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Gain and Meaning
Gain and Meaning
Lynn Miller, Doug Hammill and John Erskine

Gain & Meaning

by Lynn R. Miller of Singing Horse Ranch

My dear friend John Parker once told me a story. I take great liberties with it here in order to illustrate a point:

There were twin boys who were quite different. One brother was ungrateful in every way, the other was a perpetual optimist and thankful for all things. The busy free-thinking parents had grown tired of the “sour puss” attitude of the ungrateful son, which was perhaps understandable, but they had also grown irritated with the perpetual “pollyannish” good nature of the optimist son. They devised a scheme they thought would have a positive effect on both sons. The grumpy boy had demanded a particular bicycle for Christmas and the happy boy had wondered what it might be like to have a pony. Come Christmas morning there was that beautiful required bicycle under the tree for the grumpy son. And there was also an envelope there for the son of good cheer. The glad son read his card message and disappeared smiling. The ungrateful son walked over to the bicycle frowning and set in with a litany of observed shortcomings; “its the wrong color, the pedals are for sissies, and no one rides that kind of seat any more.” The parents rolled their eyes in resignation and remembered the glad son. His card had told him his present was in the basement. So they went downstairs to see the boy on his knees besides a pile of horse manure, mumbling and giggling to himself while he dug with his bare hands. When they got close enough they could hear him repeating, “there must be a pony in here somewhere!”

• Every 3.6 seconds, somewhere in the world, someone dies of hunger.

• Every second major global corporations battle to control all aspects of world wide food production.

• Every day federal governments the world over work toward more and better partnerships with major global corporations to improve the life-styles of their governing elite.

• Every second of every day in every corner of this world millions of people dream and work towards someday having a piece of land where they might grow food for their families and neighbors.

There’s a pony in here somewhere.

Entrepreneurial scientists, ag economists, and assorted academicians will argue the point but I agree with the painter David Hockney who said “there is only a personal view of the world.”

I am a fortunate man. For 30+ years I have been immersed in work which restores me, shakes me up, defines me, hands me forward to each new day in a state of humming gratitude and wakefulness. All aspects of my life’s work have come by my own choosing.

Some would say that being able to choose is a luxury. In most parts of the today’s world that may be true. But for those of us reading this, I say it is a responsibility. If we don’t exercise the opportunity to make choices about our lives and living we are a problem to ourselves and a loss to everyone else.

Within that lies the clue, a clue, a thread leading back into fertility, gain and right livelihood for us and for the planet.

Dostoyevsky wrote; “One must love life before loving its meaning.”

We are told by our religious, cultural and political institutions that we must accept and embrace the meaning of life as they present it and that we will learn to love the life this imposed meaning represents. In this way followers and joiners are made. In this way we relinquish our selves through obedience and membership. In this way we reject choice. And we never know a meaning we can love. Dostoyevsky was right, first we must love life by making choices and launching ourselves into the working chase.

We, with this publication, advocate “independence” which some good people find to be a troubling position. They see such a stance as reactionary, as selfish, as anarchistic, as revisionistic. They hear in the mantel of independence someone or ones who would work and struggle for change suggesting that things as they are need changing. What we hear in our use of the word independence is: choice • strength • diversity • responsibility • reliability • humor • scepticism • resilience • health • happiness • purpose • worth • gain • meaning

We recognize that for some good and important people independence sits alongside of justice, equality, and fairness. And that they (we) must work vigilantly to achieve these goals. They say we must make of ourselves activists.

Over the years through the work with the Journal we have witnessed a curious regretful pattern which has destroyed some exceptional individual farming adventures, and even some less exceptional but no less worthy ones. In my own personal case, my agrarian life has nearly slipped from my hands on several occasions because of the siren call of activism.

It starts with the manifestation of passion and purpose into a vibrant healthy individual farm which from the beginning gives off a glow that attracts others. Visitors can be heard to mutter;

“I want to buy your produce.”

“This is how it should be.”

“More people ought to be doing this.”

“How do I do this?”

And it quickly evolves to;

“Would you help us by being on this or that advisory board?”

“We’re having a meeting Thursday night. Please be there, we need you.”

“If we don’t organize and get these changes through it will be all over for the things we value.”

“You are the one to lead us. With this many signatures, this much in donations, these alliances, this office, this grant proposal, those endorsements, ….”

When the good farmer accepts these calls, the results are often unfortunate.

Some people are well placed as activists. Some people are better placed as exemplary farmers. Both are important for different reasons. Seldom do the two work together in one person without one aspect depleting or destroying the other. Be it activist/farmer or farmer/activist the relevancy, effectiveness, octane, or strength is diluted, diminished or tapped out.

We have been asked repeatedly, over these last several months, for suggestions, recommendations, even road maps of what we small farmers should be doing now to effect constructive social change. In each case the questions were framed by the axiom which says “we want sustainability.” That word ‘sustainable’ is used in a sacred tone as though it is accepted by all as the golden coat hanger for a more perfect future world. In my mind it’s not a coat hanger, it’s a badge, and we don’t need and shouldn’t want badges. They are often the problem or the beginning of the problem. What we need is clarity of purpose. Sustainability is not my purpose. It is not the true purpose of most of the farmers I speak with. Sustainability is a badge which if worn in certain party rooms gets you an insincere nod of recognition.

The true purpose of most family farmers is a right livelihood as the outcome of fertility.

Sustainable says “regardless of process or effect, kept going without depletion of base resource” “capable of being maintained at length without interruption, weakening, or losing in power or quality.”

Aside from those laws of physics which might argue the impossibility of such a premise, and including every farmer’s innate understanding of the constant flux of biological life affecting and being affected by any and all activity imposed upon it; sustainable is a dangerous changeling word so easily molded to suit the true motivations of:

small farmers OR agribusiness professionals,

craftspeople OR corporate executives,

altruistic political activists OR megalomaniacal party bosses,

theologians OR bureaucrats,

realtors OR soccer moms,

advertising hacks OR prison wardens,

academics OR dreamers.

If our objective is to build a social environment which encourages, honors and rewards careful stewardship of natural resources, advocacy of independent craftsmanship, and dynamic local self reliance, we must stop handing corporate boardrooms the tools to rationalize their exploitative behavior. “Sustainability” as a modern political catchall concept is such a tool. It has become a social terrace for compromise, a postponement for bio-diversity, a theoretical catch-basin for cultural apologies.

We must be far more careful what we ask for, what we demand, what we accept.

I want to suggest that rather than asking for, or demanding, sustainability (a concept which means many things to many people) we ask for fertility. I said earlier that sustainability is not my purpose. My purpose is a right livelihood as the outcome of fertility. And that livelihood depends upon actual measurable gain. I prefer to speak of gain rather than profit as profit has evolved in modern usage to connote someone getting ahead at others expense and perhaps unjustly so. Whereas gain, as applied to agriculture, pulls up pictures of: pregnant livestock, the increasing health of the soil, planted swollen seed, timely rains, perfect harvest weather, lactating cows, bees in the orchard, ripening grain heads, worms in the topsoil, and families working together.

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.

The fight for GAIN, or sustainability if you prefer, is a class struggle confused in these electronic times by the ambient moral insolvency of the politically sensitive upper middle class, those who would save us from ourselves but not at the expense of their investment portfolios.

For them the path towards a healthy planet and populace must include the corporate model and business profits. It gives an insidious new neo-fascist weight to the term mean-green.

But there must be a pony in here someplace?

And there is.

The recent high profile implosions of large corporations are only the beginning. Natural law has just begun to exert itself on our society and economics.

With few exceptions we’ve been offered an obvious if difficult to delineate enemy, the corporate boardroom and stockholder greed.

If the boardrooms appear to be eager to embrace a concept, that should be evidence enough for us to stay away from that concept. Boardrooms love the cry for sustainability. It does not threaten their ethics because it is malleable by their advertising hacks. It has no legal tooth because, as an ever changing abstraction, it is impossible to imagine being guilty of the crime of insustainability.

Boardrooms on the other hand dislike issues of local control, local self reliance, independence, labor unions, fertility, liability, variety, public domain, farmer’s markets, appropriate technology, smallness, slowness, pregnancy, commonwealth, artistry, and gain for the little guy. They dislike these issues because each and every one of them reduces corporate opportunity for maximum profit.

Today we are bombarded by the large view, mega trends, big consortiums, giant mergers, and the phony paradigm of global free trade. The winning views are small, embraceable, understandable, clear, defensible, gainful, and fertile. The winning views have meaning not membership.

One of our philosopher kings, the musician Wynton Marsalis has been quoted as saying about Jazz; “This is existence music. It doesn’t take you out of the world, it puts you in the world. It makes you deal with it. It is not a thing of thou must, it’s not. It’s a thing of this is and that’s it.”

The same observation I feel may apply to good farming. We need each good farmer to be farming to the best of his or her ability. We need the imprint upon the soil of each human spirit, each family, each small community. We need each good farmer immersed in his or her world.

When the good farmer runs off to the state capitol or Washington D.C. to argue sustainability with the store-bought politicians the land suffers.

While at the New Mexico Organic Farming Conference this winter I took a workshop on Spanish and Moorish roots in the Hispanic agriculture of the southwest given by a farmer, writer, poet, and scholar of the soil, Estevan Arrellano. He reminded me, poignantly, that the land remembers. Today for much of our landscape the memories which are being built are hollow, thin, sterile, tragic. But deep down inside there are powerful memories in the land which, if awaked, may contribute to future fertility and good humor. The land needs each farmer immersed in farming. And we need each farmer in good humor. Because humor equals humus which in return equals humor which in its swollen state equals fertility.

Here’s the pony….

Through this magazine we see and hear of a tidal waves of amazing small farm adventures. The creativity, gutsiness and emotional solvency of new farmers is powerful and sexy. The strengths and best possibilities for the new farms of today and tomorrow ride with the fact that farming as craft – today more than ever – puts you in the world, it makes you deal with it. Its a thing of this is and that’s it.

How we work, survive, in the world, those working systems which connect us to living organics, those systems which force constant involvement resulting in perpetual honing of the best life skills, they are the skeletal structure – the framework of true success and happiness.

Leave pragmatism to the accountants, economists and professors. For those of us who would farm for right livelihood and gain with an eye towards a better world, risk, passion, and hunger will lead us to fertility, gain, vibrancy, health and completion.

For the pragmatic activist I would offer (in the words of Albert Camus) that yes “love is injustice, but justice is not enough.”