Economic Fertility Hard Work and the Future of Small Farms
Economic Fertility Hard Work and the Future of Small Farms
Lynn Miller, left, and his aussie buddy Rob Johnson, waiting for a parade to start. Photograph by Kristi Gilman-Miller.

Economic Fertility: Hard Work and the Future of Small Farms

by Lynn R. Miller of Singing Horse Ranch

Summer morning. Out changing irrigation pipe. The ocean wind spills over the Cascade mountains and funnels through our canyon. Tickles the young legume blossoms – the trefoil, alsike, alfalfa, white clover and crimson – releasing honey bees and yellow butterflies and invisible flying insects in bouncing low steps. The swallows dart and duck and snatch at the bugs. The sound is wind, some would say strong breeze. The soft blue sky is a floating blanket.

The hoarse hum of an approaching Borate bomber, on its way to the fires on the Indian reservation, seems a nearly natural punctuation. Once past it releases us back to the quiet.

The swallows disappear in an instant replaced by the low hovering Goshawk, its soft silver blue grey made visible against the sky tones by the fluttering knife shapes of his black wing tips. He looks deep and hard, into the calf high forage, for gophers, mice, and snake. Eighteen inches above Orchard grass tops he hangs forever then, with stiff extended wings he tilts and banks to capture the wind which carries him kite-like in a taut floating curve to his next observation hover where with a corrective shift to horizontal he stops midair. He’s working. Working hard to feed himself. He is in pleasure; in complete harmony with this world which owns him. Backing away some from the picture, to my eye the Goshawk blends and disappears and the view is of a particular balanced fertility and beauty. Squinting again to zoom in and reclaim the focus of the hawk I realize that the poetry and fertility of this place and this time, our time, is four dimensional.

There is the plane of the fields upon which we work; simplistically it may be seen as two dimensional. There is the third dimension depth of this world, from the subsoil and its biological activity, creature punctuated, all the way up into the sky with the light, warmth, and moisture it lends. And the fourth dimension is time or time related. It is that warp which includes the promise of efforts, the promise of biological pattern, the flux which hovers like that Goshawk and is the substance of the farmer/steward’s awareness and readiness to direct, conduct, allow and stir possibilities. The planning of ones who constantly drink in where they are and what it might be, this is a hover. We cannot become adept at the hover without experience with the place and the process. We never fully experience the place and the process until we hover, eighteen inches above our working world, and focus back and forth from the immediate to the distant; looking hard and deep for the detail while always scanning the near horizon for the evidence of additional detail and the map of pattern.

Another morning and Jess takes the black Percherons for a conditioning and training run on the little low rubber-tired wagon while Dick works to repair buck rake teeth and I drive the old Belgian mares on the manure spreader. I love this team. They are tight, punctual, trusting, impatient, watchful, quick, powerful, patient, questioning, precise, determined, elegant, and graceful. Standing quiet while the steel wheeled New Idea spreader is loaded their slow-breathing full-curved mass fills the leather harness to its shapeliest. On command and in perfect unison they do a turning side pass that would make dear departed Fred Astaire smile for. And together, this quartet – Cali , Lana, I and the spreader – head for the field. It’s the third load and I’m whistling a new found tune, one which matches the movements, the creaks and the intent. My head and chest fill with the odors of horses, manure, grasses, sky, possibilities, and the ripe moment. I am lifted free of the worries, the losses, the heart break, the anxiety and the arthritis. I am transcendent. I am small. I am very much like that Goshawk; a working pleasured piece of the place. This transcendence is my experience of a slice of that fourth dimension. I am well. I am riding this morning’s wave, far enough out on the board to be one part in the future and one part all today. I’m not working hard; I am hard work.

What is done, with the working and the knowledge of the working (and perhaps most telling, the appreciation for the working) is both important and insignificant. It is important to those of us who experience and are aware of it. It is all accessible to any. It may be of no significance to anyone else; yet it holds a key. It belongs to individuality, never the industrial, never the corporate, never the committee. What we represent is a valuable insignificance if only because ours has been a lifetime in deliberate pursuit of what we have found, and frequently lose, and re-find. This story about the working may for some have resonance, or a comforting answering familiar hum. For others it may be a confusing curiosity. It is a story that for many means nothing. What we have, when we blend into our work, is not an observation post from which to view or catalog answers. What we have found is the fertility represented by a specific working flux; we have discovered how to become hard work and in so doing how to disappear, vanish.

We understand the simpler meaning of the words ‘fertility’ and ‘economics’. As farmers we appreciate that gift of nature which would allow us to set a seed in the soil, grow the plant it creates, and gather its multiplied bounty. The single seed becomes a multitude of seed or fruit or forage. This is a wondrous magic. And the mysteries and vagaries of the host top soil are no less wondrous and magical. Some of us know that we have choices which can result in that top soil’s measurable and immeasurable fertility. We can cause it to deplete, maintain, or increase in fertility. The same thing is true, though perhaps more abstract, about all aspects of our farm and farming. There is a general fertility which extends to the reproductive health of our livestock, flows through our pleasure with our efforts, and radiates from the accumulated farm plannings, desires and hopes. It is all about economics and fertility. And it is also all about hard work and the future.

The ‘hard work’ portion can be the larger part of our reward. The ‘future’ aspect is an exciting blend of who we are becoming as much as it is the potential rewards of increased soil fertility, crops, and community.

And a path is currently being blazed to our doors. All of humanity needs our produce and our example. They want our healthy clean fertility, they need the example of our hard happy work. We can sell our apples, eggs, chickens, trout, green beans, squash, and lettuce. But we must sell these things to individuals, to people. Not to brokers, not to markets, not to processors, not to distributors. Yes they may represent, on paper, opportunity to sell large quantities quickly and easily – but always at a loss of financial return and of integrity.

Below are summer supermarket prices in central Oregon for seven commodities. Prices which each of us might have realized from direct sales. Yet, for most farmers who sold to middlemen their return was only a fraction of these prices, sometimes as little as 5 to 10%.

  • Apples .90 lb.
  • Fertile eggs $2.70 doz
  • Whole chicken fryers $1.29 lb. (or $4 ea.)
  • Yellow crook neck squash $1.29 lb.
  • Trout $4 lb
  • Leaf Lettuce $1.20 head or $1 for organic?
  • Green beans $2.59 lb.

Four dozen eggs a day for six months, sold for $2.70 each dozen, comes to a gross receipt of $1965.60. You can do that easily from 60 good hens. And you can raise most if not all their feed yourself. Shhh, quiet… don’t tell anyone, ‘cause the government might step in.

Our government is in place primarily to protect the vested interests of big business. We, as careful small farmers, had an important distinction and opportunity stripped from us when the United States Dept. of Agriculture implemented its sham organic certification program. At least that is how it feels early on. But perhaps this affords us a new opportunity. As it becomes clear that the USDA is protecting the vested interests of industrial agriculture people will search us out rather than purchase the ‘new pseudo-organics’. It’s a good time to be a farmer selling direct. In spite of the fact that there is money to be made, by steering clear of monocultures and industrial ideas you could find yourself up to your eyeballs in a most satisfying existence.

I saw, in Indiana, two women, one who worked the cultivator handles artfully down that burgeoning garden corduroy while the younger led the big harnessed Belgian. The women and the horse were all three smiling. Twenty minutes later, as I drove back past, only the women remained in the garden, both with apron-loads of salad thinnings and both with smiles as large as that lovely summer morning sky. Nice pictures, powerful quiet examples. They draw us in to the important questions: Can I have this in my life? Who are these people? Is this something I can realize for my family?

We, the majority of us in this small farm community, are a subculture, underground, outside of the mainstream. To survive and flourish we have had to find our own mix of unique efforts, affiliations and production. Whenever we have fallen prey to industrial models, whether with large plantations of single commodities or with expensive large special application equipment, we have failed. Whenever we have “trusted” government assistance it has failed us. Whenever we have worked hard on exciting little mixes that suit us we have succeeded even if only in protecting and improving our soil, our family and ourselves. Whenever we have naturally and easily given of ourselves to help our neighbors we have been rewarded in community strength and humor. Whenever we have attempted to organize a rigid democratic cooperative effort to combine and control the collective efforts of our farmer neighbors we have debased friendship and community. We know what strength and goodness floods us when a clear path is discovered, chosen and followed to wholesome success.

And clear paths so often come from the unobstructed view of powerful quiet examples. Clear paths so seldom come of political mandate, community vote, or commercial expediency.

This magazine has two titles. It has two subjects. They are dependent upon one another. Small farms and horsefarming are listed on the cover. What the content suggests is that the two subjects are more general and might be called ‘hard work’ and ‘the future’. Some might smell out the subjects to be economics and fertility. ‘Small farms’ and ‘horsefarming’ works for us.

We are an underground publication. This means, in our case, that we function separate from the ideological mainstream of farm journalism. We do not showcase industrial process (organic or chemical) and so-called consensus politics. We showcase independence, craftsmanship, appropriate technologies and imaginings. We do this in part because it is who we are. But the larger reason is that these qualities or characteristics represent the best and most ‘economically’ fertile aspects of an agriculture we all want.

We are an underground publication even to our own detriment. The case is made eloquently and repeatedly, by many who love this magazine, that we must cease to be so critical, sceptical and ‘political’ in nature. We here and now accept the demand and its challenge, literally. We will struggle to not be so ‘that way’. Of course we cannot completely change who we are. It is bound to leak out. But we can change the clothes we wear. We can quiet down and let others speak more. There are many things we can do with this publication which do not compromise our core belief in small independent family farms and ‘economic fertility’.

We acknowledge that valuable time and space has been spent in criticism which should have been spent in building, farming, growing, nurturing and seed collecting – actually and metaphorically. Within a lifetime’s work it seems we may be cursed to forget, repeatedly, that quiet examples and not critical activism affords us the only lasting opportunity for social change. People need to see something they wish to emulate. They don’t want to be pushed, preached, legislated or tricked into a change even if (especially IF) dictated by majority vote or ‘market pressures’. It is quiet example which moves us.

What results in the best examples? Hard work. Work of choice well approached and well conceived. Everyone understands (or will come to understand) how working hard at what is enjoyed gives pleasure to those who do the work. It is perhaps a little less obvious that a view of someone working hard at what they enjoy, whether or not that process is evidenced by some actual ‘thing’ (say a plowed field, a barn, or garden, or trained horse or cleaned chicken house) has potentially a powerful effect on the casual witness.

I recall Mark Twain’s wonderful vignette from Tom Sawyer of the painting of the fence – wherein the young Tom ‘sells’ his buddies the opportunity to enjoy, as much as he (?), the chore of whitewashing the fence for his aunt. I like to imagine that Tom’s clever deception inverted itself boomeranging back to change Tom’s own view allowing him to see fun in the job.

I spoke recently on the phone with a long time journal subscriber who said,

“I can’t share your optimism about the future of small farms. From where I sit it seems most people have forgotten how to work, they only care about leisure and affluence and convenience.”

I didn’t get a chance to respond as at that very moment I was handed a note about a lightning strike and fire on the edge of our ranch.

So I offer my reply here: I can’t help but feel optimistic. Save for the socially or clinically damaged, people cannot forget ‘working’. Not that good transcendent work of which we have spoken. Leisure, affluence and convenience are all grotesquely misrepresented and misunderstood. ‘Working’ with my horses grants me a comfort and harmony which can only be viewed as consummate leisure. If by affluence we speak of a sense of well being and accumulated wealth beyond our needs then I maintain that the burgeoning garden, the coop full of hens, the good working mare and her new foal, the children laughing as they gather the cows, the ripening field of oats, the wagon load of squash, the welcoming and thankful smiles of neighbors, the clean air, the clear water, the certainty of tomorrow’s efforts; these things and their cousins are all measures of true affluence. And as for convenience I will always prefer freedom as I know the all-consuming need for modern convenience to be indenture.

I believe, because I have seen it and read about it and hear about it daily, that when people see us ‘whitewashing the fence as we whistle’ or ‘smiling as we cultivate our garden’ or ‘offering prayers of gratitude instead of request’ the examples will draw them in. They will easily rediscover how to work. And more important why to work. And they’ll be in their own future. The result will be economic fertility and a whole lot more small farms.