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The Best Kept Secret part 2
The Best Kept Secret part 2

The Best Kept Secret part 2

by Kirk Webster of Middlebury, VT


In the previous issue of Small Farmer’s Journal we ran part one of this article, a revisit of the original The Best Kept Secret by the same author, published in SFJ in 1999 This segment concludes the article. SFJ


Time has to be understood and used in a completely different way by farmers than it is by most Americans – and in this area things have changed almost unbelievably in the last ten years…

SFJ Summer 1999; The Best Kept Secret (TBKS), pg 82: “The most damaging aspect of modern society may be the horrible distortion of the human spirit and the compression of time wrought by electronics and power mechanics.”

This compression of time I referred to fifteen years ago was like a cow being confined in a hoof trimming chute – temporarily depriving it of the ability to move around and develop its normal ability; all in the name of efficiency. The compression of time today is like diesel fuel compressed in the cylinder until it spontaneously explodes and destroys itself… I hope I don’t see people’s brains exploding spontaneously anytime soon, but I do think people’s ability to concentrate has been destroyed the same way that diesel fuel is in the cylinders. Your mind (the best thing you will ever have) was designed to interact with the world around you – to interpret seeing, feeling, hearing, tasting, smelling; to learn, to question, to remember, and to make connections. It’s made to experience, to comprehend, to apprehend, to remember and to discern cycles and patterns. Solar cycles, lunar cycles, weather patterns, water cycles, heat cycles, fertility cycles; the life cycles of hundreds of different plants and animals, and also to be somehow aware of cycles we can’t fully know or describe – we need all of this to inform and guide a wise action. The vital quality of mind necessary for living in a harmonious and creative relationship with the totality of life is something I call “Continuity of Attention”. Being constantly aware of the real world around us, on as many levels as possible, in a relaxed and balanced way, and without being overwhelmed, is the key to having our lifetime farm work and thought build on itself in a positive way, and have the possibility of producing something better for the next generation. The cycles and rhythms we can apparently comprehend come in all different time frames from seconds to centuries. We need to have a conscious and unconscious grip on them all. That’s how our minds were designed to fit in with Nature’s creative process. We need to consider the stories about cycles and rhythms told to us by the older generation; and we need to prepare the next generation by telling them our stories.

The escalating effects of electronics; the speed and triviality of its communications; the space afforded to it by the Western collective mind; and the displacement of concentration and wisdom frankly makes me fear more for the future of humanity than any of the other grave indicators. All the other indicators could be reversed by healthy minds and steady effort. The digital world is undermining both of these. It’s an insidious process, and many people are not aware of what is happening to them. The qualities required for successful farming have not been recognized as important in our society for a couple of generations. I guess that makes it easy to give them up… The one hopeful sign I see here is that ten years ago when I told people I don’t use the internet or e-mail, they would say: “How can you possibly survive that way?” Now, when they hear the same answer they respond: “Oh, I wish I could do that, too!”

I know there may be quite a few people who will insist that the internet and e-mail are essential to their farm’s success. We’ll just have to see what happens in the long run. This whole trend is moving with incredible speed, and it’s not going to stop any time soon. So the experiment is going to run its course. The situation today is very new, and by tomorrow it will be different again. But every small farm I know of that has been a genuine success, and passed the way of life on to another generation developed its methods and intentions with the pre-internet heart and mind. We’ll see if the same insights can be preserved and passed on as these farmers and their descendants embrace electronic communication.

SFJ Summer 1999; TBKS, pg 83: “Almost all of the important jobs on the farm require planning, learning, thought and action over a long period – planting, tending and putting up crops; caring for animals and guiding the herd through many generations; putting up buildings or making other improvements. Any one of these projects can easily have the planning stage going on years before any visible progress is made. All farms have several of these enterprises going on simultaneously, each at a different stage of completion. The farmer who really understands how all these endeavors function together and support one another is the true master of his craft and is just as highly skilled and educated as any doctor or head of state. This is the most difficult of all the farming skills, and the hardest to come by – even with excellent examples to observe and follow. It must be one of the areas where some people are born to farming and others are not. But when time is considered in proper relation to Nature’s pace and rhythm, and the life spans of people and farms; many of the difficulties disappear.”

The economics of commercial beekeeping on a small scale is changing rapidly as well. All the problems honeybees are facing, here and worldwide, have sent the value of bees and bee products trending sharply up. Weather problems, and a huge global expansion of the corn and soybean monster has killed the world’s surplus of honey. In the U.S., commercial beekeepers are focused like zombies on pollinating the California almond crop, and so have further reduced their ability to produce surplus honey and bees for sale. At the same time that U.S. commercial beekeeping is circling down in a death spiral, hobby beekeeping is booming and almost every beekeeping club in the country has at least twice as many members as it did twenty years ago. What this means is that if you are fortunate enough to live in a place with relatively clean and varied sources of pollen and nectar, the potential for a successful family-sized commercial apiary is better now than it has been for many decades.

When I started my commercial apiary in 1985, most beeyards here had twenty or thirty colonies for producing honey, and might yield $8,000 (in today’s dollars) of gross income if the beekeeper bottled and sold the honey him or herself. (Many beekeepers at that time did apple pollination as well with the same colonies, but the management involved usually resulted in a smaller honey crop, and a similar gross income.) Today the honey is harder to produce, but its value is about four times what it was thirty years ago. The really big change is that now the pollen and nectar from one good clover location can be developed into nucleus colonies for sale, and the theoretical maximum income potential for one location is up around $30,000. So you don’t need to have a lot of locations to be a full-time beekeeper today. In a fascinating way, the new beekeeping that’s emerging from the mite and corn disaster resembles in many ways the first commercial apiaries developed by beekeeping pioneers in the horse and buggy days. It is possible now to at least imagine an apiary with just two locations that could support a house and a family… But they would have to be good locations, and these are getting harder and harder to find. And as with any healthy farm, it’s great to take advantage of high prices when they occur, but there must always be an alternate plan for resilience and stability when prices fall once again…

My ideas about the return of animal power to farms has not progressed the way I imagined fifteen years ago. However, my prediction about the chance for radical change in our society has remained exactly the same: until energy becomes a really serious problem, the powers that be will successfully use every kind of leverage and smoke and mirror available to keep things limping along the way they are now. A serious disruption in the supply of either food or fossil energy is the only thing that will force us, as a society, to wake up and organize ourselves on a different basis. My time frame was not accurate because they keep finding more and more fossil energy to exploit. And the lengths that energy companies will go to, seeking out every stray molecule of fossil carbon – no matter how deep in the ground, or how much water or soil or air must be poisoned in order to get it out – is truly terrifying. The insatiable demand of the addict (us) is the only thing that can drive such insanity. Then the next frightening thought is: “When they’ve sucked the last drop of oil and fart of gas out of the ground, will they turn to and consume every tree, stick of wood, ear of corn or blade of grass to make some kind of pseudo-gasoline, so that our last act before we all starve to death is to drive a few miles across the lunar landscape that once was a paradise?”

The hopeful truth here is that we don’t have to wait for fossil energy to run out – it’s possible to farm now in a way that creates new energy rather than constantly using it up. Almost any farm can get on a trend toward using biological energy instead of fossil energy. And there are already successful farms, both within and outside the Anabaptist communities, that have pursued this to its true end purpose: The union of people, spirit and Nature. The existence and proliferation of these farms are hugely important now – so that there are models and visible alternatives to carbon armageddon when fossil energy really does decline.

There are many who think that a slightly different, but related carbon armageddon is already here, and they may be right. Twenty years ago, global warming was a foggy theory or a crackpot notion in most people’s minds, if it was there at all. My friend and partner-in-crime Bill McKibben, more than any other single person, has brought this issue into the global mind. In Bill’s book, Oil and Honey, you can read about the huge difference in lifestyle and complete co-dependence between activists and farmers…

SFJ Summer 1999; TBKS, pg 86: “The very trees we had been standing under, and thousands of others visible in every direction, were living testimonials to the reliability of sun and water, warmth and cold, over a period of decades and in fact hundreds of years. One glance around should have told us that the promise of seed time and harvest has never been broken at least since the first European settlers arrived here…”

This promise of seed time and harvest has still not been broken here yet, but there was more than one season in the last fifteen when it came close. There are farmers in other parts of the world who have had much more serious difficulty with recent erratic weather then I have. The bottom line, take home message coming from every direction is that weather is becoming more unpredictable and extreme. The planet is warming in general, and that means there’s more total energy in our finite earthly atmospheric system. Most places are getting warmer in general, but that also means that cold air is sometimes pulled or pushed down into places where it didn’t usually go. What all this means for farmers is that they will have to be even more aware, resilient and adaptable than in the past…

SFJ Summer 1999; TBKS, pg 82: “The characteristics of good farming embodied by the Amish are the very same ones we all must pursue in order to succeed. It is ironic however, that within Amish society it’s the most conforming and home-loving members who can most easily embrace them, but elsewhere in America today it’s only the most determined individuals and mavericks who have taken these same simple guidelines and made a success of farming…”

It’s still fascinating to me that, while successful Amish and “English” farms may have things in common, they reached their success by completely different pathways. The Amish removed themselves from society as a group long ago, and have very old and strong traditions guiding many aspects of their life and Faith. Their farming success is, in many ways built into their traditions, and appears to effortlessly pass from one generation to another. But most of the rest of us (the “English”) had to remove ourselves from society as individuals and learn everything from scratch in a very short time – often inventing ways to get to the next rung because our culture doesn’t climb that farming ladder anymore. The one group is able to farm successfully through strict adherence to tradition and conformity, while the other succeeds through contrariness, innovation and sheer determination. Both methods have strengths and weaknesses. The Amish seem to have a long list of strengths forged together into a strong chain – but in rapidly changing circumstances, they may not be able to adapt fast enough. The contrary innovators may be able to adopt a new, key concept when necessary, but they still need access to traditions in order to learn the basics, and not waste too much time reinventing wheels. I think the message from global warming is that now we need to decide which elements of tradition to combine with new ways of thinking and acting as we face the future.

SFJ Summer 1999; TBKS, pg 82: “Success in farming requires at least some degree of separation from the larger society…”

“The obstacles seem so daunting when viewed from inside the modern industrial way of life. But if you can step outside, a whole new world emerges and St. Thomas’ words [‘The Kingdom of Heaven surrounds you but you see it not…’] come to life in everything around you.”

The most difficult problem is still the same: How to embrace the possibilities for human development achievable through farming while surrounded by a culture that seems determined to destroy those possibilities. The Amish institutionalized solutions to this problem. By preserving the division of labor and traditional roles for men and women, and by rejecting the overuse of technology, they preserved the Continuity of Attention in all family members. This allows each person to do a thorough job with their own responsibilities, and for the parts to add up to a harmonious whole. The point is not that men should do certain jobs and women should do others. The important thing is that each member frees up time for the others so that all the important tasks can be mastered. On farms in the past it was normal for each person to have strong ties to a reasonable number of activities, and those people were accomplished way beyond the small concept of money and what passes for achievement today. In the modern world, weak ties with an infinite number of trivial things is what’s encouraged, and real accomplishment is heading down towards zero. I don’t believe successful farming can withstand this trend or direction, and among “English” farmers a way must be found to reject it…

Here at the end, I’ll revisit one last thing from (SFJ Fall 1999; pg 27): “Right now I’m focusing on making the apiary even more productive and efficient, and making the work easier; so I can continue to raise bees and honey when I’m older. If I ever expand again, it’s going to be on a different basis: The details have escaped me so far, but if there are young people any more, interested in beekeeping as a way of life, I’ d like to have a few of them come here to learn the trade, and be able to propagate the bees they need to start on their own. I’m not sure if such young people still exist, but if so I’ d like them to get a better start and a better grasp of the basics than I did – at a time when they can make the best use of such things. This one’s still in the planning stage, but it should be possible to expand the apiary enough to support one or two apprentices, then spin off the excess bees as the young folks return home to start propagating bees and producing honey on their own. If even one or two full-time apiaries resulted from this process, I’d be able to at least approach my definition of successful beekeeping.”

A shortage of good mentors is still one of the most serious obstacles in a successful farming path for young people; just like it was in 1999. And this is the one and only thing I would like to add to my apiary, with whatever time and energy I have remaining. Now it’s no longer in the planning stage. Two years ago I moved to a new home in New Haven, Vermont, where there’s not only enough room to accommodate two or three apprentices, but also enough land to show the connection between healthy farming and healthy beekeeping. The value of untreated bees and the honey they produce has increased enough that the apiary can support more workers now without expanding.

The Best Kept Secret part 2

Despite the two worst summers for bees that I have ever seen, in 2011 and 2013, the expensive and exhausting transition to the new place was made with all the expenses being paid, and without borrowing money. The dangerous hurry to complete the new buildings in one season has given way to the continued slow but steady progress that grew the apiary in the first place, and which is the basis of all genuine successful farms, as far as I can tell. The measure of the apiary’s health is not just the continued life and longevity of the honeybees, but also its ability to economically maintain this gradual improvement through both good and bad weather years. Success with a small farm really is the “Middle Path” of Economics as well as other things. It’s counterintuitive in most of the modern world that the only way to make a living from a healthy farm is to make profit a secondary goal. Here’s the secret which no one motivated by money, accumulation or status will ever understand: The regenerative power of Nature can only be tapped by working for the benefit of other living things first, before yourself. If you can do this in a skillful way, massive new energy from the sun comes into the system. Industrial society tells you to sell that energy to support yourself and the industrial world; thus leading to the scarcity and depletion we see today. But if you invest that energy back into the living world, and live yourself on the by-products of the process, the whole system gains in productivity, resilience, health and beauty. After a time those by-products grow to be larger than the initial energy gain, and can even become overwhelming.

At this point, humanity’s chance of survival in the long run may depend on its ability to embrace this principle – in thousands if variations all over the world. I have a place now for a few people who would like to try it as a way of life with bees. I’m not sure if there are many young people in America today who could or would want to do this. But if there are, and if I can help them, I’m determined to find them. It takes integrity, humility, continuity of attention and what recently has been identified by social science as the best predictor of success in all fields: “grit”. At this point in American society, I think this can only be done by people who really need, for one reason or another, a real alternative to mainstream America.

This new apiary farm was set up so that it doesn’t need apprentices or extra helpers to operate. I need to do much of the work myself anyway to stay healthy, and all of my local part-time helpers would like to work more if they could. This gives me the ability to search for the people who could benefit the most, and then repeat the process in the future with their own interns.

Someone who lived and worked here for ten months a year for two years, could learn much of the apiary routine, build equipment for 50-100 colonies of bees with my tools and lumber, and with my help propagate that number of colonies out of my existing bees. This way they learn not only a method of keeping bees, but also – when they leave to start an apiary of their own – they start with bees already adapted to the methods they learned. You don’t need to have huge experience with bees to do this – in fact I’ve had much better luck teaching people who are not already involved in the chemical-industrial beekeeping model. But you have to be hard-working, independent minded, and actively opposed to the larger definition of the drug culture, as described above. This is also intended for people who have a home base or an area they are already familiar with that is suitable for commercial beekeeping. And you must also show that you already have a record of real accomplishment – with bees or something else.

There may not be many young people who could do this anymore, but I know there are some – because I already have four “students” who have adapted my methods to their own situations, and now have rapidly growing apiaries based on untreated bees. None of them wanted, needed or were able to come and actually live here, but they all embody the qualities I listed above, and have confirmed my observation that genuinely capable people already know what to do – they just don’t realize it and all they really need is a little help to acknowledge and align their abilities.

Troy Hall of Plainfield, New Hampshire, (Hall Apiaries) lives near his ancestral home and is now producing bees, queens and honey for sale. Andrew Munkres in Cornwall, Vermont, (Lemon Fair Honeyworks) I have described in a previous article. He was forced to give up his farm in Iowa when he and his wife developed extremely severe cases of Lyme disease. They both loved farming, and were looking for something outdoors they could still do during their recovery in Vermont, and hit upon beekeeping. (Bee venom, by the way, is considered by some to be an antidote to the Lyme parasite.) The one colony I gave him in return for helping in the beeyards has grown to over 200 and he may be able to quit his part-time job soon and focus entirely on bees. Daniel Berry in Amherst, Massachusetts (Invisible Cities Apiaries) has been working at Natural Roots Farm (Conway, Ma.) and Warm Colors Apiary (South Deerfield, Ma.) while building up his own bees and starting a family. And Abe Yoder in Morrisville, N.Y. (Resilience Apiaries – 315-684-3422) is trying to become the first full-time Amish beekeeper that we know of. He and a friend rode their bicycles 100 miles to visit here during the summer of 2012. There are some very different backgrounds and personalities here, but any one of them I would have welcomed here to live and work.

When I first started talking to my friends about the idea for this program, some of them said “Why do you need to have your helpers living at your place? Why not just offer the training and let them find a place to live in the community?”

Well, two years is a small enough time to learn the basics of any responsible job. Aligning as many aspects of life as possible around the farm is essential here. This is easy to do in the Amish world, and very difficult outside of it. All non-Amish farmers struggle with it – including myself. By having your dwelling place, meals and leisure time connected to the farm is how you learn to think like an owner instead of an employee. It makes a place for study, reading, writing and association in support of farming and not constantly distracted by the insistent self-destruction of the larger society. By combining the best elements of a school, a family and a monastery within the farm lets you see how a really elegant farm’s labor and management are actually the same thing; and how all the farmer’s activities are related and eventually become self-organized. The degree to which these neglected and embattled understandings are mastered is often the difference between a farm’s eventual success or failure – and it’s not possible to learn them in any other way.

The larger community here in Addison Co., Vermont, is in general quite supportive of farming. Like most places, there are good and bad people here, ready to teach you any lesson you want or need to learn. But the most important lessons come now from Nature, and those who can approach her with attention, humility, energy, integrity and love. This is a place to focus on those things…

The Best Kept Secret part 2

If I was, in my wildest dreams, able to make one suggestion that would be adopted by the whole American farming community, it might be this: Let’s use the honeybee as the best and final arbiter of whether an agricultural ecosystem is healthy or not. Some natural ecosystems are very favorable to honeybees – like the forests of Brazil or the southern Appalachians. Others, like the rain forests of Washington and Oregon, are not. But for honeybees to thrive in an ag ecosystem, there need to be a wide variety of plants growing there. Trees, shrubs, forbs; annuals and perennials – they’re all important. Animals are important too. Their grazing habits and digestive systems encourage legumes (a major honeybee food source) and allow fertility to be maintained and built up without chemical fertilizers or pesticides. It’s also good to plow up part of the landscape every year. That gives plants like dandelions and mustard a chance to get started, and ensures that legumes will be part of the rotation. Without pesticides or chemical fertilizers, the air and water are clean. Hey! This is starting to sound like a good place for people to live, too…!

The area of U.S. farmland where honeybees can thrive on their own is shrinking rapidly now. At the end of World War II, Iowa was a paradise for honeybees from one corner to the other, and it was the epicenter of honey production in North America. Today, it’s difficult for bees to even survive in most of Iowa, and the honey production epicenter has moved north and west, across the Canadian border into Saskatchewan. (And the enormous production there is not entirely healthy either – the superabundant canola honey, grown in huge monocultures, is useless to the bees as winter food, and has to be replaced by sugar syrup.) As many of the readers of this magazine know; health, sanity, beauty and people could return to U.S. farm country if we just brought the animals back to where their food is grown, and used honeybees to tell us when health has really been restored. That’s the only thing I try to teach my helpers and “students”: Focus on health and awareness. The rest is just mechanics and stamina…

Places where honeybees can thrive on their own are in fact the healthiest places for people to live as well. There’s potential in these places now for really exciting new apiaries to grow up and start supplying the huge demand for healthy bees that exists in every state and Canadian province. Is it possible we could use this remarkable insect, and the public’s awareness of its plight, to leverage a better future for ourselves and our farms?