Sanctuary – Deserving the Excess
by Lynn R. Miller of Singing Horse Ranch
The editorial which follows was originally written in late August of 2001. It was my intent that these thoughts, ideas, this presentation would also function as the core of a scheduled lecture for the September 20th ‘Future of Small Farms’ Conference at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado.
On September 11, 2001, the horrific events in New York, the nation’s capital, and Pennsylvania numbed us all. Four days after the initial tragedy, while most of the world waits for what will come next, I return to this writing with a pen dipped in confusion, loss, sadness and determination. I return because a part of me feels as though I’m supposed to say something. Insert something of where we find ourselves. But who am I? What could I possibly say? Certainly I have nothing to add to what we all feel. Thousands of people dead, in a matter of a few horrible hours. And because a few dozen other people mixed suicidal hatred and fanatical belief with methodical precision. We see, even as remote strangers, those casualties, young and old, each and everyone either a friend, or a loved one, or a grandparent, or a fiance, or a wife, or a son, or a daughter, or a mother… We see them now as our own. We shutter, we turn our heads and whimper, we shake our fists and curse anything we see or feel deserves cursing. This can’t happen, we keep telling ourselves. This can’t happen. We can’t see for the tears. We struggle to find some meaning, some answer to the big loud WHY? We feel so lost and helpless. We come to be exhausted, wishing for a place or a way to rest our emotions. We curse our own selfishness. We long for some sanctuary from the finality, the cruelty, the death. But not yet. Deep down inside connected to some torn tissue of embedded memories, we are reminded in a flood of other horrible tragedies, other needless senseless losses, of the disappearance and torture – of the death by starvation and avoidable pestilence – of thousands of innocents in eastern Europe, in Africa, in Asia, in South America. And you are reminded of one you loved so dearly and lost, … and I am reminded of my dead sons.
I am determined. I am determined to continue. Our work on agrarian issues, and our work in advocacy of the small family farm, and our work in the preservation of useful and vital relic technologies – this work must continue, now more than ever. It must continue because it holds in cupped upraised hands the seed of a better world, a world of peace and solace, and sanctuary and delicious excess and wondrous balance. A world of humility and tolerance.
I read the words I had written for my original essay and they sound different to me. The ideas stand still, they don’t move as before. I want to push those words, make them move. But in this terrible moment can I know what to do. I struggle to keep hold of the important viewpoints and yet I feel challenged to temper my remarks to reflect our collective mood of tragedy. Well I don’t accept the challenge because it is the wrong challenge. I do know the right thing to do. The right challenge is for us to do our chosen work to the very best of our abilities and in my case this means to offer up my words without temperance and without dilution. We need to feel the blood coursing through us, we need to hear the fire of our convictions, we need to cradle the pulse of our dreams and aspirations, we need to live. That’s what we need to do.
Many people are saying that because of the tragedies of September 11 the world has changed forever. To some degree I am sure this is true. But I humbly offer to you that because of September 11 many of us will find ourselves compelled to do what we have always done, only perhaps better and with wider more appreciative eyes because we are alive and have the chance today to make a better world.
I offer this prayer. Dear sweet, terrible, sad God, Thank you for showing us the mountainous courage, graciousness, generosity and good humored humanity of ourselves. Thank you for allowing us the confusing strength of our acts of self-preservation and of our phenomenal forgiveness. Thank you for showing us how to humiliate our enemies, even if we be they, while teaching our children peace. Thank you for allowing us our sanctuary.
On the old horsedrawn mower, a new quarter mile long 4 acre land opened. Heading round on the third pass. These two straight mown rows, stretching out ahead of us, the two mares and I. What do these rows mean? They mean something because they reach inside and talk to me. They mean something because the old mares line up on the cut edge as the path that it is. A beginning, a path, a plan, an outline. What’s the comfort and connection they offer up?
I look to the side as we rest. Light blue, silver, transparent – hanging from the clover stalk like a broken sliver of flower pedal – the dragon fly takes in the sun. Looking up at the August sky I wonder again why it is that our barn swallow friends have left so early? And why we have such a large infestation of badgers digging their big holes? And where all the sage rats have gone? (Badgers didn’t get ’em, the rats were gone before they turned up.) And why the elk have moved into the hay fields at night when they should be up in high mountain meadows this time of year. And where the coyotes have gone to. And where all these flies came from? And why all the plant growth is short this summer? Indicators? Yes, indicators. Causes me to remember my outline for this presentation. I stop and write these words in my notebook;
The appropriate conditions which must exist, if we’re to have a rapid solid growth in small farms, do exist. We have abundant land and resources, there is a new and surprising attractive potential return from the farming, an outstanding body of knowledge on successful alternative farming is available to everyone, and most important we have the will of many people to realize the life-style and the vocation. Add a big plus; information and interconnectivity is being democratized, made available to everyone, in a healthy atmosphere of doubt and scepticism. The institutional line, the corporate line, the bureaucratic line are all being left behind for the silly irrelevant garbage they each are. People are connecting with one another for information, services, supplies, and support. If these opportunities aren’t squandered or ignored it could be the beginning of a new artisan age containing a wondrous fabric of small farms and small communities.
I pocket my notebook and we mow for another half mile round and the high heat makes breathing into work for the mares. We whoa and I notice the squeaking noise, rhythmic, sounds like a wounded bird. I look all around and smile in discovery. It was the swaying canteen hanging from the mower seat. The moment begs to be inhaled with a low hot morning summer sun whose light shows its motion in the hard-edged crawl of long shadows. Then it comes, a bonus. The summer breeze lifted the sweat from us, horses and I, and inserted itself – cool and soft and sharp – against our grateful skins. We share all of this, the horses and I. We share the work, the working world, the observations, the questions, the difficulties and the pleasures.
We’ve come out here to do a job. One reward of our effort is to see the job completed. Another is the enjoyment of the working. Related but different is what we take from the job, our assimilated experience and its effect on us, our learning. Sometimes it’s not very enjoyable, often it is. But it is no less important either way because this side effect, this excess of the job, comes to make us who we are.
Excess. Small scale farming may come down to this. We plant some carrot seed and care for its growth. Harvest time we take some of those carrots for our own use. The best looking of the excess we take to the farmer’s market and sell for money to pay the bills. The not-so-good looking ones, the remaining excess, we divide between those we feed to the livestock and those we put through the juicer. Some of the juice finds its way to our own table and some to a neighbor family that’s having difficulties. As for those carrot-eating pigs, they’re employed making compost, consuming farm produce waste (or excess) and converting it into manure for fertilizer. One will go to the farm table and the extra (the excess) pigs will be cut and wrapped and sold direct to local customers.
The poetry of this model contains the diagram. The poetry comes in the form of a simple question; how do we come to deserve the excess? We, today, often find ourselves living inside the answer to this question without ever having to ask it. This is new to our time. It’s a side effect of the shortcomings of the modern human experience. To be cognizant or conscious of this idea, this question, this concept, is to be constructively disruptive of society. Constructive because our example is of valuable service to others. Disruptive because our society requires our adherence to her rules of behavior and the concept of “deserving the excess” smacks of anarchy and ‘selfishness’, maybe even of true democratic capitalism.
Let’s face it, up to today our society has enjoyed relegating the farmer to a role of doltish martyr. If you were to announce to a mixed gathering that you were a combined farmer, surgeon, and serious music composer enjoying tremendous “excess” and deserving every bit of it, all conversation would grind to a complete halt. Doubtless people would think ‘what an odd bird, why mess around with farming?’
If we are seen as not so very bright for our choice of farming, if we are seen as doomed to failure or worse perpetual insolvency, then society dictates the shape of our farming vocation but only if we accept and respond to these ridiculous misconceptions. Why do we let others determine whether or not we succeed, whether or not we deserve our excess?
I am aware that much of the daily existence of small farmers contains aspects and elements that other non-farmers want in their own lives. And those aspects and elements are of the excess. For example; walking the summer field with Lucky, the Australian Shepherd, I am told just how rich and varied is the unseen world of this dog-high pasture. I am told by Lucky as he runs jerking, sniffing and squealing in pursuit of the causes of the smells, the whispers, the almost invisible movements. This is evidence of the camouflaged life of this pasture. I am crossing this field to do a specific job. Shared in this unveiling way with the dog, I am given a small rich insignificant experience which helps me, in little ways, to understand the biology of the place, the time and of myself. I take this with me to my writing and to my painting. This excess is fuel for my diversity.
And others, non-farmers, wish they could have, in their daily existence, such walks with the dog across their own pasture. They wish they could have it. They don’t. They don’t know how to get it. They think its a price tag issue, they simply don’t have the money to afford the life-style. They don’t realize that its less a price tag issue and more of an issue of ‘deserving the excess’.
Why must we ‘deserve’ the excess? Because the ‘deserving’ fuels and validates us. It keeps us going and it keeps us expanding. It allows the best opportunity for improvement in all aspects of our chosen work. In our convoluted contemporary culture it is still a heretical thought that we might actually ‘deserve’ some good we are in a position to control. And it is a powerful and fertile thought. The right attitude, the right thinking, will have a positive effect on outcome. If you believe you deserve the life-style of a small farm and all of its possible excesses you WILL make it happen.
With small farming as with most things we need to set the stage for our success. Put yourself in the best setting, environment, community. The right setting will also have a positive effect on outcome.
If we sit with people who repeatedly say it cannot be done, or that’s a ridiculous idea, or we’ll lose our shirts if we try it, our instinctual dreams for the small farm life will be found battered and disjointed inside of pummeled punching bags. If all-around we see a panorama of failures, opportunity will seem like a fraudulent come-on.
On the other hand; if we look out our window at good humored success and wonderful working examples, if we sit with people who are doing what we wish to do, who believe that these are things which must be pursued, and who believe that pursuit of these ideas may grant us success and wealth beyond our imaginations then our instinctual dreams become beautiful, useful doors and bridges and maps. Opportunity in this setting is direction and it belongs to us.
You make things happen by making things happen. Decide to take the challenge, select the first piece or project, and do it well – it’s an intoxicant. And be sure to follow through with all those aspects of your vocation which must come into play if you are to succeed. Don’t take the good feelings of getting a crop planted for granted. Don’t trust completion to anyone else. Follow through ’til the beans are traded at full value and then take hold of that good accomplished feeling and allow yourself to know you deserve any excess which results. You’ve earned it.
We are talking about the promise of small farms. We are talking about the indicators which fuel some of us to believe that a bright and full future for the small family farm model and its resultant communities is opening as we speak, as we read, as we listen, as we dream and wish. Its happening with or without us, perhaps even in spite of us. Certainly in spite of ridiculous governmental and corporate idiocies.
It comes down to equations of social, economic, technological and methodological opportunities. The indicators point to opportunities. For the second half of the twentieth century the deck seemed stacked against the independent human-scaled farming venture. Opportunities just dwindled or disappeared entirely. (For some, this negative environment continues even today.) That’s all changed and changing. But not in any official or formal way. There are no programs, or announcements, or menus to select from. We won’t be receiving postcard notification nor read articles in local newspapers telling us where we should go to sign up for our piece of the opportunity pie. We, each of us, have to know what to look for, what we’re looking at and how to translate the discoveries into action.
Western culture is changing, right under our noses, its changing. Change occurs when discontent takes shape in the form of specific desires and wishes. Today people are discontented with how their days transpire, what work they do, and the loss of control they’re experiencing over essential aspects of their lives. They want to feel better about themselves. They wish for change, they desire specific things. One of the things they desire is control over their food.
Food is the one thing we all need. Without it we do not survive. Humanity has allowed a grave error to evolve by permitting food to become a weapon, a political tool, and an arena for corporate control and profit. Famine and food shortages are political issues, not supply issues. We have the capacity to feed the world’s population many times over and from a sustainable, small scale diversified and locally articulated farming, but if that happens, a handful of entities would lose their control and their profits. To protect and preserve control and profits, children, women and men die each day for lack of food to eat. Meanwhile, in North America, farmers are unable to find markets for their products and thousands of acres each day are taken out of production. In a bizarre paradox, western affluence and industrial agriculture have created a local population of indolent people fed poisonous and tasteless foods as North American top soil is raped and her farming culture withers while third world millions starve.
The power and profit ethic of large corporations is such that they should be disallowed by law from public essentials (i.e. food, power, health, etc.).
Depressing thoughts BUT they are also indicators of opportunity. This setting has created a vast population of folks who desire to regain control over their food and their self worth. (Government and industry are beginning to realize this and they are taking steps to mitigate its effect on their control and profit-taking. The new bizarre and corporate-serving USDA organic certification ruling is just such a case in point. It is designed to restrict we organic farmers and give industry a leg up.) In spite of constraints we should all feel optimistic for the future of farming.
Here’s a few indicators pointing to opportunity;
- Food safety concerns are not being met. Government agencies are so grossly inept and conflicted that the public trust factor is shot full of holes. People are looking to direct contact with real farmers for some comfort in food safety. OPPORTUNITY: connect with people who want safe food and provide them with information and assurances; this will result in a strong loyal customer base.
- Access to important specific foods and herbs are being restricted (i.e. raw milk cheeses, selected herbs, etc.) by government thereby forcing the public to make direct contact with farmers for desired commodities. OPPORTUNITY: same as above.
- Food quality issues are a public concern as industrial farms utilize genetic engineering and monoculturally mandated hybridization resulting in tasteless product of worrisome health value. To get good tasting healthy apples and eggs and grains people are realizing they need to go direct to the farmers who produce healthy produce and to be prepared to pay a higher price. (To a mother worried about the health of her child, the difference between $2 per dozen eggs and $3.50 per dozen eggs may be peace of mind and self assurance.) OPPORTUNITY: same as above.
- Food community issues are not as fully appreciated in our western society as they once were. People are missing the intoxicants and the sanctuary which comes of sitting down together to a shared meal. OPPORTUNITY: The small farm does bring the family back to the table, both the farm family and the family of community. And food, directly from the farm prepared with artistry and local pride and served in shared celebration to those who do the work, becomes bonus payment of the highest order. The same meal offered to food customers and prospective customers would supercharge the relationships between the fields, the farmers and the community.
- Specialty U-pic farm operations, which have been well advertised in their communities, have often run out of product. Thousands of stories are told of successful roadside markets and U-pic operations having to purchase additional outside produce from neighbors to resell in their markets. More markets, more farmers, more product will create more customers which in turn will create more markets. OPPORTUNITY: there is ample room everywhere for more small farmers employing direct marketing techniques. It is sometimes difficult for established farmers to accept the notion that new farmers coming into their market universe is a good thing. More good product will eventually mean more customers.
- As commercial motives become increasingly suspect, people are looking for evidence, clear evidence, of values they may connect with. They are interested in how we grow their food and why. To this end the stories of our choices and concerns become important (i.e. organics, true horsepower, family involvement, heritage, etc.) OPPORTUNITY: there are positive public relations, and thereby increased sales, which result when we get the little details of how and why we farm out to our local market universe.
- Parents are hungry to share with their children the experiential knowledge of farming biology and the artisan farmer life. OPPORTUNITY: by making our farming operation open education laboratories for local school children we make positive connections with whole families who will want to buy our produce.
- The culture of farming, the delicious mysteries of how we stick a little seed in the ground and bingo, food happens, all of it has become a world of infinite fascination to young people who are growing up separated from the soil and animals. For this reason the small diversified farm has been recognized by many teachers as an ideal learning laboratory. OPPORTUNITY: same as above.
- With our throwaway society one of the tragic discards is our community of elders. We all worry about this. OPPORTUNITY: small farm communities need the old and the young; they represent information and energy – wisdom and enthusiasm – safety and daring.
- The last five years have seen enormous growth in sales for those specialty food catalogs which have done a good job of emphasizing and guaranteeing the healthfulness and uniqueness of their products. OPPORTUNITY: we need to explore unconventional (for us) ways (i.e. homemade information sheets and actual low cost catalog pamphlets) to give people access to our products. This will increase our sales.
- The multi-generational separation of urban and rural has curiously evolved to where farming, ranching and farm settings are today seen as destination vacation spots. Many farms are deriving substantial auxiliary income from farm tourism. OPPORTUNITY: invite people to come and stay on your farm for a fee, feed them extremely well from homegrown goodies and invite them to help with some of the more glamorous work projects like picking fruits and vegetables, haying, cleaning barns, branding, fence repairs, etc. You’ll be pleasantly surprised by the income and the new friendships.
- All over the U.S. independent restaurants have discovered two public worries that spell success if addressed. One is the concern for safe, healthy food. The other is a quest for flavor. And flavor, most farmers know, doesn’t start with culinary wizardry, it starts with the freshest of ingredients. As for food safety, the fewer people and processes and chemicals and hours which touch the food the safer it is. Restaurants, up and down the economic scale, are putting a premium on the freshest, healthiest ingredients direct from the farmer. Some of these most successful restaurants, such as Washington’s Herbfarm Restaurant and California’s Chez Panisse, are so popular that they are nearly impossible to get into. (In the case of Herbfarm Restaurant they open their phone line to reservations twice a year, six months apart, and fill every opening for the following six months within that one day!) Recognizing that fruits, vegetables, herbs, nuts, meats, grains, and edible flowers have true “currency” when acquired direct from local organic farmers these restaurants have staff members who work full time just getting the goods. Chez Panisse has a full-time food forager on staff. OPPORTUNITY: Go to restaurants with information sheets spelling out what you have to sell, when and for how much. Then throw in information about who you are, why you farm and how you grow your stuff. And for a curious bonus, tell them you will deliver AND that you want to pickup any unused spoiled produce for livestock feed and composting. If they tell you they aren’t buying right now, politely ask if you can drop by updated availability lists in a week or two. Two or three good strong restaurant accounts can make a farmer mighty successful.
- The phenomenal growth in so-called minority communities in almost all “developed” countries is resulting in greater ethnic diversity and less homogeneity. And this has spawned great gaping demands for specialized and specific foods as well as for various small town and small farm products and services. We are in the beginning of the end of the supremacy of corporate advertising, corporate product, and corporate government. OPPORTUNITY: Identify those thriving ethnic communities and their unusual food needs and see if your operation might expand to produce them. Whether its a Hispanic community or an Asian community or Swedish, they each have produce and meat needs which are seldom well met by industrial agriculture.
- The proliferation of small independent media and the internet and nongovernmental organizations fostering local self reliance has empowered and continues to empower hundreds of millions of little people to take control of their own lives. People are finding advocacy for their dreams of self-reliance, security and good health. We are being told by example and by interaction with others that it is a good thing and a doable thing to retake control and build a working existence which gives us back decision-making power over the food we eat, how we spend our days and our relationships with one another. OPPORTUNITY: if you have unique talents, skills or means which fit information needs you should think about ways to help people with those skills and abilities while making a few extra dollars.
The list of indicators and the opportunities they represent goes on and on. Many of the most exciting are directly shaped by the special aspects and requirements or needs of a specific community or locality.
Many times our larger society is the primary restriction to the identification and implementation of opportunities. For example; a certain ethnic portion of your locale may desperately want a rare variety of raw milk cheese which you identify you can make at your dairy. But society, through regulation ‘in the name of public safety(?)’ says you cannot make and sell raw milk cheese, period.
We need to understand where we, as a society, are at. Before we look at where we’re at collectively, within our society, we should look at the individual condition.
HUMANITY, BIOLOGY & SOCIETY
The full power of the human animal has always been tied in mysterious and indecipherable ways to every aspect of its environment, seen and unseeable (sic), smelt and unsmellable(sic), felt and unfeelable(sic). In order for the human species to reach its full potential an ambient and faith-held (not compliance-driven) respect for natural order and outcome is essential. It has not always been this way. Most of human society, even today, is forced by cultural edict and local laws to ignore or deny a connection to the wider biological universe. This is especially true in so-called developed countries. We are required to think of ourselves as above such things. We are asked to see ourselves as ‘human beings’, superior thinking mammals in charge of the natural world. This is an outlook and perspective which works against independence, craftsmanship, and the farmer artisan. This is an outlook steeped in a dangerous arrogance. It is arrogant that the corporate mindset sees all of nature as something to control, something which can be controlled, for profitable gain. It is equally arrogant of the environmentalist to act on the assumption that humans can and should know what is best for life. Both positions stem from the same axiomatic point which holds that we humans are in knowledgeable and deserved control. They differ only in how the power of control should manifest itself. When we play greedy with nature we lose. When we play god with nature we lose. When we live with nature, and allow that we may never know everything about her, we win.
Back in my fields, another morning hot and dry. I’m standing over the cranky motor which moves the quarter mile of wheel line irrigation. The water mixed with gas drips from the in-line fuel filter I have opened as I gaze absent-mindedly. The quiet has its own natural fragrance which is blown to bits by an unexpected scream of bizarre character. My head jerks and lowers and I’m aware of sinking down and trying not to move anything but my rotating searching eyes. But I am surrounded by open empty field? It comes again, longer this time, distinct distant clear and recognized. I hold perfectly still and try to get a bearing on the source direction. Two more short halfhearted growls still with the power to carry for miles in this high desert rimrock-fringed canyon. I can only guess at what the cougar is announcing. She is so close and yet so far away, invisible. The sound of her makes you want to hold yourself, as a father might hold a child. I am reminded that I am here as one small piece of this world.
I start the gasoline engine and smile at how puny its growl sounds matched to the cougar wail. The ancient wet-rust irrigation wheel line tractor walks over the hayfield like an old slow Australian bug, like a cross between a marsupial and a caterpillar. When I stop the engine I long to hear the cougar once more, just once more, so I might assure myself it was real. It is oddly marvelous how our experiences work to create and affirm mystery.
Some of us ‘know’ that a plant’s health may be determined by aspects of its environment that we simply cannot understand nor measure. We know there are things in that equation that are unknowable and, to work on the equation, we follow patterns and behavioral rhythms outside of our understanding and knowledge because we have faith in their effect. In this way we add to the mystery. We don’t comply with the natural order, we let ourselves be in the natural order. And in lovely, poignant and critical contradiction we know the outcome is out of our hands so we work that much harder to arrive at the outcome we wish for.
There are natural orders which suggest themselves on our biology, on our working energy, and on our society. We often fight those natural orders, those working patterns, those internal geometries of life. This fight is alien to us, individually and collectively. Many will argue this point. It goes to the core of whether or not the human animal is stupid, avaricious, cruel, and suicidal by nature – or made so by the pettiness of society. Stupid, perhaps yes in a broad general correctable sense, but cruel and suicidal? No, not the human animal. But society? Yes, yes, in some of her large and small clutches and dictums she may be cruel and suicidal beyond imagination.
Some of us will argue that our comfort with and attraction towards natural working patterns and biological order is clear evidence of our will to survive honorably and to flourish with artistry. This is clear evidence of our capacity for natural intelligence (common sense), our goodness and our decency. It can be shown, or at least creatively argued, that corporate citizenship (a vulgar oxymoron) is a modern synthetic social equation contrary to natural order and used to rationalize activities which are deadly to good society, great culture, healthy biology, and the fertile human animal. Corporate citizenship and corporate ethics (another vulgar oxymoron) are soon to evaporate from self-engendered irrelevance.
Society. What part do our collective agreements and contracts play in the natural design of the human landscape? Be they corporate or church, school or city hall, often our rules and social manners are unnecessary constraints, restrictions, and limitations. They result in neutralizing, homogenizing, and sterilizing the human landscape in much the same way as our industrial agriculture has succeeded in neutralizing the agribiz landscape. But even those barren landscapes referred to carry within them opportunities.
Just as we find the most pungent, flavorful, health-giving and fertile foods coming from what would seem to be the most inhospitable and even barren of landscapes, landscapes which seem to hide and protect hard won sheltered crevasses which push out vibrant plants, so we find the same with the human landscape. The greatest strengths and beauties would seem to flourish and thrive in those environs which are limiting and confining. Sometimes in the barren waste of an urban landscape the colors and vitality of a patch of flowers or garden look verdant beyond possibility. We might, in error, write off that patch of LIVING as the lovely ‘mirage’ measurement of its juxtaposition to the concrete, tin and garbage which surrounds it. There is certainly an element of truth to such a rationale but in many cases it falls far short of what is actually there. It is as if the biological world crams extra measures of its sauciness, its fertility, its chromosomal magic whereever there is a welcome opening, an encouragement.
But how it looks is not of lasting substance. When appearances matter, as if they ever could in any final analysis, the truth of the thing is lost. The truth lies within what the human landscape, the wild landscape, the farm landscape does.
Many indicators point to a rich and fertile time of great potential for small farms. It is an opportune time and if the openings afforded to us, as small farmers and aspirants, are not seized only we will be to blame. The openings are like cracks in the pavement through which that grass or weed pushes itself.
Our orthodox agriculture – the one which features industrial process and chemical dependence, the one which centers on monocultures and relies on brokered or contracted bulk sales to corporate entities and distributors – this orthodox agriculture is poison to the planet and to humanity. We cannot succeed as true small farmers within this orthodoxy. It is dead end. It is a passing phenomenon, we’ve been watching it die slowly since 1944. The architects of this agriculture, ag economists – politicians – academia, are terrified of this slow death because they honestly believe orthodox farming represents the only way to feed the world. They are wrong. The world has been, and in most quarters still is, fed by small diverse farm holdings and ventures. Billions of people in Asia, South America, Africa and Europe (yes, even in North America) eat the good healthy clean food direct from gardens and fields, food which never sees the inside of a supermarket or warehouse or processing plant or refrigerated truck or a broker’s invoice.
Farming is a craft. Farms are holdings. Farmers are artisans.
With the wide ranging palette of options available in new/old farming, hooked up with beneficial societal changes, the time is ripe for people to do well, exceedingly well, with small scale farm holdings. I say, ‘quick get in while you can!’
Imagine with me this story picture:
how the future(?) might look, a picture of just yesterday?
Early in the morning a view of the full barn reminds you of the bus load of junior high school football team members who came, with the coach, to help you, your husband and your two lovely daughters put up the hay before the summer storm. Coach said he’d never seen the boys work so hard. You’d never seen the girls work so hard, at the hay and at pretending to ignore the boys. Today your husband left early to go to the neighborhood blacksmith shop to have the suction set on the plow point. He promised to stop by the Jensens and pick up the six feeder pigs and those egg carton labels they printed for you, all in trade for that batch of setting hens. The girls are out bringing in the two teams of horses, the old reliable geldings and the young pair Tom’s training for the Blount family. You fill the mangers and clean the barn in preparation. Horses stabled, you and the girls make the rounds; first the creep feeder for the one hundred lambs is filled – then their water is seen to. As you head to care for the hens and collect eggs a car pulls up. It’s the preacher and his wife on their once a week supply run. One daughter goes to tend to them. They’ve come to pick up their weekly 35 dozen of the brown eggs to take to the church bible school where moms will each collect their order. They also place an order for three 800 lb. crates of windfall apples to be delivered for the church cider pressing party. They take with them the new herb catalog sheets you’ve printed up. They leave behind money, smiles and a request that they be allowed to come with several families to help gather those windfall apples.
The egg count this morning is 267. The afternoon collection needs to be at least 100 to fill the orders. The new cafe in town has asked for an increase from 12 dozen to 20 dozen a day. They say the strong color, shape and flavor of the eggs has their customers bragging about the old days. They can get eggs from the restaurant supplier at 1/3 the price but they want yours, have even asked if they can add a little blurb on your farm to their breakfast menu. You remember that morning a year ago when Tom said “we need 20 cents per egg to make this work” and you said “okay I’ll get .20 per egg”. $2400 dollars a month, half of which went into the girl’s college fund. Even you were surprised how well it was working. Five hundred laying hens, five hundred poults getting ready to start laying and a batch of five hundred chicks coming up as replacement. The layers are sold just as soon as the poults begin to lay regular. Tom joked that the money from the sale of laying hens should be set aside for yours and his own education with field trips to exotic locales. But a line had been drawn in the sand: Tom said “the sheep, the orchard, the herbs and our plans for the work horses must come first. If this egg business takes off we need to agree that it will get no bigger than what we have here. We don’t want it taking over and making us in to some industrial egg plant.” You knew he was right and agreed before his speech was made.
It was the herb patch which was creating the most excitement this season. You both weren’t sure when you switched to personal guarantees and warranties on your organic labeling how it would affect sales. The letter from the USDA had been particularly nasty but the attorney, paid with cut and wrapped warranteed organic lamb, had quieted the bureaucrats for now and the article in the newspaper had brought a whole bunch of new customers. There would be some challenges soon on how to dry and bag larger quantities but Tom had a great idea for a thirty foot long revolving wire ‘sandwich’ tray.
Your biggest challenge will come when the girls go off to start their own lives. You have talked long and hard about how to ‘maybe’ get one or both of them to want to stay on, or return to the farm. The outside world has its attractions but you are certain that the ‘ownership’ you’ve given the girls of many aspects of the place and the work should give the best chance of their return with, it is hoped, young families of their own. They have each picked out spots on the farm where they’d like to see their own future homes built.
In the beginning you thought it was unnecessary to include the girls in the twice a week evening budget talks with Tom. But you have to admit he was right, it has been very good for the young women to learn why and how certain choices are made. And their input has been useful and exciting. It was Jenny who suggested that time could be saved daily by building the short fence which created the lane giving the work horses a way to come, on their own, closer to the barn. Now instead of walking a quarter mile to halter and lead the horses back, usually they were waiting within 200 feet of the barn for halters and an open gate. She was proud and seemed to take credit for how the old team went straight to their own stall without being led. She timed herself and claimed 20 minutes of her time saved each work day, almost 6 hours a month! The math had spurred Tom to all sorts of calculations of how to be more efficient. He liked to say that Jenny had shown how they could gain a free farm worker just by saving steps.
Overall things on the farm are going quite well. Income is growing, especially when all the true value of the bartering is factored in. It had been your idea that each thing traded off or traded for should have an assigned value and be entered into the book work. Tom said, initially, ‘no, that wasn’t real money’. And you pointed out that it would have cost real money to pay to print the egg carton labels and those setting hens were worth real money. By factoring in all the less tangibles (including the girl’s labor paid as it was at below the market value, including the value of home consumed food, including dramatically reduced doctor’s bills, including all the labor and service trades) your 120 acre farm had brought in just under 200,000 dollars gross last year. Had only the cash in hand been counted the gross revenue would have registered as 110,000 dollars. You know these numbers mean less to you than the experience of living on, working with and sharing this right livelihood with your family. For that there is no dollar measurement.
But for many of us the dollar measurement is the roadblock.
PROBLEMS as OPPORTUNITIES
The two most common impediments to successful farming are:
- the cost and dictates of equipment or labor
- the cost and dictates of agri-chemicals and fuel
We are told by orthodox agriculture infrastructures and society’s aggressive misplaced assumptions that we must use sophisticated mechanization plus intensively and extensively applied chemicals if we are to have any chance of profitability. Fifty years have demonstrated that following these edicts results occasionally in a thin profit and often in insolvency. These two issues, equip/labor and chemicals/fuel, are challenges which many small farmers are able to convert to opportunities.
Folk are quick to bemoan the high cost of good farmland but generally accepting of the exorbitant costs of ag chemicals. Many in agriculture are quick to say that labor is simply an unworkable problem which can only be solved by increased mechanization replacing hands, backs, eyes, brains and gumption (in other words replacing people). And orthodox farmers are unable to see the deleterious effect of being saddled with short term debt to cover the exorbitant costs of new farm machinery and its upkeep.
Good farmland, even at thousands of dollars per acre, is, to the long-term family operation a good value. 2,500 dollars spent for the ownership of an acre of fertile ground feels okay if we measure it against $700 + per year per acre in chemical fertilizers, herbicides, fungicides, and genetically altered seeds. That acre can be and should be farmed without those expensive and destructive inputs. And it will pay for itself in a few short years if under the stewardship of farmers who are steadfast in their efforts to grow and maintain her fertility and health.
People belong in farming. It is a craft which flowers when artisans are in control. Hand labor should not be seen as expensive because, number one; it is a rented/offered living breathing participation and number two; the fabric and texture of the blanket of human beings working across the farmscape protects and restores and rebuilds the land and the ongoing processes of ‘place’ and ‘holding’. Elements which are difficult for most folks to quantify. Labor is easier to justify or accept when it is pointed out that today, as in the past, much of it will not need to be paid for out of pocket. Those people we referred to earlier who are anxious to “experience” the farm WANT to help, to work. And they don’t want money, some are even willing to pay for the opportunity, especially if ceremony and camaraderie and tradition are served up with the work. Especially if they feel part of a continuum. The experience, they suspect, IS the reward. Why should that be so difficult for us, as farmers, to understand? We know it to be true. Much of the work we do, the chores, the labors, are done with sustained fascination, enjoyment, even love. Inside we, again, feel almost apologetic for this, certainly undeserving. That’s wrong and it flies in the face of success.
The small farm which chooses to be labor intensive in creative and ingenious ways, rather than to be highly mechanized with store bought technologies, that farm will always be ahead of the game.
Don’t call them problems unless you’ve quit the challenge and are looking for the reasons to explain the failure. They are opportunities, they could be your opportunities.
Along near the end of a late summer working day, when the squashed shadows push out in directions opposite from the morning and good farmhouse supper works its way into the evening chore muscles, tired reflections may go in any direction. They may go to thankfulness for yet another day’s adventure with chosen work. They may go toward confusion and frustrations with breakdowns, setbacks and the sundry enemies of forward. They may go to sadness and loss. They may go to exhaustion. They may go to anxious excitement for tomorrow. But, good and bad, it’s all bonus, excess, sanctuary. And its all earned and deserved.
Our six year old daughter, Scout Gabrielle, sat on the living room floor humming with satisfaction. Her drawing was going very well. She looked up and said,
“This pencil has a great attitude for me.”
That is exactly what is available for us, possible for us, when we choose a small farm adventure as our right livelihood. We will know heaven on earth when we can say, and feel, that ‘this farm has a great attitude for me’. There will be no question of deserving the excess. It will be the reason you do what you do. It will be your sanctuary.