Community Philosphy Blog and Library

Archive for the ‘Farming’ Category

HOMEGROWN Life: The Healing Power of Farming

Wednesday, August 20th, 2014

 

HOMEGROWN LifeAnyone who digs in the dirt, mucks out stalls, or tends flocks or herds will tell you that, through the dirt and the grime, past the sweat and the toil, there is a healing power in farming as therapy.

Whether it’s hugging a sweet lamb with a soft coat, jogging alongside goat kids as they do double twists in the air, relishing the beauty of horses running free, tugging off boots almost stuck to the souls of your feet, or scrub-brushing fingernails that are never going to be white again, farming is about the stuff of life. It’s up close and personal. It’s not just walking on the ground but being grounded. It’s dirty and earthy and full of messy stuff.

HOMEGROWN-life-dyanAs emotional creatures, we humans can’t help but react to it. Even the hardest-hit soul, battered by life’s events or simply the trauma of daily living, would find it hard to resist.

Recently, I met a hard-hit soul. A sweet young woman, who had been on the cusp of a life with her soul mate. They had plans. They had dreams. They had hope. They were just beginning a future together. All that was lost in an unexpected and almost inexplicable accident. Now she’s left to sort out what’s next.

She came to my table at the Grange Hall flea market. I had taken my project from last winter to lay out on the table for people to see: a book—my story, about my journey into farming. After she read the opening page, she looked up at me from across the market table and asked me a question, one only someone who has suffered a loss such as hers dares to ask: “How long did it take you to feel like you could go on?”

She was referring to the loss of my son, which I address in the book. It’s the reason my farm is named Bittersweet. I told her it took a long time and was a day-to-day process. She then shared with me her own story and explained how it was all the harder because of the circumstances: There were no goodbyes. I understood. I moved around the table to take hold of her. I could recall how it felt when, no matter what words are spoken, it’s not enough. She stood there in my arms and started to sob. My heart remembered those early days.

HOMEGROWN-life-book

I told her our farmers market was the next day and invited her to come. She did. As she walked over to my table, my new lamb Ariel was grazing tiny white clover flowers at our feet. Ariel, a gift to Bittersweet, comes with me to market most weeks so as not to miss her bottle feedings. I bent down and picked up this four-week-old creature and laid her in the young woman’s arms. Ariel nuzzled under the woman’s chin and laid her head on the woman’s shoulder. The woman smiled and said, “This is the first time I’ve felt happy again.” Her mother, who was with her, nodded and smiled.

Farming is therapeutic. It brings a sense of being a part of something none of us understands or can explain—that feeling you get when you see the first seedlings pop their heads above the earth. When the smell of old lilacs wafts through the bedroom window on a late spring day. When a dam, after laboring through the wee morning hours, produces a perfect goat kid. When, 15 minutes later, that kid takes its first steps on brand new wobbly legs. When you’re sitting at the kitchen table, still sticky to the elbows from the brine, sipping a cup of tea and listening to the pop pop pop of lids on bread and butter pickles. (How many jars this year? I lost count.) When you hug a four-week-old lamb and realize for the first time since tragedy struck your life that your heart is still beating.

HOMEGROWN-life-lamb

We are strong, us humans. We dare to dream and hope, love and laugh, even in the face of things that seemingly would beat us to the ground. Farming has brought me a stronger sense of this. It seems—to me, anyway—that people who work the earth or rub shoulders with beasts have a clearer understanding of our resiliency. Farming isn’t just a living; it’s a way of life. And sometimes we get to share that way of life with those not as fortunate to be living it daily.

People’s lives change, sometimes in an instant. But out of those moments, I believe there are opportunities. My own opportunity came on a rainy August day five years ago, as I was headed out to look for sheep. I had bought this piece of property and decided to cover it in lambs. It was Open Farm Day in Maine, an annual event for the past 25 years.

I made a left turn down a long road and ended up walking into a goat barn. That turn and those few steps changed my life. I hope that, as a farmer, I can make some kind of small change in someone else’s life. I hope this young woman will hold onto the happiness she felt hugging a newborn lamb. I hope that, in time, she’ll start to rebuild her life. And I hope that life is filled with love and promise—maybe not in the way she had planned, but in a way that brings healing to her and to those around her. That’s something those of us who call ourselves farmers are privileged to experience every day: hope.

HOMEGROWN-Life-Dyan-profileDyan Redick calls herself “an accidental farmer with a purpose.” Her farm, located on the St. George peninsula of Maine, is a certified Maine State Dairy offering cheeses made with milk from a registered Saanen goat herd, a seasonal farm stand full of wool from a Romney cross flock, goat milk soap, lavender woolens, and whatever else strikes Dyan’s fancy. Bittersweet Heritage Farm is an extension of her belief that we should all gain a better understanding of our food sources, our connection to where we live, and to the animals with whom we share the earth.

ALL PHOTOS: DYAN REDICK

HOMEGROWN Life: Why I Raise Cattle

Wednesday, August 6th, 2014

 

HOMEGROWN-life-bryce-logo-150x150As a farmer and a writer, I often use this column as a way to work out something I’ve got stuck in my craw.

Today that’s the burden of beef.

I recently listened to one of my favorite radio programs, Living on Earth. There was a segment where the host, Steve Kerwood, interviewed one of my favorite young writer/activists, Anna Lappé. Anna and Steve had a very interesting and informative conversation about the environmental impacts of a system that puts steak and burgers atop the American diet.

HOMEGROWN-life-why-raise-cattle-grazing

Their discussion was a good one, and most HOMEGROWN readers could follow along closely. If you’re like me, you understand that we live in a world where resources are constrained. You’re deeply concerned about building ecologically resilient communities and about unequal access to clean water and decent places to live. You’re probably in favor of ethical, humane treatment of livestock and wildlife. You probably believe that giant industrial feedlots are disgusting and problematic on many levels.

I share these concerns and feel strongly about the need to transform the food system. I think Americans eat too much meat and that conventional beef production is a disaster.

But still, here on this farm, beef cattle is the main economic engine that keeps the farm up and running—well, that and my father’s good union job at a power plant. We raise cattle, and so do so many other farmers in our region, because cows are profitable most of the time, they’re relatively easy to keep, and there is an entire infrastructure that supports our production. We can find vets to help us when we encounter illness. We have markets for our calves. We can find hay (we grow our own but can locate more if necessary) and grain to supplement feeding, as needed. We can find people to come out and haul the cattle if we can’t do it ourselves.

Beef cows are born on mostly smallish farms. They spend half of their lives here. Yes, they end up in feedlots and in the messy industrial behemoth of the Western Plains. But they are born here, right across the fence from where I’m writing these words.

HOMEGROWN-life-why-raise-cattle-two

These beef herds pay the mortgages for the farms all around me. They also share the land with us human animals, as well as with a variety of wildlife. Cattle production is compatible here with the many species I see every day: songbirds, hawks, herons, squirrels, rabbits, deer, woodchuck, mice, wild turkey, raccoons, snakes, coyotes, frogs, and countless varieties of insects. Cows do use resources, but they also leave plenty of room for the other creatures I like to see around the place. (I might be in the minority when I say this, but I’d also welcome bears, elk, wolves, mountain lions, and other species that were native before Europeans arrived in North America. Yes, even the predators.)

At the end of the day, when we consider biodiversity in a working landscape, we have to take into account the reality of economics. Cows pay the bills.

I’m not trying to shill for the beef industry. I don’t think raising cattle is the answer to most questions. I feel strongly that people should eat more veggies and less meat (and less sugar). I make no presumption that the current beef feedlot system is anything other than an enormous mess that taxes human health and the environment, especially when it comes to the problem of greenhouse gasses and a disrupted climate.

HOMEGROWN-life-why-raise-cattle-sunset

But it seems to me that, strictly in terms of a sellable agricultural product, beef is one thing we can raise on a part-time, beginning-farmer basis that doesn’t rapidly and wildly damage the ecology. We already live in a region transformed by human impact. That’s the canvas we have to work with.

This is not so much an argument with Living on Earth or Anna Lappé. Anna might even agree with me that, done right, beef production can be part of a multifunctional landscape populated by diversified family farms. We just have a lot of work to do if we want beef production to improve and to minimize harm.

But if the decision is between corn and soybean monoculture or a herd of herbivores in the pasture just over the fence, I’ll take the beef cow any time. How about you?

Now let’s get to work on a system where those aren’t the only options.

HOMEGROWN-bryce-oates-150x150Bryce Oates is a farmer, father, writer, and conservationist in West Missouri. He lives and works on his family’s multigenerational farm, tending cattle, sheep, goats, and organic vegetables. His goals in life are simple: to wake up before the sun, catch a couple of fish, turn the compost pile, dig potatoes, and sit by the fire in the evening, watching the fireflies mimic the stars.

RELATED STORIES ON HOMEGROWN:

 ALL PHOTOS: CAFNR/FLICKR CREATIVE COMMONS

HOMEGROWN Life: Summertime and the Farming is Steamy

Wednesday, July 2nd, 2014

 

HOMEGROWN-life-bryce-logo-150x150Ah, summer on the farm. The tomatoes and peppers are coming along. The squash and zucchini are booming. And the cows are trying to get their fill of grass at sunup, before the heat of the day sets in.

Sounds perfect, right? The very picture of abundance, joy, and prosperity so many people think of when they hear “family farm.” The truth is a little more complicated. Sure, summer has its strong points but it also has its downsides.

First, let’s talk temperatures. So far, we’ve only had a few days over 90 degrees, but July and August are the usual boilers around here, in West Missouri. We also have high humidity. In fact, nearly every day I’ve watched a World Cup match, I’ve heard that the brutal temperatures and humidity in Brazil make soccer hard to play. And yet our temperatures and humidity in Missouri have actually been higher than those in Brazil. While farming is not a 90-minute endurance of speed, like soccer can be, it certainly takes a lot longer than 90 minutes each day to get our work done. And pretty soon it’s gonna be 100-plus degrees, with hot winds and high humidity. It’s like carrying buckets and hoeing in the middle of a furnace.

HOMEGROWN-life-swimming-pool-pigs

Our pigs keep cool by hanging out in the water, too.

Second, weeds. By now, summer weeds are sharp and tough. When weeding the veggie patch, you can hardly pull anything without getting a sticker stuck in your hand or finger. Oh, and don’t forget the poison ivy.

Third, mowing. Sometimes we mow pastures and bale it up (that’s hay) so that the cows, sheep, and goats will have something to eat in winter. Sometimes we mow so that the grass quality will improve for the next round of grazing. Sometimes we mow to kill the weeds starting to go to seed. We also have to mow our yards, which, unfortunately, are usually too large. I hate mowing, but it has to be done. It just never seems to end.

So, how’s a farmer to cope? Easy. Do what every farm family does. Get yourself a cheap little swimming pool. It’s hours of fun for the kids and it takes the edge off. It keeps me cool—and sane. Plus, even for us organic farmers who hate chemical fertilizers and such, the chlorine in the pool can be a very good thing when it comes to killing potential rashes. Yes, here at our house we try to keep the chlorine to an absolute minimum, but it’s still in there.

HOMEGROWN-life-swimming-pool

The Oates family watering hole

I know. I know. It would be nice to live in a place with cool and clean spring-fed creeks, the idyllic “swimming hole” of so many songs and poems harkening back to the good ole days. But not everyone can live along the Current River in the Ozarks. In fact, if more of us lived there, it wouldn’t be very clean and pristine. Not to mention the fact that it’s rocky, with very, very thin soil. In other words, not great for agriculture.

So, those of us in the Farm Belt cheat. We fill up our pools with water and blast that water with chemicals to keep it clean. It might disappoint some of you who think us farmers are strong and hardworking and stoic in the face of summer’s adversity. But we all need a coping strategy. Mine, and that of most farm families I know, is to pop open a beverage (I prefer Boulevard Beer from KC) and to take a dip.

HOMEGROWN-bryce-oates-150x150Bryce Oates is a farmer, father, writer, and conservationist in West Missouri. He lives and works on his family’s multigenerational farm, tending cattle, sheep, goats, and organic vegetables. His goals in life are simple: to wake up before the sun, catch a couple of fish, turn the compost pile, dig potatoes, and sit by the fire in the evening, watching the fireflies mimic the stars.

PHOTOS: BRYCE OATES