Add Vantage

Add Vantage

by Lynn R. Miller of Singing Horse Ranch

“As if the soul’s fullness didn’t sometimes overflow into the emptiness of metaphors, for no one, ever, can give the exact measure of his needs, his apprehensions, or his sorrows; and human speech is like a cracked cauldron on which we bang out tunes that make bears dance, when we want to move the stars to pity.” – Flaubert

“…the contemplation of objects, the image that rises out of the reveries those objects provoke – those are the song.” – Stephane Mallarme

“…I see things differently every day, the sky, objects, everything changes continually. You can drown in it. But that’s what brings life.” – Pierre Bonnard

We back up to allow the magic – until no amount of distance works – then its’ back in close, trusting nothing but blistering accuracy. Vantage point is everything. – LRM

I am a trouble maker, a mosquito, an ankle biter, an agitator, a sneak thief, a tear monger, a bone rattler, a fibber, a cowardly body guard, a farmer pirate. Always have been, all my life. Don’t know any other way, even now as a greyhaired grandfather. It’s not because I’ve the contrarian need for the last and conflictive word. It’s because of my consuming critical vantage point. Some people sluff their critical vantage point off as they age, certainly cultures seem to. Certain things never seem to leave my shelf of concerns. For example at my desk I have a little note which reminds me daily that every 3.6 seconds someone somewhere in the world dies of hunger. Add to that my work as a farmer and about farming and the result is a tight wind, one of my critical vantage points. There are things that need doing, how does one get them done?

With most folks comes the sad mistaken rationale that there is nothing they can do so why bring up the world’s miseries, why rock the boat? I can’t do that, I can not shake my head, look away, and walk away. I know instinctively that I may be too insignificant to save starving children or help struggling farmers but that ain’t gonna stop me from making a loud nasty clever fuss and attracting attention to the issue, as much as I can anyway.

What moderating influence age has given me includes the knowledge that we need our lives to have some meaning. I do want, and need, my life to have a meaning. I’m working on it. I’ll never be a good, close up example, but perhaps I may yet do a few things of lasting constructive or comic worth. It is this simple desire which drives most everything I do these days.

But action and setup aren’t the only way towards the gain of meaning in a life. There is meaning in having our working lives become exemplary, and perhaps this is the more direct and more honorable route. It carries a direct line cause and effect.

There is also meaning in maneuvers and manipulation. Good meaning, silly meaning and destructive meaning.

We should be directing public focus not towards cause but towards ownership. We know how tragedy and threat can rally a group to a cause, sometimes for good – sometimes for ill – and sometimes for naught – but always for a short time. We know how owning an idea or principle or an identification has a far more lasting effect. I believe that ownership, whether it be of a farm operation or a set of principles – a skill or a community, comes from individuals going against the flow, individuals unwilling to accept what the mob says.

This issue we share two different letters, one from a current subscriber and one from a former subscriber [see the letters at the end of this article]. Jenifer’s letter appears within this editorial. Linda’s letter begins the Letters section. Jenifer’s beautiful correspondence serves up a tense and sad realization, “…I did it, but not with my former joy and enthusiasm,” with a powerful personal conclusion. Linda’s plea for help describes an idyllic New York farming village of today threatened by what some will call inevitable suburban pressures. (A more specific and personal response to Linda’s letter follows it.) Both letters contain swollen seeds of regret that represent, depending on the vantage point, either opportunity or loss.

How Come?

What makes a farmer quit? What makes one person enter a desired life’s vocation with wholehearted passionate commitment only to slide off that life wrapped in a cloak of growing regret? Or worse to feel that very desired life torn away by inadequacies? Is it the vagaries of life? A fickle nature? The wrong choice of vocation?

When we enter farming there is no implied nor required commitment that it be a full life’s endeavor. We are free to go when we wish. But when the passionate farmer leaves because he or she is frustrated, tired, regretful, overwhelmed and/or outnumbered it might be a tragedy for all of us. This is happening to some of us and it should not be. Recognizing that for some people the choice to quit farming is a clean, clear matter of personal preference we are instead speaking of those facing the departure as a tragic loss (and/or those who are completely exhausted). For those people, staying in the game may come down to something as simple as having people who will cheer them on and people who will help them with the labors, in other words individuals who care.

People are dying of starvation every moment of every day. Those people need food, farmers create food. Fewer farmers mean less food. More farmers do not mean less money for each farmer. It can mean more money for each farmer. Corporate ethics and the thievery it engenders will never result in food justice. Individual farmers may bring the world to food justice.

Some things are chewing on our future. They are within our control. Why don’t we all see it? Perhaps its an issue of perspective: do we have any, is it skewed, is it forgotten?

Our perspective here at SFJ? We believe in the small independent farm and what it represents. This specific belief is centered on a broader philosophy which recognizes the intrinsic and the sacred value of human potential and natural law. Preservation of craftsmanship – or, if you prefer, a humanistic way of working – is the major force behind, within, and in front of this publication, and the community it serves. And, with no less force, preservation of biological diversity, fertility, and true plant & animal parentage propels us. We believe that with good independent farming comes food to feed hungry people, this is quite different from industrial process producing food as a commodity for corporate gain.

The Challenge

Within our community, or microculture, of farms and small towns and artisans, how do we build an attitude of appreciation and support for one another, an attitude which would start with the presumption of irreplaceable value? And allow that this presumption would ignite us whenever we saw crisis of confidence in our midst? It is this presumption that will give us ownership and draw in favorable light.

Why is it Important?

If we are to feed people, and if all of us are to feel sustenance and invigoration from our chosen crafts and vocations, it must start with our culture valuing these things. Do we, as a larger culture, value the notion that hungry men, women and children should have access to food? I don’t think so, but I know we should. Do we, all of us, care about the health and continuity of craftsmanship and independence in farming as well as all other aspects of human endeavor? I don’t think so, but I know we should.

Our larger culture, and all the little subcultures within, are at loose ends. The large and small, grand and ridiculous, vulgar and sublime, evil and sanctified, structural forms and organizational frameworks which have guided humanity over several thousand years are threadbare or discarded, replaced by a collaborative neutron corporate ethic, which in itself is on the wane. We have traded in spirituality for flatulence.

Over the last half century our agriculture has come to be restricted and containerized within industrial and commercial borders. Farmers of all sizes allowed as how their produce needed to go, contractually or otherwise, to brokerage or cooperative handling or industrial processing plants, etc. It was a dictum of the industrial model. Farmers moved further and further from the people and livestock their produce fed. To shamelessly borrow from a fine and critically important current effort (Doctors Without Borders); we need a philosophic movement that might be defined as Farmers without Borders. It’s an ownership issue not a cause. It should give us a sense of belonging, not of sacrifice. Farmers need to reach around, over and through the industrial and commercial borders to give and/or trade their food directly with those individuals and communities who are desperate to have it. Instead of stockpiling or dumping production to make a bargaining point about pricing, why aren’t we giving that production to hungry people all over the world, including those in our own back yards? Farmers without Borders.

Why do such ideas belong in a discussion about keeping farmers farming, about passing on our skills, about community favor? Because they are about goodness and they draw in favorable attention. They are celebratory. Because these are the very sorts of things which make people proud to be farmers, excited to enter the vocation, pleased to have farmers as neighbors, anxious to learn the craft.

No one should feel that they are farming alone. We cannot afford this. It is deadening, wilting, demoralizing. But how do we get our communities to want to take ownership of their farming neighbors? How do we get people to want to help, to learn, to join in a farming relay race process? I believe we do it by avoiding our past mistakes and taking a different tact. We need to stay away from institutional and political solutions including communes, unions and formal cooperatives. We need instead to embrace the best possibilities of the cultural imperative. If everyone in a given community accepts as a given that its farmers are wonderfully vitally important, support for one another comes naturally. Jenifer and Linda’s letters are about two opposite sides of exactly the same thing. Jenifer needs help with her farming adventure. But not just help, she feels that she needs help from someone who cares as she does about her land and her animals. Linda does not want to see farming and farmers ejected by local edict from her village. Linda asks how may her community identify in character forming ways with its farming and farmers? Jenifer wants to be valued for her skill and her choices. Linda wants her neighbors to value people like Jenifer for her skill and her choices. So close yet so far away.

Also in this issue of SFJ there is an article from Paul Birdsall, of Penobscot Maine, about his legendary team Bonnie and Mayday. Paul and Molly Birdsall took on to their farm, and into their lives, scores of apprentices. These people came to learn about organic farming and the use of work horses as motive power. The Birdsalls shared what they believed in and worked to master, and this has given powerful meaning to their lives. Two years ago Molly lost a struggle with cancer. Paul continues with his farming and his horses and wrote these important words in a cover letter with his article;

“I am still farming with horses, but now in partnership with my son Andy and his wife Donna. Sadly, we lost Mollie to cancer in August 2000, but I am blessed to have farming partners, and to know that the farm will continue.”

To have helped others, to have good help and “to know that the farm will continue,” it’s what most all of us want.

Paul and Molly Birdsall’s example is the seed of an answer for all of us. But it must go beyond just the notion of students or apprentices. We need to court dialogs with other people who do what we do, and most definitely including those who do better than we do; other horsefarmers, other biodynamic gardeners, other cattle-ranching sculptors, other guitar-playing sheepherders, other doctor/farmers, other philosopher/ ceramists, other poet/botanists, other poultry farming jazz pianists.

Those of us who are feeling lonely and frustrated with our efforts will find that reaching out and drawing in others of common view, values, and history will strengthen who we are. It is those dialogs which bring us back, or forward for the first time, to the idea of teaching others what we know. Perhaps we don’t realize the extent to which we have skills that are worth passing on.

Or maybe we do realize this but are having difficulty finding people to share with. Most of us wait for others to find us, approach us. I have known dynamic masterful craftspeople who lived triumphant yet sad lives because they lacked only those friendship dialogs which would have completed the circle of worth for them.

For example, I have a friend who is a true master craftsman of the old school. He’s a bootmaker, his name is George Zierman. (He reads this journal and he advertises with us). He makes my foot wear for me. George noticed, a few years back, that I had a limp. He studied how I walked, from a distance, and approached me saying he thought he could do me some good. Measurements determined that I had two different shaped and sized feet. He built a different last for each foot and made me a set of boots. My limp disappeared. I don’t want to lose George. I need him as a friend and as a bootmaker. George told me that he’s getting on in years and wishes he could find an apprentice to teach his secrets to, someone who would carry on with his discoveries. George is being truthful when he says he wants to pass on the skill but I am certain that he also wishes this process for the direct contact and affirmation he knows it would bring. I feel compelled to help George find someone, just as I worry about all the Jenifers out there who feel exhausted by their dreams and craft.

We need the George Ziermans and Jenifer Morriseys and Paul Birdsalls of the world. We need them for what they know and might teach, we need them for the quality of life they produce for others of us, we need them because they are a doorway to a better life for all of us. As artisans, craftspeople, they have a far higher intrinsic worth to our world and our culture than any chief executive of any multinational energy, entertainment or tobacco corporation.

We offer a small idea of what people might do (see Hello my name is on page 7) by way of constructive example. This little example also speaks to my recognition that, important as it has been, this Journal fails today to provide enough direct vitality to you the reader. Aside from what that might mean to us who do this publication, when we fail this simple yet complex challenge we let a fantastic constructive opportunity pass unmet. We don’t have any big ideas for change or inclusion, I suspect the important stuff will come in little ways, but we’re working on it. We’d sure like to see more of you take ownership of what happens on these pages.

I think back on the many years we have done the Auction and how, in recent years, our call for volunteer help has made such a dramatic positive difference in the tone and quality of the event. I have seen and felt the truth in the adage that four individuals working together to build, to protect and to save always total more that four efforts. With our recent fire disasters I have seen the positive contagion of individuals determined to help. I wish I were closer to Jenifer and to that village in New York, I’d get a kick out of showing up with baling twine and pliers for a couple of days. Let’s do it, what do you say? Let’s find someone near us we can go to with our cheerful assistance.

Dear SFJ,

A year or more ago there was a run of letters that asked: can I pursue a small farm life alone? My answer has changed since I first read the question, so I thought I’d share my ponderings. As a disclaimer I should mention that I was not born to farming. I have come to live on the land in mid-life as a second “career.”

When I first read the question, “Can I pursue a small farm life alone?” my response was, “Of course!” At the time I was brooding turkeys, milking goats, tending ducks, working ponies, and generally managing my livestock on my own. My husband has little interest in the animals, though he appreciates the eggs, meat and cheese that result. I love caring for my animals, sharing the fruits of my labor with my husband and my community, being physically active and strong, and dreaming about what else I might do.

My first realization that I couldn’t do my small farm alone came when I honestly recognized how rejuvenated I felt after a few days away. The perspective I gained about my work and my place that resulted from a break from my chores was invaluable. The rest for my body that resulted from not having to milk or haul water or move animals from pasture to barn for a few days made me feel stronger. Having someone do my chores so I could be elsewhere made me realize that I wasn’t truly doing my small farm alone, though the vast majority of responsibility was still my own.

My second realization came perhaps two and a half years into my small farm life when I hit exhaustion. I have a tendency to push myself as hard as I can, and I found it as easy to do on a small farm as in my former city life. The animals still needed to be fed, the manure spread, the cheese made, and I did it, but not with my former joy and enthusiasm. Even a few days away weren’t enough for me to bounce back. I’ve worked through the exhaustion to find the pearl of wisdom it contained: for me at least, it’s not possible to do a small farm alone.

Add Vantage

I’m fortunate this pearl came through exhaustion and not injury, as I was still able to do what needed to be done. If I were incapacitated, I realized that the other people in my life would have filled in as best they could, but it wouldn’t have been fair to them, as they have their own lives and interests to pursue. Nor would it have been fair to my animals, as there are a hundred little details – where the fence is weak but adequate at this point, what supplements are needed by whom and when, how to mix the feed – that I haven’t shared with anyone because it’s always been just me. And finally I realized it wouldn’t be fair to the land. I am very conscious of how this land is the foundation of everything I do. I constantly monitor the impact of my animals as they pass their days, and I make adjustments regularly with the health of the land in mind. If I were incapacitated without backup, it is possible the land would suffer, and that thought pains me most of all.

While I’ve come to the conclusion that I shouldn’t be doing a small farm alone, it’s an entirely different matter to figure out what to do differently. I am committed to this life, and now I find myself pondering how to ensure its continuity if I am not here. No answers yet, but at least now I fully understand the question.

Time for chores!

Jenifer Morrissey
Aguilar, CO

Dear SFJ;

Once upon a time my husband and I were subscribers. We had a small farm that we worked with a beautiful black Percheron. We raised mostly garlic and lettuces that we sold to area restaurants. Our farm was in the village of Cambridge, NY. Circumstances in our lives changed and we gave up the farming, and sold our lovely horse.

However we still live in Cambridge and are supportive of our fellow farmers who are now facing possible extinction.

Here’s the scoop.

The village of Cambridge is one of a handful of communities (I believe) that have continued to allow farming within the village, providing the farmer has 5 acres or more. It’s a wonderful thing, and there are quite a few farms operating in the village. Most people don’t know about them because until now no one has complained (and quite frankly these are little Martha Stewart picture perfect pop up farms. No one is raising herds of cattle. Just a horse here, a goat there, a few pigs, sheep, chickens and geese).

The current situation centers around two neighbors. There is a couple who lives three houses away from another family that keeps a few goats and chickens. The complaints have escalated over the years and are now being taken to court. Without going into further details, think of it as one complaint about a dog resulting in not allowing anyone to keep a dog in the village. Which of course would never fly.

In short I am trying to find information about other communities that allow farming within a village. Might you have this or know where I should try to get more info on farms in a village? I have not met with much success.

This whole problem is ironic because Cambridge (population 2000) is a largely rural community. Mostly dairy. However there is something of a shift in residents. More young families escaping strip malls. But it’s actually the “locals” that are arguing the most. We-The Farm Animal Committee- are trying to educate our community about the importance of keeping this lovely tradition alive—especially in the context of a comprehensive plan the village is currently working on. We point out that there are over 590 acres within the village currently in agricultural use (alfalfa fields, corn, pasture) or open space (hospital, school, graveyard). We argue that the best way to preserve the rural nature of our community (what we all hands down love) is to keep it alive. If you don’t have people farming here, it’s bound to get developed. Also many homes in the village still have barns, carriage barns and chicken coops in their backyards. What better way to preserve this bit of history and ensure the care of these structures but to continue to use them for their intended purpose (one woman keeps horses in a horse barn that is 65 years old and all the vets, and horse people rave about it as the best horse barn in the county).

So if you got any ideas, suggestions, whatever, we would sure appreciate it.

Thank you for your time.

Linda Anderson
Cambridge, NY

Dear Linda,

Your letter reminded me of the words of Todd Gitlin;

“Beware of the word poet in a culture hanging on to literary prestige in order to disguise the fact that literature commands hardly any attention.”

If I may be permitted, I might rewrite this for the occasion of our discussion to read, “beware of the word farmer in a culture hanging on to its nostalgic remembrances of a bucolic past in order to disguise its fear of and disgust with farming.”

When we put things in zoos and museums it is as much to say we are through with them now as to protect and display them. I would take your admonition further and insist that the only way to keep the craft and culture of farming alive is to encourage its practice. From a political standpoint; if you insist on arguing in favor of a legal protection for farming and its aspects within the village, you are at the whim of the whiners and the law. The only way, in my skewed opinion, to achieve your goals is to find ways that the village be identified far and wide as a wondrous and unique place BECAUSE of the farming within its borders. When it becomes a point of pride and ownership, the law will bend to suit and the whiners will accept or move.

Thanks for writing. LRM