“What I’m lookin’ for is…”
by Lynn R. Miller of Singing Horse Ranch
I called my buddy Ed Joseph on the phone and his seven year old daughter Natalie answered,
“Hello, who is this?”
“This is Lynn. Is your Daddy home?”
“Is he busy?” Silence and then a hesitant “No.”
“Can I talk with him?”
“It would be better if you called him tomorrow,” she said.
“Honey. Would you tell him I called and ask him to call me back?” I said. It was followed by a prolonged silence.
“It would be better if you called him tomorrow. Who is this?”
“Tell Daddy I called, okay?”
“Who is this…?”
This was a very bright little girl trying to control access to her father, but also trying to determine just how important the call might be. Found out later she never did let Ed know I called.
TYING KNOTS IN THE BINTURONG’S TAIL
And that conversation reminds me of several things that have been happening to all of us during these last couple of years; this disastrous economy, runamuck weather, bizarro politics, and nasty amped-up efforts to control food production.
For example; that exchange with little Natalie brings to mind the dialogue some of us have been trying to have with the USDA on NAIS (National Animal Identification Systems). There have been those that have felt the threat of Animal ID to be the proverbial “line drawn in the sand,” that moment when a stand had to be taken. If we could just get their attention and stop them here…? But the USDA wasn’t taking our calls, or they were choosing to confuse us with other factions, and they were definitely wanting to protect their “Daddys” who in this case are the corporate food giants.
And then came the “Food Safety” legislation. As if we needed to be reminded that there is a wider cultural war within U.S. agriculture.
Well now we’re being told the USDA “got the message”. They figured out that we’ve been calling for them, that we’ve been trying to tell them who we are and what we want. And they say they decided to drop NAIS. However some of us are certain the same fight is still there to be fought, only now under a different name and against a whole new set of tactics. “Where’s the front now?” We are asked. About the time we completely figure out the answer to that question it will probably change. But we have our strong suspicions that the war is being staged to pit amateur farmers against professional farmers.
I once had a magical chance encounter with an Asian Bearcat, also known as a Binturong. So long as he was convinced I was his undemanding companion all was peaceful and exotic, but when I played with the thick hair of his tail I soon discovered a dangerous emotional landscape. Friends and fellows who are recent entries into the world of agribusiness and status-quo industrial farming are wondering at the ferocity they are met with by public and private protective farm institutions and agencies. Big agriculture is feeling threatened, they don’t like us playing with their tail hairs.
CLEANING THE GORILLA’S MIRROR
For nigh on forty years I have wondered how it could be that the United States Department of Agriculture so easily and repeatedly forget it serves us all – the U.S. Citizenry and, in many cases and ways, most particularly it serves farmers – the prime constituency. Yet even a casual inspection will show that a handful of corporations, academics and bureaucrats get 99% of the attention and control 99% of the federal ag policy agenda. But something interesting is afoot. Now, within the less than hallowed halls of the USDA (wouldn’t it make a grand parking garage for the national capital?) we are hearing mumblings. Seems the Ag. Depart is fixing to call us in for meetings and picnics, we individual farmers, and see if they can’t win us back. They are finally figuring out the extent to which, with a wholesale loss of constituency, their very future is at stake. They don’t get it, they can’t see the larger pictures. And the world is changing too fast for their pleistocene ag economists to even calibrate.
WHAT FOOL WOULD ROCK THE BOAT IN A STORM?
Mindful of this hideous recession/depression we are now immersed in and the suffering it has caused so many fine folks, I was compelled – fool that I am – to point out worse days ahead. Speaking at the Placer Grown Conference in Lincoln, California, I made this statement;
“From climate anomalies to the collapse of industrial agriculture, from this ‘great recession’ to massive regional crop failures, from water shortages to weather-delayed plantings, from the increasing affluence of Asia to the disappearing wealth of the U.S. and more, all the factors are in place pointing to an unprecedented shortage of food worldwide, and within 24 to 36 months.”
I made the statement as part of a stage-set to hopefully drive home the conviction of most within the scientific and humanitarian communities that we may be faced with global hunger on a unparalleled scale. The evidence is mighty convincing. I don’t want to believe it. But not to take heed would be incredibly foolish.
When I made the above statement in my keynote address there was an audible pause, almost a gasp, in the auditorium. It was as if everyone stopped breathing for a few seconds. And not out of surprise but perhaps because I had said out loud what many of them knew or suspected but didn’t want to hear. “Maybe if we ignore it it won’t come true.” A few of them had perhaps even mistakenly thought I was too well-mannered to say such a thing.
On I went talking about challenges and opportunities, the need for gratitude and gumption; the rewards of grace and generosity. And I had clearly in mind the solid impression that had been made on me, moments before my talk, by the acceptance ceremony for the Placer Grown Farmer of the Year, Brain Kaminisky. Someone in that intro spoke of how each year Brian would have a customer appreciation day and up to 300 people would show up on the farm. I felt a seed of an idea planted in my brain; had no way of knowing it would germinate within a couple of moments.
Immediately after my keynote a woman stepped up and nervously asked “Can you tell me more about this world hunger business? My grown children think I’m nuts when I talk about it. I need to convince them, and I need to be able to give them ideas of what they might do to protect themselves.”
I invited her to the question-and-answer workshop which followed and promised to answer her first. Then Brian Kaminsky stepped up to offer a sincere thanks for my talk and I said, “Congratulations on your award. I know you will appreciate when I say that everyone is a winner. In making this acknowledgement of you and your efforts, this community is also justifiably congratulating itself for its understanding of true wealth. Gratitude all around.”
DUSTING OFF THE PEDDLAR’S BOAT-SHAPED WAGON
In that moment somethings coalesced in my tired brain. It was time for the question and answer workshop. I told the worried woman, after giving her and the others in attendance my chapter and verse facts to support the food shortage contention, I told her that the best thing she and her offspring could do to prepare was to develop strong personal and customer relations with at least 3 solid local farmers. Know, in a pinch, where you’d go for a dozen eggs, a gallon of milk, fruits, vegetables, meat. Make folks like Brian Kaminsky part of your family. I could feel others in the room nodding in agreement.
The next question, from a gentleman in the room, had to do with the many appropriate uses of the internet and searchable databases to bring farming information and farm community building into the new fast lane of society. I held my concerns in reserve while talking about our hesitant new efforts with social networking and website content. But in the format of this writing I do not feel I need to exercise the same caution.
I use the internet a great deal. While it is certainly true that it has replaced Encyclopedias, the Thomas Register of Manufacturers and the local librarian’s card catalog, at the same time and with each passing day I find that the shear ready mass of cyber data has dramatically reduced the beauty and relevance of the material. Context used to be such a defining force in any discipline touching upon a reliance on craft and artistry. Farming, music, gardening, plant propagation, architecture, writing, and teaching (to name but a few) all were beholden to environmental, historical, peerage, and community context. And those context, once welcome edges and forms, now with the internet have slipped around the ankles of our society and time. So little preparation, very little forethought, and all in the biggest hurry… but to what end?
Yes, there are many new ways to gather and send out information. And, maybe, with time these electronic databases will mature in their service to mankind, but I doubt that will happen without our insistence.
WE DON’T NEED NO MORE STINKING NON-PROFITS
Many thousands of miles were covered these last twelve months to speak about the Small Farms Conservancy and to listen to what people had to say, what they had to ask. And it was the questions that surprised us most, surprised and educated. But it took some doing to understand not just the questions people were asking but the new expectations stemming from new collective context and experience.
The collective context? Over these last twenty years we’ve all been hit repeatedly by the media blitzkrieg, a scattershot of commercialized political, charitable, and religious sales pitches swirled in with the beer, video game, pharmaceutical, showbiz and cell phone torrent. (We hardly had time to catch our breath before it all started to fall down around our ears when the banks left town with our money.) But all of that blather came at a time when many of us were learning how to use the internet to sell our old model trains, discover the truth about our misbehaving automobile, get cheaper stuff, and otherwise justify our growing scepticism. The key result of these last twenty years has been the evolution of a heat-tempered impatient populace anxious for short usable answers and poised to walk away the minute you bore them. So it was from this thick cold soup of miscontent that we were served observations and questions.
Patterns started to appear, priorities seemed to appear and they weren’t what we expected; “what I’m looking for is…”
- (and by a long shot) where can we find … (take your pick)
- a. grass-fed meats?
- b. raw milk / whole milk?
- c. organic vegetables and fruits?
- d. organic grains?
- e. butter and cheeses?
- f. organic wines and beer?
- where can I find a job on a farm that will teach me what I need to know?
- how do I afford a piece of farm land?
That’s it, the top three, nothing else even came close.
And we thought we were ‘speaking to the choir’, that our audiences were people who would be more concerned with insurance, farmland preservation, marketing of their produce, etc. etc. Instead the majority were people who wanted entry and access. They wanted to know where stuff was – period. They didn’t want another non-profit, they wanted answers – not information – answers. And right now, no beating around the bush.
“Give me the address where the grass-fed lamb is sold, now. I don’t want a lot of talk, I don’t want to join anything, I’m not interested in the politics, don’t send me to the supermarket – nothing there is honest – and I don’t care about the USDA certification crap because that’s all it is. I don’t care who the good guys and bad guys are – you know – cuz its obvious. I just want the real stuff right now. If you can’t give it to me I’ll find it elsewhere.”
No, hello how are you’s, no thank you’s, no goodbye’s, just ‘put up or shut up, right now’.
Tough crowd. And about to get a whole lot tougher, especially if the indicators prove right and our food supply diminishes rapidly. There are some odd designer questions that will be asked soon; such as, will hungry people care if their food is organic, or heirloom, or GMO-free, or hormone free? Will parents anxious to feed their children care if the food is absolutely safe? Dumb questions? Think about it. I say they will care intensely because, along with the threat of food shortage (and some will argue it is a principle contributor to that shortage) will be the fact that industrially-produced food will be more and more susceptible to egregious behaviors in factories and farms. If you think the Toyota recalls are a big thing, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Food poisonings are going up, no way of stopping it, unless honest and strong efforts are put in play to control food factories and factory farms.
Tough crowd, especially if their demands for access to land and farming skills go unmet. These folks are liable to take matters into their own hands and GO OUT AND PLANT, heaven forbid, LAND THAT DOESN’T BELONG TO THEM!?
Calm down, you say? But that’s not me saying those things. I am the one who’s saying that these days (and ways) offer to us farmers and want-to-be farmers incredible opportunity, opportunity not to be wasted, opportunity to be understood and monitored for rapid shifts so that we can be there at the head of the line with bushels of asparagus, homemade cheese, a book on raising chickens, a ventilated bottle of ladybugs, and a smiling nod.
By the droves, we have people who need what we have. If we be farmers they most definitely need the food we produce. If we be folks who want to farm THEY definitely need us to be farming. There’s a formula in there someplace! We need to see the magical mathematics of true supply and demand – not this gummied-up big-dogs-only corporate fascism we have today.
And you know what keeps today’s system afloat? Efficiency? Nope. Good management? Definitely not. What keeps it afloat is our long held insistence that each of us go it alone, and our new found impatience with anything but instant gratification. Civility has been replaced by sequestry, community has been replaced with our new empty sugar-free greed. So we set ourselves apart with hand held out impatiently and corporate fascism continues its massive bloat.
We could correct the course of our collective ship of fate in an instant if we could but all work together on common cause. Those obscene heads of the corporate food system are betting we won’t. They are betting they understand that our baser instincts define us. And, you’re right, we don’t have to talk about it. We just need to do it.
A STOLEN ROAN GATHERS NO MOOSE
Everywhere I go I meet people who can’t find what they are looking for. And I turn around and standing right behind me are people who have what the others are looking for but cannot find them what needs it. Gives people like me a sense of purpose. To connect those folks, you folks. Maybe that’s exactly what we need to do, find the best and most popular ways to let everyone in your community know for certain that you have milk and eggs to sell. And let everyone in your community know you want a piece of land to farm and someone to show you how. I am convinced that we have all of the components, all of the answers. The opportunity is defined by the challenge to connect the dots, to find “convenient” and “obvious” ways for people to find what they are looking for. The only thing in short supply is the will to work together. And good, well conceived and honestly directed non-profit efforts are a means to that end.
There is a favorite shaggy dog story that culminates with the punch line “A stolen Roan gathers no Moose.” It has to do with an old Canadian rancher who rides out on a good roan horse and gathers Moose to sell. His envious neighbor figures the secret is the roan horse, so he steals him to gather moose but the horse won’t work for him – ergo, the punch line. May seem a little convoluted but that’s how I see the internet as an opportunity to connect us and our needs. The internet is like that roan horse, not much good without the proper cowboy (or is it mooseboy?) If the business community thinks it can connect us all simply by plugging in via some new or established web data base or program it just might be missing the boat. Knowing what rennet is, understanding microbial bacteria’s function in soil health, valuing the fertile life of certain livestock, these sorts of things must come from the proper experience driven context. When it comes to farming they need to be in the background of any concerted, and hopefully sophisticated, effort to connect supplies with needs.
PARKING THE WATERMELON WAGON ON THE STREET CORNER
The regional history book tells of how the old Greek homesteader who first settled our ranch grew watermelons year after year, no irrigation, on a sub-irrigated hillside. He loaded those melons into a farm wagon back in the early twentieth century and drove several times, each consecutive year, 16 miles over land to park on the street corner in the tiny town of Sisters hawking the fruit. It was all so remarkable that it made it into the historical backdrop of the area.
Everyone knew to expect Sam Pappas and his melons right about that time of the year. That’s what we’re returning to. That’s what we must return to. A community identifying itself with when the crop is available and where to go and get it.
Sequestered and insulated from true community, today we need a little help re-establishing those connections. That’s why we need instruments such as this Journal and the Small Farms Conservancy, functioning as map dispensers and switchboards for not only local communities but also for the overlap of all of those into the new wider village of humanity so essential to restoring vigor and vitality to civilization.
We’ve said it before, and it cannot be said often enough; The World needs feeding and small farms are the way to get it done. We can do it. We can head off that worldwide food shortage, one local community at a time – all of a time, all right now.
Time to hunker down and make it all work.