Small Farmer’s Journal: An Opposing Ripple
by Lynn R. Miller of Singing Horse Ranch
On the cusp: We are expected to look back, know the moment on which we stand and be somewhat better equipped to guess the near future of our efforts if only because we find ourselves in the anniversary mood. Excuses aside it is an opportunity which deserves somber attention.
Twenty years is a fair chunk of a human lifetime. Twenty years is a healthy age for a small business. Twenty years is an amazing age for a publishing business founded on the notion that the little guy belongs in farming and to heck with publishing norms let alone profit.
Small Farmer’s Journal has completed twenty years and it has done so against some monumental odds. And we who publish/edit/manage SFJ have come to this point well aware of the scars of loss, idiocy, and pride. We have been proud without just cause, we have been idiots without equal, and we have suffered losses poorly. But we would be bigger fools yet if we did not also see and appreciate our accomplishments for they point the way towards a success we might reasonably build upon.
Our accomplishments come in large part because of our unwavering, single-minded, small-headed purpose. We believe in small farms. Not just casually because they are worth having or saving. Not because the family farm (read small farm) is as American as apple pie and tortillas. We believe in small farms in a BIG way. We know that human society needs small farms for food security. We know that most humans need small farms for the right livelihood they offer. We know that rural communities die without small farms in their makeup. We know that human culture becomes self annihilating without a significant base of people who are true craftsmen at farming. We know that anyone who has a burning desire to be a farmer CAN, and SHOULD, be a farmer. We know that we can never have enough farmers. We know that the reservoir of human experience and knowledge as it pertains to farming is as valuable and fragile as any gene pool. We know these things and they explain, in part, how it is that we come to believe in small farms in a big way.
But on the surface we at SFJ are fallible silly humans no less susceptible to those moments of reflection that would rob us of the dignity of our larger pursuits. We are both rock hard and easily unsettled. And such an anniversary does give pause to wonder…
It is always a bit unsettling to reflect on the fact that this publication enjoys young avid readers who grew up in households where Small Farmer’s Journal was a regular fixture, something, in the best sense of the phrase, which was “taken for granted.” It’s an unsettling reflection because it denotes the passing of time, and because in some way it demonstrates that this publishing adventure does not now belong, and never has actually belonged, to those of us who put it together. It is possessed and allowed by those of you who embrace it and use it and defame it and praise it and honor it and laugh at it. You might reasonably ask how it is that young readers suggest some nebulous shift in ownership. Perhaps I can explain myself.
I listen to radio, and I love good radio, whether it be an insightful investigative piece, an intelligent interview or storytelling. Radio, gathered into certain minds, can be terrifically evocative. All of what is not actual radio-produced sound is blank canvas which belongs to the imagination of each listener. Each actual emitted sound, be it word or music or noise, is a catalyst that launches the receptive imagination to weave a background and foreground and sounding board. We are all susceptible to it. Can you remember a frequently heard radio voice to which you assigned a certain physical description, height, bulk, hair color, movement? And can you remember your reaction when you had occasion to actually see that person? Most likely a little voice in your head whispered “no, that’s not him, he’s taller and has a moustache…” You had taken possession of that radio persona, he or she belonged to your imagination, to your personal world of preferences and possibilities. Books and magazines do something similar. We all “read between the lines” and build the supporting cast and stage props of our preferences. To someone who has always known the Journal, and cannot remember a time without it, this magazine becomes even more a part of their imagination than for someone who discovered a Small Farmer’s Journal back issue a year ago at a garage sale. To further illustrate:
I fondly recall, some five or six years ago, walking across the equipment sale yard at Waverly, Iowa, with Vernon Matsen a senior horsefarmer and good friend. Vernon was anxious for the opportunity to introduce me to someone and would not be swayed from a moment he apparently had long savored. With a pregnant twinkle in his eye he grabbed the sleeve of a large older gentleman in overalls and said, “Wait a minute I’ve got someone here I want you to meet.” With that he made a generous soft sweeping arc with his free arm to “gather me in” to his moment. To set the stage he asked his friend,
“Remember that big magazine you and I like so well, Small Farmer’s Journal?”
“Of course I do,” responded the curious fellow eyeing me with some suspicion.
“Did ya ever meet the editor/publisher of Small Farmer’s Journal?” Vernon furthered queried, his eyes shooting anticipatory sparks.
“Well, yeah. See, Dad knew him real well.”
Vernon’s expression changed, went to disappointment. Then as though catching a thread he said,
“But your Dad’s been gone quite a long time now.”
“So…” responded the fellow.
“And this here’s Lynn Miller, he’s the editor of Small Farmer’s Journal.” Vernon said, clearly unhappy with how the introduction was going.
His friend looked me over slow while responding without a hint of hesitation or uncertainty.
“No he’s not. I tell you the editor of that magazine is a much older fellow, our age, and I should know because I remember him coming by the house, many years ago, for supper.”
Vernon jumped in, “No, you’re mistaken, you’re confusing Small Farmer’s Journal with some other publication. I’ve got every issue and it started around 1976. This young man here, Lynn Miller, started it. He’s been doing it ever since.”
A third man, who seemed to know both of them, came into the conversation circle with a pair of familiar nods.
“Vernon, you’re dead wrong. I know this magazine you’re talking about and it’s been on our table at the home place since I was a boy. It probably goes back sixty years or better,” he said still eyeing me suspiciously.
“What are you two talking about?” put in the third fellow.
“Vernon here says this young fellow claims to have started Small Farmer’s Journal – you know that big magazine we get that’s still carrying the horsefarming stuff – he claims he’s the editor and started it back in the 1970s.”
The new fellow doesn’t even look at me when he says, “Nope, can’t be so. Sorry, that man’s name was Lynn Miller and he died just a few years back.”
It’s beginning to feel like I’ve been dipped into a Mark Twain story.
Vernon, clearly frustrated, tries one last time to straighten the two of them out but they won’t hear of it and wander off a short distance. As I stand and sort insult from irony I see Bill Dean the auctioneer walking my way. The two disbelieving older farmers step into his path and I cannot hear them but I see as they ask Bill a question and look somewhat disgruntled as Dean points a finger at me and they realize…
One reason I have come to enjoy that story is because it was evidence for me of a success we may enjoy. In the beginning I could not have imagined it possible that this publication, for many folks, would become “timeless”, or without a time frame reference. But it’s true, this publication has a nature, a feel, a flavor that some might mistakenly take for nostalgic. More accurately this nature of which I speak makes of Small Farmer’s Journal something that will always be out of fashion, out of the mainstream, corny, never modern, never in style, always on the social perimeter somewhere. But somehow necessary, even if only occasionally. The embodiment of a nearly perfect contradiction: impertinent and pertinent, irrelevant and relevant – each because of the other. So small we’re actually big, full of ideas so big they are actually quite small.
“How did you come to start this magazine?” “What gave you the idea for a publication like this?” “How did this all begin?”
In twenty years no other questions have come close to the frequency with which I am asked these. And each and every time it stops me cold. It is as though I am well prepared for all other questions save these, even those for which I have no answers. I haven’t yet come to understand what it is about this question that bothers me, but it does. Perhaps, as is suggested by the anecdote above, I do prefer to imagine that this publication has “always been around”. Certainly what it stands for, its purpose and values, have been around for a long time – not at the forefront of society but as foundation and just behind the curtain waiting for moments of social acceptance.
Great, good, simple ideas. Tested ideas. Much maligned ideas.
- The top soil sustains us all.
- Farming is one of the noblest vocations and is best approached and revered as craft.
- Anyone who wishes so belongs as a farmer.
- The closer we are to our work as farmers the better craftsmen we might be.
- Working with nature is working with God.
- Good work well done is its own reward.
- The farm is an unparalleled classroom.
- Local communities of independent small farms are democracy.
- Everyone should have enough good food to eat.
Though I may have strung the words together for this writing these ideas did not originate in this limited brain, they are three thousand years in the repeating by more numerous important men and women than we dare attempt to list.
And to many of us certainly these ideas would seem welcome. Yet to most governments, large businesses, scientific organizations and even some churches these ideas are seen as dangerous and/or silly. The reason is crystal clear, these ideas empower all people and dilute or remove authority and artificial urgencies be they spiritual, political or market.
So, without reaching back to ancient Asia and Africa, what made this magazine odyssey first come to life? I have written before of first youthful experiences, those which I believe made me prone to the ideas I discovered. Many of the ideas came first hand from experiences with folks during my formative years. And readings which gave morter to the foundation included Knut Hamsen’s “Growth of the Soil”, Luis Bromfield’s books and especially the chapter “My Ninety Acres”, a circa 1968 article in Organic Gardening Magazine on the horsepowered MacFarland dairy farm, Sir Albert Howard’s “An Agricultural Testament”, turn of the century editions of Country Gentlemen magazine and the Breeder’s Gazette, the philosophies in part of Liberty Hyde Bailey, Emerson, Thoreau, Montaigne, Agee, Melville, Thomas Hardy, (the list keeps going around the corner and into dark dusty corners…).
But I feel awkward with the suggestion that somehow my experiences were unique and my conclusions were fresh and something new and grand was born from it all. It simply isn’t so. My experiences were common, many folks share similar ones. My conclusions aren’t particularly fresh, in fact they’re darn near stolen and in many circles old hat. And Small Farmer’s Journal has never been something new and grand – it hasn’t even tried to be. Small Farmer’s Journal was born and exists to give place to so much of the human spirit and vocation that is essential cliche, vital predictability, necessary insolvency.
I made the decision that I was to be a farmer. And I made the decision that this was to be but one ingredient to the makeup of my life. I never worshipped at the altar of specialization, in fact I find the arguments in favor of it to stem primarily from, and carry the same weight as, academic flatulence. The diversified life is the preferred existence. Some of my natural talents and acquired skills helped to make research and the gathering of sought after information easy for me.
Having made the conscious choice to employ work horses in harness as motive power for my farming I recognized that I would have to gather up the information I lacked. How to fit a harness – How to recognize a usable piece of older farm equipment – How to hook horses to those implements – What to feed my horses and when – How to tell if the boxings in a disc were bad – How to get my plow to run right – How deep to plant Oat seed in dry soil – Why certain names for horses were a mistake??? on and on and on… I would have to gather up this information because my research indicated that there was no public temple for this information, no place where relic technologies and skills were chronicled and cataloged. That was odd? So much beauty, value, and frailty in all the old knowledge – shouldn’t it be preserved, saved, stored? Certainly the old ways were path stones to most of what we take for granted today. If we ever needed to retrace our steps, if we ever needed to relearn obsolete skills, or redesign some mechanical principle, wouldn’t a store house of all that went before be valuable? I can hear myself thinking more than twenty years ago, “someone ought to be doing this”. In my youthful certitude and arrogance I set about writing letters suggesting certain “logical” candidates do just this. I was ignored and laughed at, as probably I deserved.
Meanwhile I collected old catalogs, manuals, journals, books, magazines to aid me in my education to be a good small farmer who followed harnessed horses. People heard about my little farm efforts and sought me out because they wanted to know how they could learn these things they thought I had mastered. I was no master. Even today I am only just allowing myself to wonder if I might be a journeyman at this trade. But I did know where others could find the information. And I remember asking myself “why doesn’t someone do a newsletter or magazine that would help folks learn the appropriate technologies and skills they need to make a go of small farming. We need more small farmers so this would be a good thing. I’ll write to folks and talk to others and see if I can get someone to do this…”
It never entered my mind, in those beginning days, that I might do such a project because I knew nothing of publishing or “journalism” or writing. But, as increasing numbers of people sought me ought – and more “experts” told me such an idea would never fly – and as I grew more and more certain that this needed doing… One day I dummied up a make believe issue of something I called The Practical Horsefarmers Journal and took it around to various friends to see what reaction I got. Two people reacted favorably, my father Ralph Miller, and a toymaker friend Robert Lee.
It was Robert who said to me, “Why are you calling it this? This is not what you’re always talking about. It’s not horsefarming that you think’s going to save the world, it’s small farmers. Right? So why not call it the Small Farmer’s Journal?”
“But, Robert, that sounds awkward, dumb, just a little corny, doesn’t it?”
“And Practical Horsefarmers Journal doesn’t sound dumb?” he responded.
“Well, do you think anyone is going to even look inside a magazine called Small Farmer’s Journal?”
“Wait a doggoned minute! You told me that this was something that needed doing and would probably never make a nickel. Do whatever you’re gonna do but I think it’s a mistake to start out pretending to be something LESS than what you have in mind. My advice is call it what it is, do it honestly, and let it become whatever it’s going to become. If it has pretty pictures in it of big mules working in harness and people buy it who don’t give a fig for small farms so what? You will at least have answered you call to service, as you put it.”
In my discussions with Dad, he was terrifically supportive yet wanting to be realistic. He agreed completely with Robert’s suggestion. But it was his additional concern that I understand this publication would have a relatively short life span (5 to 10 years) AND most important that quickly both the magazine and its editor on paper (they me that people think they know from a distance) will belong totally to the readers. They would make of both what they willed and for me to struggle against that tide was publishing suicide. Dad was right on the second count and fortunately wrong on the first. Completion of this first twenty years has clearly shown that the future of this publication is beyond measure both in terms of the need for it and the content available.
So I stuck my scrawny neck out and started up this publication with a few basic operational and format tenets in hand; I wanted it to be consistent in appearance as well as content, I wanted advertising subverted to the role of editorial service, I wanted enough time between issues to MAYBE farm, and at the first possible opportunity I wanted to be fully prepared to hand over the reins to that person, sure to come along, who’d be emminently qualified to make an honest woman of this publication. Well, I offered the job to Eric Nordell and he was kind enough not to laugh in my face.
Borrowed money against the farm, started the publication, quickly got into financial straights – refused to “get real” as the bankers and advisers admonished. Then many folks stepped up to help and we crawled through the swamp of debt to where, today, we are almost clear of our bigger mistakes.
And I’m proud to say we never lost sight of our purpose, our reason for being.
Given our stated purpose for this magazine, how do we measure success? We are a small business which believes scale is an issue of paramount importance in all things civilized. And we know the importance of contradiction. For example, though we are aware that the Small Farmer’s Journal is a silly little effort measured against the whole of agriculture, the human condition and any sense of what is universal, we also believe that little changes we cause or influence may lead to staggering compounded effects. We see ourselves as insignificant and of vital importance all at the same time. If we have helped anyone make the move towards an independent small farm adventure we can claim success. The knowledge that we may have influenced and/or helped hundreds and perhaps even a few thousand, is staggering and at the same time humbling.
Yet, is it enough that we may have influenced a few families to try a make a life for themselves on a independent small farm holding? Or put another way, are we doing disservice by not giving equal space to the discussions about good farming and better farming?
So I see this point in time as an opportunity for us to rededicate Small Farmer’s Journal to all that it has stood for and to add a promise that we shall work harder on trying to affect change on a wider, larger scale.
In this issue we have reprinted the first part of Sir Albert Howard’s book The Soil and Health. In it Howard refers to the “chain”: soil is the first link, plant life is the second link, animal life is the third link, and human populations make up the fourth link. In this model, as in real life, we are truly “dependent” on the natural world, on our understanding of it, on our ability to work with it and within it. Howard shows us, as others have, that we must have a clear focus on what is important, what is of value.
The top soil is the undisputed foundation of all life. We MUST value it. We must value the knowledge, inherited and born of experience, which allows us, compels us, to protect and build the top soil. When this happens, when we have good farmers improving the soil, we will see the floor laid for a new and better society of man.
Mankind contains within its history a magically powerful repository of farming information, born of well rewarded, unprejudiced inquiry and poetic curiosity, which, if put into full swing by many small farmers spread out across the global landscape, could heal the planet – build the top soil to unimagined levels of fertility – grow amazing crops – provide the basis for guaranteeing every human the basic right of enough food to eat – restore the planet’s fresh water aquifer – and perhaps put science, industry and government where they belong, in true service to humanity.
But this can only be accomplished if values are kept well guarded and held to. To this end today’s science and industry may well be our enemies.
Modern life continually illustrates that unrestrained, unlimited scale of human endeavor in the guise of industrial productivity creates an atmosphere which leads toward the wholesale compromise of values. The corporate ethic is pure poison to a sustainable civilized society as well as to the life of this planet.
And modern science works too often to rationalize the expediencies of industry. It is not that there is a problem with science as an intellectual arena for mankind (good place to park the brain for grey matter lube job), or that all individual scientists are immoral or unethical (some of the nicest people I know are scientists) but rather that science shackled to industry (and her evil twin sister “pretended governmental largess”) stands in the way of true progress to a healthful farmscape and a truly democratic society.
The scientific community reports, for example, that 1.2 billion people worldwide are without access to clean drinking water. Scientists would have us believe that this is because there is not enough water to suit the population’s demand; that the world’s fresh water supply is being depleted – used up by all those poor people. When in fact scientific data does clearly indicate that industrial abuse (read pollution resulting from blind pursuit of profit) and society’s dangerous negligence of natural (biological) law are entirely to blame. A restoration of the top soil and the resultant rebirth of forests and general plant life would account for a massive global realignment of the water retentive properties of the planet’s skin. Add to this the application of appropriate regional technologies for the storage and handling of this water and the problem becomes historical. Scientists know this, but they have chosen to align themselves with those who pay the largest salaries and they cannot be bothered. Some in government know this but cowardice is rewarded by job security.
There is much to learn but we must be careful who we allow to teach us. Today, most of us are educated for the convenience of corporate industry and the profligation of governmental excess. We are not educated to know, live and enjoy a healthful constructive moral life of value. If we know how to live a healthful life, wealth and wisdom would result. If we would all live a healthy life industrial and governmental interests would suffer for lack of constituency. They’d have no one to rule and manipulate. They may not fully understand this but government and industry needs to keep control over our education if they are to control all of society. We know this and must work to protect education, not by limiting what is taught but by holding a complete and diverse education as sacred. Given the whole story understood it is amazing how the human being will exalt him or herself. Given a piece of the story built upon violence, selfishness, desperation and the inevitability of failure is it any wonder our young people struggle to ornament desperation? It may seem far flung to speak of modern social ills in the same breath as top soil and good farming but they are connected and blood flows, or should flow, freely through.
Feed the soil well and abundantly for it is the foundation of all life and the stage for all society.
Abuse the soil and the consequence is disease and death. Abuse the soil and the consequence is further famine, drought and pestilence. Abuse the soil and the consequence is also hunger and poverty. Abuse the soil and the consequence is erosion and bankruptcy. Abuse the soil and the consequence includes the rise of corporate fascism and the desertion of small towns. Abuse the soil and hand over full control to government.
Today’s news is full of nasty accounts of how Miami and Washington D.C. are falling completely apart. People seem to be pleading with the federal government to step in and take control. Hope has become a cultural curiosity. It doesn’t need to be this way.
When we tune up our agricultural practice and return the soil to an abundance of fertility the result is great increase in the production of healthful food. When the FULL nutritional requirements of ALL people are met, with their own participation in its production, a healthy, robust, society is the result. This can only be done if everyone who wishes to live and work on an independent farm is given opportunity. When this happens each willing participant will have a stake in a larger good resulting in the most democratic of capitalist models with activism the norm.
Most of modern humanity’s problems would quickly dissolve if the restoration of the planet’s top soil became the first priority of all the world’s governments and peoples. The disparity today between those of us with adequate food to eat and those with little or none is huge and horrid. But so also is the gulf between those who choose to, and are able to, eat fresh foods of full nutritional value and those whose diet is made up of industrially produced substances of little or no healthful or nutritional value.
The small farm model which we champion is not just for North America or the so called “first world”. All the nations and peoples of the world are better served by the model of small independently held and operated farms.
It is a paradox that the animal powered agricultural methods we endorse through this publication, as appropriate small farm technologies, are seen as backward by developed and developing nations alike. Agribusiness is failing to feed even those with the money to throw away on synthetic substances disguised as food. Agribusiness in Ghana, Botswana, Paraguay, Bosnia, Thailand, and Belize will, if it hasn’t already, destroy the remaining threads of cultural diversity and strength while rendering millions more to the waste bins of poverty. If, on the other hand, just a little of the animal-powered technologies we take for granted could be shared with developing nations think of the social benefits resulting from millions of people once again able to feed themselves?
If draft (or draught) animals could be allowed just a little more comfort in their working harness – if the plow would cut a wider furrow with greater ease – if the harvestors had the use of a sharp well-balanced scythe – or if the grain could be cut and tied into bundles by a simple machine that was pulled by the resident work animals – and if simple small field rotations could be designed to fit the cultural needs of an indigenous farmer while demonstrating to the village the intrinsic value of increased fertility – if… if…
They are opposing ripples. And I do feel that for the next twenty years it is our responsibility to throw the stones that will cause those opposing ripples for the result will be a place to live and love.