Farming For All Of Us

That’s the title of sociologist Michael Bell’s study of people becoming sustainable farmers in Iowa. At one point he wrote, “more than half the farmers we were able to speak to in detail about how they came to sustainable agriculture reported a similar experience: a sudden, disorienting change. . . in which they had to rethink not only their farming practices but their practices of self. . . ” (p.154).

Here’s an example from one of our new farmers.


I have told this numerous times, and so it kind of has taken on a little bit of a storytelling aspect to it.

My dad’s dad grew up on a farm - and they farmed with horses, and it was kind of that whole generational thing. You know, after the Depression, the cultural impetus was, ‘There’s nowhere for you to go on a farm. You need to get out of here, go to the city, get a job and make something of your life.’ And, you know, it was a terrible legacy. So, farms just emptied out - and, you went and worked in a factory and sold cars and did all kinds of city stuff. His wife, my grandma - they grew up farming. Some of my cousins are still farming in the same home place. And they do some ranching, and they do some row crop farming. And they still raise their own hogs, their own chickens. They’re pasturing their beef. They raise all of their own feed for their animals. They fatten their own cattle. They’re still doing things the way things were done six decades ago.

I went to a liberal arts college. As a young person, you’re full of compassion and vigor and enthusiasm, learning all this amazing stuff and going to these classes in all these different disciplines, and seeing how the world and the universe fits together. I’d been raised with these certain values. Community was important. Family is important. Mealtime and food was extremely important. Faith life was really important. And I was looking around at all the stuff I’m learning about the world, and I was saying, ‘There’s nowhere in the world that people are really living these values at. Where am I going to do this? How is it going to happen?’

I would be reading Francis Moore Lappé, “Food First” and all that kind of stuff. Wendell Berry. My dad had had Wendell Berry books around my whole upbringing and they were charter subscribers to The Land Institute, and so we always had “The Land Report” around. And I knew who Wes Jackson was.

We were reading Engels and Karl Marx, and we read the Catholic bishops’ ‘Economic Justice for All.’ That class was such a seminal moment for me.

So, all this stuff is going on in my head, and it was just like all of a sudden, I walked out of this class just in this heated discussion with this friend of mine - she was very, very urban; and I’m just fraught with this intensity of, ‘What am I going to do?’ And I just kept having this image in my head of a hog wallowing in a pigsty in the mud and the heat.

And that was literally the moment. And every - everything that I’ve done has sort of been a progression from that point. It was like, ‘That’s it! This is where I need to go. If there is any place on the earth that offers me a chance to live a moral life on a daily basis, it’s going to be on a farm.

I immediately started researching, you know, horse - powered stuff. And I don’t really want to start collecting heavy metal - which even with horses, there’s a mower, a baler, a plow. You got to have planters. Heavy metal. And I don’t want to cultivate.

I totally think of myself as a grass farmer. I’m trying to convert sunlight into money.

So, I had that epiphany moment, but the connection between that epiphany and the picture of the hog in my head was through my stomach. The hog was just, like, a metaphor for hams and bacon and pork chops and every good thing that comes from a pig.

My rule of thumb is that I don’t want to grow anything out here that I don’t like to eat.

Once I had the land, then I was completely overwhelmed.

And - and it’s like - the idea that raising food requires so freaking sheer, enormous quantities of work - it’s like you cannot do that alone. You cannot do that with one person.

And so these fundamental truths, you know, they’re sort of biblical. They’re so essential. And it’s like we’re so far away from that.

Yet, I am trying to farm in a better way and do things that are less energy - intensive and more in harmony with nature, but I do live in the modern world, and I inherited the sins of my fathers, in a sense.

We start with soil and work up from there.

When our sheep flock got large enough that I had to start grazing the whole farm. I was taking them to the woods and grazing them in the woods and moving this electric fence through that and really getting to know the entire 63 acres for the first time, that I was like, ‘Wow. There’s a lot to get to know here.’ And that was the first time for me that the idea of community went beyond a cliché, and I was like, ‘I’m actually trying to participate in the life of this new place, and I don’t really know how to do it.’

For me, this community that I live in is right here, and it’s all these plants and these animals and the soil and the woods and what not. But I don’t know that community very well.

But food is this 100 percent enmeshment of community. It’s a community of human effort that’s mind-bogglingly difficult to achieve because there’s just so much sheer work that needs to be done.

This idea of community extends to all of those issues: economics, politics, environmental stuff. It’s all wrapped up in this idea of how we behave with each other in this community and how we interact with this part of the community.

There’s so much potential on this piece of farmland for other stuff to be happening - productive, beautiful, wonderful things; but that it requires a community.

It’s not independence, and it’s not self-sufficiency. It’s interdependence that is the hard thing to achieve. I still have this fundamental idea that the community that I envision for this farm - and it’s a utopian fantasy, for sure - is that I think of what potential does this farm have in terms of feeding people and for allowing people to live within the context of a community that’s human, but also the larger biological community?

And so I think what are the jobs that need to be done out here? I would love to have a gardener, because I just don’t know how to garden.

I would love to have a baker, because we could grow enough grain to have someone that bakes bread in a stone—wood-fired oven.

I would love to have a vineyard out here - which means that we need to have someone who is a viticulturist and we need to have someone who can make products out of grapes.

I would like to have an orchard, and I’m not an orchardist.

And, of course, then when you start getting into all that kind of stuff, then you do need horsepower. And so you need someone who can deal with horses. And so it kind of—just kind of multiplies like that, you know? There’s opportunities on this farm for aquaculture. Somebody could be raising fish in our ponds and using that as a source of protein and feeding people and selling fish.

I would love to have a small, commercial-size berry farm, something that’s adding to the local community food supply in a really rich and fundamental way, but isn’t, like, taking over in an industrial sense.

There’s a place down in the woods that is a natural amphitheater. And ever since I first walked this place, I’ve been thinking, “What a perfect place for “theater in the woods.” And so you know then you’ve got a person that comes out and is a guest director for the summer, and you do summer Shakespeare, or whatever it might be. And then I think, “Okay. Well, you know, if we’re really going to cultivate the arts, then we need to have an artist-in-residence, someone who the rest of the community is purely just supporting so that they can make art. So an artist-in-residence would be another part of that vision.

When I envision that kind of thing and then couple that with the idea that human communities are inherently flawed and messed up, I just think that’s not a bad vision to be working for. You know? That is a community.

That’s my little utopian vision. We’re lucky. We have water, and we have a decent climate. Not everywhere has that.

But until something like that is attempted, there’s going to be enormous potential out there that’s just wasted. And that’s kind of a driving concern for me. But I’m not able to do everything that needs to be done to make this community - this community of 63 acres as rich as possible.

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