Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Farmer Poets

I have subscribed to Small Farmer's Journal—The International Agrarian Quarterly for several years now, and read most pages of every quarterly issue. It's an "old-timey" magazine—large (10.5" x 13", about 100 pages), covered with brown-bag paper. The founder and editor, Lynn R. Miller, is a farmer-poet, artist, and author of many authoritative books dealing with horse-drawn farming. He is the driving force behind the developing Small Farms Conservancy and well-respected in agrarian, sustainable, small-farming circles.

What continues to impress me is the quality of the writing of many of the farmers Lynn invites to contribute to the Journal. I was touched by more than one passage from articles in the current issue (Winter, Vol. 34, No. 1), and share them here for your pleasure. (In all the following excerpts, I have "bolded" portions that were particularly meaningful to me—words worth pondering.)

Ryan Foxley is a farmer who began a regular column with his first article. In it he speaks of his appreciation for the Journal through the years.
It was with surprise and humbled excitement that I agreed to Lynn Miller's suggestion that I write a column for this, our treasured Small Farmer's Journal; this agrarian guidebook that so many of us have come to rely on and savor over the years. I have always said that if I had to choose between buying food or renewing my SFJ subscription I would go hungry. This magazine truly has had a profound impact on my life over the years. It has always been amply endowed with matters of practical know-how joined with a philosophical wisdom that has never been afraid of romance and poetry. It really is a place to come for reassurance, for consolation, for hope. The present world in which we live has no spreadsheet or bottom line accounting for slowness, for craft, for art, for poetry lived. Right livelihood should include a fair dose of intangible sweetness. The Journal has all this and more. It has always been there, reiterating good sense like a reassuring grandfather, assuaging fears when my self-induced agricultural isolation threatened to envelop me a fog of doubt and uncertainty. ("Little Field Notes," p. 40)
The following excerpt is from the article, "Primary Tillage at Cedar Mountain Farm, Part One," by Stephen Little:
Years ago in the pages of the Small Farmer's Journal, I read about the practice of "imprinting" oneself upon [a] newborn foal. I took this advice and held the first live foal born on our farm gently but firmly from stem to stern in the embrace of my arms for a full twenty minutes. I stand convinced that if you can convince horses and cattle when they are very young that you are the kindly but stronger and more dominate animal in the herd, and if you persist in living your life close to your horses and presenting to them a fair and consistent authority, then they will continue to believe this about you and to respect your wishes even as they grow up to attain gargantuan proportion and Herculean strength.
The bold portion above is about as meaningful a picture of man having dominion over animals as I've read (Genesis 1:28). Kindness, strength, fairness, consistency, and authority lead to a partnership between man and beast—at least some animals—that serves both well, and reflects the images from Genesis 2:19-20.

Little continues:
I suppose some farmer boy living sixty or more years ago might not have been so excited, might have been a little bored—might have even been day-dreaming about what life away off in the big city is like—such a boy might have been much impressed with his own God-given moment of driving a team of horses he'd trained himself on a plow he'd fitted an scoured and repaired dozens of times himself. But for a boy like me raised in the suburbs, every I hitch up my little team, no matter how mundane the farm task at hand, something elemental in my soul is kindled and all my worldly senses and the inner attention of my heart and the dull ministrations of my mind stand ready and are drawn into an awakened coalescence in this present moment of lines connected to horses in my hands.
There are many tangible rewards to farming and many more fleeting sweet and beautiful intangible ones—the ones that make the life worth living. Intangibles like sitting down to a delicious home cooked meal and hearing Kerry say, "All the ingredients in this meal are from the farm." Intangibles like watching our neighbors from up the street, Joe and Clare and their three little kids, making their weekly visit to the farm to pick up their jars of fresh raw milk and drop off some eggs from their home flock to sell in our farm store and then to linger and stroll about the barns visiting with calves, horses, chickens, and just seeing what a difference it makes in the lives of those kids that this place exists, and to think how empty and sterile this stretch of road would be if our farm were just another sub-division. Intangibles like watching my toddler daughter marvel at the sight and sound of bees alighting on the heavy heads of sunflowers or screeching in delight at the sight of chickens running after the apple core she just tossed into their pen. Intangibles like "whoaing" the horses to let them stop and blow and looking back behind to see the neatly laid over furrows that have followed in the wake of the plow they are pulling, and then turning back again to see them standing with the steam rising off their flanks, the mixed sweet scents of horse sweat mingled with freshly disturbed earth, the sounds of raucous crows up on the hill side and the promise of another season on the far side of this fall plowing. (p. 53)
The reference to the children above reminds me of my own dreams concerning Living Kitchen Farm.

Finally, a portion of an article by Lisa W. Roesing—her reflections on attending an organic farming fair in Maine with her farming family. Lisa lives in Ohio, but attending the fair rekindled in her the desire to get back to Maine, back to the farm on which she was raised. The article is titled "Sweet Annie," a reference to an herb, the scents of which wafted through the fair grounds and contributed to the longing she felt for her farm-home.
I've dreamed for so long about moving back and now it's so close I can taste it, I can feel it, my body aches with a desire for all that is High View Farm. My hands crave the feel of a set of single reins. The smooth leather slipping through my gloves, Pa speaks to the horse in his quiet gentle voice, "Whoa there, Red." I watch and learn as Pa wraps the heavy chain twice around the fresh cut pine and places the cold, rusty colored hook over a link. I can feel it. My lungs long for the sharp cold air. I inhale. The snow settles under my snow shoe clad feet as I help assist Pa in collecting the sap. The woods silently welcoming me home. I exhale. It won't be long. My eyes yearn to see my Gram, brothers, sisters, nieces and nephews, my family coming towards me. Arms open wide. Anticipating the hug, the feeling of being held and holding a loved one close. All is well. My feet ache to push deep into the fertile dark soil of the garden that has been lovingly tended by generations of Winslows. Darcy and I in the hot summer sun fill our buckets with strawberries to be used in ice cream, short cake, jam, and even some to be sold at the farmers market. Abbie and I walk the old logging trails, where only family, friends, and horses have tread. I'm almost there. My tongue hungers for farm and sustainably grown beef, eggs, lamb, butter, milk, and vegetables. I swirl the heavy cream into my coffee and add a dollop of syrup. Syrup, that I sat and watched boiling with a big heavy book in my hands. It will be soon now. My nose has an itch to smell the pine trees, the horses and the dairy. The fresh mown field and hay drying in the sun waiting to be raked into windrows. The memory of Sweet Annie wafting by as I walk in my father's footsteps and my soul is instantly grounded, my serenity restored. I'm ready, I'm coming home. (p. 35)
These passages aren't about being vegetarian, vegan, or not. They're about men and women who relish the life that parallels the place where God first placed man and woman to live, a Garden-farm. And they're about the eloquence of their voices and the depth of their understanding. It's a shame that small farmers, in our day, have a reputation for no longer having a voice that needs to be heard. Yet some of the most eloquent voices of the day are those of small farmers. Who can deny that Louis Bromfield, Wendell Berry, Charles Walters, Joel Salatin, Albert Howard, Elliot Coleman, Masanobu Fukuoka, Michael Ableman, Marion Nestle, Barbara Kingsolver, Scott and Helen Nearing, J. I. Rodale, Eve Balfour, Lynn Miller, Gene Logsdon, and a host of others whose voices have not yet been heard widely (like those quoted above), have things to say and share that would make this world a more sane place?

Sadly, as Ryan Foxley wrote, "The present world in which we live has no spreadsheet or bottom line accounting for slowness, for craft, for art, for poetry lived." But happily, the ranks of young, small farmers has been growing in recent years. After the Secretary of Agriculture under Presidents Nixon and Ford, Earl Butz, admonished America's farmers to "Get big or get out," small farmers were forced out by the hundreds of thousands. But they are returning with renewed insights into the fallibility of accounting only for yields and dollars. There is a new accounting for "slowness, for craft, for art, for poetry lived." And we will be the better for it.

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