SFJ

Facebook  YouTube

Small Farmer's Journal
PO Box 1627
Sisters, Oregon 97759
800-876-2893
541-549-2064
agrarian@smallfarmersjournal.com
Mon - Thu, 8am - 4pm PDT

Old Man Farming

Spinning Ladders
by Lynn R. Miller

Mowing

“In the dream, I was climbing a wooden ladder of my own construction. Carving and inserting rungs into the slow-growing parallel upright poles. I drilled the holes for those rungs with my thumbs. I chewed the ends of the rungs to created perfect tenons. The background music alternated between the bleating moans of a large old dog and the sweet and sour trumpet-like urgings of grasses and legumes working their way up through the wet and dry earth. Out around me, some distance away, I could see others building and climbing their own unique ladders of various height. They would not see me, they would not hear me. I had a growing sensation that my ladder was near completion and sure enough it tipped to one leg and started its slow elegant spin. It was spinning in the wind of all my hopes, realized and not. It was then that I became aware of an urgency I had worked so hard and so long to deny. Looking across that landscape of ladders, I saw some growing and some spinning and many falling over with their builders, only to disappear completely. But I also saw a few in clusters, standing and waving rather than spinning. I wanted my ladder to be in a cluster, I wanted my ladder to wave into the future, but I had waited too long.

I suppose you could apply that dream in many ways but at this time of my life I cannot help but think of it as a subconscious concern for the future of my efforts. Some might see this dream as the lament of a hermit who wishes to rejoin society. Others might choose to think of this as a man’s reflection on his legacy, but I don’t feel either. I feel a genuine concern for the ongoing, well past me, and past any signature I may leave behind many years from now.

The main portion of our ranch sits in a remote rock-rimmed wide canyon the indigenous people referred to as the valley of the stand-and-look-at-you-deer. It is sacred burial ground for at least one native nation. It is the home to the largest mule deer winter habitat in the world, home to elk, cougar, eagle, turkey, kestrel, redtail, chukars, and summer home to swallows. Surrounded by forest service land, we are on the lip of the Metolius Basin. It is the sage, pine and juniper-scented, water and feeding center for a vast habitat extending from the Deschutes River canyon to the Mt. Jefferson Wilderness area to the rapidly encroaching developments of the neighboring towns to the south and west. And it is where we try to farm. As one of the last remaining small family ranches in the area, the pressure is on, through taxation and market urgencies, to subdivide and develop. We don’t want that to ever happen. Not just during our tenure, but far into the future. We look for the best steps we might take to find a legal designation which will give the area a quasi-public, sacred, park-like protection. We don’t seek to protect it for ourselves, or even for the general public, we seek to protect it for itself. This effort is like one of those ladders which would stand, spin and wave long into the future, long after we are gone.

Farmlands must first be protected individually by individuals. To exempt lands from categories of use through government edict only protects them for future abuse. The best way to protect farmland is to make the highest and best use of that land to be farming and to allow the extended community to embrace it and her famers as sacred to their landscape. You do that as a farmer, as a farm family, as the farm’s community. You do it locally and you do it with religious fervor.

I am reminded that we hold within ourselves so many secrets of the doing here which we take for granted. We know where the water is, where the sun warms the ground first, where the grass is the sweetest, where the elk bed down, and how to read our sky. We remember what crops have failed and which have bloomed. We fondly recall those of our efforts which left the stamp of greatest beauty on the place. When we are gone, what will happen to those secrets? Once again, I believe, unlike the dream, that our time is far from up. I believe we should be working to share all of those secrets with others who might be dedicated to their own overlapping futures with these doings and this place.

I once read a quotation of Edward Curtis, the famous photographer of the North American Indian, which went something like this, “As each of these old people die another piece of their culture dies with them.” His observation, his lament, came in the context of a time when those cultures were, in many cases actually outlawed and certainly dwindling, so the death of an old person likely meant that traditions would also die. For three decades now we have seen the same thing within the community and traditions of true farming. An entire culture which embraced, practiced, and worshipped a farming trust, a way of working which succeeded, and worked better every year, was attacked at every social and economic level. So with the passing of each old farmer, and each old farmer’s farm, we lost pieces of our culture. We lost ways of listening, working, smelling, touching, measuring, tasting, feeling, valuing, and loving. That critically vital way of life is not completely gone yet, each of us holds on to a small corner of it and we have done tremendous good work to keep it alive. But now we must add a broader level of concern. We must attribute to ourselves that same preciousness we once attributed to mentors lost. We have to go into each day asking what it will be like when WE are gone. Now we are the torchbearers. And we need to train and support those who will take the torches from us because what we have saved and built upon is more important that we are.  As farmers our cause has been the cause of the peaceable kingdom. I have written before of how it is that I believe the small independent farm is the answer to our environmental woes. Perhaps I should have been adding, all along, that it is also the answer to hunger, deprivation and war. If our peaceable kingdom is to continue to flourish in our small corners, and then move out and into the wider world, we need to see it as our duty to think about passing on what we know, what we care about and what we have built.

There are those amongst us who have been fortunate to have ‘inherited’ their farm and/or their farming. Not just the piece of land with buildings and fences but more or less a way of life and a living fabric of traditions. They have a tangible sense of what it means to be carriers of that tradition. Many of us made the farm and the farming ourselves from scratch. We have a far less tangible sense of things going back before us. We lean on instruments such as this publication (Small Farmer’s Journal) to give us connection to a wider remembrance and solemnity and to give us permission to be thankful for our work; give us permission because we live in a society and time which honors tradition only in so far as it might be marketed. All of us in this far flung community, this sub-culture of small farmers and ranchers feel some measure of regret that what we have built, and are building, feels fragile and transitory; feels like our own short lives, when we suspect deep from within a collective genetic memory that it needn’t be that way.

Each of us will pass on-or pass away. We do have a choice. In this regard, you don’t hear that very often these days. We have a choice whether to pass on or pass away. I am not speaking in a biblical sense. I am speaking in the sense of working traditions. It has taken me a lifetime to arrive at certain precious working conclusions about cattle, horses, soils, and procedures. Over a short quarter of a century I have come, with my volcanic passions unchecked, to fear, respect and love this piece of ground we have been entrusted with, our little ranch. I want, in the most complete sense of the meaning, to pass these valuable things, this culture, on. Not on a given Wednesday, when I might board a year-round cruise ship in permanent retirement (Something I will never do.) You die off by passing away. You live on by passing on. I want to pass the culture of my life on slowly, over the ripening time of my best years.

I woke one morning thinking “I am one who remembers what it was like in my beginning.” Then I jabbed myself with a “Mister, most everyone remembers what it was like in their beginning. There’s nothing special about that.” Fact is I may not be unique in any regard. My story is hardly worth repeating except in its ordinariness. Yes, I may have some gift for stringing words along or for drawing or even for horses, but those are not stories that necessarily link me with you. What links me with you are those ways we meet in our experience. What I mean when I say my story is ordinary is that it is composed of wants and wishes, struggles and triumphs just as your is. We share enthusiasms where we share enthusiasms. We share frustrations where the frustrations are. I might tell you amazing stories of my time with senators and congressmen, but it would bore you because we don’t share that world. But if I were to say that I have a horse who is a booger to trim and that I have figured out a way to get it done, you are all ears. You are interested in my beginning and I in yours. You might be interested in my today. I am certainly interested in your today. My today is a new place for me.

We have built a tall, beautiful and vital ladder which needs a cluster to assure it will stand for the longest time. We are looking for that cluster. And so it is also with our ranch. We are looking for that cluster. I am determined for our farming and our land to be two of those tall, slowly-spinning ladders that stand glowing for a very long time.

This is a new place for me. I feel added dimension to many of my choices and valuations. I liken it, in my own visual thinking, to a relay race. The only difference is that coming up from behind me and all on my team are several runners I am coaxing, ready to receive the several torches I bear. And as I hand them off, at different intervals, I plan to continue running alongside for a ‘far piece’, being a part of the cluster, jumping, as I laugh, from one spinning ladder to the next.”

Lynn R. Miller is the editor and publisher of Small Farmers Journal. This is Chapter 8: Spinning Ladders from his book of essays, entitled “Old Man Farming.”

Spotlight On: Farming Systems & Approaches

Russian Dacha Gardening

Russian Dacha Gardens

by:
from issue:

Russian household agriculture – dacha gardening – is likely the most extensive system of successful food production of any industrialized nation. This shows that highly decentralized, small-scale food production is not only possible, but practical on a national scale and in a geographically large and diverse country with a challenging climate for growing. Most of the USA has far more than the 110 days average growing season that Russia has.

Starting Your Farm

Starting Your Farm: Chapter 5

You might think that your new farm is fenced all wrong, or that a certain tree is in the wrong place, or that a wet area would be better drained, or that this gully would make a good pond site, or that a depression in the road should be filled, or that the old sheds should all come down right away. Well maybe you’re right on all counts. But maybe, you’re wrong.

Cultivating Questions: Alternative Tillage & Inter-Seeding Techniques

Our intention is not to advocate the oddball living mulches we use with this single row inter-seeding system, but just to show how it is possible to utilize the between-row areas to improve insect habitat, reduce erosion, conserve moisture, fix some nitrogen, and grow a good bit of extra organic matter. If nothing else, experimenting with these alternative practices continues to keep farming exciting as we begin our twentieth season of bio-extensive market gardening.

The Forcing of Plants

The Forcing of Plants

by:
from issue:

It is always advisable to place coldframes and hotbeds in a protected place, and particularly to protect them from cold north winds. Buildings afford excellent protection, but the sun is sometimes too hot on the south side of large and light-colored buildings. One of the best means of protection is to plant a hedge of evergreens. It is always desirable, also, to place all the coldframes and hotbeds close together, for the purpose of economizing time and labor.

Horsedrawn No-Till Garlic

Horsedrawn No-Till Garlic

We were inspired to try no-tilling vegetables into cover crops after attending the Groffs’ field day in 1996. No-tilling warm season vegetables has proved problematic at our site due to the mulch of cover crop residues keeping the soil too cool and attracting slugs. We thought that no-tilling garlic into this cover crop of oats and Canadian field peas might be the ticket as garlic seems to appreciate being mulched.

Low Impact Ranching

Low Impact Ranching

by:
from issue:

This kind of low-impact management has yielded visible results for Rose who can display flourishing pasture grasses, healthy cattle, and firm banks in his riverside pasture. “I am just a detail oriented person and one of those farm boys who always likes to have a project,” Rose said. “I am trying to get the most out of my land and efforts and I really enjoy seeing the positive outcomes of a finished project.”

Cultivating Questions A Horsedrawn Guidance System

Cultivating Questions: A Horsedrawn Guidance System

Market gardening became so much more relaxing for us and the horses after developing a Horsedrawn Guidance System. Instead of constantly steering the horses while trying to lay out straight rows or cultivate the vegetables, we could put the team on autopilot and focus our whole attention on these precision tasks. The guidance system has been so effective that we have trusted visiting chefs to cultivate the lettuce we planned on harvesting for them a few weeks later.

Laying Out Fields For Plowing

Laying Out Fields For Plowing

from issue:

Before starting to plow a field much time can be saved if the field is first staked out in uniform width lands. Methods that leave dead furrows running down the slope should be avoided, as water may collect in them and cause serious erosion. The method of starting at the sides and plowing around and around to finish in the center of the field will, if practiced year after year, create low areas at the dead furrows.

LittleField Notes Farm Log

LittleField Notes: Farm Log

by:
from issue:

My starting every column with a discussion of the weather set me to thinking about that old clichéd idea of talking about the weather; how it is all old men talk about downtown at the local coffee shop; how they sit for hours telling endless lies about how the snow was deeper, the nights colder and the hills steeper when they were young. However, clichés have basis in truth, and it is true that weather is a wonderful conversation opener.

Traditional Agriculture in Siberia

Traditional Agriculture in Siberia

by:
from issue:

The agricultural system of the Old Believers has long been one of hand labor. Their homesteads (hozyastvas) were not intended for tractors or horses, with the possible exception of their larger potato fields. Traditionally the small peasant hozyastva has its roots in hand labor, and this has helped maintain the health of the land. Understanding the natural systems is easier when one’s hands are in the soil every day as opposed to seeing the land from the seat of a tractor.

Starting Your Farm

Starting Your Farm: Chapter 4

Assuming that you’ve found a farm you want to buy, next you’ll need to determine if you can buy it. If you have sold your property, and/or saved your money, and have the means to buy the farm you are sitting pretty. If you do not have the full price of a considered farm, in cash or any other form, you will likely have to look for financing.

The Way To The Farm

Lise Hubbe stops mid-furrow at plowing demonstration for Evergreen State College students. She explains that the plow was going too deep…

LittleField Notes Fall 2011

LittleField Notes: Fall 2011

by:
from issue:

There is a certain set of skills and knowledge that tend to fall through the cracks of your average farm how-to book. Books of a more specialized nature are also abundant but often seem to take a fairly simple subject and make it seem daunting in scope and detail. What follows are a few tidbits of knowledge that I have found useful over the years – the little things that will inevitably need to be learned at some point in the farmer education process.

Horse Farming and Holistic Management

Horse Farming and Holistic Management

by:
from issue:

Holistic Management was developed by Allan Savory who was a wildlife and ranch biologist in Africa who was concerned that the advice he could give farmers didn’t work in the real environment and even when the advice was good it wouldn’t get implemented. He developed a program which helps farms create a clear Holistic Goal and then use the farms resources to move toward the goal while being ecologically sustainable.

Henpecked Compost and U-Mix Potting Soil

We have hesitated to go public with our potting mix, not because the formula is top secret, but because our greenhouse experience is limited in years and scale. Nevertheless, we would like to offer what we have learned in hopes of showing that something as seemingly insignificant as putting together a potting mix can be integrated into a systems approach to farming.

Personal Food Production

Personal Food Production

by:
from issue:

We can argue about when, but someday within several decades, oil and the plentiful super-market food we take for granted will be in short supply and/or very expensive. We must all start immediately to grow as much of our own food as possible. This is the fun part and is the subject of a vast popular movement highlighted by innumerable books, magazines, and web sites. Square-foot gardening, raised beds, and permaculture are the new rage. We don’t need thirty-million acres of lawns. Flowers aren’t very filling either.

Horse Labor Instead of Tractors

Horse Labor Instead of Tractors

by:
from issue:

Three different parcels of land were committed for a series of tests to directly compare the impact of tractors and horses on the land. One side of each parcel was worked only with horses and the other only with tractors. There were measurable differences between each side of the worked areas; the land’s capacity to hold water and greater aeration were up to 45cm higher in areas worked by horses as opposed to tractors.

Fjord Horses at Work in the Green Mountains of Vermont

Fjord Horses at Work in the Green Mountains of Vermont

We own a 40 jersey cow herd and sell most of their milk to Cobb Hill Cheese, who makes farmstead cheeses. We have a four-acre market garden, which we cultivate with our team of Fjord horses and which supplies produce to a CSA program, farm stand and whole sale markets. Other members of the community add to the diversity of our farm by raising hay, sheep, chickens, pigs, bees, and berries, and tending the forest and the maple sugar-bush.

Small Farmer's Journal

Small Farmer's Journal
PO Box 1627
Sisters, Oregon 97759
800-876-2893
541-549-2064
agrarian@smallfarmersjournal.com
Mon - Thu, 8am - 4pm PDT