The Heart in Farming

The Heart in Farming: Romance, Scale, Orchestration, & Intimacy

by Lynn R. Miller

She wrote in that inconsequential blog (computer diary) that they were to give up their farm because it wasn’t working. (Big media picked it up, somehow, because there is currency in collapsed dreams.) And she lashed out, blaming people like us for having sold them a lie. She was angry because her family could not make their farm succeed. She screamed in her capital letters that there was no way to make enough money to give her family all that they wanted and needed including security. It was all so loud that we were certain to hear the truth in it. Truth was she wanted someone to dare to intercede, to step up and gently show them that all that was required was to do a reset of the hold-time on their success pump. There had to be more to this farming business. It wasn’t fair, she said, over and over and over again.

There IS more to farming, much more; and perhaps that is the core of the problem and the answer. The craft of farming is imbued with the lives of plants, soil and animals – humans included.

Sometimes there are chicks in a hatch which do not make it. Then there is that time when the magnificent work gelding in the prime of his life died from a twisted gut. And the fulsome grain crop is flattened by the hail storm. And your young child dies in the terrible farming accident…

Eyes wiped dry, one piece of the successful farmer’s brain says with force and determination ‘okay, now lets see what we can do to avoid these mishaps and tragedies from now on.’ And another part of the successful farmer’s brain steps aside and allows time and space so that the overwhelming frustration, fear, anger and tragedy flow through, so that the shuddering has opportunity to subside. Switch to feeling. It is what gives us our identity and ANY chance of success; switching to feelings. Many a successful farmer began by pursuing a “feeling,” an instinct that told him or her that a particular plan would work. And still others came to their pursuits by believing in the precise conclusions of formulas, equations, fixed recipes. There is that hanging admonition, that deflater of most balloons and racemose insistent that we be ‘realistic’. (Not even science can agree on what constitutes ‘realistic’ but our instincts tell us…) I hold that the lasting measure of success comes when our feelings are allowed to ride the pursuit.

And for any successful farming venture that pursuit lays out there ahead and behind like some long angry line, it is a linear pattern, moving from season to season from lifespan to lifespan from handoff to handoff. Here we are in winter, some of us trying to survive the vagaries of the weather yet feeling the urgency of the coming season as we count the feed which remains, others still struggling to wrap up the previous year’s efforts with crops and stock, and the lucky amongst us knee-deep in the excitement and anticipation of the coming year, planning what will be done to and with each field and plot – scheduling breedings of sheep, cattle, hogs and horses – working up calendars of planting, incubation, pruning, watering etc etc. Anyone who would dare to come to the craft of farming with a short view, one which has this tillage and planting resulting in that crop sold for said amount, is sadly well-perched for disappointments a plenty. For with the small farm each of us have to put in time and energy to developing a marketing network for what we produce while, hopefully, cultivating barter relationships. We need to be creatively working, constantly, to identify and develop ways we might in the very near future produce more of our needed inputs, fertilizer, saved seed, better soil, best retained breeding stock, good help. Otherwise we are more susceptible to any and every shortage or disruption.

It’s a long sometimes angry ruptured linear where successes and failures tend to swell and burst on us at the most awkward moments. Without the resilience that comes of a full heart, an embrace of gratitude and positive thoughts, it can be terribly difficult.

At the very core of good farming is good heart. We know what is meant by ‘heartless’, we know what it means to sense the ‘heart’ of something. That good team of work horses has good heart. That farm wife is of good heart. That old blacksmith is a good-hearted man. And, in these instances, we are not speaking of the silly flitting heart of the giggle, we are speaking of a muscular heart, a heart which whispers to itself, mid-effort, ‘I can do this’. Heart provides inertia. Heart is in many cases inertia. It is the evidence of motivation. For me ‘heart’ is the whole of what I know to be romance, muscular – thankful – generous – appreciative – intimate – small – personal – embracing – inclusive – joining – laughing – rescuing – sacrificial – planting – musical.

There is so much ‘blather’ in the modern world. So much noise and hurry mixed in with close-mindedness. So much confusion crowding quiet reflection, clouding vision. Farms can afford us opportunity for quiet space, reflection, visits with our instinctual side, refueling of our heart, but it does require that we switch to feeling. Feelings laced in with a structured, balanced, right-livelihood.


Romanticism, (some identify by saying during The Age of Reflection c. 1800–40) was a Western European intellectual movement that sprang as reaction to the late-18th-century Enlightenment. Romanticism brought together many fields of study including the arts, humanities and the burgeoning fields of science. In contrast to the static notions of Enlightenment, thinking which held that all things needed to be rendered to their knowable components, ‘European scientists of the Romantic period held that observing nature implied understanding the self, and that knowledge of nature “should not be obtained by force.” They felt that the Enlightenment had encouraged the abuse of the sciences, and they sought to advance a new way to increase scientific knowledge, one that they felt would be more beneficial not only to mankind but to nature as well.’

In 1980 Kristi took me to visit a couple who were family friends and neighbors near the Oregon community of Creswell. Buck and Mary Ricketts were an older couple with a magical small farm centered around a cherry orchard and laying hens. I wrote a piece about that farm and that visit which appeared thirty-six years ago on these pages. I confess now that, though I was enchanted by these kind and complete individuals who were obviously successful on their own terms, and wanted from day one to use them as a living embodiment of what it meant to choose a small farm life, I saw that they were so exceptional as to be beyond example for most of us. Yet they reminded me of several others I had known and loved and used. Folks like Ed and Bertha Dahlman who had a small cattle ranch and selective timber operation up on Bear Creek behind Lake Siltcoos in Oregon. They too were remarkable, complete, and blessed folk who lived every day grateful for their lot in life. A lot which they had carved and guided for themselves. And therein lies more than a clue. What makes examples such as these seem exemplary to a fault, something we mere ordinary folk might not reasonably attain, is what makes them sublimely appropriate and at the same time usefully Romantic.

Yet, I pick those two examples, the Ricketts and the Dahlmans, because it would be easy to see their lives as failures (if that was what you were looking for). Both couples were frugal or thrifty to a fault – some might say forced to do without. They owned their land outright but you could say it owned them because they had to work hard every single day of their lives. There was no time for frivolous travel or exercise clubs or television. They read books, worked with their hands fixing and caring for their tools, making adornments for each other, farming and ranching. They kept their old vehicles chugging sweetly along, took care of their own health, ate off the land the healthiest of foods. Had time to help friends and neighbors. Embodied the chameleon-like characteristics that come of true modesty in all things, blending so effortlessly into their ventures and landscape. And that landscape, in both cases, lay quietly ready every day for those next caresses. For Mary and Bertha and Ed and Buck went to each day’s chores with a grateful caring that showed in the cleanliness of the 500 hen laying house and the small cattle barn; in the warmth and security of the incubation house; in the neatly raked sawdust of the small sawmill shed floor. If in these words you see a pattern that smacks of the ‘Romantic’, good. That is my intent. If you instead see a pattern in these words that smacks of a worthless demeaning human existence, I should be sorry for you but I am not. You, right now for me, are not a battle worth choosing. You have excused yourself from a miraculous sonorous world of emotional luxury and comfort the likes of which cannot be found in any other realm of endeavor save good farming. Your choice.

When I was very young my father used to go on and on, angry as heck about how advertising was ruining humankind. “Mark my words son, someday we won’t be able to distinguish between what are good words and what are the poisonous lies of ad copywriters.” I guess, back then, I just came to see that as my father’s quirkiness. Some time ago, middle-aged, I discovered he was right on the money.

“Farming” is, at its core, about producing food, fuel and fiber. We small holders love to think about it and speak about it in the wider terms of its interrelatedness and how farming is about living creatively. And our work to favor small farms goes into depth about how good farming is much much more than just producing food to sell, it is about grateful working membership in the whole of biological life.

But, in the stinking sweep of public discourse, held aloft by the copywriter’s steaming swill, we are told that farming needs to remain solely as the industrial production of food. Our histories would, if we let them, remind us of how critically important and paradoxical this short-sightedness is. We might speak casually, in a loose-jointed cavalier fashion, our green jeans tight around our hybrid fannies, about how it is obvious that we need food to survive. We have long ago forgotten, or filtered our view of what it means to have no food, to shrivel in fear and pain and die.

The early years of the 14th century brought long spells of rain and generally bad weather which destroyed whole growing seasons and all the food supply and a quarter of Europe starved to death (the great famine of 1313-1317). The weather was aggravated by the massive sustained multi-year volcanic eruptions of Mount Tarawera of New Zealand. You are so quick to say, ‘that was a long time ago, it can’t happen now.’ That’s your commercial, dead-to-the-living-world, brain telling you that. When there is no food, there is no food. (Unless it be for high profit) there is NO person or agency or entity working to assure that you will have food to eat in the future. Not the Red Cross or the USDA or the Gates Foundation or the Catholic church has any vested interest in seeing that there is enough food to go around for common folk. When Famine comes it comes. It is happening in many pockets of today’s world but we do not choose to see it. And if we do it is as a tragic anomaly that requires our charity. But beyond that, where the future of humanity rests, we are so close to a generation of food shortages. When we run short or out of food it will happen almost over night, there will be little or no warning for the supermarket dependent world.

The copywriters want us to believe that, insofar as any of this might remotely be true, these are the very reasons we need to unleash the snakes of GMO (genetically ‘manipulated’ organisms) and use more life-altering chemicals and deploy more dronish farming techniques. For as they say, ‘in the sea of corn and soybeans is the profitability of big business for how else do we presume to feed the country save through profit?’ How else indeed?

Today the majority of the world is NOT fed by large-scale industrial agribusiness. It is fed by a billion or so small land holders producing a myriad of food and fiber products that slip quietly, day by day – off the grid – often illegally, into the mainstream of society to keep the world fed. Whether it is a small dairy in Arkansas providing raw milk for five families, or a Southeast-Asian family growing a patch of rice to feed its neighbors, whether it is an Indian family near Calcutta carrying its excess vegetables to market or a Sudanese mother trading tubers for goat milk, this remains how we feed the bulk of the world, Even if you refuse to see that, to accept that, it remains no less true. And each of those small tight examples; eggs from the Ricketts, traded African tubers, fat geese from a small New Zealand farm, hand-waxed cheese from a French alpine shepherd, handpressed Guava juice from a poor Haitian hillside, exotic salad greens from a Coleman-esque Maine greenhouse, or a wrapped package of prime beef shortribs from Dahlman’s ranch comes from a farming world and a culture which by its very definition embraces the fullness of biological life most definitely including the romance of human involvement, without which the motivation evaporates.

As for the largest of corporate industrial agriculture: there is no romantic human involvement – zip nada none. The sole motivating factor is profit. And, as monoculturally dependent, no element of global agriculture is more fragile than the industrial model. With weather anamolies, drought, rains, storms, adverse heat and cold – with humanity’s hideous stupid wars with itself – with the continued degradation of the environment – with deadly unstable chemistry and bioengineering, it would take but a small set of surprises to create the perfect storm to destroy industrial agricultural production wholesale. It is not so much a question of how and when. It is a marveling question of how we have been spared this long for the brittle lines that tie are stretched thin. What remains then, to feed the world, are small farmers who do what they do because it is who they are and what they love. They do it for the romance as much as anything.

Unrealistic you say?

Being realistic does not take into account what it means to discover the full extent of our potential signature in life, when we find and use the fullest rhythms that suit us, when we embrace and wear our familiarities into our best efforts. Whether it is underseas or above ground, the most habitable portions of this beautiful planet earth are essentially vast gardens where the fabric of life in smallest increments repeats itself over and over again across the wide globe. There is an inherent romance to that fabric which is destroyed when we insist on seeing life as a quotient of finite understandable measureable elements.

Perhaps it isn’t pretty, perhaps it doesn’t fit modern notions of profitable venture. Again, a farm is best viewed as a ruptured linear journey, exploding and leaking forward in interrelationships – most useful and some dreadfully not. Seeing it as a factory where inputs are mixed – watered – pushed and grown into each year’s product is a near complete denial of what might be and might have been.

I dare say, without knowing all the particulars, that many a family would jump at the chance to step into the shoes of that angry woman and take over that ‘failed’ farm for the chance to “see it” work. Besides the myriad observations about how; for many the limits of some are seen as gains for others. Seen from differing perspectives that half dozen Jersey milk cows, fifty laying hens, 12 ewes, orchard, pasture and garden might seem paltry and smelling of servitude – but to many millions more in the world it is seen as an impossible-to-attain perfect dream for which they would gladly work ‘round the clock. It will always be true that one man’s success may very well be another’s failure and of course vice versa.

Our objective selves, our rational being, all those logical certainties we keep in the front pockets, none of these define us as much as our subjective selves, those sneaky forward-oozing pieces of our living lives. Those things which make us cry or that disgust us, that make us smile uncontrollably, that give us goosebumps and thrill us beyond measure. Feel the tightening weave of could-have-beens and absolute failures as they take away the breath of our hope. Add in the pleasures of accomplishment and completion which give us deep seats by the curling windowed wood fire, book open, thankful mind across our near and far futures. So much of these, the personal pain and primal comforts, we must grant ourselves; for this troubling world works hard to have us close off to such stuff. We have to switch to feelings. Otherwise the math of it all will render us plastic.

That is, after all, where modern man is headed, straight towards the plastic, the synthetic, the artificial, towards obsolescence – human obsolesence. And very few of us dare to say it is wrong and a violation of life, because the marketplace, in self-justification, searches constantly for the next stoning victim.

We are of a flux, a flux of humanity’s time on this planet and a flux in this spectrum of interconnected life we feel we know as nature. We are in this moment and want to, need to, believe that everything before now led to this moment and it is supposed to be not only ours but the best of moments measured against all of man’s time. And if we presently enjoy youth we add to this mixture the arrogant insistence that we are about to make it all better, again. What horrid nonsense! Not the flux part, that at least has some truth to it. But all that other hooey about we being the center of the universe. Pretty much what got us in the mess we are in now. Supreme and toxic irony that our insistence on the supremacy of human civilization would feed its complete destruction but there you have it. And everywhere else as well. It’s in the tone and timber of that angry woman who says she is quitting the farm. Her insistence that it not be fair declares her belief that she ought to be guaranteed success. And when she quits, with fanfare and announcement, she strives to take others with her. And so our ranks lessen for the worst of reasons, for the collective cowardice which argues every day against the value of switching to feelings.

We are each of us inconsequential while at the same time vitally important. The world would continue without us. And at the same time the world needs us in our best right minds and right livelihoods. How to keep the thrill and appreciation of our chosen ventures in sight for the long haul? By cultivation. There are those who jump into new ventures and vocations with incredible passion and enthusiasm and, after achieving measures of success, lose the thrill and the drive – they lose heart. We may have some workable understanding of what it means to have a useful vision of where we want to go, what it will all look like; a vision of the future. What happens when we are disillusioned either by failing in our goals or, perhaps more ironic, surpassing our vision? We quit? It must not be an option.

It is difficult, some say impossible, to never quit. I say it, in the final analysis, is a key element in what defines us, what we take to our graves. To maintain our heart, to perservere, to never tire of looking for the positive ways to move forward and to expand – this defines us. And piles of money aside, it is what gives us success.

Good farming, by its deep-set definition wants to be about venture and ventures that, while they may begin with you, reach constantly for time frames beyond your own life. I love the constructive underlying fabric of history for in my imagined travels in those times I see how the efforts of little people of good heart gave us the best of what we have today, not in material things but in what we hold inside, what makes us strong and various and creative.The stories of builders, architects, gardeners, craftsmen of ancient times – those who raftered towers, aligned plantings, designed pots of silver and clay, and promised themselves futures through all of that. Hear them? They are talking. They say to us be of good heart.

Surrounded by a beautiful cherry orchard, old Buck and Mary Ricketts had their chickens in a long building of their own design. One half held 500 layers, the other half 500 pullets, and in the middle the feed was stored. A seperate building served as the hatchery. I see them in my mind’s eye, walking out together each morning to work the homemade feed and egg collection contraptions while their feathered friends cackled contentedly. Mary would head to town in the old pickup to deliver the eggs to their restaurant customers while Buck cleaned the houses and spread the chicken litter across their garden patch.

One hundred miles away I see Ed Dahlman sitting on a pasture fence watching his thirty head of beef cows, calves by their side. He’s using a set of binoculars so that he can zero in on exactly which plants, in the mixed pasture, the cows are favoring. And he notices that one bull calf is chasing a heifer while the other bull calf has its head down and is grazing. He notes that he will save the calf that is grazing to see if he won’t make a good replacement herd sire. Determined grazing is a trait he wants to pass on. Bertha, meanwhile, is raking out sawdust at the little sawmill while her pot of stew is simmering for their dinner. Later she will do a little bookkeeping as the check arrived today for those 5 two year old steers they sold to the restaurant and the neighbor.

The view of Ed and Bertha and Buck and Mary says to me it’s all here you just need to be of good heart. LRM

The Heart in Farming