Of A Voice Together
by Lynn R. Miller of Singing Horse Ranch
It’s acceptably cold this morning at twenty degrees. Predawn, dark still, and daughter’s Welsh Corgi pup sits on my feet chewing his rawhide bone. Beside his scratches, chewings, and bumps, the only sound in our old cabin is the air drawing through the warming wood cook stove fire box, snapping free those little air pockets in the Juniper and Pine cordwood.
Thinking about my grieving father and brother Tony going through attic boxes of Mom’s pictures and complaining about North Florida’s eighteen degree night causes me to wander the map northwards to think about the subzero temperatures in New England and westward to even colder Minnesota. Then my brain goes meandering from location to person to people to these wholly predictable and largely lamentable times.
A few yesterdays ago we were set in a vulgar gaseous economy of absurd excess and biological disconnect, but it was OUR pattern. Want it or not, each of us owned some aspect. Maybe it was far distant and three times removed but it was there nonetheless. Now, as so many pieces, large and small, of our soured society and economy shrink and slough off, we are perhaps to be excused our apprehension and fear. We have been dependent on a vast, irresponsible ‘supply’ system and the presumption of unending growth. Now, where will we get this or that mechanical part? Or a gallon of milk? Or our heating oil? Or our prescriptions filled? Think I’m going too far with this? Think the system is “fundamentally” sound? Think that it will never breakdown that far? It already has.
Take as an example of our system’s collapse horses: first, artificial liquidity (borrowed money) made it possible for people to purchase lots of pet horses for their backyards. Second, fuel prices drove up the cost of feed. Then a curious mix of sentiment, political correctness and market realities did away with horse meat markets. Follow that with bank failures and the stock market crash which meant that now millions could no longer afford the yard ornament equine they owned. Now, we have a glut of unwanted horses (not speaking of our good work horses here) and no place for them to go. Out west, thousands of horses are being turned loose on public lands.
My point in this horse aside is that even here we are affected in ways few would have predicted just a couple of years ago. Where will we go with an unwanted horse? Sure, we may remind ourselves that not all horses are equal, yet in some final analysis they are all equal. Be it Seattle Slew, or old Dobbin, the beer company lead team or the three legged Shetland pony, if any of them show up at the local stockyards for sale they will be turned away. And, then there is the likelihood they will be abandoned or neglected to their great discomfort. You can apply these sorts of concerns to a growing list of things in our lives. What is to be done with all of those over-priced super-sized vacant suburban homes? What is to be done with these millions of neighbors who are out of work? What will be facing our soldiers when they return from war zones overseas? What will become of all those unsold cars and trucks? How will folks get by when they can’t get heat and food? How will production agriculture get through a growing season without production credit? How and when will it hit those still standing?
These forebodings of dark finances ahead steal from this moment the best sauce of little and large energies. We must guard ourselves from that theft. As small farmers, our own fortunes are staggering if only in their poignant and comforting relevancies.
The world economy is in such straits because it accepts the false premise of money as wealth. Hand to eye, ear to soul, back to belly, spirit to gratitude we most always have happy answers. The happy answers of right ‘worthiness’. What do we really value, what is truly important to us, what is worthy of our lives, work, dreams, and prayers? Advertising has worked hard so that many of us need not bother about measuring our values, determining what is truly worthy in our lives. Advertising claims to do that for us.
And in that the advertising industry has enjoyed a long hiatus, it has been ages since they have been urgently called upon to speak plain truth. For seven to eight decades, they have mopped our society’s floor with the dirty water of the cheapest of cliches and sloganeering and few of us said a word in complaint. Emptiness, deceit and avarice have ruled those decades in the marketplace.
Sometimes it has been difficult to see. For example, we have been told that we are what we eat. And who would question such an observation but a pompous old curmudgeon like me. But I think the contest needs to happen. Because these dangerous times of great opportunity and desperation require that we think it all through.
We are what we eat? I don’t believe that. I am not what I eat. I am what I know, what I fear, what I love, what I work at, what I dream of. I am not what I eat. Yes, my health is affected by what I eat. And what I know, fear, work at, and dream of might affect my choice of what to eat. But I am not WHAT I eat and neither are you. Nit picking you say. I beg to differ. It is at these levels where society establishes some base assumptions upon which to build its climb to a most ethical behavior. So if we wish to doubt the conventional wisdom we need to strip it all down to those first mistaken assumptions.
Advertising has usurped our language and our sentiments. The scientific community halfheartedly battles with generalities and false advertising of everything from homeopathic cold remedies to adult pheromones. In some cases the battle is over market share or territorial imperative and in others it is about provability and deniability. Those are worlds which belong to advertising.
Just as the merchants have sidetracked the word ‘sustainability’ so too have they side-swiped the word ‘local.’ Consumers are justified in their confusions. What constitutes local anyway? Most are in agreement that China isn’t local. And some would argue that local has less to do with what is near and more to do with scale and regional identification. But advertising is wary of the curse of being provincial because they dread being waived off as inconsequential. Odd that one, because nothing could be more inconsequential than the latest fad, or that product which is mass produced. So advertising counts on a deniable and moveable definition to ‘local.’ They want to call it such without any threat of having to fit a specific criteria. To them to be local starts with a big ad budget. To them to be local is to be sold as a lovely and current color, to be sold as the latest music form, to be sold as fashionable, to be on today’s A list.
I disagree. To me, to be by choice provincial is to embrace an evidence of fertile cultural truth. Don’t talk to me of ‘made in China’ or ‘made in the U.S.A.’, or ‘made in Mexico’, those places are too large for anything but patriotic generalities, they are too large for that richness of identity each and every one of us needs. Talk to me instead of made in Lin Chiao or the upper Yangtze Valley, talk to me of made in the Catskills or made in the Shenandoah Valley or in Houston County Tennessee or on the banks of the Owyhee river or in Mesa Verde or Juarez, or Cabo or Baton Rouge. To sell yourself large and unfamiliar is to demean; to sell yourself familiar and specific is to fertilize all with the knowledge or curiosity of that corner of actual birth and creation.
Yes, for reasons of energy conservation, we most certainly need to break the pattern which has food being shipped great distances around the world while disrupting the natural regional calendar. But coffee ain’t ever gonna be grown in the Yukon. Blue Mountain Jamaica is a coffee grown in a very specific place. It is local to that place. Coffee in general is grown over a vast expanse of the planet’s equatorial latitudes and as such is too large a generality of origin for that richness of identity each and every one of us needs.
There are grapes, cheeses, honeys, and potatoes grown in tight little microclimates which impart wonderful and specific flavors and characteristics. These are local products as opposed to industrial equivalents stripped of their identity. They may not be local to you but they are highly local nonetheless. They, if you will pardon my reach, are each and every one of them of a voice. That voice might be Napa Valley, California or it might be ‘organic grapes’ or some combination of both. That voice might be a watershed in Wisconsin or it might be pastured seasonal Jersey cow dairying. Of a voice, something you can put your hands around and come to know and feel as prelude to a refreshing connection. That is one of the ways worthiness replenishes itself. And it has little or nothing to do with the notion of money as worth. It is a solid; not a gas.
A heck of a lot of gas has escaped from our economy. Some are racing around trying to figure out how to put that gas back in. I say good riddance. I say lets take advantage of this time to set our houses in order. Let’s see the opportunity and seize it.
The so-called conventional wisdom (a perversely appropriate oxymoron) has it that this will get worse before it gets better and that we are in for at least two more years of downturn. (Is collapse more accurate?) All sorts of questions beg to be asked. For example: Who decides what constitutes ‘better’? Who decides what needs doing? How will priorities be determined? I for one believe the answer lies within that adage of so-called conventional wisdom having it. Somehow a set of different people, randomly co-joined by a sameness of voice and/or values, WILL decide the future not because they will it but because they see it as inevitable. Do not misconstrue this as a democratic process, do not misconstrue this as a federal or state government process, because what truly matters to us will run below and above those store-bought radar systems.
Same voice, different people, ‘of a voice’. What does the distinction mean or stand for? Same voice, different people, as an unfortunate cultural gaggle, they insisted that there was no foreseeable end to oil, that global climate change was a myth, that there was no chance of another depression, that our economy could not afford to “produce,” it had to be the information economy for the information age. These same voices said that many important cultural aspects of our society were archaic and obsolete. Take the small farm, for example. They claimed it was a quaint vestige from the past with no useful application in this new global economy and information age. Computers and the internet, they argued, are the present and the future of democracy. Billions of people chiming in on issues of fashion and political correctness while millions blow each other up and leave children starving. Is this what we call a global information age community? Or is it the ultimate in mob rule?
The urgent energies of same voice, different people, CAN be a positive force. And how do people of like mind and values come together? One way is what we have with this publication, our potluck supper of stories, information and ideas. In so many ways we are same voice, different people, of a voice. So, if we of a voice have it that it will get better before it gets worse, if we have it that certain priorities should be self-evident, if we have it that together we can improve individual and thereby collective circumstances, if we build upon belief and make a better working world IT WILL BE SO.
I’m saying those other folk, those conventional wisdom folk, have been wrong and they may be wrong in the future. No one knows for sure. But some may BELIEVE for sure. WE may believe for sure, and work on that premise. I’m not suggesting we hide our heads in the sand and try to imagine these tough times don’t exist. They do. It is sad to see business so poor this season but business is not the answer. Worthiness is the answer and we have that in our corner. Still, along with a positive outlook and effort, vigilance may be mortally important in this dire time. This is not the time to disregard weather forecasts.
In a recent conversation someone I trust warned me that what I was proposing was yet another bet against the come. He said I was wagering, with my positive belief guiding my efforts and choices, that things would work out. I was placing a bet, taking a gamble, that things would get better soon. He said “that’s exactly what those hedge funds, banks, mortgage companies and stock brokers did – they bet against the come.” After a fashion he’s right, that’s what they did. But not against the come, they didn’t bet against future production, they bet, instead, that values would continue to inflate. I would argue that what we must do, in realistic fashion, is bet that our crops will come in, that the cows will calve, that the garlic will mature, that the neighbors will come to help with the harvest, that the rains will come and the sun will shine and that the good sleep will be earned. Some might call it hope. Some may see it as delusional and point to drought, crop failure, meanspirited neighbors, barren cows and this or that political party. I say we walk knowing that we can, I say we do each and every life sustaining act because we know we can and must. And besides, we don’t much think about it. Our sentient selves rise up out of the biological swamp seldom realizing that every deliberate step is a wager we take against the come. But that does not mean we lack will. We will ourselves to be, till done. We must know the important difference between wagering against future gain in productivity (positive) versus gain in asset value (volatile). Uncertainty must never rise above the usual sound of caution. I will myself to be. Press each button, ask each question until the answers pop into place. Keep ‘treading’ otherwise you sink down back into the swamp. Therein for me comes the meaning of ‘be-longing’: longing to be, belong.
My suggestion is that ‘of a voice’ may be an acknowledgement after the fact. we need acknowledgement BEFORE the fact. We need for ‘of a voice’ to be together and with a building tone.
One of our greatest successes (‘our’ as in all of us in the SFJ community) is the annual auction event (market festival) we do. By success I do not mean in the customary ‘profit’ sense. I mean as measured by ‘worthiness’ and vitality separate and unto itself. Without the vast invasive trappings of the larger economy, without any large corporate involvement, without franchised dependencies, a few thousand of us get together once a year and do all manner of exchanges; money changes hands, ideas float back and forth, implements find useful homes, harness gets measured and debated, dreams are recharged, community is expanded. This event adds to the income and thrust of many small farms and small farm dreams. And it is something we have done together, wholly separate from mortgage banks, the stock market, federal programs, state largess, large corporate sponsorships, or political wrangling. WE did it, and do it, with collaboration and volunteer effort, one step at a time, one person at a time. And over time it has gained a near mythic stature around the world. I say near ‘mythic’ because those who have joined us from far far away have always found the event to be more than expected. This event is clear evidence of what can be done when folks of a voice come together with the will to build. The event is a specific example of a truly democratic economy of astounding vitality. There is ‘of a voice’ and there is ‘of a voice together’.
Starting with a blank slate, each year I have marveled how in a matter of days, volunteers and crew assemble the auction, unloading and checking in thousands of items and animals, setting up booths and merchandise, and arranging the workings of a three day event. Then we rumble, bump and breeze through the three main days before every thing is torn down and taken away. A huge and amazing effort. Being inside of it all, I have had many an occasion to think about how such an effort could work on a broader canvas, a bigger playing field. And those thoughts led, in part, to what we are about to embark on.
‘Of a voice together’? Does it offer a concept of tools and ways to address the needs of our small farming community? Yes, it does. It offers the best and perhaps only way. Thousands of us together, same voice, different people, make up a group which when organized can alleviate many of the problems facing the individual independent small farmer. And the organization need not be political in nature or complex in obligation. Personally, I have over recent years, become highly sensitive to the charge that folks like me are good at stirring the emotions and getting people aimed at doing something. Then we provacateurs and self-annointed preachers walk off and leave the kettle steaming. I stand guilty as charged. But I hope to change that.
A group of us have taken the challenge and are working to form a membership non-profit public benefit organization entitled The Small Farms Conservancy. The premise is that you, as a subscriber/member might receive this publication AND access to a wide and various set of valuable programs which you and the other members have all made possible. These programs address concerns about farm income, insurance, retirement, apprenticeships, farm tool innovation, loans, and more.
Of a voice, together, and with a building tone; that is how we envision the possibility of a Small Farms Conservancy. But it will require that we, all of us, want to make such an effort work.
These difficult times will show many of us our weaknesses of character. It will be difficult when trying to secure ourselves, our farms and our families to think and act with generosity. It is natural to withdraw to our ordinary selves, but it is unhealthy. For we, at our core, long to be, we be – longing, that is the strength to answer our ordinariness. Belong.
The conservancy is a solid idea with a good and worthy mission. It is one place we might be invited to belong.
I do believe that in the reach beyond our ordinary selves, as in joining in to form ‘of a voice together’, we create the golden coins of right worthiness, we create true wealth, we create an aspect to our spendable character worthy of the acids of the mob, worthy of doing battle with our own weaknesses.