Three Eggs in a Two Egg Pan
Three Eggs in a Two Egg Pan

Three Eggs in a Two Egg Pan

good farming for bad times

by Lynn R. Miller of Singing Horse Ranch

On a visit to our friend Wade Wilson, of Colorado, he shared these remarks; “Many years ago my Dad told me – son if you take care of this 320 acres it will take care of you, don’t borrow against it and especially not to get more land, give it every chance to take care of you – and, Lynn, he was right.”

Good and “care-full” farming will hold us true; that becomes a more useful truth with every passing day as we humans are forced to watch and sometimes join in the terrible slide of our economies and societies into “prime-time” anarchy.

“Char, what do you like best, chickens or rabbits?” I asked my beautiful and very young friend Charlene Joseph. “Uhm, Rabbits… (pause) ….cuz you can build them like little cages and put them in so other animals don’t eat them.”

And I asked her equally lovely and only slightly older sister, “Natalie, which vegetable is the most amazing to watch grow?” Without hesitation she answered, “Carrots.”

“Interesting,” I the dullard-adult responded, “why is that?”

“Cuz, I love carrots, they are my favorite vegetable in the whole world.”

Ah, sweet birds of youth, holding in their tiny lint and straw-littered pockets everything we need to know and much of what we should hold dear. Implicit is their complete understanding of what constitutes “affordable wealth.”

Around the world, today, hundreds of thousands of people have taken to the streets demanding that human society be put right. Media looks for a serviceable narrative in all of that, one which will give a longish run to demonstrations of discontent as reality theater, perfect for accelerated advertising sales. Stalled economy, wars, food poisonings, climate mayhem, poverty, hunger, disease, information anarchy, and a completely dysfunctional governance sector throughout the so-called developed world. Things are out-of-whack and getting worse. Several someones are pouring gas on the flames of this, our bad time. Money’s being made on misery. Power’s being gathered out of our demonstrated discontent. Rancid humor is being cultivated out of the decay of our society. Certainly a guarantee that people will keep returning to the plazas of our cities demanding that the cream-filled corporate cretins and the piss-tachioed morons of governance(?) step the heck aside. See in this the makings of a synchronistic global revolution which, if ignored, has the potential to flare into full and terrible anarchy feeding a plague of unanswerable sentiment and retribution.

But we err if that is all we see out there. These are also magnificent times. Look here, and over yonder, and behind that city edge, and atop that building – there are grand small life adventures, warm cool truths, musical fertilities all waiting to applaud and encourage our view towards a better humanity. We see glowing lights germinating into topside existence and growing all across the North American countryside. And most of these lights of endeavor have in common a bond direct and indirect back to the rebirth of good farming. And not just in N. America; all around the planet folks are taking charge of their own sufficiency with small farms and gardens springing up from Uzbekistan to Indonesia and on to Louisiana, from the south of Africa to Scandinavia. Delightful to imagine that we may be heading for a small farm earth. But we aren’t there yet and many impediments are in the way especially if we turn our eyes and ears away from the roar in the streets.

Good farming, that hand-held sensorial salad-like agriculture resident in our genetic memory, is today’s unsung hero in the swirl of societal options. It offers up right livelihood (jobs we might embrace as truly fulfilling and sustaining) to hundreds of millions of people, it provides a catacomb-like community of little laboratories where the fertility and diversity of biological life bubbles over into a shared over-lapping regenerating abundance, an affordable wealth. It is what most of us want for ourselves, for our times, for each other. It is what only a few of us believe is attainable. And that is not because it is difficult or out of reach, it is because we are told, indirectly and repeatedly, that it can’t be done, and we haven’t been able to hold off that negative message.

One of today’s greatest threats to good farming is our run amok journalistic community. Bandied about for decades has been the bizarre notion that journalism is a profession leaning heavily on the best of ethics; that journalism somehow owns the moral high ground; that we may trust most of the journalistic community to be looking out for our collective best interests. It is most certainly not true, not now and not ever. Journalism depends on the formal pretense, to appear to be objectively reporting the news while inciting and exciting audience and readership with petty peculiarities, vulgar extremes and terrible announcements. Add to that the obvious handmaiden-relationship media news has to corporate governance and it is easy to see that for them telling a clear-eyed story about small farms and good farming is either silly or dangerous or both. Bad enough on its own this murky sludge-frother we call mainstream news, but today we have thrown into the mix hundreds of thousands of instant expert snobs-without-portfolio availing themselves of social networking and internet ‘blogging’. We are in the midst of the ‘thought’ equivalent of a land rush. People are flinging themselves, pell mell across the cyber-scape driving proverbial ‘stakes’ into the internet, claiming that this or that thought cluster is theirs and theirs alone.

Why does this matter to us? It matters because this so-called “free flow” of information (read ‘my-wednesday-thought-on-the-subject’) is like a river of poisonous wet concrete, it surrounds everything in our society and threatens to kill off our possibility and hope as the mixture dries and hardens. It matters because the din of public mutterings about what is inevitable, what is hopeful, what is possible is thinned and even occasionally snuffed out by these self-ordained social critics who insist that small independent farming ventures, that the life and work we cherish and work to put forward, is archaic, irrelevant, romantic, nostalgic and doomed.

My gosh but we have a lot of people out there with way too much time on their hands! What a wonderful world it would be if they had to provide true community service before they were granted a license to mutter publicly? What flavor would this endless river of “blogging” take on if each and every one had experienced, first-hand, life and death on the farm, apple harvest, manured splinters up finger nails, the sweaty invigorating fatigue of the harvest just in before a storm, the sight of every single young carrot lying withered on the surface of the garden with your own child so proud of her weeding job?

We got to keep saying it: Small Farms mean business, they mean food nearby, they mean hope, they mean opportunity, they mean jobs, they mean healthy small towns, they mean a healthier planet, they mean a way straight out of the darkness. Why is that not a story worth reporting?

I was recently listening to a classical radio station program featuring keyboard music and the commentator offered “If more people learned how to play the piano there would be less war in the world.” I had only to pause a few moments to realize the same could be said of farming and gardening. A friend remarked recently that she heard a Chinese news show via the internet where the commentator, interviewing an editor with the Wall Street Journal, asked “Why did you wait three weeks before reporting on the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ movement?” The editor had no answer. In other countries, whether we like it or not, folks read of how it is that millions of U.S. citizens are out of work, many homeless and hungry while our government, at every level, works feverishly to protect the property rights and income of the rich and powerful. Our friends in other countries are not surprised that most major US cities have “occupy” demonstrations demanding change. How is that any different from what is happening in the middle east? We commented before on how the media pushed the story of the Arab spring revolutions as having germinated from social networking on the internet and giving barely a nod to legitimate issues with hunger and poverty.

Affordable wealth
Aligned fertility vs alleged efficiency? What price balance?

We cannot wait for the news stream to speak to us, truly speak to us. We must tell our own stories to one another. And make certain they are heard.

Last March I visited Spence Farm in Illinois and spoke with Marty, Kris and Will Travis – the eighth-generation to work and live on that same acreage. At one point Marty shared with me a snippet as a piece of the wider puzzle of Spence Farm’s successful, phenomenal and important diversity. They harvest wild (and encouraged) Nettles to sell to restaurant chefs who use them as a cooked green, like spinach. On the side as it were, that’s $480 per week added to the usual farm income.

Just before Halloween my friend Mike took his Belgian team and people hauler to the neighboring pumpkin patch to give rides for the weekend. The pumpkin farmer advertised rides and throngs of folks came out to do just that and get their holiday sustenance. Mike said that well over a thousand people paid $2 a head to get a wagon ride, all gravy above and beyond the sales of the big orange globes. Once again, on the side as it were…

These are a sampling of many important vignettes we hear of regularly. And they are examples of how and why it is that we feel so optimistic about the future. Examples because they ride above and to the sides of the real work offering a teaser of those myriad ways, through creativity, that we can add ‘aspect’ and income to our good farming adventures.

So, you may observe “those are exceptional circumstances, you can’t use those to make an argument that farming as a culture is viable. You need to restrict the discussion to the empirical evidence of efficiency and profitability as pertains to actual farming practices, not to silly side-dishes and goof-off stuff like wagon rides!”

Every single piece of the puzzle is a piece of the puzzle. Throw one piece out because you don’t want to accept it and the puzzle will always be incomplete. Why do we not want to see and embrace that? We live in a time and space that grants to anybody the right to cast suspicion on example. Okay, let that be, but I refuse to allow anyone in my presence to deny, uncontested, the applicability of an “example” just because it would appear to some to be exceptional. Every single piece of the puzzle is a piece of the puzzle.

Ah, but you throw up your arms and say “it’s about the evidence! Why can’t you accept the clear evidence that …”

Forgive me a true story by way of answer: I have a good friend who is a hay farmer. As a young man he lost one eye in an accident and he wears a glass eye in its place. One day a few years back, he and another man were working on an enormous haystack when it collapsed on my friend and rendered him unconscious. When he came to in an ambulance the medics had strapped him to a back-board and were checking his vital signs as his worried daughter looked on. He slipped back into unconsciousness so the paramedics took a light and peered into the wounded fellow’s eye to measure its response by dilation. The evidence was clear and required immediate action! When the paramedic saw NO response in the eye to the light he yelled for the shock paddles and both medics prepared to try to electrify this fellow back from the dead only to hear the daughter screaming “NO, NO, check his other eye!” They were mistakenly checking the glass eye and thought, because there was no response, that his heart had stopped. Had the daughter not screamed there is no telling what damage might have been done in the electrical effort to jump start a heart which didn’t need a jolt, it was beating just fine.

That story works to make my point; what appears to be clear evidence might be something else altogether. But that tale also works on another level, as an analogy for how we see small farms and the family farm in general. For decades we had been told that the family farm, the general farm, the small farm were all dead, relics of a distant past. We were told by industry, academia, and governments that, though they may be deserving of protection as cultural relic, they certainly didn’t offer any realistic contribution to the larger challenge of feeding the world. (Oh, how miserably wrong they were.) In those quarters today food production is celebrated as a vast and vertically-integrated industry critically dependent on ever larger doses of chemicals, high-tech implements and the magic(?) of bio-engineering. But they’ve missed the party, and they’ve missed the memos. Most important they messed up the diagnosis. The patient didn’t die. Small Independent farms ignored? Yes. Abused? Yes. Trod upon? Most certainly. But not dead. And this same community of small independent farmers has quietly sprung up full-strength giving birth and purpose to a whole new wave of good farming. Tens of thousands of new small farm ventures are germinating all over the US. New small farm ventures embracing new and old practices and making profits while reconnecting local populations with the culture of agriculture. Good farming is the fastest growing sector of agriculture world wide. Industrial agriculture is dying by its own hand as “pesticide-ready” bio-engineered corn falls over in the field, as hormone-laced milk is turned away at the marketplace, as massive corporate ag companies struggle to compete while their wonder crops and chemicals fall prey to greater pests and pestilence.

The timing’s right. These are bad times. And good farming offers the antidote. With good farming the attainable and worthiest goal is always for affordable net gain: net gain in fertility, in the strength of biological diversity, in caloric production, in overall plant and animal health, in environmental improvements, in water quality and retention, in yields, in jobs, in small towns, in neighborhood, in community.

Why do I keep sticking into the argument that word “affordable”? I do it because I believe it is the critical missing adjective, it’s left out of most people’s wish list. “How do you have a net gain that is affordable? How do you measure something like that? Why should it matter?” As we work to gather unto ourselves the ‘rewards’ we pursue, do we ask repeatedly whether or not these ‘rewards’ cost us too much; cost all of us too much? We should ask these things, it should be a piece of our morning prayers. The small farm would teach us that there is the inherent potential for us to feed the world well without mining the planet’s fertility and killing off her biological diversity. As Wade Wilson’s father remarked years ago, if we take care of our farms, they will take care of us.

Two decades ago, in Nevada, I had a lively discussion with Allan Savory the sage instigator of holistic resource management and impact grazing. He made a point at that lunch that has stuck with me all these years. “Your objective should be to ‘raise’ better soils, if your fertility is improving that is your true net gain. To that end hay and grains produced should stay on the place to feed back into livestock and into the soil itself. Livestock should be seen as an instrument towards building better soils. If you find at the end of the cycle you have increased your cattle numbers and have some to sell, it is almost as if you are finding yourself with a waste product that folks will pay you money for. You should see the money you receive from the sale of those cattle as a reward for the real net gain you accomplished – your ever improving soils.”

Affordable wealth? Is it possible? You betcha! Wow, what a world that would make!

And it’s all available, all possible, all necessary. It starts with millions of small independent hands-on farms. And the great news is that millions are already in place ready to be joined by millions more. They just need to be told that what they do is valued, important, even critical to the life of the planet and humanity. They need to be permitted to do the beneficial work.

I enjoy cooking on cast iron. We have a small skillet, just perfect for frying two eggs. When eggs are abundant and I am in an early morning hurry, I will sometimes use the moment to reward myself with what I see as an extra unit of our affordable wealth. We get our eggs from Brian MacNaughton and A.J. Ferris, on their separate farmsteads the chickens are, dare I say, coddled. The resulting eggs are magnificent, many a time double-yokers. And they are various; various flavors, colors, sizes, thickness of shell. I break open two eggs into the waiting butter-lined hot cast iron pan and then smile to myself as I take a third and add it to the crowd watching as the two are squooshed over to make room for the abundance. Yes, there are days when one egg does me just fine, others when I do without. But see with me for a moment the picture of a unit of measurement, in this case a certain size of frying pan perfect to accommodate two eggs – so we call it a two egg pan.

‘Agriculture’ (the industrial model) I see as represented by two eggs in a two egg pan; that’s the maximum equation. No questions. Clearly (to some) that is what fits. Clearly that is the target. When you get two eggs in a two egg pan you may consider yourself an efficient and successful industrial agriculturalist. How could there be more? You couldn’t put three cups of liquid in a two cup measuring container, could you?

Many will nod at my physical form and argue that I am the last person to need three eggs, and I will bow my head and sometimes acknowledge this. But that is not my point. The point I wish to make is that “good farming” regularly gives us opportunity for the sort of abundance that is, if we can see it that way, merely an indicator that all is right with our world, right and getting better with each passing moment. Those chickens are healthy and happy. The eggs we take from them give us sustenance and more reason to make certain of the poultry heaven.

If you are growing pumpkins, the oft-referenced USDA enterprise data sheets will tell you that all you can produce on your soil and with your climate is X number of pumpkins which might reasonably bring X number of dollars. Finite? Fixed? Clear? BUT what about adding aspect to the enterprise as in the case of Mike coming over with a horsedrawn people hauler and giving wagon rides to folks who come to purchase pumpkins? You may find yourself, as an old Missouri pumpkin-farming friend once did, having to purchase pumpkins from the neighbor’s farm to ‘reseed’ your own in the evening because that first day all you actually grew were sold. (That man also used as an advertised attractant horsedrawn wagon rides out to the field for U-pic conveyance.) I say adding aspect is a clear sign of good farming, of three eggs in a two egg pan. I say the secret of success lies squarely on the systemic formulas each of us come up with to add aspect to our farming at every level.

And let’s say you are producing maple syrup, meats, heirloom corn and other crops and you allow that your woodlot and field-margins harbor nettle plants which you carefully harvest to sell to restaurant chefs. That also is a case of three eggs in a two egg pan. Sometimes the aspects we might embrace and add have always been there waiting for our discovery.

In both cases the added aspect takes NOTHING away from the farm’s fertility and adds to the diversity and elegance of their examples not to mention the bottom line.

Good and “care-full” farming will hold us true, and that becomes more real with every passing day as we humans are forced to watch and sometimes join in the terrible slide of our economies and societies into “prime-time” anarchy. But we needn’t accept that anarchy. We do have a choice.

Forgive me this prayer: Give us this day our daily hope that in all things living we see some goodness and we see ourselves. And grant that we might find the lights and use them in a walk to affordable health and wealth for everyone.

As a sloppy paraphrasing of young Charlene’s words, “I like small farms ‘cuz you can like have lots more of them and they will feed everybody and take care of us.”

Speaking of Winter Reading…

by Paul Hunter of Seattle, WA

In the rocker by the stove, farmers need two kinds of information to do their work: the facts and statistics about the quantifiable business of growing, and the stories, the anecdotal information about how fellow farmers working similar land, crops and equipment deal with those facts in their choices. Until a couple of generations ago the first kind of information was often hard to come by, while the stories of neighbors were everywhere for the asking. Though you had to poke through government pamphlets and the rare magazine or book for facts and figures (at least until the appearance of The Small Farmer’s Journal in 1976), you just needed to drop by the feed store, church social or coffee shop to get an earful of how your neighbors were doing. Since then much of rural America has been squeezed out and emptied out, leaving those left behind with a loss of community and a sense of isolation that can make news of one’s neighbors hard to come by, even as facts and figures, thanks to the Internet, have never seemed easier to get.

Deeply Rooted: Unconventional Farmers in the Age of Agribusiness (Counterpoint Press, Berkeley, 2009, hardbound $25), by Lisa M. Hamilton, offers a set of stories about three actual farmers who might as well be neighbors, each other’s and our own. In her hands an east-Texas dairy farmer, a New Mexico rancher, and a North Dakota organic seed and vegetable farmer give us a cumulative sense of the dilemmas and conflicts inherent in farming today at whatever scale.

Lisa Hamilton is a good listener, which means she is engaged, catches jokes on the fly, and has the stamina to wait her speaker out. And while the subject talks she observes gestures and nuances of delivery, gathering clues as she goes. Most important though, she has a fine instinct for choosing who to listen to, whose journey will be worth following, deepening in all the way. It’s almost an afterthought to say she is that rarest of creatures, a writer who honors the facts by the understated clarity of her prose. As the stories unfold, the scaffold of her thousand-thousand questions drops away, leaving these thoughtful voices to resonate in their kitchens, barns and fields.

So this is actually a book of three journeys, with three “unconventional farmers,” as the subtitle carefully frames them to avoid certain political thickets. “Unconventional” seems mostly her substitute for “thoughtful, restless and decisive.” What they have in common is wide and varied experience, with surprising turns in their roads. Here is a snapshot of the first, Harry Lewis, from Sulphur Springs, Texas:

“All this laughing and deep thought and suspicion of politicians has carved lines in Harry’s face. Technically they are wrinkles, but they come across more as the resting position of some very active skin. Really, by all rights he should be wrinkled like a raisin, being sixty-one years old and at the far end of some very hard living, yet he does not look like an old man. He is tall and thin, and strong. In the morning he might limp a little bit with stiffness, but during the rest of the day his walk could be called a swagger.”

As we tag along on her visits, it’s not hard to tell where Lisa Hamilton’s heart is, but she is a genuine recorder and reporter of these three sets of stories, and her politics are mostly kept tucked out of sight. What the reader realizes is that her agreement lies in her commitment, in her choice of who to talk to in the first place. And though these are three strong and unusual men, their lives are fittingly interwoven with the stories of their families. Siblings and wives and children appear around every turn of the stories, and as with all artful reporting there is a sense of abiding family, of complexity and worth. For example, Dan’s wife Theresa “makes bread without measurements or timers, instead judging the dough with her eyes and fingers. There are no cookbooks on her shelves, and I suspect the food she makes is strikingly similar to what her mother made, and what her grandmother made before that.”

The real payoff of the book comes when the talk comes around to the Podolls’ garden, which the two brothers and their families view as the center and source of their knowledge and inspiration. It’s not an easy or sentimental point to make, but it lands with both affection and force. David Podoll puts it bluntly: “Gardening has taught me how to farm.” And then goes on to spell it out:

“The garden allows for intimacy, he explained. It is food production brought back to a human scale. “In there you’re close-up.” His voice was warm, almost giddy with the topic. “You crawl around on your hands and knees, picking weeds, and you see things, little things, and you smell things. All your senses are used. Being a careful observer like that gives you a better sense of where to plant what, how to rotate things. With that level of awareness you have an infinite ability to finesse the production of your food.”

With the garden worked entirely by hand as their non-commercial sanctuary and “gold standard,” the Podolls have moved to growing and harvesting the seed from many of their favorite vegetables, scaling up what pleases and nourishes them, to a level that they can share. That it allows them a profit is their final concern, not their first.

This gardening measure of the Podolls offers a way out of the dilemmas of conventional agriculture. Farmers need to keep themselves grounded, avoiding get-rich-quick schemes and debt, and what better way than by honoring subsistence, a modest time-honored strategy which relies on feeding the farmer’s family first, and in the field on diversity and sustainability. If every farmer thought about feeding his neighbors what he grows to feed himself, and worked his garden plot as laboratory, proving ground, and ethical last stand, the vast empty landscape of rural America might quickly find itself peopled again. Rather than scaling up to locate the greatest economy and financial return, maybe we need to deliberately scale down to find and hold close what we care about, what we feel most nourished by. Specifically sharing what feeds us.

By the end of Hamilton’s ride-along with these three farmers, we realize how personally they take their choices, how committed they are to seeing a personal vision through in a troubled and contradictory world. We also sense how much these farmers have been lectured to, patronized and ignored, of how even in the passions of this hard economic moment they might be too busy and too steady to appear as spokesmen in public, even as they offer answers we might need. Whenever we consider feeding ourselves and each other, such thoughtful, restless and decisive farmers and ranchers as these are the first people we should be listening to, not the last. What they offer from their home front to ours is vital news.