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Inside the Circle

The Larger View is the Smaller View

Inside the Circle

by Lynn R. Miller of Singing Horse Ranch

We reach out beyond ourselves in pursuit of success when the answer might come from understanding our own immediate circle, community, or small world and reaching within it. Twenty-two years ago I met up with a dramatic example of this in Maine. Parker Sanborn was a dairyman who found for himself a way to truly own the vocation he so passionately loved, this at a time when most dairymen were, themselves, owned by the work. Sanborn kept Jerseys because he loved them. And he milked them all in a synchronized season which gave the family months of holiday each year while the dry cows rested during the last months of their pregnancy. ‘Seasonal dairying’ is what it came to be called. Parker also raised his beloved Percheron horses employing them with regularity at the task of spreading manure on ever improving pastures. He made no hay, contracting with his neighbors to purchase theirs. Parker raised cattle, horses, and pasture while producing milk in the simplest of circular farming worlds. He came to this with deliberation, understanding that what he wanted was a sustainable regenerative comfort in and with the working world of his choice. For him profit in any traditional sense was after-the-fact, almost as if a waste product. His life and its successes were all about the ‘top line’. And that paradoxically gave him greater profitability and viability. It wasn’t about how much his gross income was, it was about how much he kept and how well the work kept him.

The normally long-lived Jersey cows were even more so for Parker because they weren’t pushed to grain-heightened year-round lactations. Parker fed no grain. The cows produced their milk from lush pastures, and in the winter they were dry, resting, and enjoying hay.

Sanborn owned a manure spreader and very few other pieces of machinery. He had no equipment mortgage, no large fuel bills. His costs were at the barest of minimums and his revenue was from milk and horses. He owned his working life. It was a treasure for him.

Many, if not most, of the people of the world work to live. They do things in exchange for money to house, clothe and feed themselves and their families. Frequently the work they perform is distasteful, harmful and/or boring to them. They do the work in order to live.

A lesser percentage of the people in this world live to work. They love who they are and what they do so much that they don’t want to be separated from it. In some cases this work provides physical sustenance for them and in some instances it does not.

That first category of people struggle with goals for success. Above and beyond sustenance, if they have the luxury, they work hard to get someplace other than where they are. Their daily work is further clouded by wishing they were not there, by wishing they were elsewhere. They are seldom grateful.

That second category of folks often enjoy their many opportunities to be fully aware of how fortunate they are. Fortunate to be working at what they love. But even they have periods of longing or wishing or planning for something next, something more.

Hard work is essential but it’s not the answer.

It is possible to have a goal yet never really see it, never visualize it. Having a vision means in no small part being able to see what is not yet formed. We can have a fixed goal and work terribly hard towards that goal without ever getting there. It is heresy to say such a thing in this country, where the ‘American Dream’ is sacrosanct. It is hammered into us throughout our lives that if we just work hard all good things will come to us. Fact is, useful as that adage may be there ain’t much truth to it, it’s a haired-over candied myth.

There are scads of wealthy people who have worked and do work very little. And, inside and outside of farming, there are billions of good people who have worked exceedingly hard for lifetimes without realizing any storebought notions of success and comfort. There is no simple formula, no one way, no direct shot to success. ‘Hard work’ alone does not make of us a guaranteed success any more than success defines us as selfish. Other elements must join the hard work, elements intrinsic to each individual’s character.

One of those is ‘vision’ or the capacity to see what might be possible or at least imagine what we might want to make real through our efforts. You can work harder than the dickens to build a fence but without the vision to see what might be when you are done that fence work may be worth a little less to you. When we have a goal or destination in mind and the vision to see it all, the work becomes more voyage than effort.

Another of those elements is perspective, or the ability to back up and take a gander at what is and has been, the ability to see the parts that make up the whole, the capacity to measure intangible things within the working life. It is perspective which gives us a chance to move our goal posts without changing our goals. It is perspective which magnetizes and amplifies gratitude.

We’ve said it here before and the specific reality of this day and time in our collective history just increases the truth of it, ‘there has never been a better time to be a farmer’. What of the obstacles, you might ask? Most of the obstacles exist within a particular perspective. Change the perspective and some of those obstacles become opportunities. The industrial perspective is tied to the linear view, we look ‘out there’ a long ways towards ever bigger operations, ever greater gross production numbers, ever bigger dollar amounts. That perspective then haunts our beginning choices by dictating the nature of our immediate involvement. We think we need a certain amount of land of a certain quality and location in order to have a legitimate beginning with farming. We think we need lots of money to get started for that land purchase as well as for the machinery, chemicals, livestock and such. What a bunch of hooey! May we suggest that what is needed is not the long view but rather the short view?

Our recent discussions with Oregon farmer Lise Hubbe have given us some new words to put to an idea that has long fueled our hypothesis that small farms are the answer. She and her family have gone out to the edge of their efforts and turned right back around to look into the middle. And this very much fits within the notion of unique and useful perspectives. Lise spoke to me of their conviction that they needed to keep their efforts and attentions ‘inside’ their immediate circle of family, friends and neighbors. And it all began with her father insisting that the family farming venture needed to be guided by a simple pair of goals. First, provide for the family and second, always be looking for ways to help family, friends and neighbors. Nowhere in that formula is there an insistence on profit or a priority for some measure of increasing production levels. The Hubbe perspective, employed from the very beginning of their operations, has rewarded that family many times over with comfort, purpose, and security. Their successes are real and growing and the effect they are having inside their circle is nothing short of amazing. And here comes one of those interesting contradictions: the Hubbes are exceptional people because in part what they are doing and have done is easily replicated. Each of us has access to this same way and reason for farming and living. And though we speak of it being ‘easily replicated’, truth is, in today’s crazy world it may be harder than ever to hold on to such a simple path.

Craziness and the Jugular Vein of Society’s Best Future

In my interpretation of the story of the Tower of Babylon the people of the ancient world were all of a language and culture and they worked together to build a tower to heaven. It was a huge undertaking and in the process the commonality of the people became confused and started to fall apart with many new languages and subcultures sprouting up. The project was never completed and the people split into factions, nations and religions and went their separate ways with lots of consternation. I see some important parallels between this immediate time in human history and that parable. What follows are a few examples of what I mean, each of which poses an opportunity and a threat to good farming and the independent family farm.

The so-called global marketplace is in for destructive and invigorating challenges.

1.) The market rush to synthetic fuels has handed a windfall to oil crop farmers worldwide. Corn, soybeans, switch grass and oil seed crops are being planted on every available acre as mid to large scale farmers are quickly lining up to take full advantage of the booming market. Meanwhile the traditional uses of these crops will be challenged. Livestock and human feeds are rapidly taking second fiddle to the “futures market” flame and broil. Soil conservation be damned and happy days for genetic engineering as our “war time” economy screams for unsustainable productivity, the nature of which will guarantee accelerated environmental degradation and climate change. They call it a rush towards energy self-reliance but it ain’t.

There are good things about this for the small farmer as the traditional agricultural community will be desperate for local food and feed production. Translation: prices for all locally available farm commodities will go up up up.

2.) A few billion Chinese have discovered they have a taste for dairy products and new income to satisfy that taste. Add to this that the North American diet fashion is shifting and milk is once again becoming a sought-after beverage. European agriculture is tied up in the court of tradition and relativity with no milk production increase in the future, while Asia, Africa and South America each have more important things to think about. Result is that for the next decade milk prices will continue to chase fuel prices with no hope of stability because fuel gets the corn. So the cost of precious industrial grain-based milk production will only go up faster. Right up until the Chinese, Brazilians and New Zealanders discover corn, Holstein cattle and carousel milking parlors (those monstrous motorized systems which allow hundreds if not thousands of cows to be milked continuously each day). At that time in the near future we can expect another collapse of the American Dairy industry. But before that, today we have the tragically perfect market environment for run amok genetic engineering and growth hormones (read BHT). Not to mention National Animal Identification Systems.

There are good things about this. It means that local pressures will grow to allow small farms to milk ten or less head and sell the milk direct and raw. Conceivably this could mean 10 to 15 thousand of today’s dollars per month in revenue for the small dairy. Using the Sanborn seasonal grassbased system and a ten month lactation with Jerseys, or Ayrshires, or Guernseys, or Milking Shorthorns, or Brown Swiss ( all potential longlived dairy breeds) a small independent family farm of limited but wellmanaged acreage could pull in an excess of 100,000 dollars per year in milk sales alone, while contributing to the health and welfare of its immediate community.

3.) In today’s North American food marketplace, diet and fashion race to the ‘chic’ organic equation. All externally available numbers point towards phenomenal economic growth in the so-tagged health food sector. Inevitably, for this century, this is leading towards organic industry consolidation in retail, distribution and processing sectors. And that consolidation screams for some additional flexibility in the already suspect national organic standards

For we individual small farmers it can mean a “temporary” windfall or rising prices. In some direct markets $10+ a gallon for true organic raw milk (translating to over $100 per cwt), $5.50 lb for pasture-raised broilers ($30+ per bird), .50 per egg, $4 to $5 per lb for ordinary organic produce, $250 + per ton for premium organic hay. Now all of a sudden many small independent organic family farms are looking at profitable returns of several thousands of dollars per acre.

4.) Billions of people are throwing their scattered ideas, scams and phobias at the world wide web resulting in intensified social polarizations and the wholesale degeneration of knowledge feeding unrest between groups, sects and nations.

Precious nuggets of possibility and probability trickle out of the internet helping to speed innovations in appropriate technology and interconnectedness. Small farmers are finding that the web helps them to make sales.

Drawing the circle

But these good-sounding opportunities are all temporary and terribly unstable. And that is especially so if it is our requisite status. If we insist that this is why we are farming, for these sorts of economic returns and more, then all is lost. If we take the long view rather than the near view, paradoxically, our future is in jeopardy. If we take our own personal version of the short view such as the Sanborn and Hubbe examples, our success will be something we can see the perimeters of.

Much is being made these days of the supremacy of locally grown foods and these are good concerns and directions. It is true that the consumer has a far better chance of securing food safety, quality and freshness from local suppliers he or she can know and trust. The flip side of the coin is also true. The farmer who cultivates local customers has a far better chance of security, satisfaction and happiness. Imagine the concept, appreciative customers you can know and trust. Customers who have an emotional investment in the success of your, ‘their’ farm.

It starts with drawing an imagined circle around your farm, community, family and goals. And then travelling to the edges of that circle and looking within for what it is you want. Each time this has happened, regardless of whether the farming venture is on the fringe of a city or deep in the outback, the farmer has discovered far more customers than he or she could reasonably grow for. Often the circle needs to be drawn in even further to meet the scale of the farming adventure. The short view gives us the best chance for right livelihood and a heady symphonic personal success. But we need to be looking for it with a view towards hanging on because this useful perspective can be a slippery thing.

Society is in a world of hurt. The planet being but one of the stakes of the game. We need to believe in what works, what might bring us back to fertility, manners, and health. In other words, we need to believe in a best future. The small independent farm working within its own circle is what works.

After a long, sustained summer rain, the new fleeting light comes into our landscape as though filtered through a wet windblown prism. It is a fresh steaming luminance, bright and useful. Perhaps that usefulness is why we don’t want it to go away. We want to hold on to it. It often puts us in a meditative state as we look cocking our heads sideways and wondering how it is we never noticed that tree before or how the colors on that hillside work so well together or how the space between that distant hill and this rock outcropping has a definitive shape.

Our forest, when wet, goes to the darkest range of color fighting off the most penetrating of that bright fresh light. All about contrast; we see that darkness in the way the light contrasts with luster. And we rest ourselves in this perceptive bath seldom noticing how illusive it all is. It passes without trumpets. And we are back to previous familiarities. But back to that moment back there, that moment when a twist, a shift, a rainfall had given us a new perspective, what was done to our inner and outer selves? Can we learn anything from that brief moment of wonder and gratefulness? Yes, we can.

It’s not about our landscape of forest, field, hope, vision or needs. It’s about how we walk through those things, it’s about the inside of our circle.