Do they have more in common than not?
Yesterday took young four year old gelding team out for first time on mower. Dancing on toes in the beginning but listening and responding all the while, we settled down to mow for two miles before I noticed that one of the collars was aggravating the horse. Took them back to the barn to be refitted. All of it reminded me of the value of solid foundation in the training. These two youngsters behaved admirably. And, I think, so did I giving patience the upper hand.
Don’t believe half of what you think, less of what you read and nary a bit of what you are told. The spectrum of dietary caution has spread wide to every corner of the edible world. Yesterday I had an alternative medicine practitioner tell my daughter and I that ripe bananas are bad for us. He went on to condemn all ‘sweet’ fruits. Whether its protein or carbohydrates, animal fat or leafy greens, meats or breads, starches or legumes; somewhere out there there exists a ‘professional’, group, association, discipline, and/or nutcase who will argue the ‘science’ of why this or that is bad for us.
Common sense would tell us that most everything is okay in moderation. Common sense and a look at humankind’s long history would show us that we are multivores and seem to do best with variety in our diet. But the insanities become more and more difficult to corral. For example; today I was told that the only way I could grow a truly healthy garden was to hold each and every seed in my saliva-filled mouth for a couple of seconds after which I was to plant that individual seed and not water it for two days. This, I was told, would ‘implant’ that seed, pre-germination, with my DNA and give it the best chance to grow produce that would assist my overall health. Now that’s taking ‘local food’ to the ridiculous extreme even the New York Times might appreciate. Reminds me of the little boy who claimed he kept the worms in his mouth to keep them warm before baiting his hook. In these freakish times I worry that it will be difficult for young people to grow out of this granola stew of idea-slurry. Variety and diversity are extremely important tools for successful farming. When obscure dietary disciplines would seem to strip us farmers of our full array of possibilities I say it’s time to reduce the cultural static and get back to the fundamentals of good farming and diet.
The Shallow Insistence
by Lynn Miller
There is danger from all men. The only maxim of a free government ought to be to trust no man living with power to endanger the public liberty.
- John Adams
A man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to let alone.
- Henry David Thoreau
How can you govern a country which has 246 varieties of cheese?
- Charles De Gaulle
There are melodies so evocative they would melt any attached words. There are images so powerful they might negate explanation. There are working rythmns which fly well beyond the vocational titles we give them. Those powerful melodies, images and vocations; all of them deep and rooted now in the human pysche. None of this has to do with good or bad, it is just so. And that has been for most of mankind’s modern days, these last five centuries. But then the shallow insistence snuck up on us and we have fallen down or are falling to our lesser selves.
The shallow insistence, the casual impatience, the convenience imperative, the lazy demands – whatever we call them or it – it has us in its grip. Today I hear of a man who says he quits his farm dream because you and I are unwilling and/or unable to tell him the simple secrets to how a comfortable living might be made without too much work, without too great an investment, without disappointment. He has insisted we give him the guaranteed plan. He casually says he’s not going to waste any more time on dreaming. He demands for himself a life without so much hard work. He says to us that those powerful melodies, images and vocations are all a thing of the past – or never existed at all. He says of us we are charlatans for hard-selling the agrarian life as a dream come true when all it is is misery, disappointment, hard work and poverty.
And I’m supposed to stand chastised and humbled because I dare to edit a publication which champions such a boondoggle? To defend our efforts against the shallow insistence tires me to the bone. There is no boondoggle UNLESS you see it as such. There are no answers, no guarantees, no sure-fire plans. Some of us will never make successful farmers, regardless of what criteria or definition you use to measure success. And some of us will continue to succeed no matter how poorly we are doing. If you see it won’t work, it won’t work. If you see it as the effort you want to make, it is already working. I’d much rather be home farming than in here defending music, art and hard work.
Expansive. Crystal clear summer midday. On the porch with daughter- made grilled turkey pepperoncini, cheese and mustard sandwich, limeade the chaser. The Italianeate shadows, cropedges – under trees and livestock – off the buildings – look as the sandwich tastes, thick with flavors and colors. Just in for a break from the field. It’s one of those days when most every bird is lazy-happy to be alive and somersaulting insects delude themselves into believing their lives will be long. Watch as old saddle horse saunters towards shade tree, head swinging low and slow on her long neck while tail does double time across the itchy hips. Puffy white clouds pass on parade, their pace matching the bird snores, the mare’s saunter, the insect somersaults and my sandwich party. Will be returning shortly to the field work. Glad for it. Glad to know what to do, to have it to do, to feel it working on me as well. I feel expansive and in the expanse of my good life, all of the moment and moments.
Back and forth across the field, walking speed, able to rest with thoughts instead of wrestling with them. No way to hurry this process. The time spent working this field gives me an acceptance quite above patience. No insistence, nothing shallow. Feels like I’m riding the day, and I am oh so happy for it. When I have completed this procedure I will have visited with my eyes every square inch of this field’s top side. Not to say I will know or understand it completely because that will take several lifetimes.
“Oh, you farmer you.”
As a young man I was prescient… I knew I wanted to be a farmer and an artist. Nothing else filled my imagination. And all during those growing up years, a half century ago, I was constantly warned that my choices were unwise. That neither art nor farming would grant me much in the way of security and wealth. It would be a slow life, hand-to-mouth, and one with very little prestige. So, wize guy that I have always been, I asked ‘what’s so wrong with slow? And ‘hand-to-mouth’ sounds pretty good to me – are you suggesting it should be ‘foot to mouth’ or ‘butler to mouth’, or heaven forbid ‘syringe to blood stream’? I know you mean that it likely will be tough and I’ll have to work for each meal. But again I say, so?’
Some of you will feel these words incorrectly as some sort of taunt. I’m sorry if that is the case, because that is not what is meant in the sharing. I have heard it said of me that ‘yah sure, he’s farming, but it’s because he had the money to get a start.’ Nope, not so. Started out poor as a church mouse but just as courageous and silly. And I’ve heard it said, “he’s not a very good farmer, always behind in his work.” To which I respond – yes, that’s certainly true but it is as much by choice as by happenstance. I do take the time occasionally to put this magazine together, and to paint pictures, and to do things with my family and friends. So the farming hasn’t always got the full measure of time it cries for BUT it has always received from me the fullest measure of my passion, ease, comfort, anxiety and thoughtfulness. But then I’m not normal in any measureable way. I am different from most other folks I know who choose to farm. We are all different, all individual.
Yet, the wider public has a definite sense of what it means to be a ‘farmer’, to be that character that says ‘farmer’. And that sense is ripe with contradictions. They see us as hardworking and slow witted, they see as essential and replaceable, they see us as highly skilled and uneducated, they see us as courageous and insulated, they see us as poor and lucky, they see us as trustworthy yet sneaky, they see us as alchemists and as luddites, they see us as agronomists and gamblers, they see us as religious and heathen but mostly they see us as unfortunate.
What is it about us? I was in the auto parts store today trying to get a couple of spark plug wires for an old Wisconsin-model baler engine. I took the originals in with me, learned long ago I had to do that otherwise they would argue when I described the parts. They say things like “ain’t no such wire, not like that any ways.” So I took in the offending wires and plopped them down on the counter. There they were big as life, no arguing with that. The two guys took a look at them, fingered them and then rolled their eyes in reverse unison. “What are these off of anyway?” So I tell them and the owner says, “better take him back there and show him what we got on the rack.”
We discover that they truly don’t have anything quite like my old wires so they decide they will sell me the parts and pieces to assemble. The hired man says, “don’t know how to put them together, never seen it done” to which the store owner says, in a voice meant for every other customer to hear “Just give him the parts, he can put it all together, he’s a farmer.” Somehow the tone of voice had the sour harmony of a history professor’s referencing of some idiot neanderthal tribe’s self sufficiency skills. So I pipe up and say “Maybe you should put a sign on the door says no farmers need apply.” And he mumbles looking down and says “no, no, it’s not like that…” because times are tough and every customer is essential and he knows now is not the time to pick a fight with a paying customer let alone a ‘farmer’. And I think ‘wait a minute, it was all meant in jest. Let’s lighten up here.’ But I don’t say it out loud because these times beg of us to play sweetly the pipes of the civility organ. So we part company in full and quiet disagreement, uneasiness at the core.
Where is the thing which separates us? What is that thing? I want to think that some of us have lives filled richly with stories while others don’t. And when those two worlds meet they never truly meet. I have a friend who is also our family dentist. He is a treasure, a man filled to overfull with stories yet most eager to hear yours. I have another good friend who is general practitioner but one who has never shared a story and seldom has time to hear one. I do not mean to suggest one man the better. They are both superior human beings. I do mean to suggest one man the more accessible and perhaps tolerant.
Today, with the cyber universe dictating to us our speed and values, more and more people are coming to be storyless. They have none to share and most certainly aren’t interested in yours. They do get some comfort at having their society well ordered and rapidly accessible. They know who it is they most want to be like and they set them well up on invisible pedestals, and they know who they don’t want to be like and work hard to put them in their place and out of view. They shield themselves from any story that might draw them into some sort of permanent public connection. James Agee, Eudora Welty, Studs Terckle, Italo Calvino, Steinbeck, Faulkner and Twain are of a type which today are seen publicaly as en- emies of the shallow insistence.
When we began to lose our stories, we began to lose our sense of humor and with that went some of the strongest defense of public liberty. But even the concept of public liberty requires thought especially if we are to know why it is a thing to be defended.
Food, shelter and warmth used to be generally accepted as the basic needs of the human animal. Long ago I added to the list, for myself, ‘thought’. The freedom and the capacity to think are certainly not givens, certainly not guaranteed, and in most modern societies they are most definitely not recognized rights. Some see a free thinking populace as a strong threat to commerce, property rights and the quietude. When it is written in constitutional law that we have an inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, do not mistake that to include the right to think deeply about personal and social subjects. We are expected to ‘sign-on’ to the package deals of industrial commerce, political parties and media instruments. We live in a time of socio-economic governance; business and industrial interests have as much or more control over our actions than does the rule of law.
Thought ought to be part and parcel of a public liberty. There is an old adage which goes something like “the best guarantee of democracy is a well informed voting public.” So I say our democracy is at risk. And that is exactly how corporations want it and how we allowed it to become. Impa- tience is the name of the game. On top; impatient for profit, impatient for power, impatient for control. On the bottom; impatient for thrills, for free lunches, for indolence, for unlimiting shopping, for speed, for satiation.
After returning from an extended summer road trip into the midwest, Paul Hunter commented to me as to how cell phone coverage has made significant shifts – several rural areas he had been able to call from were now without signal. In my own similar experience I have found amplified reception in some population centers and new dead zones as well. Crazi- ness but there is a pattern to it all. As people become more and more dependent on mobile phones, companies are experimenting with the boundaries of these new relationships and service. Cell phone companies appear to be doing the ‘Chinese Shuffle’: meaning do whatever it takes with pricing and service and availability to run the competition completely out of business then later adjust prices and coverage to maximize profits. And our government is in full ‘compliance’ seeing a fully connected populace as a more easily secured populace. There is very little room for public liberty in a fully governed country.
We are deep within the Orwellian nighmare of the book ‘1984’. Those who believe that the Internet has given us the ultimate in public liberty with access to ‘knowledge and real time news’ don’t see or fear the connec- tions and controls. In the name(s) of national security and public safety our governments may shut down the internet and mobile phones with the flip of a switch. Our military has kept that option and used it in targeted modern combat scenarios. If the citizenry can be convinced of a ‘perpetual’ threat of eminent catastrophe and destruction brought on by such demon forces as Ecoli, immigrant hordes and religious fanatics, every one of us will be at the behest of whosoever holds the power. Not in the distant future but today. What does this mean for farming? Government and the military are big business and vice versa. Food, energy and the shopping mind-state of the populace constitute the heart of the global economic exchange and the necessary focus of big business. Before this great recession, experts said over and over again ‘it can’t happen – there’s too much money in the system and too many controls;’ but it did happen. Todays experts are saying our industrial food system is safe, secure and must be kept that way to prevent global hunger, while misguided official efforts work to regulate small independent farmers out of existence for the stated sake of public safety. Meanwhile the U.S. federal government would rather you didn’t know that over the last 12 months there have been more than 74 million instances of food-borne illness (over 99% of which have been caused by industrial agricultural production methods).
Ed and Dena have two little girls, Charlene and Nathalie. The four of them live on a small farm outside of Parkdale, Oregon not far from Hood River. Recently, while all were alseep in their beds, the Golden Labrador Bella went berzerk, snarling, growling and barking feverishly. Bella was supposed to be asleep on the kitchen floor. When Ed heard the commotion he knew something big was amiss. Bella is so laid back that to drive her to this level of protective fervor meant bad things were afoot. Ed scrambled around trying to think what to do while Dena calmly checked it out and found no obvious problems. So Ed went to the kitchen for a glass of water, Dena went back to the bedroom and Bella almost knocked her over trying to get under the bed to hide.
Ed, glass in hand looks up from the kitchen sink, across into the living room and sees… a skunk in the house, tail high, running back and forth. It ran into the den and up on the computer desk (checked it’s email and facebook accounts) then scampered back into the living and across the back of the sofa before finally making a beeline for the cat-door and freedom. Boy, were they lucky. In its haste the Skunk had just plain forgotten to leave any odor behind. It was obvious to Ed that Bella had previous run-ins with the aromatic forest cat. It was also obvious that this particular skunk knew how to use a cat-door.
Next day Ed managed to catch that offending skunk in his have-a-heart trap. He hesitated to tell anyone he still had it, alive and well. Hesitated because he knew full well that there were folks scattered around his neighborhood that would take a mighty dim view of his trapping and frightening the poor little wild animal. So he was waiting for just the right opportunity…
Stories give us more than news they give us emotions and connectivity and they give us humor. As we lose the stories, we lose our sense of humor. We cannot afford that.
A couple of years ago, at Justin and Sarah’s wedding reception, I visited with a man I hadn’t seen in some time. He’s a long thin laconic cowboy in the Ace Reid mold. Seeing him again brought to mind a story he had told me several times. Seems this fellow, in his younger days, worked as a special impact-dynamics engineer for Boeing aircraft. It was his job to do facsimile testing of what occurred when birds hit aircraft windshields at great speed.
“How’d you do that?” I asked. “Oh,” he said slow and low, “we loaded live chickens into shoulder-mounted rocket launchers and shot them at the windshields. Gave us a pretty good idear of what to expect at several hundred miles per hour.”
Well, at the wedding I asked him to repeat that story for some friends and several of them joined me in laughter and disbelief – but one woman didn’t. “That’s cruel, stupid and disgusting!”she said and hauled off and slugged me in the chest.” I have friends who’ll put a stop to that right now” and she stomped away. Why’d she hit me? I never shot no chickens. Political correctness and abject absurdity both have a way of sucking the air right out of a party. ‘Meant well’ doesn’t get the job done.
I say let them shoot the chickens at windshields so long as due diligence has been done to determine conclusively that they are using only old barren hens too tough to stew. (I don’t want to find out they are using some lovely Lakenvelder poult or a juicy tender Black Jersey Giant cock- erel.) I say better chickens than parakeets or morning doves or flamingos. I say leave it alone – leave the whole silly mess alone, afterall it’s a well paid job for some future cowboy.
In fact, more I think about it, there is merit to apply such efforts else- where. Imagine the value of using remote-triggered catapults to lob cack- ling old hens into the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate chamber? I say do it when they are having a vote on either raising their own pay or loosening up campaign finance reform.
And why stop there? Lob old hens over the cameras and on to the sets of live mainstream television news shows. Silliness you say? Is it any sillier than the blather we get now from media and our government? And if we are gentle with the catapulting we might be able to gather up the unhurt hens and get two or three barrages out of them. We’d have to hurry about all of this though, because it is very likely that a group of well-meaning meddling citizens will work to make it against the law to lob chickens on the grounds of animal abuse and cruelty to paltry poultry. Yes, Thelma, I do believe that, strictly speaking, as of today there is no law against chickenlobbing.
WHO STANDS TO GAIN?
These are meddlesome times. We are, by insisting every aspect of human behavior be monitored and regulated, sliding down a greased and painful slope to social mayhem. And it is because we are regularly pitted, you and I, against one another – we are egged on to suspect, to hate, to demean, to disregard each other. Hard to get a fix on sides to the arguments. All motives demand to be held suspect. And it is all a diversion, a smoke screen to keep us from dwelling on the corporate complex which mines our basest hungers, our deepest fears and the thin outer layers of our imaginations.
It doesn’t matter that it is for the public good, all that matters is your arrogant presumption to say you know what is in the public good. It is the prelude to an end to all public liberty.
Charlie Chaplin wrote, in a movie song, “Smile though your heart be breaking.” Well my heart is breaking with all the mean-spirited petty feuding folks are having amongst themselves while we are being robbed blind by corporations, the planet is being poisoned, the media plays us like an old spinster at a single’s dance, we being drugged to dull submission by a complicit state and federal government system, the electronic media fries our poor brains, and our public liberty is put through a sausage grinder. “Smile though your heart be breaking?” Okay, but the only way I can smile through all of that is to fling loogies, insults and nasty side swipes enough to maybe get some of us to laugh at how downright ridiculous it is. I recently had a man cancel his subscription to this publication because, in his words, it’s nothing but a liberal rag. And that after a woman accused us of being right-winged and bigoted against gay farmers. Now, I say both accusations are downright silly and deserve a laugh or two except that I take personal offense that this publication be branded either way. I refuse to be labelled a liberal or a conservative – call me old, call me old-fash- ioned, call me late for dinner – but don’t tell me I belong to any particular persuasion just because I refuse to say the pledge of alleigiance to any organized(?) politcal party, ideology, movement, shopping club, or dog breed.
We are deep in the bowels of the Orwellian nightmare, at risk of succumbing to a false inevitability. It does not have to be this way!
Our dream was that we find the land of milk and honey, it was to be our heaven on earth and thereafter. But the honey bees are dying off and the milk’s all being boiled to a worthless chalky tea. The Bees are dying because profitable modern chemistry and bioengineering can’t be bothered with such inconsequential and hyper-sensitive insects. And the milk’s being boiled so that the incredibly high chance we’ll all be poisoned by the unsafe biological nightmares of huge dairies can be held somewhat in check AND because pasteurization is a convenient legal tool to outlaw small dairies defacto. Instead of charging the directing boards of corporations like Archer Daniels Midland and Monsanto with crimes against humanity we are diddling away our political hutzpah by insisting that over-weight truckers have their licenses revoked and that seeing eye dogs be neutered.
DUDE! LIKE ORGANIC…
And now the general public is to somehow be congratulated because it has discovered “Certified Organic” foods and farmer’s markets and CSAs and raw milk and bean sprouts and tofu? I say toe-fooey. Another example of the shallow insistence. I say we do not need to become fashionable. I say it is a curse. I say we need to become essential and fertile and appreciated. I say for good food and alternative farming to become fashionable is to say we will wear it for a while, at least until the next shallow insistence comes along.
Beware the fickle tastemakers and bunctious snobs of foodeezma’s new guard for their particular form of elitist facism would pay false worship to the epicurean dream whilst handing control of food’s future to the corpo- rate crap shoot. The plexity and fecundity of our dirtiest farming? Therein is the death-embracing terroir of the deepest fulfilling and unknowably indescribable sauce and sausage.
Know them by their cowardice as they hold up corporate hex signs to ward off those of us who would deign to make the case for the artisan in agriculture – for the prayerful craftsman in farming – for the emotional parent – for the spontaneous dirt-digging rastaferian – for the rythmn loving song-catching seed-gatherer – for the cow-gentlers – for the brewers of manure teas – for the agrarian priests who each and every day give thanks for the unknowable, the unattainable, the unaccountable and the unassail- able beauties of human ingested nature.
They say to us “this is how it is” as final justification for their heart-dead notion of how it must be. They say to us “only a fool would go down that path” as if foolishness were a crime against their sacrosanct notions of sterility. They say to us “let us be reasonable about the best future” when it is the exact opposite they demand. They say “small farms cannot feed the world, we need to be realitistic about efficient production scales for organic agriculture” and with this they show their true industrio-fascist colors.
It should never have been allowed that the discussion of food and nature be centered on the human social reality. It must be centered on nature’s reality with the accurate nod to humans at worst as one set of end consum- ers of waste and at best as capable of a spirituality aligned with farming. We come after. Otherwise the shallow insistence will win the day.
So at this stage of my life, I make the choice to follow the vitalities I feel for evocative melody, powerful images and farming. Which really doesn’t matter much in the wide scheme of biological life because it is the deeper insistence of just one small and insignificant human being. Ah, but then that is just possibly a spark of health at a time when sparks are sorely needed. What were to happen if it caught on and every day more and more people were to follow the vitalities they feel for a life of melody, poetry and farming? I believe in that case that shallow insistence would become less a social disease and more an occasional exhausted porch whim of the splendidly tired. Ah, you farmer you. LRM
by Lynn Miller
copyright 2009 the author
The city of Los Angeles was built upon some of the most fertile and productive farmland on the entire planet. There were historical environmental expedients at work in that evolution and development. What is lost is lost, at least in our time. But it is a convenient and complex example of the contest at work when we speak of any effort to save the precious and limited planetary resource we identify as farmland. Back in those early days the farmers simply moved a little further out. There was ample resource.
It may not seem so, but there are thousands of efforts, projects, programs and organizations all working in their own way to try to save farmland from being scooped up for development. And those efforts, large and small, regional and national, have enjoyed tremendous success of late but there is a nasty caveate. Land is being saved BUT for what ultimate purpose? Land is being protected – or perhaps better put – land is being ‘set aside’ so that it will not be called upon in the near future for subdivision and development. Something is lacking and that something is a prime directive which culturally and publicly insists that this valuable resource be actually USED for farming. Land that is simply set aside, regardless of how strong the legal protectorate, will inevitably see its use-mandate be tested.
With the recession/depression, construction has slowed to a standstill but that has not stopped developers and planners from projecting on into the not so distant future. For them, it is possible that tracts held in abeyance by local and regional land use efforts in the name of “open space” actually provide a defacto “land savings account” for future development resource.
The whole farmland preservation gambit might be best served if we back up a ways and take a larger view of the issues at hand. There are a variety of “players” in the efforts to save farmland. Some want the land to stay undeveloped, to stay open, even if it means that it be a virtual “set aside.” Others want the land to remain farmed and, as such, to remain in a state of controlled or limited flux. And still others say preserved land would matter far less IF farming were granted its true value to humanity, a value that mirrors the fact that without a sufficient ready supply of healthy food humanity would perish from the earth. Therein it would be a given to all of us that farmland is precious.
First We Must Save Farming
I recently sat in on a fascinating organizational meeting. It was billed as the first of four such get-togethers. A group of farmers and consumers were exploring the value in forming a local (central Oregon) farm producer’s coop or association. They were ably assisted by a highly competent facilitator from a regional resource and development group. The discussion quickly came round to what the farmers needed: ready access to strong markets.
The farmers and ranchers have great and good product, fixed costs, and a struggle to make ends meet.
And then there was a sideline as one participant said he had a mobile slaughtering business and wished to expand his capability to offer USDA certified meats and in particular grass-fed beef.
He had many potential customers and no ready supply of product.
And a third piece of the puzzle came into play as anxious local food consumers in attendance spoke of their wish to assist in preventing their suppliers, local farmers, from going out of business for lack of market.
These people were totally hooked on fresh local meats and produce and did not want to be deprived.
Another couple spoke of their owning an abandoned commercial building and wondered if it was possible to build a farm coop store.
The assets exist to tie together a cooperative with a retail core.
The group was rounded out by organizers who spoke of their keen interest in connecting all of these dots into a working cooperative entity. And they spoke of cooperative refrigeration and freezing units, inspected mobile slaughtering units, and pooled liability.
Community organizers were prepared to roll up their sleeves and make something positive work.
After two short hours of discussion (which included attacks on how we price our produce, be it raw milk or ground beef or pumpkins), everyone came away understanding that they had all of the pieces required to make something truly exciting and useful occur. They were at the threshold of forming a farmer’s marketing cooperative or association which would give them a leg up and a better chance at profitability.
Now this meeting might have been beneficiary of a series of coincidences but I rather think not. I think the facilitator did his homework and brought the key components together. And I see no reason why such a program or plan couldn’t work pretty much everywhere.
Why do I discuss this in tandem with a discussion about farmland preservation? Because WHEN we make our farms and farming profitable and fully connected to the surrounding communities we give that land the best opportunity for self protection. That is why I applaud the efforts of the Small Farms Conservancy to tie the re-entitlement and invigoration of farming to all discussion of farmland preservation. And, to fill out the circle, we need to include the education of the next farmers along with the needs of aging farmers in the equation.
Save good farming and you save good farmers. Save good farmers and you save farmland. Save farmland and you feed the people. Teach good farming and you create new farmers. Reclaim idle farmland and you resettle America. It’s a call to farms.