As I sit down to tap out these words I can’t help but notice the silence. For the first time in two weeks there is no rain pelting the roof, no sound of the downspout working overtime, no roar of the swollen river. With eight inches of rain in two weeks every depression in the lower pasture is full of water, one pond flowing into the next creating a new system of tributaries. Nights I’ve fallen asleep to the roar of the raging river through the open bedroom window. But now… silence.
And the sun, that rare and pleasant orb, is making one of its infrequent winter appearances. Around here we welcome it like the prodigal son returned. We are tempted to be unforgiving, to hold a grudge for staying away so long and being so fickle; but when the bright rays shine all is forgiven and we welcome it back with love and forgiveness. We soak up our vitamin D; enjoy its brilliance on the green grass and be thankful to be graced by its regenerative presence.
Mid January, and despite still being in the depths of winter, bulbs are coming up and certain buds are swelling. A few early birds chirp. Canada geese and ducks have taken up residence on the rain-swelled pasture ponds, happy to find a place to winter without snow and ice. I know how they feel.
Work involves mostly fixing broken things, hauling manure and feeding livestock. There is always a list of items that need fixing: the bent handle on the spring-tooth harrow; the lately acquired John Deere #4 mower needs the cutter bar shortened to make it a Fjord friendly machine, fix the busted up grain box in Oley’s stall, install new grease cups on the little four foot garden disc, find out why the one horse grain drill is bound up, dismantle the parts tedder so the parts are accessible next summer and the bulk of it can be gotten out of the rain, replace the wooden diagonal bracing on the wagon with angle iron for more rigidity, shim the hold downs on the other John Deere mower so I can use thicker modern knife sections since I have had such a devil of a time locating the old ones. There are more projects of course, some of which will get put off until next winter, or the next.
I was talking with an old-timer some years ago about the seemingly endless nature of work on the farm and he said “Yep, when yer done yer dead.” I guess I best not complain about new projects; they may be all that’s keeping me alive.
To my great delight a sizable portion of the general eating public has over the past few years decided to begin to care a great deal about where their food comes from. This is good for small farmers. It bodes well for the future of the planet and leaves me hopeful. People seem to be taking Wendell Berry’s words to heart that “eating is an agricultural act;” that with every forkful we are participating in the act of farming.
God bless these well-intentioned folks, but I don’t envy the sea of words and rhetoric that must be plowed through and understood to simply make good choices about what to cook for supper. Here is a sampling of some of the jargon you will hear when you start talking food: organic, free range, fair trade, hormone free, cruelty free, RBGH free, local, heritage, open pollinated, natural, bio-dynamic, GMO free, traditional, wild crafted, shade grown, grass fed, pastured, sustainable. You’ve got to have a PhD in abbreviations and a buzzword handbook to go to the grocery store these days.
Unfortunately, in a heavily industrialized food economy, these labels have become necessary, not so much for small farmers mind you, but for the industrial players – yes. It is true that distinctions must be made between the good, the bad and the toxic. There is in my mind a sliding scale of food morality, a food ethics pyramid if you will, that takes into account all the factors that go into the production of a given product. Small-scale local farmers are at the top while the multi-national food corporations are at the bottom. There is a vast middle ground occupied by all manner of players trying to get their voices heard and their products sold.
If local and small-scale farmers hold the moral high ground, then corporate farms have laid claim to the moral wasteland. They are increasingly being called out for their fraudulent, soil killing and inhumane practices. The big food corporations know this – and it makes them nervous. Why else would they fight the labeling of food products which contain genetically modified organisms (GMOs)? Why else would Big Dairy vehemently insist that consumers buy their line that there is no scientific proof that milk from hormone injected cows is any different than milk from non-treated cows? These giant corporate “farms” fear an eating public with a conscience. They fear full disclosure lest their dirty ways be exposed for what they are. They insist on holding fast to the lie that all food is created equal.
Here is what our pyramid of food ethics looks like: At the top is the food grown in one’s own back yard. You walk out the back door with scissors in hand, bend down and snip perfect baby lettuces, pluck plump crisp radishes and head for the kitchen and enjoy salad bliss. No workers or soils were exploited; no refrigerated semi-trucks needed, no sprays or giant tractors necessary; just the sweat of your brow, homemade compost and a little love.