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Farm Work

Farm Work

Consider all the kinds of occupations in our society. Some indoors, some outdoors, some mental, some physical, some tedious and boring, others fast paced and socially intense.  Each occupation might be a varying combination of several or all of these qualities over time. Some are considered more lowly and menial, while others are held up as paradigms of talent and achievement.

This is unfortunate, because all work (inequitable pay rates notwithstanding) is mostly important to society in one way or another, regardless of social status-and every working person is deserving of respect for that fact alone. Nor should we look down our noses at those unable to work for whatever reason. Not ignoring that certain numbers of “freeloaders” hang about, I’m just saying that probably they are a minority of non-wage earning people. And let’s not forget how very much unpaid work goes on in this world!

An occasional humorous reference goes that my off-farm wage work supports my “farming habit”. I’ve had lots of different careers and vocations over the decades, mostly a rich store of experiences. My current occupation of farming was more a fortuitous confluence of events and a kind of personal evolution than any long term plan, at least previously. I find myself immersed in what some consider menial, low social status work. I suppose it is, though not among those enlightened consumers who buy from local farms!

There is dignity in physical work, and a certain reverence also to outdoor work-being intimately in contact with the air and weather, seasons, soil, plants and animals…its own reward, as they say. A great deal of it is UN-glorious, solitary, and often uncomfortable. But what comes to the fore is a kind of persistence that takes a generally longer view of effort and reward, of investment and return, of working for something beyond yourself: and I think that is the crux of our mission here on earth; we may or may not find it in a given occupation, but the opportunity is always near, in or beyond our working life. Remember-“You give to the world, you give to yourself, when you’re giving your best to somebody else.” (Lyrics from the song, No Place Like the Right Time, by Donna the Buffalo).

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Points of No Return

Points of No Return

A lot of folks this time of year are pining for the end of winter. The thrill of earth being reborn is truly exhilarating, but for me at this time and place I’m quite happy for a snowy 20 degree day here in early March. It’s because there is so much planning and administrating yet to do before I’ll be actually ready to put seeds in the ground—and fence posts too—many, many fence posts. 

When a person wants to accomplish some goal, especially a substantial goal, the actual decision process (properly done) is long and complicated. Practical considerations and time lines notwithstanding, the decision-making path isn’t always logical and neatly sequential; especially if you have a bent for the metaphysical aspects of life. Oh how we hate the wishy washy business of intuition and discernment! At least secular society does. This is not the case for someone who takes their religion seriously—which is to say, Christian in my case. But all religions point to the world beyond the physical, measurable, and apparent. We veritably crave the simple, straight forward path! An either-or mindset dispenses with the real work of research and thought. Why trouble your mind so, with all this analysis of possibilities, consequences, and what’s appropriate for circumstances?

Religious or not, all of us have internalized the values and habits and attitudes of the society of our upbringing and that of the present, both for better and for worse. The decision to risk the entirety of my worldly estate to grow good food, build wildlife habitat, and teach people about ecology and health—probably looks akin to total foolishness among my secular minded friends and acquaintances. The financial risks are obvious. But there are exceptions too—surprisingly, many people with whom I’ve shared this story have responded with nothing short of encouraging enthusiasm. Either way, I’m not exempt from the influences of my peers. Whether encouraging or disparaging, all of it affects me more than I’m aware sometimes.

Last year’s decision to build a high tunnel, a great financial plunge though it is, was in some ways a simpler process than building a grazing system for Kiko goats. The marketing of raspberries is a bit more straight forward than establishing a reputation as a specialty goat breeder and marketer of Halal meat to ethnic communities. And yet the strange series of events that led to serious consideration of this enterprise touches on those nebulous processes of intuition and discernment. From the introduction to the idea five years ago in a farm course, to studying the trade magazines to numerous conversations with current producers and processors…I haven’t come across any compelling reasons not to try it.

That this is, in the long run, the best use for my new 7 acre pasture, there is little doubt. Hay production is too precarious in terms of weather and available equipment and labor; conventional commodity grains with their GMO seeds and toxic herbicides is a no brainer; field production of vegetable crops is quite beyond my expertise and supply of implements and labor. Cattle are a much longer investment of time and inputs, and larger, riskier animals with which to work.

I wouldn’t say that I’m past the point of no return, at least until I’ve nailed down the most likely costs in some detail. Then comes the crucial moment of major commitment. To say that I’ve already surpassed this kind of milestone before is an understatement. The farm overall, is the essence of commitments made and amazing achievements, from which I cannot now turn back without “throwing away” all that I have labored for, these many years. It is the glaring fact of this life in which I walk, day in and day out.

From a religious point of view, which is overlaid upon the practical and continuous stream of decisions and their consequences…there is a particular aspect that under girds all my doubts and fears. Every person has some kind of gift—talent, ability, aptitude, skill, resource—that lies undeveloped at the beginning or even throughout life. Whether or not that potential is realized depends to some degree on recognition of the fact. Once recognized, we can shrink back or step out in faith. Everything that is achieved in the world begins in desire, imagination, and a belief in the possible.

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Love in Winter

Love in Winter

Love is more than a feeling, it’s an action. Trying to summon feelings to get motivated to do something is getting it backwards. It fosters procrastination. Don’t base your actions on that fickle creature known as feelings! Then unexpectedly, in the midst of action, feeling comes that is meaningful and filled with joy.

The snow and cold has come to the farm here in January, something reminiscent this year of winters past, when the ground stays white for quite a while. It makes the chores a little harder to do. Have you ever noticed how much more energy it takes to simply walk any distance? Your steps are more vertical than horizontal. And it probably goes without saying that the daily ritual of putting on and taking off so many layers to face bitter temperatures isn’t exactly pleasant.

I notice how my fingers get predictably and painfully numb in the first few minutes, no matter how good the gloves. But once I get into the rhythm of carrying hay, filling bird feeders, and watching how a horse or a goat walks… a vibrant burst of energy comes over me. Fingers regain their warmth, the air begins to feel bracing instead of biting.

A new attitude has come over me lately when I am taking care of the animals. Most of us know how routine can become stale and heavy. Animal husbandry is no different I suppose. How easily we can slip into a dull and unobservant or hurried approach to how we move and speak and think. I confess to having succumbed to that temptation in the past many times, but here in the last few months, something has changed. I have become keenly aware of subtle things in the way animals behave, noting facial expressions, body language, and the sounds they make. And how I act affects the way that they act. So I’ve discovered that relationships aren’t just between people.

Horses are replete with a whole range of ways to look at you; their movements can show impatience or frivolity or frustration or happiness or affection. In the sheer daily-ness of chores, opportunities are always at hand for me to practice vigilance and appreciation that makes for thriving livestock. Noticing small changes can be the clues to detecting problems sooner rather than later.

Of course a great deal of studying and knowledge goes into the other part of good animal husbandry—what species-specific needs are, in terms of feed and forage or breeding and maternal behaviors. Having not been born to farming, this knowledge wasn’t handed down from an elder. That may have been a blessing in disguise, because new thinking, ideas and practices are always on the horizon, and “because we’ve always done it that way” was never an option. I’ve had to get my information from other farmers and lots of reading and asking questions and researching answers.

Such is love! Making a living from the land isn’t easy, either physically or mentally. But there is a physical and mental vigor to it that is nothing short of the literal love for Life, with a capital L—wild and domesticated alike. For unseen life like that in the soil; for seasonal life like that of woodland and pasture; for the life of the community that supports this farm; for the fitness of body and mind with which to conduct a great symphony in the natural world that surrounds me every day.