Courting a Life
by Lynn R. Miller
Walk with me just a little.
I have things to do and I like to talk. A couple of points I’d like to try to make and a set of questions nagging me. If you come along perhaps we can cover them all. First thing I need to do is muck out a stall. If you don’t mind we can talk while I work. You’re not really dressed for it so I’ll make it simple by insisting you just watch. First question for you:
Why or how is it that you feel drawn to visit a place like this, just a run-down ordinary small family ranch?
I came to see you, talk to you about all this. Trying to decide if it’s for me. I think it is but I need quite a few answers. I want to know that I can make a living with a small farm…
I can save you a whole lot of time and trouble. Listen to me. Listen carefully. Hear each word and how they go together:
You are not asking an honest question. What you want is for someone to guarantee that everything will be familiar, safe and successful. Forget it. You don’t have a chance. You’ll never make it. Never.
And that’s not so bad because it’s not what you really want anyway. I don’t know what you want but I can tell you that’s not it because I can see in your shadowed nervous eyes that you’re dogging an attraction afraid to let it become a love. You ever hear Mary Black sing “Without the Fanfare”?
You don’t know me. And you’re not making any sense. What are YOU so uptight about?
That’s better. Now we’re paying some attention to one another. This is not about me, I don’t matter except as a mirror or batter-board. It may not even be about you. Let’s find out. Another question;
How long have you been flirting with the idea of a small farm? And do you know that the idea will leave you if you don’t move from flirting to courting?
I think it’s time for me to go.
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…
follow me to the manure pile so I can keep my story going, you might find it interesting.
…by an odd twist of fate and a simple fact of economic reality I took a turn which shaped my farming adventure and my life. I’m not saying whether it was for the good or bad, that’s for someone else to judge. It, I know, was for me.
I knew a man whose lifestyle and economy made a permanent imprint but not overnight nor in any dramatic way. More like an ooze. I didn’t realize he was having such a critical impact, not until he was gone. Now a dozen plus years after we buried Ray Drongesen I know he was like a second father to me.
Oh… look up there, Kestral! What beautiful colors God graced that mean little hawk with!
Where was I? Oh, yes, Ray. Let me tell a little about him before I try to make my point. And I do intend to make a point. Sit there, on that bucket. I’ll just keep forking this beautiful horse shookey.
Ray was forced by a heart attack to quit his career job at a big rock crusher. He had a family gone from the nest, which included teenaged grandkids, and he lived alone with his ninety year old mother. Back when I first knew him that is. After being forced to retire he bought a team of grade draft horses and put together a motley string of farm implements including an old John Deere Model A tricycle tractor. He owned five acres within the city limits of the next farm town up the road and put together a mixed bag of small plots and fields strung out over a dozen miles. He rented these or traded for them. He once told me he figured he was farming 80 acres one inch at a time and for pocket change. For example, he had a half acre city lot where, in exchange for keeping weeds from getting away, he was given the right to plant and cut hay. He had another four acre plot between two subdivisions where he was allowed to farm so long as no noisy tractors were used. Ray was going to farm for the joy of it and nothing would stop him not even the lack of money. And he quickly turned an observation into his unique fortune. In almost every small town in North America there are small plots of unused land waiting for development, waiting for profiteering, or just plain neglected. Most of it waits for dozens of years and it sits there idle. Ray figured he had nothing to lose by approaching the owners of these little deserts and offering to farm them for the short term. They’d look better and maybe attract some profitable attention. It worked exceedingly well. Back in the seventies it was common for folks to see an old Nebraska Dane in grey-stained Stetson and chewed wet cigar stub driving a team of horses (or three or four) up the town streets to the next little field. I still have a Junction City Times clipping with a photo of Ray driving three horses and a mule on a plow. The headline reads THERE’S UNCLE RAY PLOWING, IT MUST BE OCTOBER. He farmed sweet corn, grains and hay. And posed NO threat to anyone because it was understood he did what he did for the joy and love of it.
Interesting isn’t it; to think that we, as producing corporate citizens of the modern world, are a threat to each other. We even spend time and money celebrating the fact that we are in heated competition with each other. Preposterous. Unnecessary. Wasteful. Demeaning.
Aw. This is not what I came here to talk about. You were starting to tell me about your old friend’s farm, where he was using lots of little rented fields, that’s not what I want. I’m going to farm, really farm. I’m going to buy my own farm. I’m just trying to learn how to make it successful. It has to pay the bills. I can work for a little while to supplement the farm but eventually it will have to stand on its own.
Well you sorry sack of moldy potatoes! Ray’s farm was real. Perhaps more so than you’ll ever know.
You accept and advertise the tyranny of the sanctified unified dividend collecting committee!
Did you ever see the movie “Babette’s Feast”?
This is ridiculous. I came here to talk with you about starting a farm and making a go of it. And you are making fun of me with all this weird talk.
In “Babette’s Feast” the heroine spends all of her prize money making a fabulous meal for a handful of restrained and gastronomically prudish friends. She does it because she wants to, because it brings her joy and completion. You, on the other hand, are looking to put your money into a farm ONLY if someone will guarantee its success. No one is going to guarantee your success! No one can. And its stupid to ask for such a guarantee.
I’m not asking for any guarantee, I’m asking for information. I’m not calling you names, why call me stupid? I want to know how I should go about it. I want to know what I shouldn’t do. I want to know what to plant. What animals to raise. What equipment I need…
I say you’re asking for guarantees. And I say you aren’t being honest with yourself about why you want a farm. Your flood of questions tells me that. You want to know everything there is to know about your dream right now and without having to pay for it.
Well, if I’m being dishonest it’s small by comparison to you. I pay for it. You sell us all magazines that are supposed to help us with this farming stuff and here I’m finding out you won’t help me. Isn’t that like false advertising? I don’t think its honest for you to pretend to like people when you don’t seem to want anyone around. Why are you so gruff? Man this is so weird! Why am I even here?
Because you’re being called to the plow, like it or not. It’s primal. Because you need to learn how to build drainage ditches for your unnecessary cautions. Because you think you’ve got some sort of talent that might make big things possible. Be wary your talents they are a target the center of which is your too soft heart. Do you know Hovannes, the music, “Myterious Mountain”?
I was going to tell you something important and we got sidetracked with this argument, though I’m enjoying it I need to get back to Ray, you need me to get back to Ray.
There, that’s as clean as I’m going to get that stall. I need to rig something on my plow in the shop, come see. Pretend you’re listening to what I’m saying and watch the plow adjustment it might be informative.
Now, where was I… oh yes, Ray…
Ray and I met going to the same Draft Horse Events and club meetings. When I found a farm to buy I went to visit him seeing as how he would be a neighbor. I complained to him about not having the money to buy a tractor for this new farm and he suggested that, if I wanted to, I might farm the 77 acres with my team of horses. He offered to sell me a couple of pieces of equipment and help me with my plowing. He was, in his own quiet steadfast way, excited about helping a kid in his twenties to make a go of farming with horses.
I made the choice to farm with horses as a temporary expedient. I figured that as soon as I got on my feet I would get a tractor. With Ray’s help and the help of Charlie Jensen, another teamster neighbor, I made that first year work and what a year it was! I fell completely and totally head over heels in love with every aspect of my farming. I quickly grew to understand that the horses dictated a pace and an economy I was enchanted and comfortable with. Ray gave me the gift of that experience which when coupled with the example of his own farming world taught me that I was in this life for the joy and love of it. I have to do it. And I will make it work. In other words the notion of guarantees or successful formulas or recipes for security don’t go with farming for love’s sake. If you feel attracted to this way of life don’t kill the attraction by approaching it like an accountant, approach it like you would a beautiful woman at a dance. Would you go up to her and ask ‘how are we going to have a successful and meaningful relationship’? If you were a woman and felt some romantic attraction to a man you wouldn’t walk up and say “you’re cute but I want some guarantees that any time I spend with you will work out.” Not unless you were too self centered and disconnected to understand that such an intro would likely drive off the young man.
Okay, look. Let’s use your example. She’s a pretty good looker, standing over against the wall and I think maybe I want to talk to her or even dance with her…
Yeah, yeah, this is good!
…but I don’t know her! I don’t know a thing about her. Farming I mean. You’ve got me all mixed up, here I’m talking about farming like it was a woman at a dance?
Bingo! Romance! If you don’t meet her and visit with her and do things with her but instead go home and wonder at your attraction to her you’re little brain and heart will swell with what ifs and she’ll become larger than life. And you will stiffen and break. If on the other hand you go talk with her and find some sneaky way to feel the touch of her hand inside your hand and see if she smiles naturally at things you enjoy talking about – you will come to KNOW if you need to be with her. …Hand me that crescent wrench there, no the bigger one, thanks.
But please what does this have to do with farming?
You make me smile. You’re right up against it now. I don’t know it for a fact but I feel that you’re interest in farming is an attraction just like for that girl at the dance. Farming won’t run away from you if you ask blunt and stupid questions. But if you ask those questions you will not feel the touch and look of farming and discover if she’s for you because your pores will be closed.
Notice this walking plow hitch plate? I’ve been hooking one hole off dead center for quite a while and it’s wallowed out. I’m afraid it’s weakened. So I’ll take this clevis off and pull those two cotter keys and flip this bracket over. It’s not kosher, mind you, but it will work for today and until I can either replace the piece with another or braze a reinforcement for the hole. It’s a miserable experience for the horses to be surprised by a hole in their push. I mean it’s like walking blind and falling into a hole. They stumble, fall, get scared and feel cheated. I know this. I’ve felt it and seen it. I don’t like to see it happen to my friends, my working partners. They trust everything to hold while they push so willingly against the collars. It’s up to me to make sure the equipment is right. I enjoy the responsibility. Those times when I understand it and do something about it, like this plow adjustment, I feel well used, I feel important, I feel like I’m where I belong. I know I’m dancing with the right girl and I look forward to the romance for the rest of my days.
You look like you’re chewing on my words. I think that’s good. Imagine you’re looking through binoculars and I take them away from you and turn them over and ask you to look through the other end. Does that make sense? No? Well through your end of the binoculars you see a cow grazing. Through my end you see 6 cows grazing with 10 sheep and 3 hogs and the lovely sunset plus a seventh cow on the periphery which seems to be having trouble calving. Now turn the glass over and check out that cow, she’s fine.
How do you pay the bills?
One bill at a time, and sometimes not that many. At your young age if you decide that the name of the game is to be able to pay the bills I can promise you that life will always hand you more bills than you can pay. That is part of the definition of “rat race”.
Please, let me anticipate you, no, farming is NOT a business. The colleges will tell you it is and proceed to give you all the logical arguments why you should never consider it as a vocation unless you are ready to join the ranks of industrial agriculture. “Rat Race”. No romance, no pleasure, no satisfaction, no pride, no community, no craftsmanship, no artistry, no music, no love, no hope. It ain’t for me. And it ain’t for you.
Farming is NOT a business. Farming is a craft, farming is a calling, farming is a trust, farming is collaboration, farming is a partnership, farming is a family, farming is a community, farming is a romance, farming is an art, farming is a pleasure, farming is a challenge, farming is a communion, farming is a satisfaction, farming is creation, farming is hope. Within any of these definitions of true farming resides far more opportunity for security and reward than within any industrialized agriculture.
The so-called formulas for successful farming all have exact and exacting price tags. And those price tags are living breathing GROWING monsters which demand to be fed by ever larger farming operations.
I’m not interested in successful farming if it means indenture, if it means I am a slave to the banking and marketing pressures of big business.
The late Parker Sanborn of Maine was a great and wise dairy farmer. He once told me that one of the real secrets to farming was in what you decided NOT to do. Parker kept Jersey cattle and fed them no grain. He also made no hay choosing rather to pasture his fields and purchase hay. These were only two small elements of his wonderful farming design but they contributed to allowing him a profitable scheme and a farming interior which he loved.
But if you’re gonna farm, its so expensive to get started these days, it takes hundreds of thousands of dollars and you about have to borrow it. So if you don’t pay attention to where the money’s coming from you can’t pay it back and stay in farming, Can you? So all this romance stuff isn’t very practical, is it?
Oh my. That’s where you are so wrong. All this romance stuff is what will keep you alive and make your dreams come true.The high finance and industrial concerns will drain you of every ounce of ‘pluctitude’ (I made that word up, pretty good, huh?) Ever wonder why it is that every member of the human rat race, including factory farmers, dream about the day when they can retire and live? Remember my story about Ray? He was forced to retire, take it easy, give his old ticker a rest. What did he choose to do? Farm, and with horses! Right up til the day he died Ray worked hard at the things he loved. Ray figured out that it was possible to get early admission to heaven. And how did he get started? It didn’t take hundreds of thousands of dollars. He didn’t borrow money. He had a few pennies to rub together and landed a little rough piece of ground nobody else wanted and set about to put together a string of little parcels he traded or rented for. His operating costs were next to nothing. He lived off the sale of a few draft colts, some hay and some grain. He repaired harness on the side and recycled some old farm implements. And he had the time to share what he knew with others, like me. He was a happy man and well situated in his own working heaven.
So what you’re saying is that I don’t need to know anything. That if I just grin a lot and offer to trade for whatever I need life will be good. Well, that just doesn’t work.
No, that’s not what I’m saying. You need to know a great deal. And you can but you must understand that you can’t know everything because it’s not all knowable. As for the other, maybe you’ve hit on something. Yes, I think if you grin a lot and offer to trade for whatever you need life just might be quite good. A darn sight better than if you frown and try to buy everything in sight. But I’m certainly not suggesting that any of this will happen without hard work. Hard work is essential. It will get things done. AND it is the thing to do. In other words working hard at what you love IS transcendent joy. But you have to discover your love and learn how to work at it. And the way you do that is through courtship not analysis.
If you feel attracted to poultry walk up to a poultry farm and feel it out. If you like the look of dairy cows find a way to volunteer to milk a few twice a day for a few days. If you get goosebumps when you see a set of long rows of Tulips in bloom find the time to get on your knees in the mud between the rows for three and a half days. None of these suggestions are pointed at you learning about these cultures. Instead I’m trying to tell you that you need to find out if the attraction goes deep and if the workaday world behind the image has staying power for you.
You need to get inside your dream and let its interior suggest to you ways of proceeding. Where you’ll farm, what you’ll farm, what you’ll need to get started, who you’ll hook up with. But you see none of these things matter until you are well enough into the courtship to KNOW that you want to spend your life in partnership with the craft of farming. Finding that out comes first. And just maybe while you’re courting you’ll discover answers to many of your better questions.
Right now I need to go bring in the girls and get them harnessed. I’m anxious to get back in the furrow. You’re welcome to stick around if you’re interested in seeing what happens…
No thanks, I’m still looking for answers. Sorry to have wasted your time.
You certainly didn’t waste my time. This kind of arm wrestling is always good for the soul even if I lose by default. And besides who knows I might someday scratch it down into a writing for the Journal.
Well, don’t put my name in it…