Farming Must Be
Farming Must Be

Farming Must Be…

by Lynn R. Miller of Singing Horse Ranch

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.

Because it is so vitally important I want to give you the answer, or the conclusion, now – and then again at the end of this writing. In between, with the help of two friends, I will try to fill in the gaps.

The conclusion is this:

Farming is, it must be, the stewardship, the careful nurturing, the consummate love affair with the Planet Earth and our life upon it. To know it as such is to succeed. To view it as anything less is to fail.

Recently I received two letters from different folk, which I felt immediately to touch on the subject of failure in farming and, as though through a back door, to illumine the character of success. I want to share them with you.

The first letter comes from a dear friend of the Journal, Judith Hoffman. Judith works on farm issues privately, collectively and with OXFAM. We spoke over the phone recently and I mentioned to her that psychiatrists and psychologists were having difficulty “cataloging” the disorders they were finding in the farm community. Judith’s eloquent letter speaks to the character of failure as it measures the weight of the loss of a way of life.

… I was thinking about your saying that psychologists are finding that farmers in trouble are not fitting the psycho-analytical paradigms. That makes me think of a story Ralph Nader tells of how his father taught him about values when he was young. His father would ask him, ‘what is a dozen eggs worth? and Ralph would answer. Then he’d ask, ‘what’s this shirt worth?’ and Ralph would answer. Then he’d point out the window and ask, ‘what’s that tree worth, what’s that bird worth?’

Family farms and rural communities are probably the last places in this country where such a value system is still ‘part’ of people’s lives. Where else is ‘trusting’ other people something which is valued? Unless others also appreciate those values day to day, how can they possibly understand what it is to lose the environment which fosters them. As neighborhoods have disappeared, families are separated, we’ve lost the relationships which are conducive to earring for things which do not have a price tag or fancy packaging. Most people have adapted (or maladapted) gradually over time to lives where we teach children NOT to trust ANYONE, letting others make decisions for us, and knowing or caring very little about anyone else. So how can we understand what farmers go through when not only their work and the essence of their family life is taken away, but the values upon which both are built (or rather, the environment in which those values thrive) disappears, as well. Anyway, I hope those psychologists find ways to help farmers deal with some troubles, if their esteemed services are requested, but I hope they do not help them adapt to a way of life without trust and appreciation for what is really of value …

… I am sitting in my grandparent’s yard amidst citrus, mango and coconut trees, and have just taken a few seconds to look up to see what is splashing in the bay a few yards away – a ‘flying fish’ is making wild leaps out of the water, and a pre-historic-looking pelican has taken a perch on the dock. I guess it’s time to close and spend some time looking at what is out there.

With warm wishes for bright and peaceful days,


(Judith was at her Grandparents place in Florida waiting to depart for the Andes where she’ll be working with farmers. She has promised to at least share some South America potato sets. I’m hoping she’ll also share some of her experiences there.)

The second letter comes to us from a farm family in Iowa. It is a bit cryptic as it’s difficult to know just exactly where our fellow reader/farmer is (in his heart and soul) as he writes these poetic words. Words, which for me illustrate the character of perseverance in the face of frustration, of thanksgiving in the face of adversity.

Dear Friend,

It is 3:42 and a hoot owl called from a Tamarack out front and sat me upright in bed, wide awake. Seven years ago at 3:42 my first of three children was born. I’ve got a lot to be thankful for, I’d better get up. Last week a local farmer shot his wife and his banker and then himself. Another guy ended it with a ball peen hammer. Seems I heard the story 35 times yesterday.

Yesterday I got mad at my wife, over some stupid temporal thing. I always clean the cattle shed when I get mad. Things always seem better in the house when the cattle shed is clean. I was hoping to buy a skid loader to take the burden off that job, seems like it always gets ahead of me in February. I bought a trolley bucket and cable for five bucks at a close-out sale instead. I’ll be a better man for it. Yesterday I read four ads in the local advertiser for counseling help for diswrought farmers. I kinda wonder if anyone ever calls them. Or do most folks just hold it all in?

We got three inches of snow last night while I parked the spreader by the cattle shed. May get five or six loads today if all goes well. If it don’t, that’s alright too. Two cows freshened last week. Milking twelve. Now maybe we’ll do some better. We’ve got a lot to be thankful for. A healthy family and friends, our work and calling in life, that hoot owl in the Tamarack.

Mike and Molly are pawing the ground and I ain’t had breakfast yet, but the urgency of some things can wait. It’s time to strengthen what remains, unload the garbage and debt of our souls and see the things that count clearly. I don’t suppose things will get better for most as most folks count better. As the angel said ‘a measure of barley for a day’s wages’ that’s alright if you’re growing barley. As I look into my youngest boy’s eyes while I change his diaper, I wonder what tomorrow will bring for him. Then I realize it really doesn’t matter. What is relevant is whether I can prepare him with what he needs to make it through tomorrow and whatever that may bring.

My five year old wanted a ‘real’ shovel for Christmas. I wish you could have seen him with his shiny new shovel and a pair of ‘he’ll grow into ’em’ cowboy boots. He’s hoping for a January thaw so him and pa can get that manure outta there. Somehow the adversity assures me that it’s all worth it, and I’m convinced that one way or another we are gonna make it.

John, Linda, Marie, Benjamin & Moya Fay, Anamosa, IA

I wish I could put into words and some simple phrases how and why it is that these two letters say to me so strongly that ‘how we measure success in farming’ may well determine if there is to be any perceived (read appreciated) success in farming. It is clear to me that the depth of anguish and suffering we see amongst those of our fellow farmers who are threatened with (or have actually experienced) the loss of their farms is proof positive that we measure success by quality rather than quantity.

A few years back I recall gazing out over a small field of young oats and feeling good, feeling rewarded. I had worked that ground for a few years. Had it going well in my rotation plan. That year I had used young horses in harness which I had raised and trained. They had been raised on the produce of that field. The oat stand was particularly lovely in its even softness as the new grain heads gave it an airy quality. I was just leaning on the fence post and day-dreaming about how good it all was when my youngest boy gave a tug at my pant leg and said “Dad – you’re looking at the oats again.”

The measure of anguish you feel with loss will tell you something of the “value” you place there.

In all my endeavors, I place farming first in my heart. I value it highest. To be a farmer is to feel tested by splendid possibilities needing careful nurturing. To be a farmer is to know caretaking, guardianship and the being of a steward. To be a farmer is to have opportunities for a life of fulfillment, for a time of completed loving.

Farming is, it must be, the stewardship, the careful nurturing, the consummate love affair with the Planet Earth and our life upon it.

To know it as such is to succeed.

To view it as anything less is to fail

Thank You.