I’ve discovered over the past five years that people have huge preconceptions about what being a farmer means. I know, coming in, I had all sorts of them, and I know I am surrounded by fellow farmers who have deeply held ideas about their profession. One of my first posts on this site dealt with one of them, and dredged up the almost predictable responses (I’m not linking to it simply because I want to talk about something else).
One of the preconceptions I had coming in was the nature of what farm work meant in the first place. Many people, including my onetime self, have the idea that farming is as simple as growing and harvesting a crop or raising and selling an animal. I’m here to tell you firsthand that, whatever kind of farming one does, that could not be further from the truth.
Even at its most monoculture, farming is a polyculture because it cannot be anything else. Farming demands knowledge of everything from agriculture to zoology and demands the farmer be everything from an accountant to a zoo keeper.
It’s not an accident, then, that history notes the rise of farming intertwined with the rise of what we think of as civilization. Domesticating, planting, raising, harvesting, and slaughtering plants and animals for food in more effective and efficient ways is the necessary mother that gave rise to everything we take for granted today, either by inventing the things we have or by enabling the things we have to be invented.
And so, in the end, I can think of few other undertakings as intensive and broad as that of the farmer. Granted, the hurdles are tall and the valleys are deep, but if anyone wants to fully challenge himself in the pursuit of life, the vocation of farmer is a place to do it.
There are days that I understand why people don’t want to be farmers. It’s not a job for the faint of heart. Certainly, I’m making a judgment call here, but the fact is when your livelihood relies on braving the weather, flora and fauna, sometimes downright terrible fellow humans, and your own capacity to screw things up, it takes a certain kind of soul to endure such things.
On the other hand, I can assure you of something else: if you choose this profession and stick with it, you’ll find there aren’t many stronger people than farmers, physically, mentally, or emotionally.
There are few things like a disaster of one’s own making to cause one to reevaluate.
We’ve had more than a few disasters, big and small, since we came back to Innisfree on the Stillwater. They kind of come with the territory of taking over this kind of an enterprise and learning on the fly.
While disasters can sometimes be setbacks and can also be demoralizing, we also use them as a chance to evaluate what we are doing and come up with ways to do them better, not just to correct a specific mistake but also to ensure that our approach is the best one to use.
The result is a cycle of disaster, reevaluation, and recommitment. It would be easy to give up when things go wrong, but nobody ever said what we are doing was going to be easy. Instead, we figure out how to do what we are doing better and move on.
In the end, that’s the only way to succeed at farming.
People sometimes ask me why I tell people when I fail. Frankly, it would be easy not to tell anyone when things to wrong. It would be easy to lull people into a false impression that the life I live is somehow, distant, idyllic, and trouble-free.
It would also be a lie.
In fact, that lie is at the core of a lot of things I see wrong with how we moderns live. Governments, corporations, and our own fancies have convinced us that we live in a world that should be sterile and secure from risk, want, or danger when reality could not be further from that conviction.
So, I choose to speak to reality. Like today, when a series of miscues resulted in the two bulls I was taking to the butcher escaping and vanishing. Yes, I said vanishing. No one can find them. I spent all day trying to track them down with no success. We just had $4400 worth of animals escape and disappear into thin air.
And that fact does not deter me. Yes, it is a setback. Yes, I am going to have to figure out how to replace that income. Yes, those two loose bulls still represent a liability until they are caught or killed. But none of that means I am a failure.
I believe the best measure of a person is how that person responds to adversity. Decades ago, I chose perseverance because, from my view, what is the point of life otherwise?. And that’s why I choose to share my failures, so that other people can see that it’s okay to fail and that life goes on.
It’s been five years since Keba and I returned to Innisfree with the idea of creating a sustainable homestead and refuge from the ravages of the modern world. So far, that quest has been unlike any experience I have ever had.
It would be easy to dwell on the parts that haven’t gone the way we would have liked or the challenges we still face, but the fact is that, despite those things, neither of us can imagine doing anything else. For people like us, the fact we still want to do it speaks a lot to how embracing the lifestyle of historical agriculture gets in a person’s blood.
Over the next several weeks, I will be writing about some of the experiences we’ve had, the lessons we’ve learned, and the challenges we face. I hope you come along for that journey and retrospective.
Robyn O’Brien, a tireless crusader against big agriculture and genetically modified food, recently posted about her ordeals in trying to share all of the evidence with people about what big ag and the manufactured food complex is doing to us. Her story is a sad testament to the experiences of many people on the front lines of the sustainable food movement.
But the question remains: If the GMO crowd is as right as they believe they are, then why do they have to resort to these kinds of tactics against their opponents? Shouldn’t their righteousness speak for itself?
They’re doing it because they’re not right, and many of them know it. They’re scared, and out of fear, they’re lashing out. They’re scared they’re going to lose their gravy train and they’re going to be revealed as the frauds they are.
You know the last time this happened, right? Back when brave people revealed Big Tobacco was tampering with its products in ways that were killing people. Don’t say you weren’t warned. If you’re ignoring this kind of thing, you’re just willfully ignorant.
There’s something about the sustainable food movement in all its various incarnations that brings out the fanatic in people, both pro and con. I admit that I am just as bad as anyone.
Yet, there is an underlying problem with that fanaticism that undermines the whole attempt to improve the way we feed ourselves, and it finds its voice in purity tests voiced by some that demand things that are unrealistic or downright impossible.
Among the worst of these tests are calls for laws that threaten the livelihoods of the very kinds of people trying to make change happen. For example, there are those who want to pass laws that would require sustainable farmers and vegetable producers to get licensed before they could produce.
I understand the motives that drive such calls because I experience them first hand. I also know they only serve to threaten the very undertaking we’re all supposed to be working together to achieve by making it harder to do what we are doing.
Perhaps, instead of calling for laws, boycotts, and bans, if we see a problem, we should be working extra hard to solve it and let the chips fall where they may. All that effort spent trashing others could be used in a far more productive way, and in the end, that properly applied effort might just produce something better than what we already have.
A couple of times a year, I mow lots of grass. Not in the $40-billion-make-my-lawn-look-like-a-golf-course sort of way, but in the make food for animals sort of way.
We mow and bale about 30 acres of grass hay every year to hold our cattle and goats through the winter. There are a lot of things that make hay a chore, like the heat and dodging the weather, but despite my complaints, I actually look forward to it.
While so many people slave away in cubicles or at cash registers, I get to spend days outside in the sun, in near contact with the abundance of nature, using big machines. In the hours I spend mowing, raking, and baling, I find a unique opportunity to contemplate and formulate this path of life I travel.
And sure, things go wrong. Equipment breaks. The weather doesn’t cooperate. I see these things as opportunities to grow stronger. To develop fortitude. To solve problems.
For me, hay season is the peak of my year. That’s not to say that it’s downhill from there, but I look forward to this every year even as I dread it. Hay season encapsulates farming as a whole, and I love it all.
Yesterday on Facebook, I posted a link to an article on Grist about urban farming. The point of the article was that urban farming is not a panacea for our food production ills, and I made the argument that there is no one solution to those ills.
Something I did not touch on in those thoughts is something that too few people trying to reform agriculture in the 21st century talk about: how the consumer needs to change habits as part of a broader effort to improve the food we grow while reducing its impact.
Far too many reform efforts focus on the supply side–that is, on the farmer–while ignoring the consumer. People tend to ignore things like rampant food waste–as much as 60 percent of all food produced ends up in landfills–or over-consumption–the reason so many people are fat. They tend to ignore the massive impact out-of-season eating has on the environment and the economic impact massive box groceries have on local communities.
What I find interesting is that the concept of urban gardens addresses these sorts of problems too. It’s a psychological trick, but people tend to waste less food if they’ve produced it themselves, food harvested from gardens is of higher quality and nutrition, and gardening of any kind is fantastic exercise. Urban gardens can help reduce the transportation network required to keep box stores stocked with out-of-season foods and by definition keep food buying dollars local.
It is an old adage that how we spend is more powerful than how we vote. We affect the future of agriculture with our spending more than any other thing. As consumers, investing in urban gardens speaks volumes promises a brighter future.