by Lynn R. Miller of Singing Horse Ranch
Over these last twenty-seven years we have seen, and heard of, many examples of boomerang lives. Specifically speaking tales of people who made passionate and reasoned choices to become independent farm operators only to leave after awhile to return to urban lives and then, with the passage of time and the morphing of rationale, to look longingly back at those left-behind farm lives. Their farming ventures were originally left for myriad reasons; failures with farming, pursuit of money, family, ideas, stimuli, fashion, health, romance, friends, therapy, etc. Often the diagnosis involved too much stress. What’s most important in the story is that so many come to wish they had never left the farming adventure, or that they’d like to return somehow. There’s information there about what manner of beast we all be. And it’s important because we need to hold on to every single farmer while we attract and assist new ones. For these reasons we need to understand why we have these “boomerang” lives.
Industry and organized religion have whipped us into short-sighted followers. Industry says hurry up and religion says obey. We are told we must narrow our focus to a particular vocation or discipline and work hard on that one thing otherwise we will diminish our chances for success. The man who would be a cabinet maker and a botanist is asking for trouble. The woman who would be a dancer and a cellist is doomed. The child who would pursue automotive engineering and poetry is labelled a self-destructive curiosity. The best and most dynamic individual examples of diverse enterprise are frequently hidden from full view as an act of self preservation. We succumb to the pressures of family and community and deny the truth of our potential. We follow, short-sighted, the social edicts of our time. The result is often an unhappy life ironically even when we are immersed in the work of our choice.
Alexander Borodin was a Chemist and a Surgeon, but we perhaps know him best as a classical composer of the highest rank. We measure him today by the lasting power and grace of his music. By accounts he was a happy fulfilled man. Yet in his day, peers within the communities he worked would have doubtless wondered about his seriousness pointing to his various vocations as indication that he seemed spread thin. I prefer to think of him as spread thick.
I am a painter and a horseman and a farmer and an author and a publisher and an editor to name but a few aspects of my life. When I say all these things together in mixed company, no single aspect of my life is allowed full measure of serious regard. I am seen by some friends and neighbors and strangers as diluted and mixed up, someone who hasn’t been able to make up his mind. I offer the example to illustrate the point. In my case, my life is so full and busy and dynamic that how others might see the larger shape of my efforts cannot and will not change my course. But for others struggling to design a life and make vocational choices, peer or social pressure often wins out.
So for the beginner the turn to farming frequently takes on the demanding aspects of a discipline requiring absolute and solitary devotion if for no other reason than the assurance that this is the only way to make it pay. Push push push. “We’re market gardeners and nothing more but certainly nothing less. We need more broccoli and carrots and fewer weeds and it must happen TODAY! Get everything else out of the way. Time’s running out. There are bills to pay. Why can’t we get paid what this stuff is worth? Why is it so hard to get good help? WHY WHY WHY?” This is unfortunate. This is deadly.
Most humans have various interests. The strongest examples of diverse lives show us a blending of different interests into a complimentary whole. And the blending can mitigate and even remove the stress. Because I sell beef and work horses and rebuilt mowers as well as paintings and books and magazines, the variety of my efforts reduces stress. And the variety of small chunks of income takes the pressure off a run to scale. I need fewer cattle and fewer magazines to get by. We forget that scale begets scale. And we are blinded to how push begets push, and anxiety begets anxiety,
We would like to make an argument for diversity of human pursuit. And lay the claim that such diversity would protect the valuable resource we know as our growing farm community. Protect it by allowing for a human scale to our endeavors, a human speed to our endeavors.
If you are planning for, or well into, a life of farming, don’t shut out other interests, other needs. Find ways that the farming may bridge and invite and allow time for other pursuits connected or not. Play the cello and pick the beans, be the pastor of the church, a small engine mechanic and raise sheep, write for the local newspaper, make knives, be a basketball coach, and raise grapes. To do less than allow your interests to flower is to literally stunt your growth and perhaps inevitably to regret the farming.
With agriculture, to always push for maximum production and profitability with one or two crops and a specialized target; that’s industrial by definition.
To gracefully gather, nurture, bunch, pile, trim, nap, digress, nudge, cover, choose, hum, stir, read, follow, measure, wash, allow, pick, and water that’s farming by definition.
Industrial forces frequently deaden the human spirit.
The forces of a true farming should allow the human being as source, as work, as complete. But the farming can become no less stressful, no less hurtful if our attitude is intense speed, the false efficiencies of scale, and assembly line thinking. We need to give our farming room to breathe and fulfill itself. We need to slow down and spread ourselves out as thick as our interests might allow. If we live or die by our milk check or our raspberry income or our U-pick income or by our CSA receipts we are begging for stress and misery. If our milk check is offset by a few dollars earned working Saturdays at the local bookstore and by the sale of a quilt through the mail and by a part-time nursing gig, life will be more akin to a hand woven blanket than a plastic bag.
More than a dozen years ago I visited the late Parker Sanborn in Maine. He took me around his lovely Jersey dairy farm and explained that life had become better for them when they went to seasonal grass dairying, taking winter’s off, and throwing away their ingrained notions of high production cows opting instead for long lived cows and better quality milk produced with less labor and less cost. His careful observations and thoughtful inquiries had revealed that so much of the efforts went to pay the costs of so much of their efforts. And then they realized they didn’t need to produce their own hay, they could trade a neighbor for hay, take one more step away from stress and put time into spreading manure on the pastures with the Percheron mares. This gave the family time for other interests and the harmony and regenerative aspects of a farming life. Parker had found the recipe for true success and it required all natural ingredients blended or folded slowly with a long wooden spoon.
My take on Parker’s recipe? Let the farming portion of your life’s adventure be good to you.
If the whole of agriculture is like a watershed,
its rain and melt-off
creeping through hungry drinking roots
and the escaping moisture
forming streams, creeks and lakes
which shape the landscape
as they ultimately rush to join one another
and form powerful rivers
racing to merge
with the huge expanse
of the oceans and seas,
the work we might do as small independent farmers is like the rain,
like the melt-off,
like the unadulterated streams and creeks and the pristine lakes.
The work we might do as small independent farmers is source work,
it is about beginnings,
corny as it may sound its about creation and adventure and life.
It is at the core of all the best which is and might be for the human condition
and the planet health.
Most modern men and women of the developed world are far removed from source work. They are along for the ride that a closeted life might provide. They often die tragically without having been involved in the shepherding of life force. They live insane lives in tightly congested insane communities. And they wonder after their own health, their own sanity, the education and development of their children, and the degradation of the natural environment around them. They wonder after these things but they put the larger urgency and negative energy, the worry, on a list headed up with income, possessions, appearances, associations, and position. They believe that if a life at the source were available it would have a very big price tag. To own a farm, and work as a farmer requires, they erroneously believe, a great deal of money. To get that large sum of money, they erroneously believe, they must continue to live and work in the tightly congested corporate insanity, the same insanity which does not want to let them leave. They allow themselves to be trapped in a circle.
Assurance is a nebulous, shapeless, ever changing often negative thing. We want assurances that everything will be as we believe it should be. Or, that failing, we at least want assurances that if we work THIS hard we will end up with THIS as our reward. Someone or something offers us up the idea of assurance, “yes, senor, I assure you it will turn out this way.” Churches, bosses, schools, doctors, friends?, pop idols, pimps, pushers, dog trainers, dance instructors, lecturers, teachers, writers, editors, mothers, fathers, and realtors all want us to know just exactly how it is and will be, they offer us good or bad assurances. We proceed and ‘lo and behold’ it doesn’t happen as it should have! What happened to that assurance? It didn’t evaporate. It never existed as a thing, as a guarantee or warranty or certainty to begin with. It was a promise half made. Yet, men and women still seek and are governed by offered external assurance. “I just want you to tell me it will be okay.”
If it is an understood goal that an individual is to become a farmer/craftsman, he or she must first be an individual, independent, self-assured. That is not to say or suggest self-deluded. That is to say someone who believes, realistically or otherwise, that what needs doing can be done and is worth attempting.
And someone who does not need constant external reassurance.
As farmers and craftsmen we work at the source and on the source. And we are the source. We are artesian if we allow ourselves to be. We bubble up as if out of the ground, as if from some mysterious hidden pressurized fountain head. We are at the beginning of the flow. And at the same time we cup the flow in our hands and drink from it.
And we feed fertility and we are fertility. We hasten reproduction in plants and animals. We, ourselves, reproduce. We set the stage for multiplication, division, addition. We use subtraction as a sculptor would use a carving knife, to shape and design and suggest.
One foot flat to the ground, all weight on the opposing knee, leaning forward and over the anxious plant, palm of the left hand caressing the spikey curvature of too adventurous a spring growth, right hand clipping and shaping, a picture of craft. That brain is filled with an experience-driven understanding of the likely result of such effort. The air is filled with warmth and small sounds and odors which think they are fog-like. At the more appropriate time this farmer knows he will return to the plant and clip long flowered stems of the herb to gather into a bunch for drying. Cause and effect, purpose and outcome, resolve and result. But sometimes, perhaps even often, not so direct, not so easy, not so comforting.
One day the egg production falls off by half. A few days later a hen dies and several are looking ill. And on that day the old stallion walks with a staggering difficulty as if his spinal cord is pinched. These things are tended to with diligence yet with little gain. Add to this the broken drive chain, the failing hydraulic pump, the irrigation pump bearing’s new scream, the mold in the grain, and the long gash across the palm of the hand from the errant barb wire.
But the clover and the grasses are coming on very nicely and the new hives will be set soon. And all the materials are at hand for the work to commence on the new pig house. And the fence rail is flattened on each end and drilled to received the spikes which will hold it to the waiting fence posts. Working alone this farmer balances the rail on two temporary nails and backs up to visually check for level. Looks good. Feels good. Nail it.
Yet the dry bean crop leaves curl around the beetle chew marks and begin to wither. And two of the turkeys are found dead with obvious signs of hawk or owl. One of the work mares walks with difficulty on what is discovered to be an abscess. And the well comes up dry…
The reserves from the sale of steers and herbs come in handy to drill a new and better well. The potato crop is outdoing itself this year. Glorious is an appropriate word. The lambs are gaining quickly on the legumes and the new four point barb wire, stretched tight at ground level, seems to have slowed the neighbor’s dog. A replacement transmission for the old hay truck has been given by a neighbor. And the old favorite work mare has an easy birthing giving what will surely be her last foal. The farmer’s daughter names the perfect new foal ‘Pecos Bill’. The foal is a filly.
The farmer instructs his children that they must never tell anyone that they are saving back seed from their own plants. They ask why and he tells them they will know the answer another day, it is enough now for them to understand that they keep this secret so that they may keep their farm.
A neighbor comes distraught. He has tried with unabated passionate attraction but, after two years, it just seems like things will never come to profit, to resolve, to fruition, to calm, to competency. He knows what he wants. What he must have. And it seems that the only thing preventing his arrival is his own inadequacy. He wants his farm to work. And he wants to feel safe and competent with his team of work horses. He’s read all the books, attended clinics and workshops, and still he has a constant struggle each and every time he goes to harness the team and go to the field. He’s exhausted by a combination of anxiety and fear, frustration and confusion. It doesn’t come from the knowledge base. After two years of harnessing and hitching, and many hours of actual field work he has a good grasp of the mechanics. He knows how to properly adjust the harness, how to fit the collar, how tight to fasten the hame straps, the proper angle for the traces, he knows all these things through trial and error and correction and repetition. These details are not his problem any longer. His problem is that he’s unable to relax with the horses. He knows from too many bad experiences that they will try to run away any chance they get. So he’s constantly wary, constantly reading their every move, twitch, glance. And they, in turn, are doing the same with him. And when he tires, his wariness turns to anger, anger directed towards the horses. And when they tire, their spookiness amps up and is peppered with sullenness.
So when his cabbages begin to show worm damage, these horse fevers amplify his anxiety about this turn of events. And when he strips the threads on a unique square headed bolt which holds the knife head guard to his horse mower and finds out that this bolt must be manufactured one at a time in a $65 per hour machine shop he figures he’s had enough and goes to see his helpful neighbor to tell him that he’s beat, done, washed up, through with the adventure.
And the helpful neighbor says,
“Not yet, you aren’t. Here’s what we’re gonna do. While we hold everything still, you are going to turn 45 degrees to the left and come out a new man. You have cultivating and mowing to do, right? I’m gonna show you right now how to make a serviceable square head mower bolt out of a round head plow bolt. Then we’re gonna harness my old girls, Bess and Frog, and you’re gonna drive us on my wagon over to your place. Before that though we’ll load up four feeder pigs which you’ll pay me for later. Their gonna get all that produce you say ain’t gonna make it. Once to your place I’m gonna harness up your Tubby and Rocky, hitch them to my wagon, and come back here. I need more speed and you need more assurance so we’ll swap horses for a couple of weeks.”
The borrowed horses put the young farmer at his ease. And the problem horses in the old farmers hands weren’t a problem because he expected them to behave and he let them alone, all at the same time.
At the end of those two weeks the old farmer said,
‘Hang on to the mares for a week or so more.”
And the young farmer was grateful because he was loving his work and his feeling of competency and calm.
When it came time to swap back horses the old farmer said,
“I think you should consider picking up a couple of weanlings you can start. Play with them, hang harness on them, ground drive them around. When they get around a year old hook them to something light and start driving them. The two years it’ll take for you to get them ready for farm work will also finish your own education. You know what to do, you just have to lighten up and do it. These geldings may always be a little jumpy with you, and they’ll always make you itchy. Pass them on to someone else while they still have value and get yourself restarted with young horses.”
From even just a short distance away, it would appear that nothing had changed for the young farmer. It would also appear that everything had changed and that this was no longer the same man. Days progressed as before but with a lighter step, with smiles, with occasional whistled tunes, with fattening pigs, with comic young horses. Not much had changed in those ledger columns where income was recorded. But the young farmer had become artesian, he had become source. And the older farmer had the opportunity to feel his strength with the faster team and to realize more money for the feeder pigs than he would have got from the market. That and he had kept a good neighbor, one of great value to him in the future.
Though USDA analysts and theorists will say otherwise, agriculture at its core is not changing and the people in agriculture are not changing. It is that federal institutions and agri-industry have for decades wanted agriculture to be something nearly opposite of what it always has been. They have wanted and needed for it to be industrial process fit within the confines of corporate accounting.
Today dramatic new successes with small acreages conceived and managed by aggressive, bold and obviously intelligent INDIVIDUALS, has the purveyors of the corporate industrial model scratching their heads and running for political cover.
Agriculture is, by its biologically incurred definition, a craft-based stewardship of chosen segments of a naturally reproducing world. Agriculture is people gathering and planting seeds so that they might best reproduce and multiply allowing a gain in their number which may be used for seed, food and fiber. Agriculture is about livestock husbandry. Agriculture is about fertility. Agriculture is about source. People at the source, people working. And, if all is as it should be, people enthralled and exhilirated and sustained and rejuvenated and rested and assured in that source work.