Small Batch Farming
by Lynn R. Miller of Singing Horse Ranch
photos by Kristi Gilman-Miller and husband
I have several cabinets of small drawers in my shop. One of those immediately came to mind when we discovered that a drive chain for our sixty year old irrigation system had snapped its connecting link. In that aforementioned cabinet I have a drawer where I keep new and old roller chain repair links of just about any size you would want for old farm machinery. The chain link which broke was a number 41 roller chain, rather small. Checking the drawer I came up empty. Both Eric and Scout, on separate trips to the local hardware store, purchased repair links for me. Within the target size there are many variables. The repair links at today’s inflated prices cost around $3 each. When I got the right size and fixed the chain my daughter said “I can take the others back and get you a refund.” “Nope,” I said, “We’re farming, so I’ll put them in the drawer, somebody someday will be glad we have the right size here. And someday a lame-brained society will decide we don’t need hardware stores anymore.”
I remember, years ago having an opportunity to purchase hardwood mower pitman arm blanks long enough for a farmer to cut to size, drill and put on any make or model of horse mower. I bought them for a pittance and put them all in old long wooden ammo crates. ‘Thuther day I had reason to research JD tractor mower pitman sticks for a friend. I bought those aforementioned blanks in the nineties for $.75 a piece and, same time frame, pre-drilled sticks, to size, for $7 ea. Today those same sticks are selling for $28 to $40 a piece. I paused and congratulated myself on my treasure chests of repair links and pitman sticks, and because I remain indentured to my brain, I let my thoughts wander to all those other “things,” critical and instrumental to the life of this small farmer, all those things that are resources of the first measure. Real ‘money’ in scattered stored box and drawer banks. Perhaps I sound like a hoarder. I don’t want to get into that discussion. I’m only interested in how these interior realities help others to understand what it means to be a small farmer, and just maybe how it is that we, they, are so critically important to the human life of this precious planet.
After a bite of lunch, I’m thinking about these pieces and these realities sitting on our porch taking a breather when I see maybe a six-month-old coyote pup not 150 feet away, wandering through the summer grass, nose in the air, headed straight towards mama’s chicken house. She steps out on the porch and I point it out. She goes inside and gets her firearm returning to shoot just ahead of the pup to turn it back and cause it to run for cover. She wants the pup to eat the gophers. She’s determined to prevent it from eating her laying hens and peafowl.
All I do is sit there like a lump. No need for me to do or say anything. We’ve got this routine down pat.
Last night our year-old, very smart Corgi pup Addie whimpered and gently woofed, scratching at bed edge trying to wake us up. Nothing seemed to quiet her. We went back to sleep and then she went to the doors and windows barking. The routine went on most of the night. Riley, our big, most times predator ‘warn-em-away,’ dog, was silent. Which translated to whatever was out there was too small or airborne to be of concern to him, that family of three great horned owls for instance.
But I did finally go outside into the darkness, with both dogs worried by my side. The wide black silence of the night wasn’t silent. It was filled with sounds – over there, some distance, were the three coyote pups rustling the nighttime sagebrush with their trashy yapping. And in close were small nervous sounds in trees, under the house, in the barn. I imagined that those owls, perched high up on the hay stacker, were hissing through their staring eyes, that peafowl that should’ve been asleep were carefully offering cautionary whispered calls hoping not to give up their positions. That the three young roosters, still unsure about the rules governing the relationship between changing light and announcing calls, were testing their black-of-night throats from shedded perch. I sensed that there were small animals under the canopy of Kristi’s great green pumpkin, cuke and squash planting, huddled and reassuring each other.
And then came the first throttled scream. Quickly followed by many more. One animal, but what was it? Perhaps a dying deer, or a trapped cougar cub, a bobcat in a jaw trap, or a dog giving birth in a bow hunter’s Subaru, or …? Was it coming from our barn?
Went into the house for flashlight and pistol and when I went back outside, prepared to walk to the barn, all was silent. I mean really silent. Like a master switch had been thrown. Can’t explain to you why, but I knew I was not supposed to go to the barn. I can tell you that moments like these assure me that we are alive, and doing exactly what God meant us to do. We are farmers at a scale that matches our abilities, reflexes, our prayers, our membership in nature.
We live and work on this small remote forest ranch, no neighbors for five miles. Our day by day wildlife interactions have evolved to a point where we understand we have to do for ourselves, take measures to protect, out-wiley the wiley, and we know what that means because it brings pain to our best and most essential humilities.
But those interactions, though flavor and identify they do, are but cloth over the labors that must go into the daily work. The walking, the lifting, the prying loose and tightening, the listening to changes in mechanical rhythms, the attention to the horse’s breathing, the forced patience as we pick worms from the tomato plants, the smelling for joy and caution, the worried ewe’s pleading call to her lamb, the push back against the panics when we know the season is running out and the barn is not full, the swallowed small pride when the customer at the farmer’s market berates your choice of variety, the catch in our breathing when market day is done and we have unsold produce to load back in the truck, the way we needle ourselves about the coming property tax bill, or we cradle our first fears when our magnificent old gelding shows his first irreversible infirmity, the smile wide happiness when, on that Saturday – hours before close – you have sold out every single item you brought to market.
For me such lists lead me to gratitude for this life of small batch farming. The diversities enrich. The vagaries educate. The uncertainty of it all has its own way of keeping us going. Our choice of scale is what gives us this fragile balance. And how do we know what scale works?
The cusp is the thing. That point at which, either direction is too far. That way is too much, this way is too little. The balancing point. With small batch or human scale farming the sides of the cusp are felt like a visit to a recent healing wound, touch it, go there, and you are reminded that something is wrong, was wrong. Work with your long since hurting hands, see into and through the dust and mud with your eyes and mind and feel you are on the cusp. Having your back scold you for holding the harvest postures too long. Whimper to discover your best stock have died unexpectedly. Cry out shaking, in the distant field when you first understand that help once taken for granted is now gone, when you understand that by necessity you have been a fool. And at the same time understand you were never completely in charge, you were just fortunate enough to be calling some shots while seeing the wider plan.
On the cusp, inside that balancing point, allowing the working recipe that has you do what you can do today while teasing forward a little advance on tomorrow’s portion, you are inside your little dominion and seldom want to invite those wider outside questions in to deflate your useful vest of up-close emotions. But you can’t help it. In they come.
‘Mankind?’ Can we change that word to something like ‘man-sort’ or ‘man-mean’ (as in average)?
Yes, it is altogether possible for humanity to be a benefit TO nature and the health of the planet. And this is the goal for which we small farmers consciously and subconsciously struggle to find road maps to share. One ‘way’ is a participatory farming and gardening as communion with all that lives. But such participation comes with luggage of hurt and requires an immense reservoir of positive will and conscious diligence.
Communion has seldom been the case these last five thousand years. During that time people have worked to serve their own needs, and that work has been, for the most part, selfish, outsized, destructive, malevolent, idiotic, mean-spirited, discordant, greedy, and power mad. It has not been ‘good’ to nature and the planet. It most certainly has not been good to fellow men. Why should such observations matter? Can the whole of humanity be wrong here today as we have been wrong so many times over this all too short 5,000 year modern experiment?
If people, in the proverbial and narrative sense, have a penchant for goodness may we refer to that as a behavioral characteristic? And is this something genetic? Or is it earned from our social environment? Is it the result of ‘parlorized’ war where manners dress up the evil along with the ill-at-ease? Is goodness but a meat-eater’s slow-boil complacency? …
We struggle to escape the limits of branding and name calling, we do not want to be branded as this or that. But, silly us, we need, in this modern age, to be exceptional in the most frivolous light-tissued of ways … Hear those voices? “I have millions of followers and I don’t do anything. I’m more than a small farmer!” Farming is like some sort of tangential pronoun that best goes before or immediately after ethnicity. “I am a black farmer – she is a Japanese farmer – they are Chiappan Mayan farmers – you call them Turkish farmers but aren’t they actually Anatolian farmers with a heritage running back 11,000 years?”
And the voices of disorientation continue: “Don’t call me a publisher, call me a podcaster! I’m not an artist unless I allow professionals to define me as such. I don’t know many professionals we can agree are professional.” All definitions are subject to the Foley food mill of identity crisis.
But none of this is actual, not like the maintenance/gain of fixing what is broken and oiling what squeaks, or getting the livestock where they need to be, or being there to make all the gardening work count – being there before the plants bolt. Or living at summer’s end with the piles and piles of produce that cascade upon the successful small farmer all in the bat of an eye.
Time is ours unless we turn it over to the conniving of convenience. Distance is the great dilutor. It strips us of our ability to see and value up close. Regain time and short-distance and so much of the world’s ills shrivel and die. The answer has always been little people loving small tasks with a goal of handing off the remainders as treasure in exchange for smiles and the good ‘while’ as noun. But bean counters design our philosophies, the economics eat away at the best motivations. Economists have been deciding our collective paths for centuries. Economists who haven’t a clue how to value anything. How did that happen?
Many larger universities and colleges have been complicit in the destruction of the world’s habitat. In their symbiotic relationship with corporate largess, their coin-oiled board room pet-and-giggle sessions have, for two hundred years, given marching instructions to academics who have provided the justification and ‘get out of jail free’ cards for the rampant industrial search and seizure of not only all natural resources and health care but also the fragile heart of the human spirit. From assembly lines to an endless sea of plastic. From the poisons of war to the poisons for agribusiness. From the boondoggle of electric vehicles to the vulgar spectator sport of social networking, from the nationalization of weaponry to the colonization of ethnicity, nothing that has been done equals the insidious and lasting destruction of the garden-planet’s climate, fertility and diversity.
“What are we doing here?” Absent a grand plan for humanity’s next chapters on Earth, the balance beam measuring collective motivations seems all out of whack. There’s a big part we call Greed (or personal gain), another we call Nationalism (or cruel bombast), a third we call Revenge (or messing in our pants), a fourth we call Connivery (stealing from children), and a small fifth we call Communion (as in with nature, with each other, with a view for a better future).
We are speaking of today with the earned faith that a new and widespread allowance of small individual human farming endeavors, in communion with others and respectfully synchronized with nature, will give us our best and certainly most sustainable tomorrow.
The ‘money’ dream of endless industrial growth has reached an apex at a fractured bridge across the deepest canyon of human thoughtlessness. Government, governance, big business, industry, banking and the cyber-universe have failed the planet and set humanity up as a several-billion-long closely-stood domino run. A flick of the finger and…?
I farm, or willingly struggle to farm. By many choices made I farm in the smallest of ways. I farm up close and personal. Not speaking of measure. Rather I work with a fistful of recipes for small batch farming much as others might do small batch brewing or cookies or cement mixing. And the aim is not for these small batches to add up to something larger. It is rather to see each small endeavor, project, undertaking, recipe or process be the best it might be and individual in its worth. It is also that the scale of the endeavor match the size of the heart for the work. It’s good stuff. The scale and nature of the work appreciates and demonstrates the value of each person’s say, this input, this effort, this vote – it is good stuff. It is, for the wider world, healing stuff as small batch farming, with all that such must imply, makes of each participating human – all the many billions – nursing janitors of nature. It takes the toxic digitized-plastic of capitalist accounting and renders it absorbent and biodegradable. It, where it may, ignores the many dragons of industry. It, where it shall, allows hope and hopefulness to take root. Yes, there will be unavoidable harm from the wars, famine, pestilence and spiritual vacuum humanity has built for itself, but over time the small batch farmers will return nature to fullest healthy control and just maybe restore humanity to humanity.
Small Batch Farming is analog adventure and produces healthy scabs. Our skin is strong and important to us. We small batch farmers use our elbows, feet, legs, hands and shoulders knowing they will likely bruise and cut. We welcome the scabs that form there to allow for healing. The scabbing marks us, we think of them as disappearing badges of honor and distinction. Digital warriors, priests and neutered drones are evolving rapidly with no ability to scab. Augmented reality does not cut or bruise. The skin of such quasi-mammals is superfluous as, perhaps is their mammalian membership.
Billions of ‘little’ people have no say in their personal lives, no effective vote, no representation in the governments and governing that could have positive effect on climate change, pollution and the devastation and poisonings from our factories. With capitalist credit-boogery causing wholesale hunger and the immoral store-bought pragmatism of judges annealing – as they do – human temperaments, we see our wars propped and pushed by media, even preventable diseases are morphed prime time to pandemic proportions.
So here is where I see a new spring where those countless worth-seeking humans join the flush of leaf and flower and deliver us from our evil.
Ah, would that this new spring, whereof
The leaves and flowers flush into shoot,
I might have succour and aid of Love,
To prune these branches at the root,
That long have borne such bitter fruit,
And graft a new bough, comforted
With happy blossoms white and red;
So pleasure should for pain atone,
Nor Love slay this tree, nor instead
Plant any tree, but this alone.
– Francois Villon circa 1460
With this intense heat, it took only one day to realize routines had to be restructured. The three to four hours of each day’s worst heat had to be spent under cover with whatever natural cooling might be found. The field, crop, livestock and barn work had to be pushed to well before and into the waning of daylight. Even choices of harvest, tillage, prunings, waterings and flock-moves had to take the heat into ultimate account. Our routines are tested.
There’s this barely visible grid I see, most every day. I like to think that it holds me, us, on course. Sometimes, weary days of heat, fatigue, loss, calamity and confusion see that frame melt and slough away. While that useful grid never answers, in my mind it does offer an order of sorts, providing assurance and glimpses of a clarity I can use and have used over and over again. This framework is not about how the external world fits over us, it’s about how our values guide us through the indifferent yet sometimes welcoming external world.
Those of us who aren’t very smart, who have to focus always to hold to bits of understanding and rules that suit, we are fortunate if the daily work is complimentary adhesive. And small batch farming is a glorious compliment.
P.S. ‘So give me a list.’
and the Albatross
are all more important
than human convenience.