a farmer’s agriculture
by Lynn R. Miller of Singing Horse Ranch
“Now at the end of the season, as at the end of the day’s hunt, a review seems to banish remorse and to goad information into knowledge, and to gently counsel thanks.” – David Mamet
Just as with you, there are so many stories I would tell on myself. Used to be that shame and the need to hold back a core of privacy kept me from throwing the stuff out indiscriminately. Not the best reason for editing I know. It would be better if I edited with a view towards presenting a better piece of writing. But alas, I have never been a writer. I’ve always been a mission-driven story teller. What makes a ‘writer’ in my view is someone with knowledge of and respect for the writer’s craft; for them the story must follow from behind. For me the story, the narrative, the argument is paramount. I will never care about ‘proper’ word usage or ‘correct’ sentence structure. I care about how something sounds when said, how those sounds carry the story and make the point. For me it is the difference between honesty and truth. Honesty is so frequently a necessary lump in our way, something to walk around. While Truth is a resonance, a hum, a fluff of light.
Such persuasions and rationales affect my outlook about farming and people farming. If agriculture be honesty, farming is truth. With farming I see myself as a craftsman and not so much as a scientist, as a steward and not an agronomist, as a husbandman and not a stockman. With writing you may say it is all about words on a page, and if you do, that is what it will be for you. With farming you may say it is all about how to produce as much of a given crop as you can, and if you do, that also is what it will be for you. But farming has always offered a possible involvement that takes us far deeper than the complex sciences of agriculture. Because farming begs that we consider other objectives, other valuations. Today’s agriculture has said to us; ‘It’s a chicken for God’s sake, there are two varieties – layers and broilers – leave it at that.’ But Farming would add; ‘It’s a Buff Orpington and if you pay attention it will provide you at the right time with the most exquisite six pound roaster you’ve ever ladeled gravy over – not to mention cape feathers worthy of fly tying.’ Just as writers and their editors frequently argue that less is more, agriculture repeatedly makes the case for monocultures and singular hybrid varieties best suited for industrial production efficiencies and long shelf life. Story tellers, on the other hand, are frequently want to go the extra mile, filling in the soft and hard details out on the fringe of the story’s core, setting the stage, painting the backdrop, and blowing air in under the conclusion; creating with a fragile shelf life at best, but one filled with the critical essentials of biological health. Farming is also all about the extras; the sweat and frustration over equipment failures, the exhilarations of earned histories with that team of horses or mules, the many garden tests it took to find best planting companions for that micro climate, those beneficial accidents as lessons – such as from over- or under-watering during the heats of ripening. Agriculture and writing may be good and useful things as far as they go. Farming and storytelling have boundless magnificence and relevance within them. Agriculture and Farming at odds?
We are there right now, at the end of the age of industrial agriculture. And we are here right now, at the dawn of the age of a farmer’s agriculture, the new terratorium.
First we had hunting and gathering. Then we had farming. Those two periods of human history lasted quite a long time. Then we had agriculture, morphing some would say by necessity (I say that ‘necessity’ was a blind wager) into the highly extractive agribusiness model of soil mining – simplify by calling it industrial agriculture. In the wider scope of human history, industrial agriculture has been a blip. (It claims to have successfully fed the world yet we have extraordinarily high rates of hunger worldwide. Industrial agriculture has been an unsustainable abstract wager with biological life, in some telling ways similar to the ‘credit default swaps’ which we will pay for, for a hundred years.) Now, availing ourselves of new access to information and current public urgencies around food, we welcome the logical and essential merger of the culture/craft of farming with the best appropriate science of agriculture. We welcome a new social contract of people back on the land, back with the land, back as part of the land.
Do we produce and barter goods and ‘services’ or do we allow ourselves to be fodder for a government-secured pyramid scheme which benefits only those on top of the corporate world? The answer should be more than obvious – but the status quo remains. These concerns touch on most every aspect of human life. We talk and think about how it touches on farming. And it is fascinating how clear and disgusting the view is from here at farming’s soil level on up through the ranks and frills of corporate petticoats.
All circumstances point to increasing social and environmental demands for changes to the nature and mechanics of how food is produced, stored, distributed and even consumed. We are at the first meetings of the next great social revolution; a revolution that returns people to the land, relinks farming with craft, rebuilds the very culture of what it means to be ‘local’. We are witnessing the opening salvos of the new agrarian revolution.
What an enormous opportunity! And we are at the front porch with the door keys in our pocket.
Large scale, vertically-integrated, industrial agribusiness models are coming apart at the seams. With food safety recalls now numbering into the billions the general public is scurrying to find safe and environmentally friendly sources of food. That translates to well over a hundred million people in North America WORRIED about the purity and safety of the food they put in their children’s mouths. (Globally the trend will soon encompass billions of concerned people.) This is a tide that won’t be reversed. We aren’t going back to what has been business as usual. The mood is dark and demands a change in how things are done. It demands to know who’s doing what to whom. There has been a recent governmental and industrial effort to paint the primary cause of food insecurity out to be the small independent operators, a smoke screen to buy time as, on the one hand, the inept, dismayed and befuddled USDA tries to understand the true scope and aspect of the problem while on the other hand industry hopes that things will quiet down and the perceived anomaly of two decades of increased food poisonings just goes away. Two proverbial ostriches with their heads in the ground.
Seems silly to have to point out that one farmer with 50 to 500 laying hens is not the problem. He or she is part of the solution. When I pick one of our tomatoes or a leaf of lettuce I don’t have to think before I put it into my mouth. I know it is fresh and free of chemical toxins. Today, regardless of the labeling in supermarkets, we worry about fruits, vegetables and meats. Silly to have to point out that the individual farmer with a handful of milk cows is not the problem.
Sillier yet not to see that huge livestock confinement operations, or monocultural factory farms, or indiscriminate pollution with genetically-modified organisms are breeding grounds for disease – infection – and disrupted immune systems, not to mention environmental havoc.
And today the government holds hearings at which lawyers find they must make the case, as regards genetically-altered salmon, that the public has a right to know what it is eating, who’s producing it, where it comes from. Seems patently absurd that WE would have to employ big legal guns to make a case before OUR government that we have a right to know what we are eating! The opposite should be the rule; that government should and would require of corporations that they prove why the public has no right to know what it is eating. The legal presumption today in America seems to be that corporate rights trump those of the public and individuals. That cannot stand.
More and more people are willing to admit we have a serious problem with our food system. Notions that the true risk stems from the food system’s vulnerability to terrorism seems off target when the scale to which we are now being poisoned by the industry itself far outstrips what terrorists might be able to accomplish. 74 million food poisonings so far this year with what appears to be more than a billion recalls of meat, eggs, processed foods, fruits and vegetables? Within most any other industry those statistics would be seen as clear indication that restoring consumer confidence may be impossible.
And to say that the government is best equipped to solve this problem by legislating food safety regulations would be laughable if it weren’t so insidious. The state and federal governments are tied by purse strings to agribusiness. Conflict of interest is rampant. If this or that buffoon (either gender thank you) wants to get re-elected it ain’t likely unless those corporate coffers are available. Senator Joe Blowhard or Congresswoman Agnes Whiner dasn’t go up against Monsanto or Archer Daniels Midland and get reelected. It’s a fact. Bizarre, we elect and/or reelect the very clowns who protect the industrial giants that poison our children!? Neither government nor Industry will straighten this out. We don’t need new laws. And we don’t need manipulated and controlled market reality. We need to be let alone to farm and get our produce to folks who want and need it. We need a truly free market and we don’t have anything close to that. We have a web of monopolies CONTROLLING food production as much as they possibly can. And our government TODAY from the White House on down to the school board has bought into the lie that this is the only way to feed the world. (Yes, even some of the most fashionable of food journalists argue that we must have industrial agriculture, just make sure it has a hip-hop, local-fusion, poison-free, terroir, artisinal-sort of feel. Media getting momentarily high on the hot new nomenclature of foods doesn’t build on a strong and lasting reality for the new agrarian revolution, it corrodes – demeans – deflates – and trivializes. Rupert Murdoch and the producers of news as entertainment see the essential building of solid new customs, customs that would evolve into consuetude, as a threat to their income. For them it is about the generating potential of an endless stream of disaster-laced yellow flash. The majority of media just doesn’t get it. They refuse to accept how simple and direct it really is. People on the land growing good food intelligently. ‘Whoa man, we ain’t gonna go back that far are we? Ain’t that what supermarkets are for?’)
But we waste our time talking too much about these obvious problems when the time is so perfect for talking about the perhaps less obvious solutions.
We Need to Add Value
As my friend and partner Ron Wilson (President of the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association) has repeatedly said ‘our future is all about value-added product’. As small farmers, if we are to survive and prosper and be the necessary component of this new agrarian revolution we cannot settle for the coins we get from selling a handful of freshly dug potatoes, or selling our lambs on the hoof at the local stock yard. We need to add value to those potatoes and that lamb. Most of us know that and it upsets us to be reminded. We have been thwarted because of ridiculous regulations or the high cost of processing/storage or the complete lack of any acceptable processing facility. These are roadblocks and concerns we have had for decades.
If we’ve been at the business/craft of farming for years we know that on-site processing can be problematic at best. Most of us are busy trying to do our important farming. While it is possible to do a good job of butchering small numbers of chickens on farm, those folks I know who are doing it would gladly hand the job over to a licensed and approved mobile slaughtering unit if it were available. Whether it is making cheese, bottling milk, processing meats, canning, the preparation of freeze packets, the pressing of juice, the bulk drying of herbs, the distilling of oils, or even the making of wines – these all require a measure of investment of time and money. There was reason that in dairy areas we used to have small regional cheese factories, in grape growing regions we used to have wineries and canneries, in grain growing regions shared ownership of harvesting and storage equipment. With the industrializing of agriculture, the USDA and corporate giants, through production credit systems and futures contracts helping to control bulk product, leveraged themselves towards large centralized processing and distribution facilities. These were not evolved because it was best for farmer or consumer. They were evolved because it was a way for large corporations to grab control and greater profitability. (We long ago were force fed the fiction that these systems were the most efficient and the only way to assure the public of a cheap food supply. The actual exorbitant number of calories expended in this system were never considered. And food safety was of no concern, except to frighten home canners into throwing away their pressure cookers.)
It may surprise you to read here that I believe we need to revisit the concept of agricultural middlemen. Because where this discussion is headed points to what should be those obvious vacuums crying to be filled. We need new independent cheese factories working in concert with small dairy farms. We need more mobile slaughtering facilities traveling to a coterie of farmers to process meats on site. We need specialized distilleries, wineries, and canneries working with regional organizations to provide value-added services to member farmers.
And you might see this as a surprise as well: what we don’t need are farm marketing co-ops whose objective it is to compete with corporate giants in scale, ethics, economics, and market share. That’s a case of raw disillusion and cultural destruction. For a relatively short while there may be success but without perpetual growth it will be challenged. (And that growth will come at the result of damage to the small farm marketing infrastructure i.e. the forced closure of cheese factories in Amish areas.) If a hundred and fifty Rhode Island red hens banded together, for strength in numbers, thinking they would be safe against the one mangy coyote circling their fringe, all they have managed to accomplish is a guaranteed meal ticket for what is soon to become a fat coyote.
My John Deere 450 track-loader can’t go up against a D-8 Caterpillar. And it doesn’t have to. It has plenty of work to do on small ranch projects without ever having to compete directly. On that small farm front; it’s not like there is a big business concern (Whole Foods Inc. of course being the notable insidious current exception) competing for the right to do mobile slaughtering on small farms, or to set up specialty cheese factories. Returning to the analogy; if I decide what needs to be done is to destroy the D-8 Dozers of the world I’m chasing my tail with a cleaver. If, on the other hand, my example with the smaller equipment sets an attractive example to others and a whole lot of people work together to employ more ‘appropriate technologies’ the big dozers lose their reason for living, they lose their share of the work.
By my estimation we have room in this country TODAY for 500 new cheese factories, 750 mobile slaughtering facilities, and 1,000 new canneries. And the more the better for they will breed that healthy competition that will reinvigorate small communities and farming. Now those facilities will require an advancing infrastructure of supporting industries, supplying equipment and goods. Positive economic growth comes of that set of needs. We encourage such suitable expansion of mid-level infrastructure and it WILL breed opportunity for more farms.
We need 50 million more small farms worldwide TODAY. They in turn will require a vast array of appropriate services. There is the true bright flame for a reinvigorated global economy. Grow food, grow healthy soils, get people back on the land, get the food to all the people and watch sustainability become the custom, the consuetude.
With this growth in ‘middlemen’ – or support industry – we see a further jump to the need for 25,000+ new cheese factories, 35,000+ mobile slaughtering units, 50,000+ new canneries all with the jobs and support industries they would entail. We see the natural invitation to innovation in those appropriate technologies which will improve the ‘suitability’ of these engines of improved farming values. There will be jobs to be done, important jobs; connecting farmers to these smaller processors; cementing these new direct connections between farmers and consumers while allowing the localized ‘middlemen’ to be a transparent third leg of a triangle; keeping local actually local – the true front line of food security. Information will need to be gathered and made perpetually available. Machines, tools, parts, and service supplies will be called for. With so much of this will come the creation of thousands of new businesses and hundreds of new business models. These will call for modest infusion of working capital representing investment opportunities for individuals and small local banks who fully appreciate the small scale yet critical importance each new agrarian-based business points to; fantastic economic potential. But it requires that we get some junk out of the way first. Today there are rules and regulations stifling and/or preventing such development. And with each passing day the clandestine industry that is our state and local government is working feverishly to devise more of the same. Why? Because the sort of economic development we push for, this new agrarian revolution, gummies up the hierarchy of industrial food control. Food should be where people are hungriest. Yet we see patterns today that point to multi-national corporations producing food in third world countries to export to us! The U.S. has all the practical elements to be completely food self-sufficient: weather, soils, working history, agricultural proficiency, and food infrastructures yet… Agriculture in most developed countries is not about soil health, people, environmental protection, or food; it’s about profit. And to that end governments work hard to protect agriculture’s profitability. But that information does not always come to the forefront.
Government would like us to believe it is working to protect us from ourselves. (Most government long ago shirked its truest responsibilities of defending our rights, our liberties, and our persons from war, pestilence, wholesale thievery, murder and mayhem. Most government [left and right wing both] is now in the business of shrinking our rights, filling its own coffers, arms peddling, protecting corporate property and market share, selling off the mining rights of our soils, and protecting its own internal interests.) What we actually need is government getting out of the way and thereby enabling us to serve ourselves and build fertile, appreciative, healthy and engaging societies. “Allow” us the tools and knowledge to feed ourselves, educate our children, and garden the planet to new levels of biological diversity and fecundity.
Many within the ranks of small scale agriculture still delude themselves into believing that government is the thing which protects them from big business dirty tactics. Separate out all of the public statements and look at what is actually being legislated and it is clear that small business (including small farms) are still being squeezed into ‘get big or get out’ mind sets. Government may, in some lofty principled ether-world, be the guardians of the little guy. But not here, not on the ground today. Government’s prime objective is to protect property rights. The more property you hold, the higher you are on the government’s priority list and vice versa. The last legal hope small farms has is contained within the justice system. But, as market realities evolve, small farms have a dynamic set of social hopes within local economies as supply and demand pressures mount. We small farmers are working on supply and the demand is out there but there are glaring holes in the landscape. We need to see that answers abound but so also do impediments. Intelligent work needs to be done to remove the regulatory blockades.
You aren’t going to do it and neither am I. But we can grease the skids, we can help set the stage to make what we need become an attractive option for folks looking for new business opportunity. There exists within this concept or perceived need, terrific widespread opportunity for business development. It should be the job of our chosen support organizations to work tirelessly to connect the dots in this, our new agrarian revolution. If some one or company wishes to develop the appropriate-scaled technology to harvest a wide variety of grain types on the smallest of field sizes (anything from a quarter acre to 40 acres) they desperately need alternative forms of financing and market research. Perhaps there is some good within the entrepreneurial model that might be applied to small-scale venture capital for just such a startup? Give the folks with money an opportunity to invest in something that will help to change the world for the better. Give them, also, a chance to make a modest return off that investment. But those potential investors will need trustworthy information to help them make these commitments; information about the real potential market for this hypothetical grain harvester (who will buy it, how many will buy it, how will they afford it, what needs to be understood about the target for the finished products that would come from such harvesters), specific information about just how this business venture would positively affect our world and our times, and how they might get their investment back out from this venture without crippling its future progress? This comes down to a real need for an applied non-profit brokering of agrarian ventures. Conceptually it might be worthy of a few exciting discussions but that would not in and of itself get the things to fly. Such a plan almost cries out to be implemented immediately by example – for it would be the successful example(s) that would make such designs a growing reality. This does not represent a new idea. Such economic incubation organisms have been very successful in urban development settings for decades, and there are isolated instances where they have worked for rural projects. But I doubt they have been ambitiously applied with a goal to grow the widest small farming viability within this new agrarian revolution.
The excitements we feel tied back to this notion of a new agrarian revolution, this new public outcry for safe food, comes coincidentally at a time of great economic uncertainty. Vast sums of money are currently being parked waiting, with little monetary appreciation or no interest gain, for the tides to shift and point out the future. The old investment models still stink of recent corruption, loss and confusion. And new models can’t help but seem shaky. But within that vast pool of uncommitted capital are key individuals who do care intensely about the future of the planet, people, biological diversity, food safety and food quality. If they can be shown how the qualitative rewards of an assortment of small agrarian investments might shine brightly and profitably they will come to the table over and over again. The honesty of this time would have us focus on the difficulties. The truth of this time would have us dig into the compost piles that represent almost limitless potential for positive development. In these difficult days let us not hide our eyes from what is honestly our hard time, but at the same time let us keep our eyes wide open to the truths of our potential because there we will find abiding wealth and exciting challenge.