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Going Before
Going Before

High Lakes frog, photo by Kristi Gilman-Miller

Going Before

by Lynn R. Miller of Singing Horse Ranch

The weather is pristine, warm sunshine with cool edges. The best weather that Fall has to offer. Frost in the morning on the fresh shoots of grass. Sunlight happy for what it touches, not caring about reaching ’round behind, leaving the shadows and backsides for the lingering cold of lengthening night.

Yes, here it is Fall, and this issue of the Journal says Spring right there on the bottom of the page. It is the consequence of an insanely trying Summer for so many of us. But look up; there you might see evidence that we may rejoice at having made the grade (weathered the storms? put out the fires?) and are ready to keep going. As we go forward I am drawn to think about what it meant to go before…

Farming as a way of life, as a determination, as work flow, as a skill set – all of it at ground level is laced with tangible and intangible details that tell us more about the cause of the fray and the shapes of the smiles than about the presentable menus and recipes of the enterprise. Here is how you raise geese for market – the recipe. While over there is how you successfully fold into a farming day the shared presence of free range geese as guardians and weeders. Sometimes the only way to ‘get the true picture’ is through shared stories.

Turkey Ring

Last night our friend Gayle talked about her crab apple tree in its fall foliage. She chuckled as she told of how 13 wild turkeys have been coming into her orchard. “Yesterday they formed a circle around that crab apple tree, all of them looking up. Then one made an announcing noise and they all lept up together, pecking at the low hanging small red fruit. They did that three times! Isn’t that remarkable?”

Yes, it is remarkable. But I’m even more interested in how they came to know this? And how did they teach themselves the windfall dance?

Comes To This

Today I patiently work to resuscitate my forty-two year old diesel back hoe. Check the fuel, add a little treatment to absorb water. Check the oil, it’s low, and notice a mass of twigs with feathers over the bell housing and ‘neath the dashboard – a pack rat’s nest in the making, spread already to the valve cover and over the first injector. I get the appropriate tools and take the nest apart and out, scattering debris over the engine. It takes compressed air to blow all that stuff out. And then I notice a pool of diesel around that now exposed fuel injector. Fumbling around with my fingers, I discover its not the injector that’s leaking, it’s a cracked rubber return line. I repair it. I start up the engine and it sounds mighty fine. Next it’s time to top off the hydraulic fluid. Should be anxious because all of this took longer than predicted, but I’m not – instead I’m thrilled with the comfort I have in doing these things – in knowing how and being able.

I drive the back hoe up to the corner of the sandhill. Here I set to digging a very big hole in preparation. I have four of my retired draft horses – thirty years and older – showing their age as we head into winter. Last year our accumulated snowfall came to 6 and a half feet. If it happens again and any of these old friends pass away I want to be ready with a proper burial site. So I work the back hoe and dig. I think of how at my advanced age I have the capacity and the luxury of preparing for challenges ahead of time. I think about how these old horses take with them to their passing so much experience, training and knowledge – yes knowledge. And that naturally has me wander back in my thoughts to beginnings. I can look back fifty years and see so much in those first experiences. And I feel to my bones that I too have experience, training and knowledge that will likely pass with me. Doesn’t make me sad. Instead makes me feel well spent. I spent those years gathering skill sets, abilities, understandings. Good on me.

Dirt Mulch

In 1970, every other summer morning my mediterranean neighbor followed behind his rototiller as it once again fluffed the moist soil between his wide garden rows, every other summer morning? The garden was insanely picture-perfect, clean, orderly, manic. The plants were gloriously healthy, the colors to cry for. How did he manage to do this? Why would he choose to do this? Was I witnessing some absolute process as path to fertility? A long life would assure me this was no doorway. It was a dream-like vision of what might be on the other side of the door. And it had absolutely nothing to do with that rototiller. It had everything to do with the view of that man’s passionate, targeted, effective, repeated labor.

…but what’s under it all?

Durham’s Story

In 1989 we owned a Polled Hereford bull we called Durham. He was powerful, short and wide, of the old variety, and had, hidden inside, the disposition of a sweet old man, perhaps hard of hearing and forgetful. We liked him because he was so manageable and easy to be around. It was our second summer on this mountain ranch and we hadn’t learned about the elk yet, how they regularly would stake out, and destroy, sections of fence, usually in difficult to access areas of the property’s perimeter.

One day our small cattle herd turned up missing. Kristi and I saddled up Lady and Rosie, found the hole in the fence and tracked the cattle. They were a couple of miles into wild bunch grass and dead juniper rangeland. We gathered them, all except for Durham. Seemed certain if we took the ladies (cows) back the bull would soon follow, but he never did. We spent a week of riding a wide arc, covering thousands of acres of viewpoint and never found him. We have no neighbors for five miles of what is mostly open country. Resigned, we didn’t know what to do.

Three weeks later we got a phone call from the state brand inspector asking if we were missing a bull. As he related it: Durham had wandered into a housing area ten miles away where he was discovered by an elderly lady. She went out from her trailer, approached the bull, petted him and he followed her. So she put out buckets of water which he drank. Then he lay down in the shade under her yard tree. She called around and finally was directed to the state brand inspector. Because of the hair coat there was confusion about the brand. So he arranged with the local stock yard, 25 miles away to hire two cowhands with stock trailer and roping horses to go get that bull. Meanwhile he told the nice lady to keep the bull there until they arrived.

So she went out and took some clothesline and looped it round his neck and tied him to that tree. When the cowhands arrived, they announced themselves, arranged two stock panels at the trailer gate, saddled up and shook out two lariats. Hand to her mouth the little lady trotted out and said, “Oh my, what are you doing?” Then, not waiting for an answer she untied the line from the tree, coaxed Durham to his feet and quietly led him into the trailer.

“Lady, pardon me but that was dumb. You could’a been hurt bad.”

“Well, I wasn’t and if you knew anything young man, you could tell by watching that bull and I that we both had it all figured out, I suspect long before you were born.” She went back into her mobile home.

We paid the fees and got Durham back to his/our ranch. We knew how lucky we were. Both Durham and that nice lady knew what they were doing, and they had a good sense of what the other one was about.

It’s a tale of the banked skill-set of young cowhands and the genius of a woman with history. And its a story about economy and thrift.

Not everyone relates, or begins to sympathize, with the story of our bull’s escape. As an old man I’ve learned to keep these stories tucked away, saved for people I suspect might have willingly helped us try to find Durham. The finer points, and moral if there is one, belong to that community of ours (including Durham’s rescuer) many of whom had been there before (or know they will some day be). Lots of fancy folk would never see any humor or curiosity in the tale. It’s beneath them. For some it is clear evidence of attainment.

Wet cement

Someone recently wrote of character in its two stages: in the beginning it being briefly fluid like fresh poured concrete and receptive to any imprint, step, scratch, foreign particle, rinse, or inserted anchor bolt. Then later it sets up rock solid.

People new to farming are very much like that wet cement, highly receptive to any ‘impression’ or interference. Show them good examples and offer them effective information and it likely will set to stone.

What we might learn when we are young and ‘fluid’ like fresh cement can leave a powerful imprint, though perhaps not always of the ‘good stuff.’ I’m looking forward to a time when the human reservoir of transferred and inherited farming experience returns to growing dramatically, deepening – widening – and filling with good stuff. I’m looking forward to that time when those who went before are more justly valued for the handoff. Right now, we worry the relay race of good farming is getting mighty thin.

Still, though they be less in number every year, there are folks today who have grown up farming, grown up in farming families, grown up in farming communities. And they take a vast reservoir of their particular knowledge for granted. They don’t think about the unique aspects of what they know. Baling twine, farrowing, the plant disease smut, thinnings, mastitis, shear pins, grafting, drip lines, raised beds, string-halt, inoculated seed, wethers, hilling, heat cycles, capons, companion planting, rock guards, pitman sticks, forcing fruit, flushing ewes, banding calves, blowing silage, stripping udders, reading the demeanor of a bull … Doing without, doing with what’s on hand, knowing what’s to keep. Every lesson born of a nested experience. You could easily enough land on the experience, learn it, and still be without the language tag. That requires the pointing out and referencing. That requires that others have gone before and catalogued.

But when you’re learning, early on you have to ‘go before’. ‘Go’ before you ‘know’. You have to ‘Do’ long before you are fully informed, capable, knowledgeable, skilled. You work while you are still fluid. Gotta start somewhere.

Later in our lives, same words, the admonition ‘to go before’ may come to mean standing, rock solid, before your community and reflecting or leading.

And others of us, not so exemplary, mature to strength and common sense by hook and crook.

Light Show and Spiral

Amongst a string of calamities this summer were near tragedies that tested common sense and strength – that tested notions of knowing where to stand and how to go forward – that tested readiness.

Our irrigation system depends on a 100 hp submerged pump running off three phase electricity. Short of funds, we ran the pump on a limited basis this season. It had been off for ten days when the electric co-op called and asked if I would read the meter for them. Seems the computer wasn’t sending back the usage figures. I did so and called them with the numbers to have them say “meter’s not working, we’ll put in a work order to have it replaced”.

Two weeks later, needing to turn the water on, I went to the electrical panel, meter and weather head pole just above it and at eye level. I turned on the switch and was momentarily blinded by an explosion of that meter followed by several minutes of crackling smaller explosions. Shrapnel, white sparks, and roman candle-like torches shot up, down and out. Pieces of the steel meter base and conduit broke loose and whizzed close by my head. Within half a minute a swirling ball of flame came out from the bottom of the meter and hovered then dropped to the ground and spun a left-wards circle around me and through the dry brittle grasses. A ring of fire resulted. I dropped low and quickly crawled backwards away from the pole and through the flames.

The fireworks continued for almost ten minutes while I called 911, my state forest service fire dispatch buddy Ben, and then the electric co-op who punched me through to ‘outages?’ The nice lady on the other end of the line, in Minnesota no less, was trying to calm me down by insisting I needed to carefully walk through the roman candle fireworks and grass fire to read to her the meter number!? The heck with that nonsense, I hung up and drove my pickup like a maniac, back to my shop for fire extinguishers and a shovel. I went back and put out the fire. The explosions had stopped.

The fire trucks arrived from the ten-miles-distant rural fire department and proceeded to do mop ups. The forest service sent a helicopter to make sure it was all under control. And I visited with one of the volunteer fire fighters who happened to be an electrician. He said, “I don’t know how the heck you survived this! You should be dead.” I chalked it up to our adrenaline-fueled emergency banter.

Then the lineman showed up from the electric co-op. I recanted to him what happened and he shook his head. With the breakers tripped at the power pole, he took gloves and tools and went to remove the charred and shattered meter from the base. He hardly touched it when it fell to the ground. He looked at me, shook his head again and pointed to a swirling ribbon of black in the ground where I had been standing. “There was moisture in this ground, the current running through here should have fried you! And typically when we get explosions like this the meter explodes forward at up to three hundred miles an hour. It would have taken your head off at the neck. I don’t know how you survived this.”

I remember chuckling to myself and mumbling “we’re farming now.”

A little later the lineman came back to tell me he discovered a work order to replace that meter from two weeks previous. He said “I was on vacation, I don’t know why they didn’t send someone else.”

Molten aluminum, heat and smoke had worked into the computerized electrical panel and pretty much destroyed it. It would take thousands of dollars to repair or replace. Money this old farmer couldn’t spare. So I contacted the electrical company and was told it was not their fault and they couldn’t help.

All bad enough, but it was Summer in the worst fire season in recent history. The forest service depends on us for the only water to fill its trucks in a quarter million acres of timber and rangeland. “Any way you can get this pump back on?” the forest service asked. So I pleaded with the neighboring electrician/volunteer firefighter and suggested an Elk damage tag. He and his father came the next day and completely rebuilt the system. It was expensive and all on us. And none to soon, for lightning strikes started more fires and the Forest service needed water.

We told them we couldn’t afford to run the pump and, for the first time in thirty years, they set us up with a contract to pay for water. But they didn’t explain that it takes months to get reimbursed.

Here we find ourselves working daily as volunteers to support the fire crews and using our last nickels to pay several thousand dollars for electricity and repairs. No water for the crops or pasture lands. Time lost, money lost

But we couldn’t complain because we were spared fire damage, we helped our neighbors, we’re still alive, still on the ranch with future opportunities to farm. How do you factor any of these ‘details’ into recipes for the enterprise of farming? And how do you value the experience that came to bear in helping to prevent any or all of this from being far worse?

Thinking of our friends all round the world with hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, drought, famine, and war – our stories seem so ridiculously insignificant, unless there be value in the narrative to help others keep going forward.

Geometry

Surprises like electrical explosions and such, they can happen in most any walk of life. But on the ground level, most farming endeavors involve complexity that stretches us, challenges us to be up to the task. The tasks at hand will often push us to skills we hadn’t imagined when we set out. Certainly as a teamster I never imagined myself doing even the lowest level of diesel mechanics. And when I went through school my proficiencies were for art, geometry and music. My interests were for farming.

(Dave Brubeck, the jazz pianist, comes to mind as one of my earliest heroes – he was raised on a cattle-ranch, and brought the complexities of geometric time signatures to the art of his music. His brother taught my high school music class in Santa Barbara and I was thrilled by Dave Brubeck’s 1963 visiting lecture and piano demonstrations of lovely improvisational hiccups, limps and three legged tempos. It affected my entire life, especially my painting.)

I was expected to be a teacher. Ha. I failed English and way back then never saw myself ‘going forward’ in any writing, editing or publishing capacity. The early evolution and necessities that brought me, forty-one years ago, to start and shepherd a farming magazine pushed me downhill through a learn-as-you-go set of ten thousand experiences. The things that did not stick to my artistic soul, nor to my farming heart, were the changing realities of business management. So it should come as no surprise that I have failed to anticipate or respond to the new realities of the digital age versus the printed page. Very late in our business history we were forced to downsize dramatically, should have done so fifteen years ago. Now we work very hard to regain our momentum and give the new scale of our publishing endeavor a chance to survive. I feel the same thing being said of many farming ventures.

It still is a process of learning on the go.

Dr Pepper and Brownie

Back in the early seventies I worked managing small cattle ranches. A few accomplished stockmen back then leveled an insult my way which had curious effect. They observed that I was “stealing a ride” when it came to my cowboying skills. Specifically they were referring to the fact that, yes, although I was riding an excellent cutting horse daily to move cattle, and with specific purpose, it was obvious I didn’t know what I was doing. The measure of my success they said was pure luck. They said I was stealing a ride. I was in their eyes a lucky booger. They would point to my fashion choices, how I walked and stood, the dangerously wide form of my grin, how eager I was to talk about what I had just learned and then without the right phrasing or word selections. Didn’t look or act the part. Didn’t fit the mold. It pained them that I was so obviously a novice.

Whether it was right or wrong, I armored myself against those observations first by not talking about the work ‘at all’. And second by never doing the job in the presence of anyone who might know how to do it themselves. This may have cost me opportunities for good help and guidance. But I wouldn’t have known that then. Too young, too arrogant, too determined to make it work on my terms. And maybe, ‘neath it all, too anxious to be accepted. Lots of people will disagree with me but I say those qualities and attitudes often served me well. And this evolution of attitude seemed natural because those insults were just that, insults. And they cried out to be ignored. The ignoring part was feeling my self set-up and dry.

Those early critiques and observations held little constructive value for me. They may have hardened my ‘posture’ and the appearance of my attitude but they didn’t teach me. I learned most from my horse, Dr. Pepper. My horse forced me to ‘stay with the ride’. And then there was quiet old Tom Allen from the neighboring spread who, without realizing it, showed me by example.

Earliest things I learned from Pepper and Allen were quite similar. To get the cattle to go where you wanted, especially in open field, you had to meet their eyes on the wide and ‘suggest’ you were going to head them off. If you were steady and deliberate, if you let them know by position that you could easily head them off, they would bend away hopefully in the direction you wanted them to go. Like a series of anticipated chess moves.

On an excellent cutting horse, you could mess up your ‘chess moves,’ so long as you were alert, because your ‘partner’ would make key decisions ahead of your thought process. Part of your job, mounted, was to be ready at a moment’s notice for a quick stop, spin or combination. Dr. Pepper figured out real quick whether I was trying to separate one bovine from the herd or move a bunch together towards a destination. So if he got wind that the subject was fixing to duck and spin, or make a run for it, he was ready and off like a shot or spinning so fast that my top half was playing catch-up with my bottom half. That beautiful animal would move his head side to side before swinging his long neck away – opposite direction, then down and, with a very quick pendulum sweep towards the target, throw his weight 90 degrees or more, spinning on back legs. If you didn’t hang on you found yourself butt first in the dirt.

It was all with purpose if not, on my part, born of heritage. Maybe I wasn’t a farmer, a stockman, a rancher or a cowboy. But I was industrially trained and certified as an artificial insemination technician for cattle and horses. And that had shaping relevance. Many were the mornings that Dr. Pepper and I rode out to the herd, paintball gun in hand, set to mark any cow that was being mounted by another. That female was in standing heat. Same day’s afternoons, we would ride out again with the purpose of “cutting” any marked cows (ones with paint splotches on their sides) out from the herd and taking them to the corral for artificial insemination. Most of the time this meant separating a cow in heat from not only the herd but her calf as well. A most difficult job. But I had the horse for it. Dr Pepper would keep his shoulder position and move that cow along the fence, always watching, so when the panicky cow would duck back into the fence to turnaround and run away, Pepper was there before she made the turn, and back again, pivoting on a dime lickety-split, in position to make sure they didn’t break for the open. All that time my job was to stay in the saddle. Maybe, at that point of my life, I didn’t know how to ride well – but day in and day out I WAS riding along and getting an important job done.

I was taught in a class room about bovine genetics, reproduction and anatomy. And I worked with this knowledge, with nitrogen tanks and with ampules of semen, until it became ingrained in me. But the day to day workings in the saddle and in the breeding chute gave me a pile of higher knowledge. It gave me a skill-set. Book learning taught me the science, I learned the skill-set by doing, by experience. I learned that effectively ‘doing’ the right work well was the essence of economical.

I was seen as a kid – a greenhorn, and many is the time I heard that hard rhetorical question, “Who the heck do you think you are?” Was it another way of saying “accept that you’ll never amount to more than what you are right now.”

I don’t have a clue when humans decided that struggling to learn a skill set on your own, or pret’ near, meant you were way out of your league. Ya gotta just do it. Forget ’bout those who would hold you back. Just do it.

On one of the ranches I worked I was given a mixed breed dog named Brownie and told he would have to do for moving stock. I didn’t ask for the dog. Didn’t figure I needed it. Didn’t know any verbal commands or hand signals to direct that dog. And Dr. Pepper figured the dog was worthless and let him know it. We’d go out to separate a cow and Brownie’d follow along ‘til it seemed obvious we were trying to move the cow forward. The dog then would charge the bovine’s heels, yapping and throw off Pepper’s controlling position. It just took once for that horse to grab the dog by the shoulder hairs and shake him, and it was understood he was only supposed to follow along and pay attention. No charging, no barking. Unfortunate business, because later I would learn that Brownie wasn’t wrong for the job, I was. Had I known what he could do and how to direct it, my gosh but what a trio we might have made. But me, I was ‘going before’, finding my way, learning on the job.

And boy oh boy was there a lot to learn. There was an invisible triangulated circle of space and pace within which Pepper, the cutting horse, had control over the cow. I learned that from him and it has served me for nearly half a century. From Brownie I learned that most any animal, or human, can be taught. And that courage and devotion are tools also. And that a good dog’s eagerness to please is pure spendable gold, coin of a stockman’s realm. But it took a while to learn all of that.

Walking through the Cement

Back then I knew a man who was a certified medal-wearing World War II hero. He was gruff and he had an earned stature; he demanded respect. He never liked me. Said I was a greaser, a spic, a lettuce picker. When he had occasion to watch me do my artificial insemination work, and handle cattle, he shook his head, smirked and offered “you’re not fooling anybody, not me anyway. You don’t know what you’re doing. You don’t have what it takes to be a farmer or a rancher. You’re a punk, a bum.”

Years later when I began this magazine he repeated all his insults.

“You aren’t a farmer. You don’t become a farmer just cuz you say you are. You have a lot of gaul. You don’t know a darned thing about farming or cattle and here you are pretending. Who the heck do you think you are anyway?”

I didn’t know who I was. I did know I was working at learning the skill-set of my choice, farming. I knew I was going before.

Whose Side You On? Doesn’t Matter

Are we prepared to actually hear the opposing arguments to a handmade farming? We should be. Let me guess about some of them.

There he is shaking his head and grimacing. Is that because he is a successful farmer and it burns him to get a whiff of these adolescent whackos and freaks who think they can grow a few carrots, some kale and call themselves farmers? They back their Subarus up to a curb on a Saturday morning and sell garden produce and they don’t have to comply with any regulations, or safety measures, they don’t have to jump when their lender squeaks, they don’t have millions of dollars worth of production credit and equipment loans to fret over. They don’t have to worry about getting exotic cancers from the chemicals they are required to apply. They probably never had to lay awake at night terrorized by the mutant livestock and plants they are tricked and forced into raising. Worrying about what any of it means to their family. Worrying because they just don’t know who to believe anymore.

No that’s not true, not entirely, he knows who his friends are, and he can see who’s successful and who isn’t. That kid with the three feeder pigs, 25 chickens and fifty head of colored-wool sheep is a joke and doesn’t even know it. Who needs them? Whackos and freaks, too young to have ever had to compromise to stay in business. Whackos and freaks, they actually ARE the problem. They should have no right to play at farming. It’s unAmerican. It’s unfair. How can he compete with kids and idiots who refuse to play (or farm) by the rules? They are part-timers and amateurs. If everything flips over to their way the world starves ‘cuz no one is zeroed in on production systems. Fifteen cow dairies have NO say in the marketplace, twenty-five cow beef herds are laughable, anything less than a hundred thousand poultry is a joke.

Skill set? He hasn’t given that a thought, ever. His is a job. He cleans up the biggest piece of land he can control, sterilizes it and injects it with chemical fertilizers, Round-Up-Ready genetically modified seeds, and any fumigant, hormones, biogeewhizards and plastic coatings the corporate boys point him towards. He doesn’t begin to understand what they mean when the weirdos talk about saving top soil and growing fertility. He understands dirt, it’s a medium – a stage where you allow modern chemistry to work its wonders. His computer read-outs say he’s got a lot of land, and a lot of something to sell. And yet… – and here it gets weird and paradoxic – he’s got little or nothing gained at the end of the year. Sure he buys a new tractor or pickup truck but that’s from borrowing against the appreciation in land value. Every year he gets bigger while growing his debt and his obligations. No margin save for a shadowy notion of net worth.

Perhaps he isn’t a successful farmer, he just insists on seeing himself that way. Compromises and sacrifices made to stay in the poisoned and rigged game of industrial agriculture are devoid of honor.

But wait. Just because he is a big commercial farmer doesn’t make him wrong (no doubt some like him are). He can be a big farmer and be successful in every sense of the word IF he is financially and morally solvent. On the other side, I don’t think the whackos are necessarily all whacko either (well, I know a few are). Some of the weirdest of the whackos are crazy successful, financially and morally.

Examples

Those two original extremes, the industrial farmer versus the new-age garden farmer, are just that – extreme. Truth of the matter falls ‘elsewheres’ (scattered even beyond imagination). Too many examples to showcase but here’s one:

Our example couple have two hundred acres free and clear, don’t owe any money on it. For a couple of decades they have avoided any form of production credit. Almost every day, without grumbling, they muse about something they might like to have that they best do without. Never borrowed to add cows. Just saved their best heifers to grow the herd. Same way with the sheep and poultry. It took years but the results were amazing.

They took great care with their heirloom apple trees and sugar maples. They planted two acres of old variety potatoes on different ground each year. Ducks, Guinea fowl and Geese joined their laying hen flock to the delight of small local restaurant customers. They bought ragtag equipment at auctions and learned to keep it running. They taught themselves how to work horses and mixed their power approach. They formed a three farm neighborhood group to share the cost of a refrigeration unit for produce and meat.

After all the years of skimping and making small decisions, the follow-through is mostly reward. Their 150 dual-purpose hens give them 90 eggs a day average which brings them over a $1,000 a month, and they smile realizing that this is a bonus – after all the fertilizer. Each year they sell 20 home-raised grass-fat two year old prime steers to a list of regular customers which translates to over $50,000. With apples, maple syrup, restaurant poultry meats, lamb, vegetables and an occasional team to sell, their income dances over $100,000 per year. Sure, there have been difficult years, but there have also been astounding years, bountiful beyond their planning. Plus, aside from operating expenses, they owe nothing but a nominal annual property tax bill.

They are working for themselves, not for a lender or seed company or middleman. Their children are grown and gone. Now they get a new crop of young people each year to help them get the summer’s work done. They have two hundred acres free and clear, work hard at what they love and pay themselves well. Whacko?

And here’s one more:

Another “whacko”, this one a single woman, has twenty acres with ten in a big market garden. She also raises milk goats and chickens. Makes goat’s milk soap and cheeses. In her hoop houses she raises organic vegetable sets for the spring markets. People pay her to fish in her large bass pond. And the local school uses her farm for classes while helping with the work. She clears seven thousand dollars per acre per year from the market garden. She also is debt free. Freak?

The Familial

These two examples are of people with strong skill sets, but far more important these are examples of people with vision, creativity and caution translated to economy and thrift. They see their ways forward, they see the hazards, they know the steps to security. Sure, acquiring a skill set is essential and defining. But underneath it all is a working understanding of gainful thrift, of real farming’s true economics.

True economics of real farming are linear, in concert with the cyclical. Start with base resources and apply gains one tiny step, after a slightly bigger step, and climb the line while always ‘seeing’ the circles and never selling off the nucleus/ the star core/ the familial. Build the soil, build the herds, build the genetic strengths of plants and animals, give yourself and your family every reason to want to be right there every day. Always keep the best seed, the best does, ewes, cows, mares, hens, sows – that’s the familial. They will keep you going forward.

So too that wonderful sideways view that, on the surface, may sometimes seem to be meaningless.

For the Lady at the Window

Thirteen wild turkeys migrating from forest to grasslands and across farmsteads; I imagine how they went before, that one or two of them were prone to split from the flock in search of goodies. Sharp-eyed they spot, in the glistening Fall light, all those little red crab apples hanging on branches. First time through and on the move, those ‘leaders’ announce loudly to the main flock that they have found apples on the ground ‘neath the tree. A week and several visits later, all the windfalls have been cleaned up, but tantalizing fruits still hang just above on the branches. One of the leaders makes a daring leap up and knocks an apple loose. The whole flock comes over gobbling the same question “how’d you do that?”

Next visit that lead turkey says,

“Okay, spread out, all the way around the tree. Now, wait until that lady comes to the window and is watching and on my count, 1 – 2 – 3, all of us jump up and peck at the hanging apples. We’ ll do this three times, that way any apples we don’t knock down might just fall from the vibration. There at the window! She’s watching now. Okay 1 – 2 – 3 – JUMP!”

No matter what stage of your life you find yourself, if real farming is the choice you will likely have to go before … before you know how, before you have the means, before your vision is established and clear. And each step is an opportunity to build your skill set. Use it also as opportunity to build your economy, your thrift, and your reservoir of stories. LRM

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