A Farm for Free
by Lynn R. Miller
“There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” Leonard Cohen
Maturity as a souring agent; we wait anxiously for maturity, for the rewards of membership it promises but it always arrives before we are prepared and then it is too late. We bargain most of our lives for the mysterious unless we are simpletons. And with age the satisfactions of the simpleton comforts us; napping in the presence of sunsets, throwing the ball for the dog, listening intently to the meander of a small child, apologizing to yourself for yourself — comforts. As the loss of hearing, sight and balance progress the mirrors at the periphery go clear and molten. Inside all brocade, and confusion. On the periphery all answers.
Uh oh, here comes a bunch of bull. Doesn’t much matter if he’s being sarcastic, or sardonic, or just plain stupid. We know you can’t get a farm for free. And it’s obvious this guy is trying to draw us in with smoke and by playing to our baser instincts. It takes money or else you have to have the guts to leverage yourself up onto your own triangle and then TAKE a farm and let the triangle fall apart. Ways of the world. Get the money somehow or find a way to take what you want.
My, oh my, did you hear that? That’s the sound of insistence looking for walls to bounce off of. ‘Coin of the realm,’ money, is but a medium of exchange — one medium of exchange. But no guarantee. And stealing is stealing, it is not exchange. The only honorable medium of exchange with anything close to a guarantee is sight — it is the ability to see yourself through; to see yourself arriving. And sight gives as it receives. ‘Thank you for seeing me.’
Anything costs nothing? Nothing costs anything? Everything has a price. Not all of those prices may be met by the coin of the realm, some require blood, sweat and tears. The way to a farm is through daring not theft. How much does daring cost? ‘Daring’ is the propulsion behind ‘seeing what is not there and seeing yourself through to it.’
I want to own a farm. I want to know how to farm. I don’t have any money. I probably will never have money beyond what it takes to live day by day. But here I am, and I want to know how to farm and I want a farm. And I see those people out there with farms — some look hopeless and some look really successful — but most of them just look like me. The big difference between them and me is that I really want this. And it isn’t fair that I can’t have this. There isn’t much time. It has to happen right now or real soon. I don’t know what will happen if I don’t have a farm, if I can’t farm. But I do know it won’t be good.
Breathing slowly. Comes to a calm.
“Ok, I get it. If I want a farm, I have to work very hard for it. But when does that start, where does that start?”
It starts by seeing yourself through. And that requires paying very little attention to the contradictions. Never look over your shoulder? Always look over your shoulder? Trust in outcomes? Don’t trust in outcomes?
For most of us the world is a puzzle, a conundrum, a pickle, a lopsided squeaky merry-go-round, a rigged game, a losing proposition. Note I did not say “life” I said “the world.” Life, on the other hand, is wonderfully and terribly predictable. We start by wishing we could walk, then move on to worrying about each step we take and quickly on to walking without a thought — then we begin to worry about each step, and gradually to wishing we could walk again. There it is, life. Or is it?
For hundreds of millions the “world” is learning about sustenance (food), and wishing for food, and wishing for shelter and wishing for warmth, and wishing that our loved ones be spared. And being reminded at every juncture that we, the many, are not promised any of this. Yet the world is that thing which deludes us into thinking that justice is a right we must strive for. Strive for it, yes. But it ain’t a right, not by any ordinance. Saying it is so, does not make it thus.
If it be so, is justice, as the politicians would insist, something we must work to protect? As the tribes gather together, worldwide, in councils, to protect their territories — it is from each other they wall off. The Arapaho, the Serbians, the Masons, the Berber, the Mongolians, the Samoans, Los Islan?os, the Quebecois, the Basque, the Irish, the Poles, the Arabs, the Hebrew, the Farm workers, the Danes, the Mayans, the Catholics, the Evangelists, the Visigoths, the Grammarians, the Bankers, the Bakers, the Farmers and the Teamsters — every tribe is insular and it ain’t. No tribe should take precedent over a mother, a father or a child, but sadly many do. No tribe should colorize notions of justice to sanctify their own credo but that happens every day. But it must also be observed that no federal or supreme over-arching governance should strip from tribes their identity in order to allow easy access to the funders of those governments — but they do every day. When we ask “where is the justice in that?” we already know it is in the hands of those who have bought control.
We so easily forget that we human beings unite in uneasy overlaps. Does this white family have the right to farm here in South Sudan? Does this African American have any right to farm here in Oklahoma? Does this Chinaman belong on this goat milk dairy here in Alabama? Does this Mexican have the right to own a farm in Idaho? Americans from the USA are quick to point to the contracts and pledges of this country — the Constitution, the Pledge of Allegiance, and the Bill of Rights and that defining anchor “with Justice for all.”
The lovely promise of justice is our world’s biggest lie. Note that life will have nothing of it, for it does not factor into biology. Justice is you and I saying this distribution is not fair. Justice is you and I saying we want our share. Justice is that monkey thinking ‘that lion ought not to have the right to kill and eat me’. And justice is that man being able to put the money up to get the verdict he so readily affords. And justice is people saying we worked hard for this stuff and they can’t have it. And justice is, for the very privileged few, an “all access” pass to “the world.” And justice is that nuisance factor that keeps judge’s up at night trying to figure out how to protect “property” and grant to justice a fairness, all at the same time.
He (or she) put everything in temporary storage; furniture, clothes, vehicles, electronics, doodads, books with words and pictures in them, and he (or she) took one blank notebook, one change of clothes, and, knowing what landscape he (or she) belonged in, bag over the shoulder, he (or she) went there in search of a farm… to work on.
He had no money. Or very little. He wanted a farm of his own. Someone asked him why. He thought about that long and hard and landed on the simple answer, the direct, deep-in-the-gut answer, “because I want to farm.”
He went back to the person who asked him why and gave his answer. “Because I want to farm.”
“Good” came the response. Then forget about worrying how you are going to afford it and instead find a way to BE farming. Go to work helping someone who successfully farms like you want to, grows what you want to grow, does it the way you see yourself doing it. And make the first important trade of your voyage; trade in your personal urgent need to HAVE a farm: trade it for a time of service, exchange your NEEDING for an honest effort to SERVE the needs of that farmer you have discovered. Ground yourself so that the electricity of discovery and learning will pass through you cleanly and with best evidence. Ground yourself to avoid shocks. Ground yourself as student, as silent apprentice, as gratitude incarnate.
It took a good long while to find the right farm and farmer from which to learn. And the seasons had their say. No locale or farm looked quite right in winter. And summer was daunting. But when she saw the little cherry orchard in bloom and the one thousand red hens with their stop and go, peck and cackle, scurry inside the expansive, white-framed chicken yard, and the old guy wiping his hands on his overalls stand- ing near a row of shining wrenches laid along the top of the front tire of the old Case tractor, she felt herself wrestle with the attraction and struggle to untangle her logic. “It was supposed to be a place that was obviously successful, so why am I so attracted to this place? I know, it is because I want to be in this picture.” She smiled realizing her logic had been insulted into submission. She walked towards the white-haired woman who loaded egg flats in the station wagon.
The path to owning a farm is more often tied to actual farming. You can own a farm without farming, without being a farmer. You can be a farmer and be farming without owning the land. The lovely paradox is that the latter frequently results in you owning the farm you are farming. But you must know how to work. And one very important part of that is being able to keep your objectives in sight. There are close objectives, as in finishing the job at hand, and there are long term objectives, such as owning the farm. You need a nose for both. And you need to be able to separate them. You must start with the close-in objectives.
He had gone back to the small city for supplies. Walking to the bus stop, he took a short cut through a neighborhood and stumbled upon a ten acre farm, nestled in that subdivision of houses as though it might once have been set aside as a park. Hidden there, from the stance of the house yards and their articles of activity, like barbecue placement and children’s swing sets — all backed away from it as though to avoid a view of the farming. It was as if the farm were being apologized for. But here were rows of onions, and kale, and potatoes, and tomato plants and cane fruit in a haphazard, almost herringbone, pattern, fighting with the long skinny irrigation pipes in a struggle for symmetry. Few fences, only livestock seemed to be two horses in a small pen, behind what looked like a smokehouse. Dark piles at various places, a few steaming. And four people working; one on a hoe in the onions, one carrying big sacks, and two unloading wheelbarrows into a delivery van. It wasn’t pretty, it was a scramble of thriving work. He asked to speak to the owner.
But first: keep your nose to yourself. If you have a nose for where you want to end up, great. Keep it to yourself. If you think you have a nose for what might be an opportunity to get where you want to be, keep it to yourself. If you are going to be successful, it will be either because you have insulated yourself well from the mob of humanity OR because things fell in your lap. Don’t count on that lap business. As for that mob of humanity, it will move to take over a vacuum, and your morphing dreamscape is most definitely a vacuum. Cloak your dreamscape from view, this will protect you. Later your dreamscape will reveal itself to those who might benefit, and they in turn will benefit you.
Farming is about creation. By your involvement and guidance, plants and animals will come to life. For me, it is akin to the art of painting, because in so many ways it is a solitary business. Mastery is about finding that tools, instruments, ingredients, practices, and understood elements are at your beck and call. Mastery is knowing, implicitly, that you must guide the process to completion. And by ‘you’ I most certainly do not mean a club, or cooperative, or organization, or company, or church group, or school, or any whole mess of people. I mean you, the individual (plus perhaps the smallest contingent of closest family and associates).
“Hi, you have the most gorgeous orchard I have ever seen! And the smell of all those cherry blossoms…!” The old woman lifted the tray of eggs slightly higher and nodded downwards saying, “The secret is here, poultry manure.” “May I help you load those?” “No need, but thank you. How can I help you?” “I’m taking a vacation from college and I’d like to find a farm just like this where I could volunteer to help.” The older woman had a questioning look. “Oh, it’s because I want to know if a farming life would suit me.” The farm wife handed the young woman a flat of eggs and nodded towards the stack in the open car.
Where to begin? How do you get in the proverbial ‘door?’ Instead of saying out loud “I want to learn how to farm, I want to learn everything you know.” Save it as answer to a future question. Instead introduce yourself to that farmer and offer this; “How may I help you with your farm work?” And if the answer is, “I need those pumpkins loaded carefully on this wagon, can you handle that?” You say “Yessir,” and do it.
“He’s not here right now.” said the man carrying a sack from the shed to the trailer behind the small tractor. “These all going there?” “Yep.” And so he put down his pack and joined in carrying sacks. The farm worker thought nothing of it. Probably just a new hand, he said to himself. Later when the farmer arrived he looked at the new worker and asked, “who are you? I didn’t hire you.” Holding his hand up he added, “doesn’t matter. I can give you fifty bucks and lunch for a day’s work. If you want it, take your direction from him.” And the deal was struck.
And while you are out in that field you pay attention to that job and also, across the fence, to the job the farmer is doing discing under corn stubble. When he puts you to cleaning out the barn, pay attention to your work AND watch him as he harnesses his team. When he has you wash out the milking parlor think about the layout of the building and imagine how it might actually function. When he has you repair a fence, notice its length, what it encompasses, where its gates are, and ask yourself if you can figure out why it might be broken at this exact place. Do the work, pay attention, observe, and find a way to enjoy the fact that you are actually beginning to farm.
She was driving the old skid-steer pushing chicken manured-bedding out the end of the long shed and then dumping it on the waiting piles. She worked the hydraulics to flatten the dumping by back-blading. Then she went to the dirt pile and scooped a load to add to the pile. Then she drove back in the chicken shed for another load of bedding. All day long the same routine, with biting dust and ammonia smells. She was getting very tired of this. She was here to learn not to be a slave. She wanted to be growing things, not hauling shit.
And know deep down that you MUST curb your natural inclination to ask ANY question that pops into your head. When you do that you break the ground, you break the connection, you actually push that farmer away from you. Ask only questions that may be answered simply and by fact. For example; you may ask the question, “Where shall I put this manure?” but never ask, “Why do you grow so much lettuce?” You may ask, “Is this the right fuel for that tractor?” But never ask, “How do you justify raising these animals for meat?” Remember that you are there to learn, not to test, or rattle, or expose, or write a report. It is his place to, at some point, ask you, “Why do you want to be a farmer?” If you want to learn, and learn while farming, it is not your place to ask him, “Do you ever wish you had done something else, something different with your life?” And understand the difference between a question and an implied criticism or critique. “I thought people who farmed with horses never used tractors. Don’t you believe in the horses?” This is not a question, it’s an implied criticism, it’s a setup for an argument, it’s an announcement of your disapproval. And it will shut off your learning experience right now.
He watched and saw the owner miss a beat here, a step there. Every time he felt a question form in his throat he swallowed it. He spent that time observing and understanding what each little job led to. He had noticed that potato shoulders were starting to peak through the dirt at the plant base and took that to mean all was well until he saw the owner use a cultivator to throw dirt and hill up around the plants. He took a hoe and followed and wherever the cultivator shovels missed their job he did it manually. The owner noticed and asked him if he knew how to drive a team of horses. “Show me,” came the response. The owner, anxious to sit, walked around once and showed the young man. Then he sat on a bucket and watched. The young man was lucky, the horses knew the job, the cultivator was properly set, and the rickety owner was close at hand watching and approving.
Getting a farm today means working the system. The system is much bigger than farming, or land ownership, or pay for work slowly growing in savings. The system is complex and stupid and needlessly burdened and greed riddled. Nowhere in that system is there any allowance for straight forward human interaction and unfettered endeavor. Taxation comes in many forms. We are taxed by regulation, by limitations, by so many intangible forces tied back to the system.
My friend Edmund held me down and forced me to listen and I felt the passage through to a new clarity. It all should belong to work and commerce — all property, all monies, all powers, all benefits, all diversions, all wars, all farms, all cities, all futures should be our landscape — and we should be the people. All governments, all coalitions, all consortiums, all corporations, all cooperatives, all unions, save marriage, shall be of service to the people, to the landscape, to all of humanity, to the natural world. Governments, coalitions, corporations, cooperatives, unions, consortiums are, none of them, sentient beings. They are service instruments of the second order. Churches, schools, social groups, aid societies, theaters, museums, firehalls, police stations, hospitals, neighborhood health clinics, sports, markets, science labs, forests, oceans, farmlands, glaciers, water, air, rivers, blood banks, day care and taverns are all biological and spiritual service instruments of the first order.
All profits should flow to individuals. NO profits should be retained by corporations, governments, coalitions, or unions. All individuals should be taxed, as able to pay. All corporations should be tax free and essentially non-profit, unable to retain any earnings (all to flow to tax-paying shareholders and stakeholders). None but sentient beings should have rights under the Constitution. No second order service instrument shall be allowed to contribute money, ideas, influence or power to any body politic. All people shall have the open and free right to food, shelter, warmth and health care. No sentient being shall have rights over god, human spirituality or affairs of the heart. News media shall be stripped of profiteering and established as a public service instrument, a utility if you will, separate from government and any affiliation with corporations. Its mandate should be funded in the same manner as schools, healthcare and food distribution. Judicial systems shall be required to put human rights before property rights. Prisons shall be declared as human recycling centers. On punishment of death, corporations shall be held liable for crimes against humanity and the biological world. Banking shall be considered and investigated as a potential societal toxin.
Rename, reclaim, restore, rejuvenate. ‘Let no good deed go unpunished.’
WHAT ARE YOU WILLING TO PAY TO GET SOMETHING FOR FREE? or HOW TO AFFORD A FARM?
You want to farm. You’re trying to figure out how to do it, how to afford it, where to go? Can we separate out farming communities from the generality of ‘rural’ America when we speak of opportunity? Yes we must. True ‘general’ farming communities are wrapped in either the hope of, or the recent history of, welcoming and enlivening agricultural diversity. These communities encourage and breed competition and interdependencies of the best order. Suburb-viated rural communities (read internet-obliged bedroom communities) in the general vein are often divorced of or separated from farming. Avoid boutique, escape communities.
Hundreds of thousands of people are actively interested in or engaged in changing their direction towards a small farming vocation and lifestyle. Many of them are shopping casually or haphazardly for a locale — a place where they think they would like to start such a vocation. That search needs to be taken most seriously.
The community you move to, to build a farm, will be more important than any borrowed money you can find, more important than any orchestrated or happenstance publicity of your operations, more important than crop insurance, more important than political affiliation, more important than even your schooling.
You need to find a community that already features a variety of small farm enterprises and all of the support businesses required. I know that may seem like it is counter intuitive, and that many new farmers think first about finding a land base near population centers and ready markets. But in every vital small farm community the economics from farm to farm, shop to shop, creamery to milk parlor, granary to feed store, feeds the outside income of every single farmer and shop keeper. Farm alone, and you lose all of that opportunity. Farm independently, while in a vigorous diversified farming community, and you are valued more and more each and every day, and THAT is fertility.
And when a farm community comes to value you and what you represent, secrets are shared and your opportunities expand dramatically. You will learn of land coming available before “the system” does. You will learn of older farmers seeking working partnerships. You will learn of neighbors getting together to buy in bulk. You will be told of parcels of arable land in limbo, for extended periods of time — parcels which would benefit from farming. You will understand intimately where chances for barter reside. With so many absentee land owners on the firing line, you may even learn of opportunities where land is up for sheriff’s sale at a fraction of its value. While there is no guarantee that any of this translates to FREE, it is nonetheless a place at the table.
The farm wife had been thinking about how much they appreciated the young lady’s help and how, if they had had children, she would want a girl just like her — someone to pass the farm to, someone who would continue all that they had built as growing and fertile.
The young woman went to the farm wife because the old farmer was too difficult to talk to. Stiff-lipped she said,
“I can’t take this any more, I do all of the hard, dirty work as a volunteer and I don’t feel appreciated. Unless this moves to a paid position, I have to leave.”
The farm wife didn’t know what to say, so she said nothing and watched the young woman walk away. The farm wife felt as though something had been torn.
The best farmers of any scale are engineers — they engineer a growing environment folded into, and fish-plated by, seasonal vagaries. They engineer time signatures and system interrelationships. Sometimes though, they need to be social engineers and that is just so darned hard; how to set aside suspicions and general, earned, cynicism in favor of an open spirit; how to reach out. It is a classic example of Leonard Cohen’s “crack” to let the light in. Need held at bay is the crack. It is only ever realized by accident, or the paradox of conflict ahead of calm.
Every time the owner was able, he gave the young man money for his efforts. And each time, the money was met with surprise and wide open gratitude. Once, to awkward silence, the young man had said,
“For what I’m learning, I should by rights be paying you.”
As frequently happened, one of the other workers moved on and the owner realized that he did not need a replacement. This young ‘student’ did the work of two men, and often without instruction.
This morning it was terribly hard to get out of bed, his joints hurt so. Once outside he saw the young man currying the team tied at the fence. Then it all became clear to him.
“I don’t ever want to leave this farm, but I know I’m just not up to the work. I have a proposition for you. You give me a life estate here, in my house, so I can live out my days here. And then promise me a percent- age of your profits. For that I will give you title to this farm so you, in time, can build a house for yourself.”
The young man’s face went red, and he felt himself stutter as he said, “only if you will help me make decisions.”