All The Farm That Is Fit To Print

Saturday, August 20, 2011

In Praise of Small Farms


This is the time of year when I throw hay to the heifers in the pasture and break the ice in their trough every frosty morning. Sometimes I sit in the early sun and watch the hawks, the deer and the lbbs (little brown birds), who are busy looking for the last of the wild mustard seed.

The heifers munch at the hay, which was raised on this very field over the summer. It was the product of my morning and evening irrigation efforts, and grown in the hot sun of western Colorado.

The heifers’ deposited manure will eventually turn to topsoil for a new hay crop, and they themselves will join the main herd, where they will have calves in the spring. The calves will then follow me around in utter curiousity as I walk through the pastures with my Irish irrigation shovel next year.

It’s all a big circle, and I realize I’m one of the few Americans left who still does it, and even rarer, one who does it on a small family farm of less than 120 acres. Most farms are huge today, and use large machines and major petrochemical inputs to produce a crop. They are more the world of the industrial factory than of Thomas Jefferson’s agrarian dream. He envisioned a small republic of independent farmers and craftsmen who would live and work in small towns across the country that were themselves self-sustaining communities.

Instead we got Alexander Hamilton’s America of powerful banking interests, large corporations, an imperial military and millions of workers who toil in the country’s massive and ubiquitous industrial systems (while they’re not sitting in traffic jams trying to commute to heavily mortgaged tract homes).

Wendell Berry, the Kentucky farmer-poet, laments this loss of America’s connection to its land, and of how technology has replaced husbandry and the “mystery of God” present in well-cared-for farms and farmers. “Animal science has led us away from any such belief in the sanctity of animals,” he writes. “It has led us instead to the animal factory, which, like the concentration camp, is a vision of hell. Animal husbandry, on the contrary, comes from and again leads us to the psalmist’s vision of good grass, good water and the husbandry of God.”

Well, I don’t know about God, but I do appreciate good topsoil — “a wilderness of organisms,” as Berry calls it — and healthy animals happy in their pasture.

Our valley is blessed with a whole variety of farmers and ranchers who are trying to make their occupations more connected to nature, with the landscape, and with our local communities. We have the Valley Organic Growers Association, Homestead Market, a whole variety of organic orchards and natural food stores like Hardin’s and the Old River Road market in Paonia. Many of our local restaurants are also using locally grown food for their menus. We should support them.

As Americans have lost connection with their land, one can see the degradation of North America almost everywhere. We are one of the last small-farm communities still relatively intact, and I think we should stay connected as much as possible. Learn about topsoil, use compost, take care of your animals and they’ll take care of you and appreciate your care.

It’s all a big circle, after all.

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