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by Lynn R. Miller of Singing Horse Ranch

anecdotal tag

Just a couple of days ago I made a trek to town to visit with the Madras Chamber of Commerce. It was time to refresh them about our upcoming Auction Swap Meet event. This will be the fourth year we take our “market festival” to the Jefferson County Fairgrounds. We are very pleased to be in a farming community that appreciates our gathering and supports us in every way. So I was somewhat taken aback when it was expressed to me that there was concern that we might not be altogether happy with Madras; that we might be thinking of taking the event elsewhere. Silly rumors. So here’s what I told the Chamber;

“You ask what you might do to keep this event right here. My answer is ‘Use Us’.”

They looked surprised and confused. I went on:

“Our gathering is a signature and legacy event; people all over the country and beyond now associate the small farming community of Madras with this event. That is what I mean by ‘signature’. And besides the historical nature of some of our content, this event is up-to-date, multidimensional and most certainly cultural. For decades now people have planned their April around this event because it is a chance to revitalize and reacquaint. It’s a reunion as much as anything else. And in that continuity we have seen it develop into a time of handoffs and gratitudes; a time of legacy.”

“So when I say Use Us; I mean just that. Find ways that you can cement the relationship of the town and its environs to this event. Bring the community of the event into the neighborhood of Madras. Here’s an example: you could get some buses to bring folks from the retirement centers out to the event to watch the plowing or any of the other free demonstrations. Give us an indication of when you are coming and what you need and we’ ll help to make it work. Get some of the elementary classes to come at designated times on a school field trip to visit the event. These sorts of things invite the town to a direct connection even identification and ownership of the event. Use us, allow that this successful event help the Chamber to expand its effectiveness, allow that Madras proudly claim it is the home of this event.”

In a phone conversation I told my friend, Paul Hunter, about the meeting and he said “write that story down, now before you forget it”. That got me to thinking; I understood what I did, or initiated, with the Chamber as a direct suggestion. But Paul was saying there was something more here, and then it dawned on me that this fits right into what I’m trying to say with this issue’s editorial.

Sometimes we are so close to our efforts that we can’t see what’s right in front of us, what’s close at hand, what’s nearby. As small farmers perhaps we should be going to the neighbors at hand and saying Use Us. Allow that people nearby proudly claim that they as a neighborhood are home to your farm. Because ‘nearby’ ought to be inclusive rather than just a way to see proximity.

Close at hand, that’s what I mean here with nearby. ‘Local’ along with ‘sustainable’ are words which have been usurped by advertising and political speak. They have become so all encompassing that they encompass nothing, that they mean little or nothing in the most important discussions of our day. So let’s throw them out, scraps for the feral dogs of commerce. Who knows, perhaps these words will come back some day in tight and useful context?

But for now, I prefer to think about some of these fashionable issues of local self-reliance and local foods from the aspect of what constitutes nearby for each of us. Local feels to me to be inviting a formulaic concept for measurement (ie. within 50 miles?) while nearby suggests comfort and culture for ownership and identity. Sure ‘local foods’ slips off the tongue easily while ‘foods from nearby’ doesn’t have the easy slide. But what I’m suggesting here, more than the words we use, is that the words we picture when we think about concepts and motivations help us to understand what we’re working towards.

Speaking of pictures…

Back in the early seventies I farmed in Junction City, Oregon and happened on to a ‘subscription-like’ relationship with a small close-knit group of customers who were mothered by a gentle and spirited woman I have called Mrs. Jane. (See ‘Mrs. Jane’s Beans’ in ‘Farmer Pirates and Dancing Cows’). I like to think this was the occasion for my first gut-felt understanding of what nearby could mean. For in very short order I came to feel elderly Mrs. Jane nearby in the most comforting sense.

She cared intensely for what was happening on my little farm. She identified with my working rhythms and relationships. Big old chestnut Bud was her ‘boyfriend’ and old ‘Bobbie’ her soul mate. She saw and felt the rainy season for the sticky mud and the slippery oily sheen of pungent fresh manures. Once she took my hand and turned it face up to run her old fingers over my callouses while a sad sweet murmur of a whistle passed her lips. As I’ve written before, she came to see my farm as her farm. This magical relationship started with a classified ad I had placed months before.

I was trying to figure out just how much of what to plant the next spring and thought to place an ad in the local newspaper which said;

“Organic Vegetables: commit to certain vegetables this summer in set quantities with a small deposit and receive a big discount.”

The idea was to have some certainty to guide my planting.

Mrs. Jane responded with very specific needs which quickly developed into the richness of a possessive yet respectful neighborliness. Forty years later I still hold freshest memories of the enchantment that relationship brought to my farming adventure. We were, to each other, nearby and close at hand. We were to each other an abiding comfort and a reassurance. All I offered was an open access to how some of her food was produced. What she got was sustenance in full-color. All she offered was the most receptive of gratitudes. What I got was a lateral fertility and enchantment as a neighborhood cloak.

Close at hand; how it is that a long life might build in a person, around a person, intangibles such as the list of allowances and comforts that carry the ‘weight’ of an attitude of creativity, enchantment, and fertility.

The enchantment and comfort of “nearby” must be held and protected lest it become ordinary and taken for granted. When this happens, when gratitude is replaced by dullness, the individual melts into a less than necessary placeholder.

How about the ‘nearbys” of over there?

I take some risk at confusing the discussion when I say that local, nearby, close at hand, all offer health and character to people outside of the neighborhood of origin. The ‘local’ foods of Abiqui, New Mexico have a character and an intrinsic power to charm and feed us ‘over here’ far better than any industrial processed foods; but to someone in Rochester, New York, wonderful as they may be there ain’t nothing ‘nearby’ about New Mexican foods. Yet those imported local foods, local from somewhere else, are worth inclusion if only for the spice of life.

For some that might fly in the face of the theory that eating local also means while you are improving your health with the mysteries of indigenous foods eaten in season you are also adding to your neighborhood’s economy. All true. But perhaps we need to reinvent the Marco Polo notion of spice trade on an agrarian-post-neo-modern scale? I like the dream-state picture of a dozen Richard Farnsworths riding lawnmowers across statelines to return with basket loads of exotic foods not otherwise available in their own areas. Little tents propped up in Church parking lots where you have an opportunity to trade four quarts of your own canned tomatoes for a tissue-wrapped pineapple. I still say that “all foods ought to be local” and that there ain’t no only way to do anything.

But for the purists in our midst, I say “local” is not just a question of YOUR delineated region. I like to expand the notion of “local” to include “localized”, to include “regio-honore” (some might call this “terroire”). It goes well beyond any concern for protecting environment and endangered species, it goes well beyond notions of supporting individual effort and neighborhood, it goes straight to the heart of expanding identity, culture, and village-sufficiency. I say what we are after is a ponderence of food, fiber and shelter which springs from “nearby”. When we support our nearby producers we provide incentive for the growth of local self-sufficiencies AND blossoming local culture. (And adding in the handmade notions of a spice trade means cultural comes to embrace affordable elegance.)

A sign in a market defined “local” foods as anything deliverable in a day’s drive or less, that would suggest 800 miles; for us that means from southern BC to So- California from the Pacific Ocean to Utah. I would argue ‘that ain’t local’ that ain’t nearby. That said, I am reminded of the magic I felt when years ago Californian Bob Puls spoke of taking a rented truck to a Nebraska small town church parking lot with a load of his own oranges to trade to those folks. Handmade spice trade.

Nearby, as in of-a-shared-environ: there are places in the world where the divider between near and far is not a gradual overlapping but a hard line – ‘through that gate – across that river’ – all is changed, the enchantments we hold dear and defining are lost, or worse, seen as the enemy.

Nearby and related as in neighborhood and community.

Finite versus the infinite. Nearby versus who-knows-where-from. Today I read in mainstream media that organic farming, as local, artisanal and hands-on has been outstripped by demand. More people want the stuff than is currently being supplied. So we hear a new form of the old war cry: “get real about the best efficiencies of scale” – that larger industrial-scale organics are the only solution. Mom and pop organic operations can’t feed the world – the spurious argument goes. Interesting how these disputations borrow from notions of the finite, a real contradiction in terms.

Finite; as in with limits – and those limits for our discussion not unlike, anatomically speaking, the serosa or peritoneum, that thin single or double walled membrane that serves as a protective outer wall for the abdomen. Is there a peritoneum-like protective delineation, socially speaking, for the abdomen of a region?

So today in the marketplace ‘local’ is stretched to accomodate notions of attainable. “Can’t grow enough around here to feed all these folks so let’s push back the boundaries of ‘around here’ til we have a best chance for success. A kind of gerry-mandering of the definition of local. Set up the district so we can be assured of electing ‘our’ candidate. Set-up local so that we have a chance of an attainable local self-sufficiency by some finite measure. But that doesn’t always work, I might offer that it never works, because some ‘places’ got no room to push back in to – and from that you get the inevitable paradoxes.

Take Greece or Haiti for example: For differing and nearly absolute reasons these countries are finding that economic and political realities are separating them from the insidious artifice of the rest of the world, an artifice which screams the big lie “play by the rules of corporate governance and global banking and everything will be just fine.” Well, both of them would like nothing better than to be back in the global tent BUT circumstances will not allow that for the foreseeable future. With both countries, and for different reasons, these are the toughest of times. So to cope they find themselves having to consider a return to their agricultural roots. (Is that so bad?)

Big banking is the problem along with corporate ethos.

Paradox: We have 7 billion people on the planet, if any significant percentage of those wish to eat organic food (instead of industrial) then they (corporate gatekeepers) say we need to ramp-up a targeted industrial by finding ways to industrialize organic farming. Bull-pucker I say, all the pertinent points are being dismissed. It is as if to say it all boils down to tonnage of commodities, that any discussion of cultural aspect is a dangerous diversion from the task at hand – feeding people. Biological notions be damned. Feeding people must be, at its core, cultural aspect! Otherwise how are we different from cage-raised chickens? We are different because a cage-raised chicken has a ‘market’ value where as many of the world’s poor have no market value. We are different because many of those people who need to be fed can and should be farming, should be raising their own food and food for others. They should be given the chance to be a vital piece of the assurance of their own neighborhood. They should be recognized as of the highest value to the rest of humanity. But that flies in the face of the mathematical shadow-boxing we know as economics.

What we are being told repeatedly is that our purpose as human beings must be to assure a healthy industrial/military/banking complex. That dignified healthy life itself comes only as a possible secondary result of strong corporate markets. Hasn’t it become obvious, through disease, poverty, hunger, alienation, war and social cancers that life is not about the ongoing justification of industrial process and corporate profit?

I’ve read almost all of it, heard more than I wanted to and I’ll say it again, it’s a big lie this notion (and it’s only a political and merchandising notion bolstered by contrived and manipulated statistics) that the only way we can feed the world is through chemically intensive, bio-engineered, maxi-processed vertically-stacked industrial agribusiness. NOT TRUE! Unfettered industrial agribuisness is killing us and the planet!

Give farming back to natural processes, to human beings, to living soils, to embracing and embraceable weather and you feed EVERYONE well – and with increasing soil fertility. It is impossible to say that with industrial agribusiness. IMPOSSIBLE!

What is the seed of the mayhem we feel from industrial agriculture? Big banking is the problem along with corporate ethos.

We praise those wealthy jackals whose entire purpose in life is to manipulate pieces of absentee-ownership so that their stock values sky-rocket. These asymmetric monsters are more to blame for the board room ethic than any other entity. They are feared, revered, loathed, and embraced. Most people can only dream of being like them. For it is in those portfolioed rich that we see limitless wealth and power, idleness and self lubrication. Their bread and butter stems from corporate stock and the shadow boxing world of abstracted instruments of trade. While most of us abhor the corporate ethic which continues to stomp down on the natural world and the true life-giving spirituality of the biologic, we flit around the edges of it all worried that it might change.

We hate them,
we want to be just like them,
we know things must change,
and we fear losing
this crippling socio-economic system.

Dark tragedy with a sprinkling of ridiculous humor.

“Can’t we find a way to keep this system while making it more equitable and reversing the planetary cancers?” you ask. I don’t know. I can’t see down that tunnel. After a lifetime of steadfast belief in the healing and ecologically redemptive power of agrarianism, of a small farm earth, I fail to see how Microsoft, Walmart and Monsanto offer any dignity or hope to the hundreds of millions of people living in hunger and poverty all across the globe. Yet it is always easy to see how even just one successful small farmer offers dignity and hope to a neighborhood and beyond. I know what can happen when that one small farmer is truly seen by others of similar inclination.

As small farmers we need to see each other as nearby, as close at hand. We need to always work to support one another. We need to ask ourselves every day what we might do to save the world. A bit much? I don’t think so. I think it might be the song we’ve been looking for. I think it just might be the song that would keep us at the good work. I think it’s the answer and the reason.

P.S. Just a sidenote to offer my thanks to each and every one of you for the generosity and grace you’ve extended to me over these many many years. We haven’t always agreed but many of us have enjoyed agreeing to disagree. I fear I have not indicated it enough, I appreciate you more than I can ever express. Thanks for being nearby and close at hand. LRM