The sight of Ron’s farm is like a quiet blessing. I wait for my first glimpse of it over the rise of a hill each time I take the dogs for a walk down our street. The house and several outbuildings are in shambles, but that’s because Ron puts his energy into keeping his small dairy farm going.
His herd of around fifty Ayrshire, Holstein, Guernsey and Brown Swiss graze on pasture so lush that the grasses sway in the wind. Many of the old fence posts surrounding the fields are wire-wrapped osage orange and hickory trunks, since farmers a few generations ago knew these durable woods would serve while alive and long after.
Ron puts his cows out on pasture each spring by a calculation that remains a mystery to me, something to do with the appearance of the first barn swallow. He adheres to other timeworn methods that aren’t fancy enough to be termed eco-friendly or green. For example, Ron drives his old car back to the hayfield before it’s time to cut. He walks through the field handpicking weeds that aren’t good for his cows. He doesn’t confine his cows year round, dose them with production-boosting hormones or follow any other agricultural trends.
Ron’s back is bent; his face is weathered and creased into a permanent smile. Already he looks like his father, Herb, who died a few years ago, probably already in his nineties. We asked Herb’s advice back when we first started farming. Herb told us he’d walked over to see our cows a few times, meaning he’d hiked through fields and woods to reassure himself that our animals were tolerating newbie farmers like us.
How many of us can still benefit from the benevolent instinct of a neighboring farmer? How many are lucky enough to learn from examples of those who are deeply rooted, as Lisa Hamilton’s wonderful new book Deeply Rooted: Unconventional Farmers in the Age of Agribusiness is aptly named?
Dairy farms all over the country are selling cows, selling land and going out of business. The price they are being paid is about the same as it was in the 1970’s, although feed and fuel is much higher. Government aid under consideration for small farms is steered to prompt farmers into selling cows, meaning even more milk will come from huge confinement agricultural operations. Losing small farms also means that the wisdom of farmers like Ron will be left behind at an ever faster pace. This includes specific wisdom about the land and wider wisdom about ways to live.
True connection to the land is so easily crushed beneath the weight of society’s pressing demand for immediate gratification and quick profits. But then, much is lost. As Pierre Teilhard de Chardin said,
This palpable world, which we are used to treating with the boredom and disrespect with which we habitually regard places with no sacred association, is a holy place.
Perhaps most obviously, common sense is lost. Small farms are actually more efficient. The Institute for Food and Development Policy amassed available data from every country to compare productivity of smaller farms versus larger farms (total output of agricultural products per unit area — per acre or hectare.) Their research showed that smaller farms are anywhere from 200 to 1,000 percent more productive.
Ron’s daughter, son-in-law and grandson help on the farm, but his family talks to him about getting out of the business. They know he’s losing money. Ron says that he watched his father go through hard times and he learned that the way you stay farming is to hang on. So he’s hanging on.
Ron’s rootedness to his farm and his land is part of who he is, like the farmer Gene Logsdon describes in a recent blog post
…he is a last member of an ancient tribe—the genuine traditional farmers who committed themselves lovingly to a piece of land and husbanded it from generation to generation, carrying in their memories a lifetime of their own experiences and that of their fathers and grandfathers on that land.
So today I will walk in his direction, grateful for Ron’s farm. I’ll pay attention to the sight of cows resting in tall grass and the sound of a slack board on the house creaking in the breeze, hoping perhaps each thing we look upon with love somehow is more likely to endure.