“Yes, with this approach to farming we make decisions and put our hands to some small manipulations but the very breadth of mixed crop and livestock systems often quickly leave us behind and spread out to do their own work of symbiotic osmosis and complementary relations.”
The waking dream of my single digit years was of a doe-eyed Guernsey cow chewing her cud at a rail fence near the barn while, across the lane – inside a poultry-netting fence – a mixed flock of hens pecked at grains as a mottled white- gold- red and black rooster stood tall at guard. In a wheelbarrow between cow and chickens was a bag of grain – or was it seed? The dream had muted sounds and sharp competing manure odors. I loved that dream, still do. It always brought me comfort as it offered to me the simple, infinitely useful push as question… ‘okay, what are you going to do next?’
Although corn pollen is comparatively heavy, the wind can carry it several hundred yards. That is, pollen from corn in one farm can easily pollinate corn in a nearby field. When the pollen comes from Roundup Ready corn, Bt corn or another GE variety it can contaminate a traditional variety. The organic farmer cannot market his or her corn as organic if GE corn has pollinated it. In the guise of intellectual property rights, Monsanto, which holds the patent to many GE varieties, has sued farmers whose corn has been contaminated on the principle that they did not buy the contaminating variety and so had no right to its pollen, even though the farmers did not want this contamination…
I can tell you for sure because it is still there on the bookshelf, that the first adult book I ever bought, and I don’t mean the racy type, was John Seymour’s ‘Self Sufficiency.’ I bought it when I was about fourteen, probably with a book token given as a present, a good use for it because back then I wasn’t a great reader; I much preferred being outside, making stuff, various woodwork projects mostly, and my model railway, though by then that re-creation of an idealised tiny world was losing its appeal.
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.
We share our ranch habitat with our work horses, cattle, poultry, bees. We also share it with a vast assortment of wildlife. As an example, we have spoken before of the trials and thrills posed by the visiting herds of Elk. Usually our thoughts go to the challenges and intrigue of how we balance our commitment to improving the wildlife habitat that is our ranch with a need to control or mitigate the damage the elk do to our farming and fences. A recent tragedy brought into focus the possibility of an inverse.
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 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.
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.
One tangible way time exists for me is that I see it in the aggregate mulch or ground cover of my life, a blanket of experiences that keeps getting added to. That mulch shades the basic inescapables, the nasty and mortal shape of me. That mulch, that blanket is something I can measure. That mulch conserves my spiritual moisture and helps me to continue growing. Now this year’s experience with bees goes into that measure. I can say these sorts of silly things because I am old. When I was younger I couldn’t get away with it.
There is astounding variety in apprenticeship offerings; a variety which, though it may prove frustrating for all involved, does represent well the vitality and diversity of our alternative farming culture. I for one do not want to see that diversity lessened, but it sure would be helpful to find some commonality of application since we have such a firm and outstanding commonality of purpose already in place.
Its been a long time ago now, from 50 to 55 years or so, back when I felt myself drawn to each and every image I ever came across of horses or mules working in harness. Didn’t know why. I was a city kid with no immediate background in the stuff. But the attraction was very strong and central to an overarching dream of someday having my own old-fashioned, general farm. Back in the fifties and early sixties, in urban centers, the conventional wisdom had it that agriculture had grown up for good and all. The industrialization of farming with its concomitant chemistry and heavy metal disease (big machinery) was, back then, already fashioning a base for today’s genetic engineering and cyber nonsense. Way back then anyone who expressed an interest, let alone a preference, for the old farm was branded as “backwards” and “sentimental.”
That’s a pair of book ends for you; the Age of Enlightenment up against the Age of the Dodo. But the Dodo bird went extinct long ago you say? Yes, and that is the very strength of the example; my point in calling this the age of the Dodo is to make a case for what is certain to follow the obsolescence of humans, of what it means to be a thinking, working, compassionate, and musical human being. The unthinkable is upon us, humans may just become extinct and by their own lazy hand.
I don’t think anyone was prepared for what he said because he obviously liked the wine very much. He shocked us by saying he had to recommend other wines to his customers because he could get California wine cheaper. He said that he felt he owed it to his customers to sell them wine that made their money go the farthest. He is indeed doing just that. By using the cheapest price as his primary guideline, the shop owner is sending his customer’s money out of the state and all the way to the coast, instead of sending the customer’s money to a nearby community. In addition, he is also sending trucks the farthest too – over a thousand miles to the coast to pick up the wine when a trip to the nearby vineyard would have netted him as good or better vine.
People ask this question in many shifting forms; “What made you choose the life of an old-fashioned horse-farmer?” Sometimes I answer it, sometimes I don’t even make an effort. But now I’m intensely interested in understanding how we must crack the new armors of the young if we are to “get through to” candidate novices, those people who think they want to do what we do. And we must get through to them if we are to complete the hand-off, the passing of the proverbial baton. So that means we have to honor all these questions and make good attempt to honestly and completely answer them.
Once a pesticide is banned in the United States for its dangerous health and environmental effects, companies are still permitted to manufacture it for export only. This policy sends a message to the world that American lives are more valuable, yet ironically these toxic pesticides circulate the globe and come back to the US as residues on imported food in the circle of poison.
I do an audience analysis exercise in my freshman composition classes at community college. As part of it, students have to compose questions about their topic for their classmates, to determine how people feel about it, how familiar it is, and what people already know. I join in, since I’m always writing something myself, and since it’s interesting to hear what students are thinking. Generally my questions are about subjects like peak oil, future technologies, and climate change. It is striking, though not conclusive, that over the past few years students’ answers have become increasingly pessimistic. They’ve gone from rocket cars and living on Mars to a future of pollution, sea level rise, and extinction.
A long time ago I decided to stick my neck out and buy a small farm. I knew I had to do it. I was consumed by dreams of a place of my own. Dreams, and plans, and more dreams. Over thousands of late nights I had destroyed countless paper napkins and scraps of paper drawing little designs of where the farm house would be and the relationship of the chicken house to the garden and the barn…
Their farm was small by most standards, but it was large enough for them. And, just as important, it was large enough for us, all of us. Instead of an ever dwindling and weakening landscape of a few thousand monolithic corporate farms, we are better served by millions of small, diverse, independent fertile family farms. And the more farms we have, the greater the opportunity of success for each. The landscape would heal, the countryside would welcome the return of vibrant small farm communities, the economy would strengthen, our capacity to feed people would increase in quantity and health, the immune systems of an ever growing number of people would improve, the governments would move offshore, the moral base would once again rise up from the truths of actual working, and the ranks of the hungry would shrink day by day.
So this farmer I know, we’ll call him Bertrand, figured out that it’s all in the name. Nobody cared about Arugula any more, out of fashion. So he changed the name to Swiney’s Jelly Lettuce and added a disclaimer to the labeling at the farmer’s market. “There is absolutely no proof that Swiney’s Jelly Lettuce retards balding.” The stuff sold immediately and everyone swore by its flavor and properties. Bertrand gives it a ‘naming life’ of two seasons, then he’ll have to find a new one. The future my fine-feathered friend is in colorizing the exterior of “deniability”. Restaurants could learn a whole lot from politicians.
We have a hole in our yard… We have lived with it all these thirty years. It starts out five feet across and runs straight down deep. At seven hundred feet we have not found the bottom. We have determined that it passes through the volcanic rock ceiling of a massive cavern at 250 feet. We keep it covered and fenced off. I try not to think of that hole, seventy five feet from our house, but I admit that it does give me pause. To friends and family it is a fearful thing. To me it is just a reminder that nature holds some cards.
Most anywhere we turn we can find spokesmen for extreme views of the world today. One side has it that we are in a golden information era with high-tech delivering us the true democratization of thought. Everyone’s an expert. All information is free and easily accessible. But is it? Another side says the high-tech world is destroying the human spirit and paving the continued way for the corporate destruction of society and the planet. Is that so? Yet another thought stream would nod to those two extremes and observe that in spite of, and perhaps because of, those things we are seeing new young generations of free-thinking, caring, creative folk hard at the necessary work of saving the planet and building a better society. May we believe this? Follow this stream right down to the silliest little sore points and I’m sure you can add all sorts of ‘positions’ and beliefs to the story of what’s right or wrong with the world today.
Farming, at its essence, has offered, and still does, a set of opportunities for man to work in communion with nature. Farming is always best as a calling, as a soul’s livelihood, as a grandparent’s handoff, as a hand on a planting stick with heart to the magic. Farming is that everyman’s punch card to self-sufficiency and holy order. All of these reasons and more are why I say farming is a sacred trust; one of the sublime possible marriages of man to nature, nature to man, wherein sustenance is the outcome because nature – worshipped, sweet-talked, coaxed, listened to, courted, fed, groomed, honored and stewarded in minuscule ways and at minuscule stations – allows it so.
As a farming family we’re really not that different. We worked in town and farmed as an avocation for seven years after we bought the farm and then left the town job and shifted our focus, full time, to the farm. We began direct marketing, developed a base of return customers who looked for our label in the grocery stores and even had many who came directly to the farm. We were modestly diversified, not certified organic, but in looking back, we were oriented toward deep sustainable agriculture and earnestly tried to develop the natural systems on the farm to work cooperatively. We had never read anything by Wendell Berry, Wes Jackson or Gene Logsdon, we simply farmed from our heart the best way we knew how.
There may be some who might suggest that this is a result of large farm size and economies of scale. While the big farms are huge farms, the data shows that fully half (54%) of all United States farmers who depend on their practice of agriculture for the livelihood do so on 179 acres or less and even half of those (27%) are farming 49 acres or less. Contrary to much of the popular sentiment, it’s the farmers who are proving that small farms can be just as viable in sustaining agrarian livelihoods as large farms and perhaps more so.
I was asked to speak at the Eco-Farm Conference in California this winter. The topic was “criteria for evaluating farm success.” This editorial basically covers my impromptu remarks at that conference. I had a couple months to think about the subject of my speech and I took all of that time. As I probed the question of measuring success in farming I came to realize just how important a subject this was. The understanding of what we consider to be success in our farming goes to the core of everything we see as a problem and, perhaps, offers direction.
The margins are where we overlap, where we test our absolutes. Where we touch. Whose land, whose barrier is this? And individual species’ invisible barriers may be stronger than those we erect and repair. I know a farmer who built perfect bluebird houses and screwed one atop every other post around his field. But the bluebirds couldn’t stand to live so close together — no more than three or four of the dozen boxes to a side were ever occupied.
In 1974, looking down 800 feet of waving, sometimes parallel, pairs of emerging corn plant rows all I could do was choke back the tears, so bad it was painfully funny. Ray said, “At least you don’t have to try to cultivate that mess with a tractor. You’ll have to make some choices, some of the rows spread out so far apart you may have to pick which side to save, but Bud and Dick will watch those plants real close and do everything they can to avoid stepping on them, unless they’re laughing so hard they get dizzy and step wide.” Charley added, trying hard not to laugh, “You know what they say Lynn, you can get more corn in a crooked row.”
My job has always been to make sure that my Great Uncle Ephraim, the fierce plowman, always had someone hammering away at the need for better farming. Don’t know that I have succeeded. I do know that events such as the Marsden Project offer the contradiction of a measure of good news weighed against the […]
Food Freedom is the right of consumers to purchase the food of their choice without government oversight and the right to free access to these consumers by farmers and food producers. For most of our history Food Freedom has been the norm. With Food Freedom comes the empowerment of communities to feed themselves. Food Freedom is about independence, self-sufficiency and food security. It’s about building community and local economic development.
For decades, farmers have been encouraged to either get big so they can achieve the economies of scale needed to compete in national and international commodity markets, or to diversify, add value to their products, and build connections with their customers to survive in so-called specialty markets. The latest U.S. Census of Agriculture only confirms that division, with the so-called “farmers in the middle” shrinking in numbers while very big farms and very small farms increased.
Today there is no end to formulas that are supposed to give you a leg up, or at best some sort of guarantee of success, with draft horses. I say be wary. The best intentions, the best preparation, the best animals, the safest routine is NO guarantee of success with the working animals. Formulas cannot replace your personal fortitude or strength of conviction and clarity of purpose. And those things will result in a matched natural comfort with the animals.
So far most major farm organizations support our present system and the politicians who do not stand up to it, and I hear no protest from their members. It may be different in Oregon, but here in the Midwest we still see hedges being bulldozed, wetlands destroyed to make room for larger row crop fields and applications for building more CAFOs. Missouri’s neighbor states, Iowa and Illinois are the most de-naturalized states in the nation, and the reason for that is agriculture. So farmers as a group have no reason to pat ourselves on our backs, like it is so frequently done in official statements or ads on TV.
Gain always points to increase reflecting back on fertility. The word ‘gain’ in the manner to which I prefer its use and application NEVER, by definition, depletes. Whether you accept my terminology or not, it should be clear that I and many like me refuse to accept as our goal the maintenance of the status quo. We chose to work to increase fertility, increase health, increase biodiversity, increase market community, increase income, increase positive reputation. We choose GAIN, not sustainability. And that is good news.
This is about making money with a small farm but this is not about how many tons or pounds we might produce of a given product per acre. This is about how we value what we do and who we are. This is about what price we put on that which we sell. This is about the magnetic attraction we build and/or allow around ourselves, our families, and our farms. This is about how we put ourselves out there to the public.
This is a true story. I think I can recommend it to you, unless you are looking for something deep, abiding and provocative. Then I can’t help you. You see, the news is so snarling and hellbent that I need a break. So I’ve gone to the well, gone to my bag full of early adventures. And as I picked through them I realized, as my long life journey slows, that I have come a very great distance without arrivals worth much genuine note. And then there is the question of style, or manner. This writing, I insisted to myself, had to be done at a full gallop, as though I spotted the gate open and hoped to beat the others in my herd through to greener and more restive pastures…
Farming as a way of life, as a determination, as work flow, as a skill set – all of it at ground level is laced with tangible and intangible details that tell us more about the cause of the fray and the shapes of the smiles than about the presentable menus and recipes of the enterprise. Here is how you raise geese for market – the recipe. While over there is how you successfully fold into a farming day the shared presence of free range geese as guardians and weeders. Sometimes the only way to ‘get the true picture’ is through shared stories.
On one recent rainy morning, after spending far too much time wallowing in the news of the day, I did just that. Letting my thoughts stray into the misty past, I considered my life in the context of history, not just the history of my lifetime, or that of my parents, or even my grand parents, but that of many centuries of lifetimes. Human history is indeed fraught with hard times, times that make the one in which we are currently living seem like a walk in the park. Consider a snapshot of one such time.
Marvin Haskell was a jovial engaging disjointed hermit. A crippled old wizened yet well-fed curmudgeon who lived a mile up the road on his 300 acre timber/former dairy farm. In a tar-paper-covered single-wall fourteen by sixteen foot one room tool shed of a shack with no running water.
Successful dependence on draft animals as a power source takes three parts good mechanicals and one part guided intuition. It also takes positive expectations and less thinking. It most certainly includes determination and patience. That’s lots of parts; in fact that’s way too many parts. So many, in fact, that we are prone to get in the way of our success. The best teamsters just are. And they are because they spend a lot of time doing it. They DEPEND on their animals in harness. The work HAS TO BE done. For them it’s not a parade, it’s not a joy ride, it’s not a play day exercise, it’s not a ‘foo foo’ moment.
Even more of a challenge than the actual work required is not to allow such things to discourage you to the point of inactivity. One way which works for me is to recall strings of best days working, days I want to think define me. So I chainsawed up the broken trees while thinking about turning beautiful soil and watching the birds follow for unearthed treasures. Or I would pull nails and screws to release sheets of tin from the blown rafter assembly while remembering best days mowing hay with the many outstanding teams I have owned.
Many of us are good farmers (at least with the growing part) yet we fail at our business adventure because we are somehow crippled when it comes to seeing how our produce fits in the world. And seeing how our produce fits in the world is the front porch to feeling better about ourselves and realizing greater farm income.
The world keeps getting smaller as solid working class folk rediscover every single day that family, friends, neighbors, the locale of local, the close-in economies, the character of all nearby things animate and inanimate give comfort, identity, and reasons to strive, to persist and to succeed. And within that is the discovery that living within our means, within our community, within our families, though perhaps rightly seen as the essence of thrift, does deliver us the truest lasting wealth and useful health.
It had been freezing cold for weeks so when the temperature hovered around 34 degrees that January morning it felt almost spring-like. I crossed the fence and walked with axe to the pond edge to chop open a drinking hole for the 30 some head of horses and cattle. Been doing this each morning. That day the early morning sunlight set the frost layer on the pond surface to tiny sparkling crystals. The sharp axe chipped into the ice with the first stroke and I ‘felt’ a deep-throated rumble almost as though the air mumbled. Looking around for some evidence of the cause, perhaps a Rock Chuck clearing its throat or the garbled growl of a Badger or even antlers rubbing against a hollow dead juniper trunk, I saw nothing obvious and swung the axe again.
Parker raised cattle, horses, and pasture while producing milk in the simplest of circular farming worlds. He came to this with deliberation, understanding that what he wanted was a sustainable regenerative comfort in and with the working world of his choice. For him profit in any traditional sense was after-the-fact, almost as if a waste product. His life and its successes were all about the ‘top line’. And that paradoxically gave him greater profitability and viability. It wasn’t about how much his gross income was, it was about how much he kept and how well the work kept him.
It is said that when the ships of the Old World first approached the New World, they were sometimes invisible to the indigenous people of the Americas because the latter could not imagine such a thing as a fleet of large sailing ships, and simply did not believe their eyes. In the same way, when a large enough change looms in our future, we tend to dismiss calls to pay attention as the talk of eccentrics or screwballs. If the magnitude of the change is beyond our historical experience, we simply cannot imagine it. The end of the industrial era as we know it is one such change. This essay is an attempt at persuasion – that the ships of change really are on the horizon.
It is NOT a small world, it is a BIG world, as wide and various as you can possibly imagine. We are not alone. When we feel ourselves shut down, crowded by worry and a sense of failure, it would serve us well to remember Bulldog’s admonition, “Boss, never give up, no matter what, never give up.” Anyway, how could we? Who would put up the hay? Who would unharness the team? Who would milk the cows? Who would wax the cheese? Who would feed those woolly pigs? It’s got to be us, after all it is who we are.
Whether it be a gesture of generosity, a rudely subtle tuck and hide of the obligatory tip, or an implied curse, the phrase ‘keep the change’ is deeply ingrained in our transactional language. Recently I woke from a pleasant dream with that phrase on my lips but it was attached to an entirely different sentiment. It was an observation that with the best natural farming our reward comes because we, individually and collectively, may get to keep the change we create.
You pull hard against the load. Hard. Straining, leaning forward, all muscles targeted towards getting it to move, or to keeping it going. Then without warning, it snaps, something gives, and you feel yourself falling, face forward, out of control. Your feet can’t feel the way to get out there ahead, as bracing. You ‘know’ you’re gonna get hurt. This is not good. It’s a form of dizzy helplessness that is frightening and disheartening. It literally and figuratively throws you off.
Taking us to the dawn of agriculture, where the domestication of animals predated domesticated plants in the middle east by hundreds, even thousands of years, Essig argues that, unlike all other domesticated species with the possible exception of the dog, the pig domesticated itself. As he says, “We might think of the pig as a judicious risk taker, open to the new but capable of assessing potential threats. In that quality, pigs are much like people.” He also points out how pigs “like to watch TV and drink beer, and, given the chance, they tend to grow fat and sedentary.” But how can we even tell the pigs in the village of Hallan Cemi 11,000 years ago were domesticated? Because nearly half of the pig bones found were from animals killed at less than a year old, nearly all of them young males, superfluous for breeding. Animals hunted to feed the village would have been of all ages.
I will probably never get a chance to sit at the throttle of a steam engine heading up some winding mountain grade and feel the romance of the rails as the lonesome sound of a steam whistle echoes off canyon walls. Nor will I sit and watch out over the bowsprit of a schooner rounding Cape Horn as the mighty wind and waves test men’s mettle and fill their spirits with the allure of the sea. It is within my reach however to draw a living from the earth using that third glorious form of transport – the horse.
The project went according to plan and without a hitch. The cider was ready to drink in a month or so and tasted passably delicious, though rather uninteresting and far from extraordinary. I was still troubled by the expert home brew store pronouncement that making natural cider was impossible. After all, haven’t people been making alcoholic cider for centuries?
I would fix it but it ain’t broke yet, or more to the point — it ain’t completely broke yet. But that is the way of most of our lives isn’t it? We so often have to make do with a two-legged stool. That is until one day the cow will suddenly shift her weight and in response you will shift yours and you will hear a crack and suddenly your two-legged stool will have become a one-legged stool. And no one, not even a stubborn “ain’t completely broke yet” farmer, can abide a one legged stool.
If we are among the fortunate, long ago the big, long-simmering pot on the stove, center of the kitchen, gave us that bubbling merger of slowly maturing flavors which each nose was drawn to, which each anxious stomach was urged to pay homage to; gave us those abiding memories. Lift the lid and draw in that ‘love in the mist.’
There are beginnings and endings and everything else, all that in-between, all that MIDST. Messy, complicated, growthy, and fertile. How are we to know what to believe, what to retain, what to apply. What to plant, which stock to select for breeding, when to harvest, where to go to sell it all? Aren’t we required to figure those things out? This is farming. There ought to be a clear, simple and proper way to go about it all. Or?
Much of the world’s population is unemployed or underemployed. Most of those people are poor by any measure; they are hungry for food, purpose, place and hope. One pursuit, or endeavor, may employ millions and employ them with dignity, gain and satisfaction – that pursuit is human-scale, traditional farming.
But for now, I prefer to think about some of these fashionable issues of local self-reliance and local foods from the aspect of what constitutes nearby for each of us. “Local” feels to me to be inviting a formulaic concept for measurement (ie. within 50 miles?) while “nearby” suggests comfort and culture for ownership and identity. Sure “local foods” slips off the tongue easily while “foods from nearby” doesn’t have the easy slide. But what I’m suggesting here, more than the words we use, is that the words we picture when we think about concepts and motivations help us to understand what we’re working towards.
A few yesterdays ago we were set in a vulgar gaseous economy of absurd excess and biological disconnect, but it was OUR pattern. Want it or not, each of us owned some aspect. Maybe it was far distant and three times removed but it was there nonetheless. Now, as so many pieces, large and small, of our soured society and economy shrink and slough off, we are perhaps to be excused our apprehension and fear. We have been dependent on a vast, irresponsible ‘supply’ system and the presumption of unending growth. Now, where will we get this or that mechanical part? Or a gallon of milk? Or our heating oil? Or our prescriptions filled? Think I’m going too far with this? Think the system is “fundamentally” sound? Think that it will never breakdown that far? It already has.
It was a pasty, mustard-yellow, half-ton ’80 Chevrolet pickup truck, the entire body of which was riddled by small dents. I bought it at auction years ago. It belonged to an old rancher whose family fondly referred to as Mr. Magoo. In his later years he could not see well. He only drove at home on the ranch, and he drove this truck. He’d drive slow until he bumped into something, then he’d back up a little and turn one way or the other and try again. In this fashion he ‘felt’ his way around the ranch. And in this fashion he dented up old yeller. The surface of the vehicle was like a reverse brail, a record of ‘felt’, as if Mr. Magoo used ‘old yeller’ like a big motorized blind man’s walking stick, feeling out around him as he moved through his farming world.
I had seen the truck running around locally with a sign on the side which said CUSTOM MEAT CUTTER and a phone number so I called. It was a small family-owned business thirty miles away. They told me straight away that their facility wasn’t federally inspected. I didn’t care. (In my rustic, hardscrabble, farm and ranch community, federal inspection was a joke – an extra fee you paid to get a stamp of approval with no one really inspecting anything.)
SFJ Spring 2016 Preview: We need to find simple, direct, rewarding solutions to human interaction with all other forms of biological life. We need to find ways that our time on earth is beneficial for all. People are the problem but they are also the solution, or they contain the stuff that would make things right. Strength and billions of small adventurous choices to protect where we live, that’s the stuff.
Farming is an art, it is also a craft. We think about it frequently as a systemic treatment of nature and with nature, the goal of which is the production of food and fiber. All of this when lumped and worked together comes of the very origins of the word “technology.” Not the ways we see it and hear of it today. In the 1970’s we came upon the first common usage of the term “high technology” as applied to computers and applied data-driven systems and then morphing into artificial intelligence. Today the ‘high’ has been dropped. Now, frequently, when people throw around the word technology they see it in terms of IT or Intelligence Technology. But for farmers and farming, Hi-tech spreads out to include driverless tractors, drones, and the marriage of mutated plant and animal forms to chemical intensities.
The planet earth is a living entity. All of its elements including its geology, hydrology, and biology constitute an interconnected web of myriad factors and forces which have for millions of years balanced themselves in vitality and existence. To our collective knowledge no entity or force has been able to throw the planet off its balance except for modern man. There are those of us who work the land and feel the humbling effects of nature’s force who know that this grand and wonderful planet will take the demise of the human race as a small challenge. For me to continue to say that we small farmers can save the world is arrogant shorthand for the truth. What I should be saying is that the ways of we small farmers, as with the ways of honey bees, butterflies, elephants, dolphins and snails, might reasonably allow the continuation of nature’s harmonic balance.
While we have achieved tremendous success for which small farmers everywhere should be proud, we can’t quit now. Despite the exponential growth that we have experienced in the last decade, our food system is still dominated by the industrial model. Enormous amounts of food are still shipped obscene distances using ridiculous amounts of fuel. Vast monocultures are still the norm. Consider the corn and soybean universe that dominates the Midwest, endless potatoes and alfalfa in Idaho, enormous feed lots in Colorado, dairies the size of small cities in California. I was in a Trader Joe’s grocery store recently and while standing amongst the grapes from Chile and strawberries from Mexico, I realized not one thing in the produce section came from the state in which I stood.
I heard or read the old phrase, “If you want to change the world, plant a garden” when I was much younger. It didn’t make any sense to me at the time, as I strongly disliked being forced to work in our large garden when I had much better things to do with my free time! After I grew up, left the Navy and the big cities and made the conscious choice to move back to a small town, those words began to make more sense. The world-changing part wasn’t the garden or the food that it grew, not even the world that it was supposed to change. Obviously, one small garden can’t change or feed the world by itself. What one small garden can do is share.
We hear the earth breathing through the rustle of the margins. That single cow elk, as she escapes, parts the Triticale stems in one land and then, passing through the next, shakes the field peas clinging to the beardless wheat stalks. The beat of the wild turkey’s wings sends the sage rat scurrying in full view of the circling hawk until the rodent disappears ‘neath the carpet of irrigated clover. These things happen for us only when we are listening and watching. Who’s to know what the earth’s breath attests to when no one is near, or within the margins, to hear, to see?
Nowadays when someone speaks of people having short attention spans I make the visceral leap to people not knowing how to work. I believe it IS a defining distinction; no matter how naturally talented, or intellectually gifted, or wildly creative you are – if you do not KNOW how to work the world can never be your oyster. If you have a short attention span and cry-baby ways, long-learning distances through life’s swamps and sunrises will never be yours.
I happened to be pouring over some material in the back of an old Atlas. Any Atlas gives the names of states; this one had a list of nicknames as well – an ‘old’ list. I’m a Beaver now, I guess, being from Oregon – the Beaver State. I was born a Badger, have been variously a Jayhawk, a Pelican, a Volunteer, a Hoosier, a Tarheel and a resident of the Golden State (did that make me a nugget?). All of those handles as listed, showed up that way in the old Atlas, except that they called Kansas the Sunflower State, which I guess is the official nickname, although we Kansans preferred Jayhawks. To the followers of the college football scene, Nebraska is surely the ‘Cornhusker’ State, however according to my list that large land mass in mid America is officially the ‘Tree Planter’s State.’ That sent me wheeling down one of those mental back roads I mentioned.
Excess. Small scale farming may come down to this. We plant some carrot seed and care for its growth. Harvest time we take some of those carrots for our own use. The best looking of the excess we take to the farmer’s market and sell for money to pay the bills. The not-so-good looking ones, the remaining excess, we divide between those we feed to the livestock and those we put through the juicer. Some of the juice finds its way to our own table and some to a neighbor family that’s having difficulties. As for those carrot-eating pigs, they’re employed making compost, consuming farm produce waste (or excess) and converting it into manure for fertilizer. One will go to the farm table and the extra (the excess) pigs will be cut and wrapped and sold direct to local customers.
I am reminded that I began my life’s work in farming and art wishing I looked, sounded and moved differently. I wanted to have the character of a character. I had this secret wish to be one of those old sidekick types, like Smiley Burnette, or Raymond Hatton, or Gabby Hayes… only I wanted to be my own sidekick – not second fiddle to someone else who was in charge. There was this notion that I might dress up my own life with humor and harmonica-ed tap dancing. And when things got serious the attention would just naturally slide sideways to the grownups in the room.
In nature, when fruit goes way past mature, all the way to announced disappointments of mold and rot – shouldn’t we refer to that as decline? Don’t we? As I mature to over-ripe (read decline) I find myself going through periodic fogs of aggravated irrelevance. Old farmeritis is a real thing. I got it. It translates to me constantly mumbling “get out of the way, I’ve got work to do.” And that is sometimes met by side-bobbing young heads on limber necks giving the disregard sashay. I am beginning to realize that one of the first things you lose with seniority is your public right to decide what’s essentially important – for yourself, let alone anyone else. These days I don’t have the energy or interest to contest what seems to be the general assessment that I am now a slow moving, cranky whale in dangerously shallow waters, pretty much completely out of touch with the world at large. It may be true but I don’t have to agree with that. And all that really is not important to talk about except to set the stage for changes in editorial tone.
Maybe we need to hear such things from each other but, No. NO, we are not share-holders. We are husbands, wives, partners, parents, care givers. Shareholders by modern definition come to the games with a whole lot to say but without liability. Their investment is the relative insignificance of money. They come to demand their ‘share’ and the opportunity to influence that which they hold a share in. They do it for profit. It’s about the money, honey. Period.
It is critical, if farming is to be restored to them as a heartfelt and enjoyed trust, that they come naturally to see once again that their way of life is within their control. Any true and lasting sense of self-worth and contentment must come from within each of us.
We have come to take for granted the most basic of truths, the obligations of family, the possible sanctity of work, the human as a humble piece of a biological universe, the realigning and reaffirming power of beauty, the deep comfort of great friendship, the absolute primacy of life, and the list goes on.
The thoughts triggered by the summer consequences of that slow snow has me looking for clear evidence. Did the snow cause this dramatic increase in grass growth beneath trees, in overall fertility? Is this land, this region, this wildife migration zone, showing signs of comfort and appreciation for the weather and water turnaround brought by the deep snows? I see the strength of our pastures, the health and gain of our livestock, and the increase in the bird populations. Evidence everywhere, but you only see it if you are looking for it. And, as farmers, we look for it because it gives us clues for our management choices and preparations. The slow snow helps me to see underneath because my eyes are drawn to the obvious changes.
Oregon Plowing Match • Ventilating Poultry Houses • Water Buffalo • Ducks • Quarantine Humanity • Ox Teamsters • New Seed Drill • G Haw Tool • Food-Energy • Rebuilding Hay Loader • Fearless Manure Spreader • Horselogging • Auction Tips • Artisanal Maple Syrup • Calcium in Soils • Aboard the Planetary Spaceship • Yamhill Heritage Museum • You Can’t Farm with Horses and Send Men to the Moon! • Peerless Steam Tractor
Having made the conscious choice to employ work horses in harness as motive power for my farming I recognized that I would have to gather up the information I lacked. How to fit a harness – How to recognize a usable piece of older farm equipment – How to hook horses to those implements – What to feed my horses and when – How to tell if the boxings in a disc were bad – How to get my plow to run right – How deep to plant Oat seed in dry soil – Why certain names for horses were a mistake??? on and on and on… I would have to gather up this information because my research indicated that there was no public temple for this information, no place where relic technologies and skills were chronicled and cataloged. That was odd? So much beauty, value, and frailty in all the old knowledge – shouldn’t it be preserved, saved, stored?
Over these last twenty-seven years we have seen, and heard of, many examples of boomerang lives. Specifically speaking tales of people who made passionate and reasoned choices to become independent farm operators only to leave after awhile to return to urban lives and then, with the passage of time and the morphing of rationale, to look longingly back at those left-behind farm lives.
About twenty years ago I used to help out on a small farm which was rented by a young couple who were just starting out farming. The eighty acre holding belonged to the County Council, who had bought farms in the 1930s when farmers were going bankrupt and farms were cheap, specifically to give young people a start in farming. Graeme and Vivienne were lucky to get the tenancy of this farm, because although the idea behind these farms was that the tenants should move on to a larger holding after a few years, with the changes in farm economics many farmers continued to live on these starter farms all their working lives, so an opportunity like this was rare. But it wasn’t just luck that secured them the tenancy; Graeme and Vivienne had already laid the groundwork of their future success, both of them having learnt their trade at agricultural college and by working on a number of different farms.
“Waste Not, Want Not” is a familiar old adage, but looking at it through the technicolor lens of 2018 makes the phrase feel antiquated and empty. What does it mean? The dictionary will tell you that the idiom’s intended warning is that “wise use of one’s resources will keep one from poverty.” In modern day America, where there is a surplus of almost everything, it may not feel very applicable.
Federal and state food safety regulations require such expensive facilities investments that many small-scale producers can’t get their products into grocery stores and restaurants. Farmers must either plug into the industrial distribution system – taking pennies on the dollar of retail sales and giving up control of important management decisions – or take their chances in the alternative venues of direct from farm sales, farmers’ markets or community supported agriculture. Even there, they are often constrained by zoning laws, value-added sales regulations, as well as meat and dairy regulations and prohibitions.
For the mass of us, the connection between food and farming is dry, distant, awkward, academic. We do not associate the squeaking sticky wet-sand dig with the flavor, smell and texture of clams because we buy them off the shelf. We do not associate the crystalline departing cold and invasive spring warmth and apiarian ballet amongst bouquets of apple blossoms with the resultant fruit in the supermarket bins. Most of us cannot, no CAN NOT, no WILL NOT, be bothered by the terrible tactile truths of where and how our meats come to us. And many of us haven’t a clue. We are separated, artificially, by contrived modern circumstance, from all that would define us.
We need to have longer memories than we do. The last two hundred years are not representative of the life of our species. They were built on a foundation that is not sustainable, and when it crumbles, our capacity for innovation may need to be replaced by our capacity for renovation. Old technologies that were designed with the limits of economics and planetary sustainability in mind will once again become valuable, and our lives will have to change drastically as a result.
She wrote in that inconsequential blog that they were to give up their farm because it wasn’t working. And she lashed out, blaming people like us for having sold them a lie. She was angry because her family could not make their farm succeed. She screamed in her capital letters that there was no way to make enough money to give her family all that they wanted and needed including security. It was all so loud that we were certain to hear the truth in it.
The city of Los Angeles was built upon some of the most fertile and productive farmland on the entire planet. There were historical environmental expedients at work in that evolution and development. What is lost is lost, at least in our time. But it is a convenient and complex example of the contest at work when we speak of any effort to save the precious and limited planetary resource we identify as farmland. Back in those early days the farmers simply moved a little further out. There was ample resource.
Our current ability to do without full-time homemakers relies on technologies that we may not be able to count on in the future – electricity on demand, highly processed and storeable foods, gasoline for commuting, shopping, and entertainment, etc. In a sustainable and responsible culture, there will be meaningful, even essential, work to be done at home. I’ll outline a few contributions of homemakers to a post-industrial society and offer my own experimentation, its successes and its failures.
The exciting thing about going to new places and seeing different things is that you never know beforehand what you will get out of it. One such instance was my visit to the first British Festival of the Working Horse, where the weather was dreadful, the range of equipment a little disappointing, but the unexpected highlight was Henry Finzi-Constantine’s presentation to the mini conference, in which he talked about the introduction of a working horse into his Italian biodynamic vineyard. His wholehearted enthusiasm for the wine, the vineyard and the horse was both infectious and delightful, but for me at least, also slightly embarrassing, because in describing what the horse brings to his operation, there were no caveats, no ifs or buts.
There are melodies so evocative they would melt any attached words. There are images so powerful they might negate explanation. There are working rhythms which fly well beyond the vocational titles we give them. Those powerful melodies, images and vocations; all of them deep and rooted now in the human pysche. None of this has to do with good or bad, it is just so. And that has been for most of mankind’s modern days, these last five centuries. But then the shallow insistence snuck up on us and we have fallen down or are falling to our lesser selves.
As farmers we must continue to take charge of our own lives, work, environs and future. Our example will win out. There is no other example with the heart and capability to win out. Leadership in its most ideal form is ultimately gardening. Governance in its best form is stewardship. And husbandry is the sane substitution for bureaucracy. Our leaders should be planning and planting and suggesting seed options.
All people who choose to farm begin, even today, with a sacred bargain that calls for work within nature. No one who chooses farming does so with the intent of destroying nature and natural balance. The villains have never been the individual farmers, no matter the scale or aspect of their enterprise. The villain has been an overarching industrial systems-management in place to control and profit at any cost.
Do you know where your food comes from? Probably not, at least not all of it. Does it matter to you? For most people the answer is no, it doesn’t matter. But to a rapidly growing number of folks the question of where their food comes from is crucial. Should it be important? Yes, absolutely, it is terribly important. Our health, well-being and connection to life itself are all reinforced by the easily accessible view of who produces our food, our knowledge of how it is grown, and our belief in the farmers who are responsible. Comfort and assurance an extravagant notion? I think not. Quite the opposite; it is extravagant to close your eyes to where your food comes from.
It is revealing, and curious, that we farming humans live through this long winding string of days on our individual places, so close to the everyday work, that we are oblivious to patterns that have unfolded right in front of us. The slow grind of change blinds us to compromises and bad choices that may have been made. And it also conceals those victories we missed in the moment. So often for us on our ranch we have made decisions and plans for projects and actions that we were unable to do. And the result of not doing it somehow turned into a triumph or a tragedy averted. All that time we were being whispered to by that time. If we missed what time told us in the moment, perhaps the result was a fortune left behind, unclaimed.
Small Farmer’s Journal is restructuring and changing its business model • Continued delivery of print edition Small Farmer’s Journal • $5 per month website subscription • Increased ad content, print and web combined. For nigh on forty years we looked to magazine subscription revenue to keep us rolling. We printed journals and mailed them to our subscribers. The internet has changed all of that. We can share our small farm message and advertisers to even more people which makes us stronger than ever.
Nature, and humanity’s better interactions with her; that combination does hold the best and I think only answers for a good and fertile society. As for the planet and its future health, it is pretty darned obvious she doesn’t need us anymore than she needed the dinosaurs. Wouldn’t it be magical and even divine if the societies of man could attain a plain of conduct and stewardship which would have us all be an invigorant and bejewelment for our Earth? A future essential?
In 1989 Cuba had the most highly industrialized agriculture in all of Latin America, with tractors, chemical fertilizer, pesticides, herbicides – the works. In 1990 the Soviet Union fell, and suddenly Cuba’s access to cheap petroleum was cut off. So how did Cuba feed itself? Did it turn to tractors powered by nuclear power, solar power, wind power or hydrogen cells? No, it didn’t have time or money for solutions like that. Cuba’s solution was to train 500,000 oxen to take the place of petroleum powered engines. It trained its farmers to work the oxen, and to learn the techniques of organic agriculture, so it didn’t have to rely on fossil-fuel dependent inputs.
We are farmers. We care for the land and for our livestock. It is our chosen work. And it defines us in glorious ways, but only to ourselves and with others of our persuasion. Not to the wider public, not to the masses of men and women. Not today. Today we are quaint anachronisms as disconnected from their view of the landscape and their forkful of food as the disconnect they feel with self-reliance. For the longest time we have enjoyed the assurance that has come from our own working intimacy with the practical and achievable notions of self-sufficiency.
from issue: 42-1
…until farmland preservation gets figured out. A pardon for farmland! Amnesty for farmers! And the world court for large banks! Below is a summary from the most recent AFT analysis of the loss of farmland to development. We have asked a few Journal readers and editors to share thoughts on the topic. A conversation with Lynn Miller, Paul Hunter, Shannon Berteau, Klaus Karbaumer, Ryan Foxley, Ken Gies, and Ferrel Mercer representing Oregon, Washington, Missouri, New York, and Virginia.
There are links between insects and a healthy environment that are so vital to life as we know it, it should be taught in kindergarten so everyone learns the facts at an early age. In that light, you can thank an insect pollinator for one out of every three mouthfuls of food that you eat. That’s what makes spraying chemicals to kill insects in an apple orchard so deadly. Without insects to pollinate fruit crops you don’t get healthy fruit to eat.
But the world very nearly lost Jimmy Red. Not so long ago one old moon-shiner, on his death bed, handed over the last two known ears of Jimmy Red to a friend and said plant these and keep the seed, save Jimmy Red. The heir did that, and handed the seeds on to proper believing hands and the result is that these last three years have seen the chance at salvation for this heirloom variety.
Writing these editorials has been, for almost 44 years, an abstracted meeting of sorts with readers, you mostly. I could reasonably imagine that a bunch of folk, or you, read what I wrote, agreeing or disagreeing but reading nonetheless. That mental picture of someone unseen and unheard actually engaging with the ideas and notions, that was thrilling. Then, starting ten years back, fewer and fewer people took to reading anything, let alone my small efforts. And yet I kept writing and putting them in here.
I was somewhat disappointed because I had begun to feel the word differently in its parts and possibilities. “With” and “Stand.” When we have withstood I feel as though we have prevailed, survived, succeeded, rather than to have, in a competitive sense, won against something or someone. I am drawn to the part about being proof against the weight. We Millers have withstood this challenging Winter. We the journal readership have withstood 28 years in partnership with this glorious publication. And we have done it purely together. And that we is a sum which extends backwards and forward, a sum which is more than its parts.
When I first got involved with working horses in the late 1980s, I was lucky enough to work for the late Geoff Morton who used horses for nearly everything on the farm. With the enthusiasm of the novice I was constantly asking questions. What I often thought was a straightforward question would often elicit a pause, and as often as not the answer was preceded by, ‘Well, there’s more about it than you might think.’
I was forced to sell our dairy goats and end our milking operation because the laws and regulations in West Virginia made it cost prohibitive for us to sell our farm fresh, unprocessed milk and dairy products, and we couldn’t afford to finance the cost of our operation solely on our retirement income. I then dedicated my energy to work for positive, progressive changes to those laws in an effort to salvage what was left of small family dairy farming as well as to promote agricultural diversification and profitability in West Virginia.
I once had a magical chance encounter with an Asian Bearcat, also known as a Binturong. So long as he was convinced I was his undemanding companion all was peaceful and exotic, but when I played with the thick hair of his tail I soon discovered a dangerous emotional landscape. Friends and fellows who are recent entries into the world of agribusiness and status-quo industrial farming are wondering at the ferocity they are met with by public and private protective farm institutions and agencies. Big agriculture is feeling threatened, they don’t like us playing with their tail hairs.