6th Annual Northern Michigan Small Farm Conference
By Stephaine Mills
For those of us who like to eat, and eat well and healthily; and for those of us who believe that human beings are meant to be more than extensions of the machine, wage-slaves, or consumers, the perseverance of small farms and the burgeoning of sustainable agriculture is fertile grounds for hope. After the oil is gone, and the demonic economy tanks, small farms will be among the seed banks of cultural regeneration. Small farmers are not going away any more than Indians, with whom they have some things in common, like being land-based and subsistence-oriented. Indeed if any particular groups are likely to outlast the empire, it will be the tillers and the gatherers. It always has been.
As a devout eater and sustainable ag aficionado, I recently went to the sixth annual Northern Michigan small farm conference in a spirit of friendly interest. After the day’s program, my interest was transformed to zeal. I was washed in the blood of the grass-fed lamb.
Listening to the speakers, browsing around the exhibits, chatting with Jim Schwantes and Judy Reinhardt at lunch about their CSA, and then visiting Greg and Marley Niewendorp’s Vigilant New Village Farm after the meeting helped me understand the magnitude and the attraction of the endeavor that is family farming. The small family farm is an antithesis to InfoWorld and SimLife, a counterweight to the sprawlburban consumer lifestyle. Farming is producerist.
In a world commercial economy that’s pitted against them, small farmers have to succeed in real places in relationships with individual animals, perishable infrastructure, bad backs and everlastingly unruly nature. For them to succeed takes tremendous applied intelligence, endless seat-of-the-pants research, vision, creativity and physical stamina. They’re the folks that should be getting the genius awards from those MacArthurs.
Bright and early, in the vast sanctuary of an evangelical church in Gaylord, the several hundred conferees had their day launched by Joel Salatin. A principal in Polyface Farms in Southwest Virginia, Salatin’s a sockdolager, a smart, ardent, rip-snorting orator who gave a talk called Holy Cows and Hog Heaven. Being only in part an indictment of the “debauchery of the industrial food system,”“We’ve taking the noblest and oldest human occupation,” said Salatin, “and desecrated it under the industrial paradigm”the talk voiced the Joy and satisfactions that come with respect for “the pigness of the pig and the chickeness of the chicken.”
In contrast to industrial control-freak agriculture, sustainable small farming, said Salatin, can be “an information-based food system that reverences what we know and enjoys the mystery of what we do not.”
“With every bit of food we eat, we create the world that our children will inherit,” he declared, affording a perfect segue to a breakout session featuring Brother David Andrews of the National Catholic Rural Life Conference. Brother David spoke of “Eating as a Moral Act.”
He began by saying that “Forgetfulness was the most important byproduct of the industrial agricultural system.” Forcing fields to work like factories, eliminating labor, and in the name of economies of scale, promoting the metastasis of titanic corporations like Monsanto, Cargill, and Archer Daniels Midland (“price-fixer to the world,” quipped Brother David), induced social amnesia as to the sacramentality of food and food growing.
Fortunately, the NCRLC is one of a number of organizations championing rural life and family farms. There are policy groups working at every level from the local community on up to the World Trade Organization, acting on the belief that, as Brother David put it, “the goods of the Earth are meant for the well-being of all.”
The afternoon keynote was delivered by John Ikerd, a retired and repentant agricultural economist. At the zenith of his career it dawned on Ikerd that “there was something fundamentally wrong with what we were teaching the farmers.” Years spent advancing the rationalist dictum that, as Ikerd would put it, “Farming is a business, get used to it,” evidently began to seem misspent as farm foreclosures and farmer suicide rates rose.
Ikerd realized that farming may indeed involve successful entrepreneurship and business skills, but it is, above all, a way of Life, with a capital L. A family farm, said Ikerd, is “a farm on which the family and the farmers are inseparable. It reflects the moral and ethical values of the family that lives there.”
Ikerd, a much sought-after speaker, remarked that hugs are more common than handshakes at these conferences, an outward sign that increasingly, small farmers are trying to help one another succeed. Although Ikerd was not dogmatic about “smallness for smallness sake,” he stressed the underlying importance of “finding harmony and balance.” Part of right relationship is just proportion and “There’s only so much land you can care for,” Ikerd observed.
“Sustainable agriculture,” said Ikerd, “is simply the golden rule.” It involves “conscious, purposeful decisions that show our concern for other people across generations.”
Ikerd articulated the heart of the matter that brought us all together that day, and that sent us forth: “Love of land and love of people,” he said, “are the essence of sustainability."