Destruction is Easy; Creation is Always Hard.
From There to Here
by Nikki Ausschnitt of Yorkville, CA
I have been a fine artist for my entire life but as my vision of where the world was headed caused my art to become darker I found myself longing for something “real”, something tangible and meaningful in a rapidly disintegrating society. Dirt and food are real so I bought a piece of rangeland in Mendocino County, CA. Over the past 19 years my partner and I transformed ourselves into farmers, the farm into a family business, and a small part of the land into a gorgeous, thriving farm. We raise animals in addition to growing a large variety of fruits and vegetables for our main business, canning, which we do in the commercial kitchen we built at the center of the farm. The farm is open daily for people to visit, shop, and certify for themselves that we are growing and producing food as we say we are. Although all our practices are beyond organic, we don’t believe the government should own the word then corrupt it, thus no organic certification. Our main sales are at two farmers’ markets, one in San Francisco and the other in Oakland. We pay living wages and consider everyone working with us our community and we all love what we are doing.
I spent a rainy day last week sitting next to the fire going through a box of saved papers from childhood and college, mostly drawings, but also some essays from college poetry and literature classes along with some heavily corrected French papers from HS which I no longer could translate. It’s a familiar exercise to some of you I’m sure, both nostalgic and puzzling…as in who was/is this person? How did she get from there to here? And why did it take so long? None of these questions were answered but a different one was…Is this where she belongs? The answer, a resounding yes, came on a scrap of paper on which I had scribbled notes for the essay I was required to write when applying for entrance to RISD (Rhode Island School of Design). The question was something like “What was your favorite experience so far?” My shorthand answer was “…none stands out as brightly as the summers I spent on a working farm. The memories of those months are my happiest.” I was 15 and went off to college at 16 and I had no idea how the experience resonated in me.
That short scrawl brought up a wealth of memories that have returned to me on occasion over the years. I was 10 or 11 when, on one of our summer vacations in New England, my family stopped at a dairy farm offering lodging. I believe we ended up staying awhile because we were all loving it. The farm family had several children around my brother’s and my ages. It was mid summer and haying season and we rode at the top of the hay wagon, jumped and swung from ropes hanging from the barn rafters down into mountains of hay, caught frogs in the cow pond, ran away from a charging bull, and ate like piggies all the farm fresh goodies served for breakfast, lunch and dinner. It was heaven and it touched my core.
It took many many years from then to now but I never forgot. And now that I’m here, after going on 19 years, and I know how much work farming is, I’m still in love with it, its wildlife and the animals we raise. We keep the farm open to visitors daily and many exclaim at how beautiful it is, how good the food is, how peaceful and quiet the landscape, how happy all the animals, including the humans, seem…essentially how idyllic it all looks and feels. There is another side. After about a year here I switched the old saw Life on the farm to Death on the farm for a reason. Our first experience with the trauma of violent death was with our first 6 chickens. Their screams in the middle of the night had us running naked from our bed grabbing for flashlights and finding bodies flung about the coop area and a raccoon slinking off with one. It was followed by many more, one of the worst being when our young male yak took ill over Easter weekend and the vet couldn’t come until Monday. On Monday morning we found him dead in the field next to the house and when the vet came he did an autopsy instead of a cure. The reason was never discovered but in the course of these events, I cried rivers. There was a crow that I needed to mercy kill because he had a wound on his chest filled with maggots. The various dogs have had their go at domestic and wild animals over the years, some of which we could save. The most recent was a duck that somehow got out of its enclosure which I found at dusk still alive being licked lovingly by our dog. Our hot tub and dinner rituals were forestalled by the need to mercy kill, skin and gut the suffering bird so it could be saved in our freezer.
I chose farming because it is real; life and death are real; fixing one’s own plumbing, electrical, broken tools is real; designing and building human and other animal enclosures is real; planning and executing a production garden is real; keeping accounts is real; meeting and greeting visitors at the farm and the markets as the actual farmers is real; and some of reality’s most important demands are to think ahead, plan and design carefully, but in the inevitable occurrence of accident or disaster act accordingly and with “no waste” which is why we were gutting a mauled duck at dusk and will be eating it someday when the memory of its demise softens.
…If one defines optimism as a belief in a future, nobody can accuse farmers of being pessimists, nor of taking up farming as a tax shelter (there must be easier ways!).
Both sons joined the business, one in 2010 and the other in 2012. The younger is the “market manager,” and on the board of the nonprofit farmers’ markets he attends as well as president of the Board of the Bay Area Financial Education Foundation which discipline, as a certified financial analyst, was his original direction in life. He lives half his time in SF and half on the farm. My older son, a reformed software engineer, (and his wife and two teenage daughters), lives on the property and manages the aquaponic system he designed and built along with raising rabbits, being tech guy at the local school (and for us), and teaching computer courses there. Besides my sons, there are five other employees, two of whom we built housing for and the others live nearby. It’s a true family farm and I love the community we’ve built up around it.
The greenhouse is full of over 750 starts of tomatoes, soon to be followed by an equal or greater number of peppers, then cucumbers, and on and on. Once their roots fill the six pack, they will all need to be “stepped up” before planting out; none will be field planted until after our last frost date in mid-May; and none will start producing until July or later. We must be crazy? Perhaps, but we think we’re also realists: we look directly at the now which morphs into the then. The constant fear of fire, flood, landslide, tornadoes, etc., a country split into thinkers and fantasists or worse, the horror of a world in chaos, and the overarching and ever more imminent collapse of earth’s climate hovers over all of us. We plant because to live requires food (and to live a mentally and physically healthy life requires well raised food), because farming instills in us hope for a future, because it’s the best example we can think of for living in balance, because it is a positive activity in a rather negative world, because it’s a creative act on which to use our money, because it’s physical and hard work with the rewards being food and beauty, because it requires a small community, because we love it! Destruction is easy; creation is always hard.
We’ve been reading “The Dawn of Everything” in which there is much discussion of agriculture. The authors debunk the prevalent belief that the coming of agriculture was one of the lynch pins in the evolution of society. They must have studied a bit about “farming” since their arguments are in our view, spot on. Why would hunter gatherers give up their easier way of life for the risks of feeding themselves from farming? Weather, bugs, wild animal incursions, physically hard labor, much required pre-planning are only some of the negatives of farming. Wouldn’t any sane person prefer to amble through the woods collecting nuts, berries, and greens, sit by a stream fishing or hunt for a wild pig or rabbit? Population pressure is why farming exists to the extent it does. We are in our 18th year and we’re still fighting all the negatives but we’ve also learned a few things. We let some plants go to seed so they can regenerate themselves which they do anywhere they please. That’s as close to foraging as we can get with farming and still be able to sell the food. Hunters shoot deer and wild pig on the land in season and though we have a freezer full of their meats, we are not allowed to sell it.
There was a reason small farms (and businesses) were the backbone of our country for generations. They generated small communities of people working together to create a regenerative life. Then corporations took over turning the country to factory farming to provide for the massive population, because “progress” was required to make money for them and their shareholders, and progress is predicated on more folks buying more “stuff”.
We buy way more “stuff” than we’d like but most of it is for the farm to improve infrastructure, efficiency and our ability to grow food and animals for our community.