A Farmer’s Promise
by Lynn R. Miller of Singing Horse Ranch
Thirty-seven years ago; gentle jersey cow in the barn stanchion, chewing her hay. Sitting on a three-legged stool, cheek to her flank, I lean in slightly on the first ‘pull’ at her udder, then forearms and hands set to find the necessary rhythmic motion, squeezing the top of the teat and then progressing with the other three fingers until the trapped milk is cleared: repeat. The stainless milk bucket makes the loudest noises with those first ‘pulls.’ Justin and Ian are ready. The boys know that those initial spurts of milk rattling the bucket walls and bottom will trigger the attack. Sure enough here come the three little bomber kittens, just ahead of a lazy stretching mama cat. The little ones race to within two feet of us – the boys, the cow and I – and arch their backs hissing before settling in to a circular tightening wander as they plead with me. The boys are giggling. They seem to be entranced by the predictability of it all because this is not the first time they have watched the tiny opera. The eyes of my sons plead with me not to make the kittens wait too long. I smile and squirt one projectile of warm milk at the kittens. They jump straight in the air and drop even quicker to compete for the milk on the floor. Laughing with the inertia that comes of knowing the punchline and loving it more, the boys wander out of the barn to join their sister Juliet at the house for breakfast. I get to stay here on this stool with ‘cow’ until the milking chore is done. Swallows flit in and out of the backlit barn door. The kittens polish the floor. And the stallion in his box stall noses his hay around til he finds the sweetest bit. My hands tighten, tire and start to hurt a bit as the bucket fills. Both of us done, I free the jersey and she wanders lazily out the back, through the big door and down the ramp to the creekside pasture. One of many bits of countless mornings when the promise of farming was filled to the brim.
How is a farmer’s promise unique from a doctor’s or a politician’s or a realtor’s or a salesman’s or a mom’s or a dad’s or a child’s? Family heritage and environment notwithstanding, the child’s promise is, on most counts, wrapped in that young person’s formative potential, in his or her trajectory, in their blend of hope, faith and innocent optimism. A farmer’s promise is similar to a child’s except for the fact that the requisite optimism cannot always be called innocent. Most other categories – lawyering, doctoring, parenting, sales, politicking – by definition, have very little potential affected as they are by an inverted optimism with the resulting twisted and compromised sense of acceptable outcome.
Not so the farmer. Each and every day, he or she steps into the constant flow of biology and weather. He or she grabs hold and jumps on, as the carousel tries to whirl by. Their success from that point, that each and every first waking moment, depends on whether or not they are able to find in themselves the voice-to-muscle, mind-to-brain, heart-to-vision that will result in perfect close harmony. The best farming is very much akin to polyphonic singing.
Life goes by so very fast. The constancy we bring to it stretches our awareness and tests our frailty, our understanding and our resolve. When I was young I thought the secret to slowing life down was to move fast enough that you packed more into each and every moment. I would go to the field with three horses, a riding plow, and a notebook. When I would stop to let the horses catch their breath, I had thoughts pinging off the inside of my brain and would immediately put pencil to pad to record them. During a long furrow I never felt impatient, I felt well used. The eagerness I displayed wasn’t to get to the end of the furrow, it was to pay attention to each and every detail. Somehow, way back then I had a sense that it was not just about my learning, it was about preparing myself to be an engaged custodian/advocate. The engagement is the farming part. The custodial segment comes out of that natural slide of optimism to care. And the advocacy? Is it a ready inclination to protect and share?
A farmer’s promise is less of what they/we might do and more of what they/we are capable of doing, less of what we are capable of doing and more of where we are. Less of where I am and all about where I see myself as I go forward.
Musings from the promise? Next year we will add pumpkins and ducks. In four years these trees should shade the new poultry house in the afternoon. That cross fence we’ve been planning for will rescue marginal ground and add it to the pasture rotation. The larger, market garden will, even if there be no market to sell to, add to our deepening self-sufficiency especially when I finally give Kristi that root cellar she has longed for. What might we do today for those long distant next times?
The farmer’s bargain is a 60/40 deal. 60 percent ‘I know’ and 40 percent ‘I hope.’ And, with the work, 100% what we allow.
This past spring I planted two 7 acre lands. One land went into forage barley as a nurse crop for alfalfa and grass. ‘Nurse’ because the legume/grass mix takes time to establish and a canopy of growing grain offers protection. The other land I planted into triticale with alfalfa and grass. I have had good luck with both such mixes in the recent past. Just over the fence, alfalfa grass lands have done well for me, and in those cases the grains were also used. I had high hopes for these new plantings. In one case the plowing had been done the preceding fall, giving the land time to ‘mellow.’ I was keen to see how these two lands, farmed in slightly different manner, would compare. The early plowed land went into barley, the other triticale. Our growing season burst on us with unseasonably hot weather. By June we were well above 100 degrees, setting records. And the heat, I am certain, set back all the growth in the fields; stilted even with watering. We irrigated and watched and the barley looked marginally good but the triticale was spotty in germination, ragged and uneven. When it came time to cut for hay the barley did itself well, but the other land was, in my disappointed assessment, trash. Driving around other parts of Central Oregon I happened to notice that several other triticale fields also looked anemic. Could an entire warehouse full of seed have been faulty? I hope that this was not indicative of what that alfalfa grass would look like when it got going next season. Past experiences had shown me that the legumes need time to prove themselves. The clover grass I had planted 7 years ago still performs well and a few of those previous nurse crops, wheat – oats – triticale, had been a little spotty.
I am fine waiting to see what the end result might be. This is one of those useful intangibles that have come from decades of farming, a very specific patience. I feel the ‘promise’ of those fields I know intimately, and of the perennial crop I chose. To get anxious, plow it under and try again, may blind me to what the future holds. May even rob me of a generous surprise. I have decided to permit those fourteen acres time.
Do we trust our intuition when it comes to what is permissible? What is to remain? What the goal might be? Do we trust ourselves to grow our plan – our work – our universe? Yes, we must.
Last week: I had just fed two of our horses in the pasture and was turning from the fence when I heard a swoosh and felt a shadow climbing close, up my side. Turning and looking up I caught close sight of a Northern Harrier hawk rising slowly, heavy with the awful twisting weight of a three and a half foot long rattlesnake he had in beak and claw. The hawk labored to get elevation, pushing down hard with each wide flap of his speckled wings. Then from nowhere, in formation, came three smaller red-tailed hawks dive bombing the Harrier in an effort to make it drop the prized meal. The crazy aerial procession went across our pond and into the dense foliage of the cottonwood grove, gone from sight.
Here I was, a frequently forgetful man, watching this recent bit of gruesome natural theater and now pleased with myself to remember the details so clearly, for in the remembering I feel I am still growing. Short time later, back home, I am reading a letter from Kit Kelley in which a slice of youthful adventure is offered as the stuff of imagination. As I pen a response I am thinking of such things: youthful adventures as well as mature ones. I feel an inkling of how the hawk and snake view will inform me later. Then whiplash I’m back to Kit’s example and I see boys building forts out of tree branches as formative adventure in and with nature. Such experiences, as glorious childhood memories, shape early structures into an individual’s set of values. I remember that morning long ago when my sons laughed as I teased the kittens during milking. Layers affecting layers.
There are those myriad moments where promise, a tentative thing, laces the formative. Then we grow up and learn to find promise as it relates to the word and deed ‘tend’. To live up to our promise we need tend to it, we need tend toward it. “To tend.” “We tend.” “The tendency has been…”
With all of this I found myself thinking of our friend and compatriot Shannon Berteau and wondering how her teaching experience was unfolding. She is in and of that other arena where promise and tend – noun and verb – are so vitally important. Every day she sees promise in the students and naturally, selflessly, works to tend the frailty of it all – always towards the most profound and, occasionally, strangest foundations.
It might seem odd seeing good teaching and good farming as parallels; we don’t think so.
Something like the parallels between this publication and farming. I believe in both so much that at times, when all the evidence is stacking up against continuing, I keep persevering; going back out to the field to try again, going back to the office and the paperwork to try again. I believe in the value and beauty and soul of our time on this piece of hallowed ground, eaking out and creeping forward with each day’s tough efforts. And I believe in the mirror that is this publication, the advocacy that it does to give scattered folk a bit of light to a way forward through their farming shortfalls and difficulties. But also this publication as a reservoir of archived information and community history.
Perhaps a stretch for some, but I see farming and teaching, with their similarities in the custodial, to be best approached as gardening, to best be closely held as of the natural world. Yes, teaching when it delivers, when it soars, is of the natural world closely held. It strikes me odd and sad that, in these terrible and confusing times, to speak of a vocation as of the natural world is both jarring and comforting. It should, instead, be all salve.
An atmospheric scientist, speaking of identifying wildfire smoke in the air, said “your nose is not a good tool” and my fully armed though feeble brain took it from there.
“Oh, yah? Then how do you define a good tool? I say a good nose is a great tool.”
And I imagine that same scientist offering, “Not in the realm of science and nature.” And I don’t have to think (or feel) very far to know he’s right for I know that my horses can smell things I cannot smell. I lean way over and ask myself “do trees smell?” Smell? It’s another of those biped things – WE think about it therefore it must be important? While in the natural world smell can be dangerously important to survival, do we know that any other specie thinks about or worries about smell? Does the Snake-bark maple or the Muscle-wood tree wonder if their smellers are working? Does the Glass-wing Butterfly or the yet unnamed Paraguayan salamander wonder if their sniffers are working at full strength?
I know they do, though perhaps the mechanics and semantics fail me. Cows are comforted by their own natural stink, pigs the same. Horses try to avoid the smell of pigs. Cow smells they don’t mind. But is any of that proof of ‘thinking?’ Don’t know and I’m already bored by it. I will never be bored by the smell of horses, or moist just-turned soil, or bee hives in the summer, or my wife’s herb garden, or the smell of a skunk in the blacksmith shop. All but the last I do truly love.
Along with smells, of course, there is, or are, those tactile views that stir and reassure good farmers. Men and women elbow deep in the every day labors of farming never seem to tire of the internal view of the work, be it their own or their neighbor’s. Those ways that human labor joins machine and tool to till, plant and harvest. The particular different dusts, the chaff, the oils and greases, the wearing of wood and metal to accepting edge. They always offer us rewarding views small and large.
That union of the human to chosen work process – hand to hoe; it is there we are offered a direct view of humanity strengthened within its nature as it be co-joined with the biological universe. So much today runs on the presumption of separation; the presumption that humans are above nature, even their own natures. While there is no harm in admitting that you don’t know how to do something, saying you don’t need to know because you can always just ‘youtube it’ is most unfortunate – it suggests the past and future are dismissable, are worth less. The fullest potential and scope of a farmer’s promise goes both forward and backward in time, experience and hopefulness. Knowing from experience, even gaining knowledge from the experience of others, is vastly superior because it heralds what came before while imprinting the future with appropriate potential. It feels better, smells quite fine and looks always like the real deal.
The textures, smells and views of farming remind me everyday of the promise of farming, that intangible that first brought me to this life and holds me to this day.
As in a farmer’s potential, as in ‘he shows promise,’
as in ‘this vocation holds promise,’
as in the available/accessible/possible/likely/the assured/the expected.
Couple this with the implied contract within a question,
‘what is the promise of this work?’
And then join with the ready acceptance of the challenge
and the close proximity of uncertainty.
For there can be no doubt that there is doubt.
“Nothing is written.” T. E. Lawrence.
Even as we embrace that, we are clueless
right up to the point where we feel our optimism to be of truth.
Above those testing realities,
the assurance of our optimism will always pull us on.
I believe the farmer’s promise is a body without a suit, not necessarily a bad thing. And in our farmer lives, with our farming lives, that body without a suit is separate and upstream from the collective culture, just as are those bodies of poets and artists of true stripe. That is what it is, and therein lies protection for these creative souls from the subjective aspects of the demands, laws and edicts of society. We don’t need to understand this, but if you try – I am not saying artists and farmers are exempt. I am pointing out that artists and farmers have, as the solicitors would insist, an excuse – for they are after all ‘artists and farmers’ and they test for the rest of humanity notions of motive. “The law need not apply.” And that is convenient, for society seldom prevails in court battles with art.
Fundamental issues of law, for good and evil, no longer hold sway because subjective interpretations embedded in legislature and court rulings have made of our law a suit with no body. They have made of the law politics which are downstream from culture (to paraphrase Geo Will). The law has seldom shaped society, only bungled repeatedly in efforts to regulate it.
Promise, the noun that would hold us and pull us along, is about stories with powerful suggestive properties, about narratives that show us privately where we may take all of this. These stories, those stories, sometimes come from, or out of, tragedy. But I believe the ones which have the greatest pull ‘tend’ to come from the gentle humor or shared misery of scenes which ring of truth while stretching the believable. They allow us to smile or weep our measure of life forward to promise.
Farmer, be optimistic, make your choices from that place of optimism lest the infinitely beautiful challenge that is a life in and with nature sour quickly, deeply.
These things need to be done. You won’t always have easy or obvious answers to the clear challenges. You need to believe that you have what it takes to figure out the structure of the challenge and address it creatively. “He shows promise as a farmer.” All of that is pregnant with narrative as well as possibility.
Ryan Foxley and I were speaking on the phone and he said ‘I fear that I will run out of things to write about for the Journal.’ Instantly I was reminded of a story Ida Livingston shared in a recent letter and recounted it to make my point, that within the realm and promise of farming, the stories are endless, as are the trajectories they might suggest.
In her own words here’s Ida’s tale: “Funny thing I heard once was an Amish man was trying to sell a bull. They could not load the bull into the trailer. The trailer had an open top. So someone had the novel idea of putting a sling under his belly & using the pulley on the trolley, lifting the bull & then lowering him into the trailer. Somehow they did manage to do part of this. However when the bull was suspended it was frightened & bellowed. This spooked the horses who ran away or tried to. This sent the bull to the top where it tripped the trolley and send the bull clear to the back of the top of the 2nd story of the barn. This is all I heard of the story. I have no idea how they got him down. It was a mess I am sure.”
And then, our amazing neighbor, Gayle Baker, told me a story of her prized Red Angus bull, Bandito Quattro. A few years back the small Baker herd was grazing the lovely Metolius meadows of Camp Sherman and the herd had to cross a wooden bridge over the meandering creek. Cows and bull made the crossing but the calves bunched on the opposing side and bellowed. They were afraid to cross. Bandito Quattro wandered back over the bridge and sniffed the calves, mumbling something under his bull breath. Then he gently nudged each and every calf up on the bridge until they all crossed. Job done he followed them to their week’s luxurious expanse of verdant heaven.
Of course, it is your prerogative to believe or disbelieve these stories. I would caution that to disbelieve, out of hand, is to deny yourself lovely chance opportunities to ‘feel’ the optimism and promise of farming.
Promise, so often for me today, wanders around the edges of poignancy as I tease open those recesses of my memory and pause to look at what might have been. The musical score for my such moments is Mendelssohn’s E minor string quartet (especially the Vermeer recording) as the safest regrets leap wide chasms to the urgency of moments well met.
Or it is Bill Evans and his trio playing his rendition of the ballad ‘In Love In Vain,’ which for me, title notwithstanding, is a walk through a new planting, or a field held in perfect place by my draft horses, or Kristi’s free range peafowl perched safely to digest the day, or along the alley way in the barn between stacks of our baled hay, or on a folding chair facing, nose down, my bride’s herb garden tickled by my honey bees, all of which dusts off and re-shelves any regrets. Oh, fortunate us.
Implicit in this notion of a farmer’s promise is a very real, wide and useful hope that millions of such people, scattered all across this lovely planet, represent a natural ‘solution’ to the malaise of our poisoned environment and short-sighted society. Better days and comforting ways are up ahead. The farmer’s promise is genuine. LRM