Lynn R. Miller
Wisconsin in Watercolor: The Life and Legend of Folk Artist Paul Seifert, by Joe Kapler, is a superb 2018 art book from the State Historical Society of Wisconsin. The extensive spread of the fascinating and beautiful Seifert paintings would be reason enough for a lover of art to search out this volume. Add in the wonderfully researched and written story of this illusive gentleman and his life’s work and you’ve a double treasure.
“Yes, with this approach to farming we make decisions and put our hands to some small manipulations but the very breadth of mixed crop and livestock systems often quickly leave us behind and spread out to do their own work of symbiotic osmosis and complementary relations.”
The waking dream of my single digit years was of a doe-eyed Guernsey cow chewing her cud at a rail fence near the barn while, across the lane – inside a poultry-netting fence – a mixed flock of hens pecked at grains as a mottled white- gold- red and black rooster stood tall at guard. In a wheelbarrow between cow and chickens was a bag of grain – or was it seed? The dream had muted sounds and sharp competing manure odors. I loved that dream, still do. It always brought me comfort as it offered to me the simple, infinitely useful push as question… ‘okay, what are you going to do next?’
Where to begin? How do you get in the proverbial ‘door?’ Instead of saying out loud “I want to learn how to farm, I want to learn everything you know.” Save it as answer to a future question. Instead introduce yourself to that farmer and offer this; “How may I help you with your farm work?” And if the answer is, “I need those pumpkins loaded carefully on this wagon, can you handle that?” You say “Yessir,” and do it.
We share our ranch habitat with our work horses, cattle, poultry, bees. We also share it with a vast assortment of wildlife. As an example, we have spoken before of the trials and thrills posed by the visiting herds of Elk. Usually our thoughts go to the challenges and intrigue of how we balance our commitment to improving the wildlife habitat that is our ranch with a need to control or mitigate the damage the elk do to our farming and fences. A recent tragedy brought into focus the possibility of an inverse.
First we had hunting and gathering. Then we had farming. Those two periods of human history lasted quite a long time. Then we had agriculture, morphing some would say by necessity into the highly extractive agribusiness model of soil mining – simplify by calling it industrial agriculture. In the wider scope of human history, industrial agriculture has been a blip.
There were two irrigated fields, adjacent to one another, and totally 25 to 30 acres. With only a couple of minor mechanical adjustments we mowed pretty much uninterrupted (except for water breaks and photo ops) and finished the job in under 3 hours. (For those of you who are interested in the applied math: These outfits can cover 9 to 10 acres each in one day. Using 9 as an average that means these 5 mowers can drop 135 acres of hay in three days.) Mike told me that when the hay was ready Nick would spend a six hour day with forecart and rake just ahead of the baler.
Situated a few blocks from the French Quarter, the Mid-City Carriage Company stables 28 mules and 12 head of horses along with a wide variety of carriages, the staple of which is the Vis-a-vis. They hold seven hack permits for the Quarter which is the cornerstone of the service. Along with this they do weddings, funerals, and special events. There are twenty drivers and ten support people including office help, checkers, a full-time farrier and a wheelwright. This is a busy and successful enterprise which was built slowly and deliberately.
Book Excerpt: The enclosed gear, late model John Deere, Case, Oliver, David Bradley, and McCormick Deering International mowers I (we) are so fond of had a zenith of popular manufacture and use that lasted just short of 25 years. Millions of farmers with millions of mowers, built to have a serviceable life of 100 plus years, all pushed into the fence rows. I say, it was far too short of a period.
There are many working definitions of art, and doubtless there will be new ones in the future. The definition that encourages me to see the clear relationship between farming and, say painting, is the one which places looking and manifesting what is seen, felt and encouraged into imagery. Photo realism as a genre has a rich tradition stretching back to Hans Holbein the Younger and Johannes Vermeer, a tradition which has challenged individual artists to discover and instill the tricky visual elements which embue the images with a living vitality. Alexandra Klimas has discovered her access to the living image.
There is astounding variety in apprenticeship offerings; a variety which, though it may prove frustrating for all involved, does represent well the vitality and diversity of our alternative farming culture. I for one do not want to see that diversity lessened, but it sure would be helpful to find some commonality of application since we have such a firm and outstanding commonality of purpose already in place.
“Old timers” are fond of saying that all it takes are lots of long hours in the field, ‘get yourself and the horses sweatin’ and keep them that way.’ It is felt that most training challenges and glitches in the system will work their way out by long hard hours of work. There is certainly something to say for this. However, it is far from the only way. It is my contention, born of a quarter century of experience, that foundation training and good common sense system structure will give us better results. The horse who stands quietly and calmly when needed, regardless of whether he is tired or fresh, is the superior work mate. This is accomplished by well set training and trust.
We have a horse, an 11 year old Belgian mare with a rather nervous type personality, who chews on the ends of her lines. It seems to be similar to biting fingernails in times of stress. Other than this little quirk she’s a reasonably good worker and well behaved. Should we get her into therapy? If we stop this habit will her pent up frustration just find another outlet? Perhaps a worse one?
Hands-on human-scale farming will frequently put you in need of a way to repair implements and equipment, including gates, hinges, hangers and such. Success with your operation may well hinge on your willingness and ability to do most of these jobs yourself. Fifty+ years ago, when I got started farming, I was immediately intimidated by the cautions and precautions implicit with welding, either oxy or stick (arc). My first sense was that this process was not for the beginner or novice. I got over my trepidations. That was a long time ago. Since then innovations in welding technologies have come a very long way, adding to the hazards, and complexity, tenfold.
Its been a long time ago now, from 50 to 55 years or so, back when I felt myself drawn to each and every image I ever came across of horses or mules working in harness. Didn’t know why. I was a city kid with no immediate background in the stuff. But the attraction was very strong and central to an overarching dream of someday having my own old-fashioned, general farm. Back in the fifties and early sixties, in urban centers, the conventional wisdom had it that agriculture had grown up for good and all. The industrialization of farming with its concomitant chemistry and heavy metal disease (big machinery) was, back then, already fashioning a base for today’s genetic engineering and cyber nonsense. Way back then anyone who expressed an interest, let alone a preference, for the old farm was branded as “backwards” and “sentimental.”
Here are two, old-style, heavy-duty, bobsled building plans featuring the sort of sleds you might have found in New England and the Maritime Provinces of Canada. (In fact you might get lucky and find them still.) These are designed to haul cord wood on the sled frame.
That’s a pair of book ends for you; the Age of Enlightenment up against the Age of the Dodo. But the Dodo bird went extinct long ago you say? Yes, and that is the very strength of the example; my point in calling this the age of the Dodo is to make a case for what is certain to follow the obsolescence of humans, of what it means to be a thinking, working, compassionate, and musical human being. The unthinkable is upon us, humans may just become extinct and by their own lazy hand.
Ten years ago I answered a classified ad and went to a small western Oregon farm to look at some young laying hens that were for sale. That visit to Buck and Mary Rickett’s place made a quiet impression on me that has lasted to this day. On that first visit in ’71 my eager new farmer’s eye and ear absorbed as much as possible of what seemed like an unusual successful, small operation. I asked what must have seemed like an endless stream of questions on that early visit.
Some years back I had the pleasure of reviewing Adam Danforth’s outstanding and astounding volumes on butchering meats. Those titles won him the James Beard Award among others. His newest title, Butchering Chickens, follows in the very same astute footsteps. This attractive, well organized handy 175 page book, subtitled A Guide to Human Small-Scale Processing, is published by Storey.
People ask this question in many shifting forms; “What made you choose the life of an old-fashioned horse-farmer?” Sometimes I answer it, sometimes I don’t even make an effort. But now I’m intensely interested in understanding how we must crack the new armors of the young if we are to “get through to” candidate novices, those people who think they want to do what we do. And we must get through to them if we are to complete the hand-off, the passing of the proverbial baton. So that means we have to honor all these questions and make good attempt to honestly and completely answer them.
A great many small farms across North America keep ten to thirty laying hens for home family supply. Some of those folks might be surprised to discover that with a modest investment they could turn, or grow, that ‘sideline’ into additional farm income – but you need to know that it will take planning, an increase in daily chores, and attention to detail. And of course, to further assure success, it would help if you naturally enjoyed poultry.
Dale Befus introduced me to a plow I had not set eyes on before, most unusual affair though Dale assures me not uncommon in Alberta, this implement is a beam-hung riding plow (wheels hang from the beam) as versus the frame-hung units (where the beam hangs under the wheel-supported frame).
The most populous single horse planting tools were made by Planet Junior. But they were by no means the only company producing these small farm gems. Most manufacturers included a few models and some, like Planet Junior, American and Cole specialized in the implement. What follows are fourteen different models from Cole’s, circa 1910, catalog. We published ten of these in volume 30 number three of Small Farmer’s Journal.
Back in the early eighties, when we were on an extended road trip up to Ontario, Canada and back through New England to Ohio Amish country, we had occasion to visit a small collar making shop where Kristi took these photos. We recently had to move our archives and I found these pictures in an envelope. I do not remember whose shop it was and have lost any notes that I took. But I vividly recall the action in the first photo as it mechanically stuffed chopped straw into the shaped leather tube which would become a work collar. The second apparatus was a size specific press for shaping the stuffed collar form. And the last tool pictured is a stretching table where the anchored, nearly complete collar was gently beat with a wide round hammer to even out any lumps in the stuffing.
A long time ago I decided to stick my neck out and buy a small farm. I knew I had to do it. I was consumed by dreams of a place of my own. Dreams, and plans, and more dreams. Over thousands of late nights I had destroyed countless paper napkins and scraps of paper drawing little designs of where the farm house would be and the relationship of the chicken house to the garden and the barn…
It is difficult to accurately measure a horse’s neck without fitting. In other words, there are so many variables involved in the shape and size of a horse’s neck that the only accurate and easy way to size the neck is to use several collars and put them on one at a time until fitting is found.
Long ago when grain was handled mostly by hand, the crop was cut slightly green so seed did not shatter or shake loose too easily. That crop was then gathered into ‘bundles’ or ‘sheafs’ and tied sometimes using a handful of the same grain for the cording. These sheafs were then gathered together, heads up, and leaned upon one another to form drying shocks inviting warm breezes to pass through. In old England, the field workers took great pride in their work and distinctive sheaf knots were designed and employed.
We have a hole in our yard… We have lived with it all these thirty years. It starts out five feet across and runs straight down deep. At seven hundred feet we have not found the bottom. We have determined that it passes through the volcanic rock ceiling of a massive cavern at 250 feet. We keep it covered and fenced off. I try not to think of that hole, seventy five feet from our house, but I admit that it does give me pause. To friends and family it is a fearful thing. To me it is just a reminder that nature holds some cards.
Farming, at its essence, has offered, and still does, a set of opportunities for man to work in communion with nature. Farming is always best as a calling, as a soul’s livelihood, as a grandparent’s handoff, as a hand on a planting stick with heart to the magic. Farming is that everyman’s punch card to self-sufficiency and holy order. All of these reasons and more are why I say farming is a sacred trust; one of the sublime possible marriages of man to nature, nature to man, wherein sustenance is the outcome because nature – worshipped, sweet-talked, coaxed, listened to, courted, fed, groomed, honored and stewarded in minuscule ways and at minuscule stations – allows it so.
I was asked to speak at the Eco-Farm Conference in California this winter. The topic was “criteria for evaluating farm success.” This editorial basically covers my impromptu remarks at that conference. I had a couple months to think about the subject of my speech and I took all of that time. As I probed the question of measuring success in farming I came to realize just how important a subject this was. The understanding of what we consider to be success in our farming goes to the core of everything we see as a problem and, perhaps, offers direction.
In 1974, looking down 800 feet of waving, sometimes parallel, pairs of emerging corn plant rows all I could do was choke back the tears, so bad it was painfully funny. Ray said, “At least you don’t have to try to cultivate that mess with a tractor. You’ll have to make some choices, some of the rows spread out so far apart you may have to pick which side to save, but Bud and Dick will watch those plants real close and do everything they can to avoid stepping on them, unless they’re laughing so hard they get dizzy and step wide.” Charley added, trying hard not to laugh, “You know what they say Lynn, you can get more corn in a crooked row.”
Deep in the cultural trenches and personal histories within small farming is the oft shared love of seed catalog mining during fall and winter. We might say it is all about the enthusiasms that come with planning another year’s growing but I know it is also about a tangible immersion in the practical literature of planting choices. As many of you know already, with Fedco Seeds of Maine we have catalogs which are educational, testimonial, encouraging and genuinely bracing. And equally important we have all of that in a form that can and should be trusted and preserved. This is ‘our’ sort of seed company. Let’s go further ‘out on a proverbial limb’ and say their catalogs are our sort of reading material.
Today there is no end to formulas that are supposed to give you a leg up, or at best some sort of guarantee of success, with draft horses. I say be wary. The best intentions, the best preparation, the best animals, the safest routine is NO guarantee of success with the working animals. Formulas cannot replace your personal fortitude or strength of conviction and clarity of purpose. And those things will result in a matched natural comfort with the animals.
So far most major farm organizations support our present system and the politicians who do not stand up to it, and I hear no protest from their members. It may be different in Oregon, but here in the Midwest we still see hedges being bulldozed, wetlands destroyed to make room for larger row crop fields and applications for building more CAFOs. Missouri’s neighbor states, Iowa and Illinois are the most de-naturalized states in the nation, and the reason for that is agriculture. So farmers as a group have no reason to pat ourselves on our backs, like it is so frequently done in official statements or ads on TV.
“If we made a gadget like that, the farmers might start thinking they didn’t need the tractors we sell for thousands of dollars.” He said that nowadays the idea is to invent rice planting machines quickly, sell them head over heels for as long as possible, then introduce something newer.
Gain always points to increase reflecting back on fertility. The word ‘gain’ in the manner to which I prefer its use and application NEVER, by definition, depletes. Whether you accept my terminology or not, it should be clear that I and many like me refuse to accept as our goal the maintenance of the status quo. We chose to work to increase fertility, increase health, increase biodiversity, increase market community, increase income, increase positive reputation. We choose GAIN, not sustainability. And that is good news.
This is about making money with a small farm but this is not about how many tons or pounds we might produce of a given product per acre. This is about how we value what we do and who we are. This is about what price we put on that which we sell. This is about the magnetic attraction we build and/or allow around ourselves, our families, and our farms. This is about how we put ourselves out there to the public.
This is a true story. I think I can recommend it to you, unless you are looking for something deep, abiding and provocative. Then I can’t help you. You see, the news is so snarling and hellbent that I need a break. So I’ve gone to the well, gone to my bag full of early adventures. And as I picked through them I realized, as my long life journey slows, that I have come a very great distance without arrivals worth much genuine note. And then there is the question of style, or manner. This writing, I insisted to myself, had to be done at a full gallop, as though I spotted the gate open and hoped to beat the others in my herd through to greener and more restive pastures…
Farming as a way of life, as a determination, as work flow, as a skill set – all of it at ground level is laced with tangible and intangible details that tell us more about the cause of the fray and the shapes of the smiles than about the presentable menus and recipes of the enterprise. Here is how you raise geese for market – the recipe. While over there is how you successfully fold into a farming day the shared presence of free range geese as guardians and weeders. Sometimes the only way to ‘get the true picture’ is through shared stories.
Lynn Miller’s highly regarded book, “Training Workhorses / Training Teamsters,” is back in print! And that’s not even the most exciting news: The Second Edition is in FULL COLOR! Today’s article, “Haltering Foals,” is an excerpt from Chapter 8, “Imprinting and Training New Born Foals.”
If the reader is considering the construction of a barn we encourage you to give more than passing thought to allowing the structure of the gable to be open enough to accommodate the hanging of a trolley track. It is difficult or impossible to retrofit a truss-built barn, which may have many supports crisscrossing the inside gable, to receive hay jags. At least allowing for the option in a new construction design will leave the option for loose hay systems in the future.
Marvin Haskell was a jovial engaging disjointed hermit. A crippled old wizened yet well-fed curmudgeon who lived a mile up the road on his 300 acre timber/former dairy farm. In a tar-paper-covered single-wall fourteen by sixteen foot one room tool shed of a shack with no running water.
When hitching to the mower, first make sure it’s on level ground and out of gear. The cutter bar should be fastened up in the vertical or carrier position. This is for safety of all people in attendance during hitching.
All the good implements were on hand with a few new surprises. There was a bale accumulator, all gravity – which gathered 10 bales to one spot. And I & J showed a cover crop roller especially designed to flatten and crush thick cereal rye before no-till corn planting. This tool had resulted from research done at the Rodale Institute. Pioneer, White Horse Machine, Shipse Farm Supply, Gateway, Hogback produce and all the other manufacturers put on an excellent field display.
Successful dependence on draft animals as a power source takes three parts good mechanicals and one part guided intuition. It also takes positive expectations and less thinking. It most certainly includes determination and patience. That’s lots of parts; in fact that’s way too many parts. So many, in fact, that we are prone to get in the way of our success. The best teamsters just are. And they are because they spend a lot of time doing it. They DEPEND on their animals in harness. The work HAS TO BE done. For them it’s not a parade, it’s not a joy ride, it’s not a play day exercise, it’s not a ‘foo foo’ moment.
I & J Mfg. started importing ESM sickle bar components which dramatically improved the basic hay mowers’ performance. Smoother operation meant less draft requirement which in turn led to a revolutionary new self-contained ground-drive mower made available in 2011. This was to be the first such successful design since the mid-twentieth century. I & J Mfg. offers kits to retrofit other mowers with their excellent sickle bar system.
Late one evening as I sat, sleepless, wondering how on earth I’d be able to pull it off and manage to hold on to this chance at my own farm, a little door opened in the back of my brain and an idea crept in … “work horses … THAT’S IT! I’ll do it with the horses … Just for this year, or as long as it takes to get started. Sure it’ll be hard work, maybe longer hours, but this is the chance I’ve been waiting for. I can do it! I’ll make it somehow. Horses, yeh that’s it, horses!” Until that time I had been playing with my team of Belgian mares – plowing contests, parades, wagon rides – they were an important hobby for me. I had a few odd pieces of horsedrawn farm equipment. So I made a decision, out of necessity, I was going to farm that first year using horses in harness rather than a tractor.
Even more of a challenge than the actual work required is not to allow such things to discourage you to the point of inactivity. One way which works for me is to recall strings of best days working, days I want to think define me. So I chainsawed up the broken trees while thinking about turning beautiful soil and watching the birds follow for unearthed treasures. Or I would pull nails and screws to release sheets of tin from the blown rafter assembly while remembering best days mowing hay with the many outstanding teams I have owned.
Many of us are good farmers (at least with the growing part) yet we fail at our business adventure because we are somehow crippled when it comes to seeing how our produce fits in the world. And seeing how our produce fits in the world is the front porch to feeling better about ourselves and realizing greater farm income.
The world keeps getting smaller as solid working class folk rediscover every single day that family, friends, neighbors, the locale of local, the close-in economies, the character of all nearby things animate and inanimate give comfort, identity, and reasons to strive, to persist and to succeed. And within that is the discovery that living within our means, within our community, within our families, though perhaps rightly seen as the essence of thrift, does deliver us the truest lasting wealth and useful health.
Parker raised cattle, horses, and pasture while producing milk in the simplest of circular farming worlds. He came to this with deliberation, understanding that what he wanted was a sustainable regenerative comfort in and with the working world of his choice. For him profit in any traditional sense was after-the-fact, almost as if a waste product. His life and its successes were all about the ‘top line’. And that paradoxically gave him greater profitability and viability. It wasn’t about how much his gross income was, it was about how much he kept and how well the work kept him.
If you are in a position to choose which make and model of mower you might wish to work on might I put in my vote for either the McD/Internationals #7 & #9 or the John Deere Big Four. These were the last and most plentiful models made and some parts are still available with a fair measure of aftermarket cutter bar parts which are interchangeable.
It is NOT a small world, it is a BIG world, as wide and various as you can possibly imagine. We are not alone. When we feel ourselves shut down, crowded by worry and a sense of failure, it would serve us well to remember Bulldog’s admonition, “Boss, never give up, no matter what, never give up.” Anyway, how could we? Who would put up the hay? Who would unharness the team? Who would milk the cows? Who would wax the cheese? Who would feed those woolly pigs? It’s got to be us, after all it is who we are.
Whether it be a gesture of generosity, a rudely subtle tuck and hide of the obligatory tip, or an implied curse, the phrase ‘keep the change’ is deeply ingrained in our transactional language. Recently I woke from a pleasant dream with that phrase on my lips but it was attached to an entirely different sentiment. It was an observation that with the best natural farming our reward comes because we, individually and collectively, may get to keep the change we create.
Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss is a very new and vibrantly important book by Margaret Renkl, a weekly contributor to the New York Times from her home in Nashville, Tennessee. Looking for a book that will realign your soul and refresh your observational senses? Here ‘tis. 219 pages of tiny, sweet, sad and illuminating stories, each spinning in place and pointing within and without to natural universe and universality. These stories, some a paragraph long, some a page, a few at two pages, are air-filled word pastries that effortlessly combine surgical sadness, giddy memory, and astounding poetry of observation.
There are four general plans, or methods of plowing fields. These are: (1) to plow from one side of a field to the other; (2) to plow around the field; (3) to plow a field in lands; and (4) to start the plowing in the center of the field.
You pull hard against the load. Hard. Straining, leaning forward, all muscles targeted towards getting it to move, or to keeping it going. Then without warning, it snaps, something gives, and you feel yourself falling, face forward, out of control. Your feet can’t feel the way to get out there ahead, as bracing. You ‘know’ you’re gonna get hurt. This is not good. It’s a form of dizzy helplessness that is frightening and disheartening. It literally and figuratively throws you off.
If we are among the fortunate, long ago the big, long-simmering pot on the stove, center of the kitchen, gave us that bubbling merger of slowly maturing flavors which each nose was drawn to, which each anxious stomach was urged to pay homage to; gave us those abiding memories. Lift the lid and draw in that ‘love in the mist.’
Art of Working Horses, by Lynn R. Miller, follows on the heels of his other eight Work Horse Library titles. This book tells the inside story of how people today find success working horses and mules in harness, whether it be on farm fields, in the woods, or on the road. Over 500 photos and illustrations accompany an anecdote-rich text which makes a case for the future of true horsepower.
We recently acquired a full color McCormick publication which included, at its core, this information on their binder designs. In a previous issue we published the mower portion. There is additional info we will offer in a subsequent journal. It is our mission to keep such material alive.
There are beginnings and endings and everything else, all that in-between, all that MIDST. Messy, complicated, growthy, and fertile. How are we to know what to believe, what to retain, what to apply. What to plant, which stock to select for breeding, when to harvest, where to go to sell it all? Aren’t we required to figure those things out? This is farming. There ought to be a clear, simple and proper way to go about it all. Or?
Much of the world’s population is unemployed or underemployed. Most of those people are poor by any measure; they are hungry for food, purpose, place and hope. One pursuit, or endeavor, may employ millions and employ them with dignity, gain and satisfaction – that pursuit is human-scale, traditional farming.
This summer, Kristi Gilman-Miller took half a hundred photos of partner Ed Joseph and I using McCormick-Deering #9 mowers to cut down Triticale grass mix hay. The crop would have been much better if we hadn’t been visited night-time by as many as 300 Elk looking for water and green feed. We planted in seven acre lands a quarter of a mile wide as we were recording variables in plantings for our research into the best future crop rotations. We were very impressed by the Triticale, a cross between Rye and Wheat, which makes a grain hay the cattle and horses love.
But for now, I prefer to think about some of these fashionable issues of local self-reliance and local foods from the aspect of what constitutes nearby for each of us. “Local” feels to me to be inviting a formulaic concept for measurement (ie. within 50 miles?) while “nearby” suggests comfort and culture for ownership and identity. Sure “local foods” slips off the tongue easily while “foods from nearby” doesn’t have the easy slide. But what I’m suggesting here, more than the words we use, is that the words we picture when we think about concepts and motivations help us to understand what we’re working towards.
As long back as most of us can remember, the plain people were using buggies for transportation. Buggy frames were mounted atop wood wheels that turned on large solid steel axles. Today, more new technology is available for buggies. Torsion axles, fiberglass and steel wheels, hydraulic disc brakes, LED lights, and sealed batteries — the list could continue.
A few yesterdays ago we were set in a vulgar gaseous economy of absurd excess and biological disconnect, but it was OUR pattern. Want it or not, each of us owned some aspect. Maybe it was far distant and three times removed but it was there nonetheless. Now, as so many pieces, large and small, of our soured society and economy shrink and slough off, we are perhaps to be excused our apprehension and fear. We have been dependent on a vast, irresponsible ‘supply’ system and the presumption of unending growth. Now, where will we get this or that mechanical part? Or a gallon of milk? Or our heating oil? Or our prescriptions filled? Think I’m going too far with this? Think the system is “fundamentally” sound? Think that it will never breakdown that far? It already has.
It was a pasty, mustard-yellow, half-ton ’80 Chevrolet pickup truck, the entire body of which was riddled by small dents. I bought it at auction years ago. It belonged to an old rancher whose family fondly referred to as Mr. Magoo. In his later years he could not see well. He only drove at home on the ranch, and he drove this truck. He’d drive slow until he bumped into something, then he’d back up a little and turn one way or the other and try again. In this fashion he ‘felt’ his way around the ranch. And in this fashion he dented up old yeller. The surface of the vehicle was like a reverse brail, a record of ‘felt’, as if Mr. Magoo used ‘old yeller’ like a big motorized blind man’s walking stick, feeling out around him as he moved through his farming world.
We Millers were invited to attend the Fiftieth Anniversary Oregon Draft Horse and Mule Breeders plowing match at the Yamhill County Heritage Center in McMinnville. I was one of the judges (along with Michael Webster). Kristi took photos, some of which you see on these pages. It was a splendid day, perfect weather and a well organized event with lots of spectators.
After a hiatus of more than a decade, the Oregon Draft Horse community has a full-fledged Draft Horse and Mule Plowing Competition once again. Organization president Duane Van Dyke was quite excited about the conversion back to competition from the long standing ‘demonstration’ play days that have been held over recent years. This year’s May event featured a whole lot of animals and a great crowd of participants and spectators all enjoying the emerald green beauty of Champoeg State Park.
The lifting mechanism for this plow is a foot-operated lever which allows the operator to use both legs for lifting and setting. This foot-operated action means the operator can keep his hands on the lines at all times. The steering tongue means the plow will turn sharp on headlands for safety and efficiency. It also provides assurance on hilly terrain or with new horses, that the plow will not run up on their heels. Levers on both sides permit the operator to set the frame level for accurate plowing.
They advertise “rain or shine” for the Rock Creek Plowing Exhibition and this year they were put to the test. I’m happy to tell you that the horses and teamsters and spectators passed the test with flying, if soaked, colors. But I had forgotten that folks west of the Cascade Mountain range are accustomed to this sort of weather. I think it was my friend Ron VanGrunsven who, when I asked him why he was there, remarked “It’s too wet to do anything else.”
All other aspects being equal, the primary difference in plowing, comfortably, with a single horse is that the animal walks on unplowed ground immediately adjacent to the previous furrow, rather than in the furrow. This will cause the point of draft at the shoulder to be somewhat higher and will dictate hitching longer and/or higher than with the animal walking down 5 to 8 inches lower in the furrow.
I had seen the truck running around locally with a sign on the side which said CUSTOM MEAT CUTTER and a phone number so I called. It was a small family-owned business thirty miles away. They told me straight away that their facility wasn’t federally inspected. I didn’t care. (In my rustic, hardscrabble, farm and ranch community, federal inspection was a joke – an extra fee you paid to get a stamp of approval with no one really inspecting anything.)
SFJ Spring 2016 Preview: We need to find simple, direct, rewarding solutions to human interaction with all other forms of biological life. We need to find ways that our time on earth is beneficial for all. People are the problem but they are also the solution, or they contain the stuff that would make things right. Strength and billions of small adventurous choices to protect where we live, that’s the stuff.
Farming is an art, it is also a craft. We think about it frequently as a systemic treatment of nature and with nature, the goal of which is the production of food and fiber. All of this when lumped and worked together comes of the very origins of the word “technology.” Not the ways we see it and hear of it today. In the 1970’s we came upon the first common usage of the term “high technology” as applied to computers and applied data-driven systems and then morphing into artificial intelligence. Today the ‘high’ has been dropped. Now, frequently, when people throw around the word technology they see it in terms of IT or Intelligence Technology. But for farmers and farming, Hi-tech spreads out to include driverless tractors, drones, and the marriage of mutated plant and animal forms to chemical intensities.
Saralee Lawrence and Ashanti Samuels are Rainshadow Organics, a burgeoning, certified organic operation which fully embraces the tenets of mixed crop and livestock farming. At its core is a full-force market garden. The entire farm comprises one hundred and eighty acres situated in the magnificent, high desert region of central Oregon and subject to a painfully short growing season (some years just slightly over 2 months).
The planet earth is a living entity. All of its elements including its geology, hydrology, and biology constitute an interconnected web of myriad factors and forces which have for millions of years balanced themselves in vitality and existence. To our collective knowledge no entity or force has been able to throw the planet off its balance except for modern man. There are those of us who work the land and feel the humbling effects of nature’s force who know that this grand and wonderful planet will take the demise of the human race as a small challenge. For me to continue to say that we small farmers can save the world is arrogant shorthand for the truth. What I should be saying is that the ways of we small farmers, as with the ways of honey bees, butterflies, elephants, dolphins and snails, might reasonably allow the continuation of nature’s harmonic balance.
We hear the earth breathing through the rustle of the margins. That single cow elk, as she escapes, parts the Triticale stems in one land and then, passing through the next, shakes the field peas clinging to the beardless wheat stalks. The beat of the wild turkey’s wings sends the sage rat scurrying in full view of the circling hawk until the rodent disappears ‘neath the carpet of irrigated clover. These things happen for us only when we are listening and watching. Who’s to know what the earth’s breath attests to when no one is near, or within the margins, to hear, to see?
Nowadays when someone speaks of people having short attention spans I make the visceral leap to people not knowing how to work. I believe it IS a defining distinction; no matter how naturally talented, or intellectually gifted, or wildly creative you are – if you do not KNOW how to work the world can never be your oyster. If you have a short attention span and cry-baby ways, long-learning distances through life’s swamps and sunrises will never be yours.
Excess. Small scale farming may come down to this. We plant some carrot seed and care for its growth. Harvest time we take some of those carrots for our own use. The best looking of the excess we take to the farmer’s market and sell for money to pay the bills. The not-so-good looking ones, the remaining excess, we divide between those we feed to the livestock and those we put through the juicer. Some of the juice finds its way to our own table and some to a neighbor family that’s having difficulties. As for those carrot-eating pigs, they’re employed making compost, consuming farm produce waste (or excess) and converting it into manure for fertilizer. One will go to the farm table and the extra (the excess) pigs will be cut and wrapped and sold direct to local customers.
In nature, when fruit goes way past mature, all the way to announced disappointments of mold and rot – shouldn’t we refer to that as decline? Don’t we? As I mature to over-ripe (read decline) I find myself going through periodic fogs of aggravated irrelevance. Old farmeritis is a real thing. I got it. It translates to me constantly mumbling “get out of the way, I’ve got work to do.” And that is sometimes met by side-bobbing young heads on limber necks giving the disregard sashay. I am beginning to realize that one of the first things you lose with seniority is your public right to decide what’s essentially important – for yourself, let alone anyone else. These days I don’t have the energy or interest to contest what seems to be the general assessment that I am now a slow moving, cranky whale in dangerously shallow waters, pretty much completely out of touch with the world at large. It may be true but I don’t have to agree with that. And all that really is not important to talk about except to set the stage for changes in editorial tone.
The thoughts triggered by the summer consequences of that slow snow has me looking for clear evidence. Did the snow cause this dramatic increase in grass growth beneath trees, in overall fertility? Is this land, this region, this wildife migration zone, showing signs of comfort and appreciation for the weather and water turnaround brought by the deep snows? I see the strength of our pastures, the health and gain of our livestock, and the increase in the bird populations. Evidence everywhere, but you only see it if you are looking for it. And, as farmers, we look for it because it gives us clues for our management choices and preparations. The slow snow helps me to see underneath because my eyes are drawn to the obvious changes.
Having made the conscious choice to employ work horses in harness as motive power for my farming I recognized that I would have to gather up the information I lacked. How to fit a harness – How to recognize a usable piece of older farm equipment – How to hook horses to those implements – What to feed my horses and when – How to tell if the boxings in a disc were bad – How to get my plow to run right – How deep to plant Oat seed in dry soil – Why certain names for horses were a mistake??? on and on and on… I would have to gather up this information because my research indicated that there was no public temple for this information, no place where relic technologies and skills were chronicled and cataloged. That was odd? So much beauty, value, and frailty in all the old knowledge – shouldn’t it be preserved, saved, stored?
Over these last twenty-seven years we have seen, and heard of, many examples of boomerang lives. Specifically speaking tales of people who made passionate and reasoned choices to become independent farm operators only to leave after awhile to return to urban lives and then, with the passage of time and the morphing of rationale, to look longingly back at those left-behind farm lives.
In our archives, we have a big Starline plan book with detailed engineer’s drawings of what were once popular and dreamed of dairy barns. These designs represent an apex of the era of mixed crop and livestock farming, a system which frequently centered on a milking herd of a dozen to four dozen cows, a handful of beef cattle, some hogs, chickens and perhaps even sheep. Across the upper latitudes of the U.S. and all of Canada, these massive barns provided ample space for hay and grain storage along with winter quarters for livestock.
How do you learn the true status of that farm with the “for sale” sign? Here are some important pieces of information for you to learn about a given selling farm. The answers will most probably tell you how serious the seller is.
Assuming that you’ve found a farm you want to buy, next you’ll need to determine if you can buy it. If you have sold your property, and/or saved your money, and have the means to buy the farm you are sitting pretty. If you do not have the full price of a considered farm, in cash or any other form, you will likely have to look for financing.
You might think that your new farm is fenced all wrong, or that a certain tree is in the wrong place, or that a wet area would be better drained, or that this gully would make a good pond site, or that a depression in the road should be filled, or that the old sheds should all come down right away. Well maybe you’re right on all counts. But maybe, you’re wrong.
Bonnie Shields is a living legend in western art circles. And Bonnie is a legendary human being to any and everyone she has touched. She is perhaps most famous for her humorous portraits of mules and her beloved LeRoy in particular but anyone who knows her knows of her phenomenal depth and range. It is her seasonal paintings of spring plowing which grace the cover of this issue. She illustrated an entire year with a different image depicting each month, a series which is powerful in its design and anecdotal energy.