by Suzanne Lupien of Thetford Center, VT
The demands of summer on the farm often stretch us to our limits. Haying, gardening, preserving, machinery breakdowns, visitors – at times there seems to be no end to the ocean of work and unexpected obstacles. And if this farming life is new to you, and you are having to be responsible for tasks you are still mastering, it can be overwhelming. While it’s not possible to avert very long and tiring days with a variety of things going awry, it is possible and advisable to develop a system of order and preparedness which will carry you through even the most challenging of days. Such a system includes a sensible standard of accomplishment, an understanding of the scope of needs on any given day, a sense of time and timing, and a commitment to a civilized and caring tenor to those involved – the kids, the calves and the customers, the jelly, the hay, the laundry and the supper table.
Absorbing a new task on your farm and in your life, for instance taking on a milk cow or goat, really takes two or three years of assimilation. You will start with the excitement, the challenges of conforming to the new chores and the demands of learning the cow skills and the milk skills. Added to that will be the fencing skills and the haying skills. All of this to be incorporated into your life, your family, your other daily work. The day will come when the excitement and the novelty will wear off. The idea solidifies into a fixed reality at which point the success and vitality of your system will be established and strong, and you will keep your cow and keep her well. If your system has not settled into a functional pattern and things seem to catch you by surprise or accident which continually affect you and your cow in a negative way, then the cow will go.
Our farmer forbears understood the constraints and demands of their hand-labored life – they were completely integrated in it. Hand labor and most often prayer comprised the sum total of their world. Our rural ancestors were born into the farming, laboring life and their own particular prosperity was directly related to their physical strength and endurance, their own elders’ example and legacy, their discipline, their family harmony and cooperation, and their fate. I’m describing this to you because, based on the status of our culture at this moment, it is obvious that we have an enormous struggle deeply learning and integrating and keeping and sustaining.
Our farmer forbears developed their ideas collectively within their shared culture, and organically within their own established repetitive known work. Ideas did not come to them from outside their rootedness. Ideas came to them from within the known parameters of the known requirements of their world. Conservative thinking meant conserving what they had and needed and not laying it open to risk with diverging thoughts and ideas, however plausible or legitimate. This would be anarchy. Perhaps they would have the flexibility to choose a different breed of cow from their father’s or switch from cows to sheep, or even to a different occupation within the culture such as wagon building, based on an individual talent or affinity, or opportunity, but this was rare. What was more apt to occur was a slow, solid forward movement, an expansion and refinement within the support of the family and its traditions, within the common culture of the community, the known demands of survival, within the physical constraints of the local landscape. Keeping the roof from leaking, the well running, the family fed, the stock and crops well husbanded and the neighbors helped, like them or not, because it was your duty and someday you might need help too. This disciplined conservative prosperity wisely chose to separate chores that could be accomplished in the dark by lantern light like milking and sorting beans and repairing harness, from chores out doors using every bit of daylight like cutting wood, fixing fence and growing and harvesting crops. It also divided off chores like splitting and stacking stove wood which could be done during the night in the winter at the full moon. In short, the thorough and deep knowledge of the scope of the year’s work ran through their veins.
In contrast, our style of thinking and choosing is not necessarily occuring within the continuity of our actual personal family culture held in an awareness of what needs to be done and when and why. Nor do we necessarily have next door neighbors who share our beliefs, our tastes, our choice of work. Hence we are not supported collectively in an actual basic way, but rather find ourselves often out on a limb. Hoping here to clarify, rather than to encourage or discourage you in your farming goals and dreams, which will root and give you a fulfilling and productive life, you need to understand that sprouting ideas outside of your known world, your heritage, your actual life experience that you wish to incorporate into your life in a real way must be handled cautiously and explored with thoroughness. This is because it requires wisdom – or access to wisdom – to even begin to comprehend the ramifications of such wonderful, idyllic notions like getting a cow. What kind of commitment it will require, what it actually takes to do it day in day out, what sort of impact it will have on your family and your existing responsibilities. In a world where information, not knowledge, is king, what skills do you need to acquire which will develop you into the sort of person who will – not who can – but who will accept and perform the dairy chores each day come hell or high water, and still pitch in with the ladies down at the church picking chicken and chopping carrots for the supper on Saturday night? In other words, how do you develop the skills and the peripheral vision to be a fully capable participant in this hurting world? Not just theoretically or empathetically. Both Dorothy Day and Mother Teresa teach us that if you’re just thinking it and not doing it, it doesn’t count.
For me this is where the heart of learning, knowing, doing comes fully into intelligible view. I see far too much information-based learning going on these days, which quite simply, does not build one’s own fundamental, generative and disciplined framework for prevailing. Now that we no longer have grandmother and grandfather to stand beside to learn how to paddle the moisture out of the butter or put a new handle on the garden rake, and more importantly how to be the person who will care enough to take the time to perform these tasks with skill and attention, we are having to discover for ourselves what all these farming skills are and how to learn from them, how to live them, how to keep doing them and become clear within ourselves as to why we are drawn to them in the first place.
Your own integrity and intelligence will be put to the test as you chase down what is meaningful, what is essential, what is real, what you are capable of on a continuing basis, and what sustains you and your family both physically and emotionally.
Taking on too much and too much too soon spells a short life for any plan. To ask oneself: “Can I plant a little row of radishes, by first preparing the soil, planting at the correct time, at the proper depth, watering each day sometimes twice ‘till they sprout up sufficiently, keep them weeded, thin them accordingly, watch for bugs and dust them if necessary, harvest them and eat them?” You know: it’s really something!
Steady, true, unwavering care and skill and commitment have not been fostered by our culture for a very long time. Farming, which formerly was to a great degree the only way to survive, was Life. Imbued with the spirit of the farmer and his family, for better or worse. It was theirs, it belonged to them, a concrete manifestation of their integrity, of their industry, of their belief. It was personal, and if love was to be formed there, it both fed and sustained the heart of the farm in a most fundamental way.
Now, sadly, farming is a business for most, and beginning farmers today have little chance to witness the invisible sustaining life-force which got us to the 1940’s anyway – necessity and love. For ultimately the drive to need to, to care to, far outstrips the chance to profit. Unwittingly, folks rushing back to the land today see only the attraction of profit, and miss the deep and humble generative affection that Wendell Berry teaches is the beating heart of the farm. A foxy business model and a niche marketing plan are but a shadow of the cultural richness of our lost farming traditions. Ironically they might be mimicking on a miniature scale the attitude of Big Farming and a supply and demand approach.
The simple and necessary principle of care as you live, learn to farm and keep farming is my idea of sustainability.