The MOF&G Online
Lynn Miller on Farmer Pirates and Dancing Cows
In introducing Lynn Miller as keynote speaker at the 2004 Common Ground Country Fair, MOFGA’s executive director Russell Libby noted two models of agriculture being promoted: Thomas Dorr, an undersecretary of agriculture at USDA and an Iowa farmer, said that the next generation needs "to get farms to the right size"--200,000 acres. "I count three farms in Maine under that model," said Libby, "and they’re traveling a long ways to get to where they’re going to farm those fields. I don’t really have a lot of confidence in that approach."
Steven Blank, an agricultural economist at U. Cal. Berkeley, says we can buy all of our food from wherever it’s grown cheapest, regardless of how it’s grown.
"Maybe there’s a different way of doing things," Libby continued. "That’s what we’re going to hear about from Lynn Miller."
Miller is "editor, founder and inspiration" of the Small Farmers Journal. He once said: "A farm is where you are, and a farm is when you decide what you’re doing is a farm."
Miller announced that in his travels, he had found nothing to compare with the Common Ground Country Fair. "This is phenomenal, absolutely phenomenal!"
He continued, "Our dreams have won out! I don’t know how many of you realize what a phenomenal force organic agriculture, appropriate technology, right livelihood is in this country now. A lot of us think we’re alone until we come to an event like this." Miller has been gardening and farming organically since "organic was not considered real farming. It was some kind of boutique, hobby farming. Today it is a market force felt with increasing vitality all around the world." The World Organic Trade Fair held this Feb. in Germany expected 1,900 exhibitors and 30,000 trade experts.
The organic movement is growing too fast to be measured accurately, Miller said, but he cited the numbers of certified organic farms in several countries, including 6,500 on 500,000 acres in Brazil in 2003, producing coffee, cocoa, soybeans, tropical fruits and nuts, sugar, oranges and honey. "Many small operators are working very hard to fight [U.S.] representatives of the multinational corporations...that have gone to Brazil to buy those organic holdings so they can ship the product back to us," he stated. But U.S. organic farming "faces a grave threat from corporate fascism and an entrenched federal government of simian puppets. Our dreams won out, we’re here, but if we aren’t careful, we’ll be passing through a collapsing building."
Miller called our collective naiveté, trusting natures, seriousness, our will to believe, our faith in truth, justice and the simplistic way a curse. "We’ve become solemn too often, too gullible, to enamored of our own policies, too uncompromising, too compromising, too silly, too short-sighted, too visionary. Contradictory? Yes, absolutely, and with good reason. Consider this: To be an organic farmer today is a calling as thrilling as any one you could choose...demanding physically, mentally, spiritually, if you are to succeed. And you must succeed for everyone’s sake. The learning curve is steep, the hours are long, there are unforeseeable hazards. The pay is thin in the beginning. The frustrations are monumental. The vistas will drop you to your knees. And the rewards can be staggering. The world needs what each and every one of you can do as conscientious small farmers."
Expect Excellent Compensation
"You should expect in this day and age excellent--not fair, not just, but excellent--compensation... Let’s start with lowball: $10,000 and more per fully productive acre."
Miller cited USDA’s recent demonstration that California farmers who rotate crops can limit inputs of harmful chemicals and net as high as $2,700/A growing lettuce, versus $782 for conventional. "Why are they [USDA] in charge of anything?" he asked.
"But if more money is your prime mover, you are finished. Expect the compensation, but don’t let it be your reason... I believe to my core that what is most important of all is why we do what we’ve chosen to do."
Miller talked about the annual, early-July, Amish Horse Program Days, which showcases new, animal-powered technology and rotates among Amish communities in North America. There a grower named Raymond Yoder showed an implement he had designed and was selling that creates a raised bed, lays drip tape where you want in the bed, lays a sheet of Visqueen [plastic sheeting] if you want, and tucks the sides in with soil. "One machine pulled by two horses. They sell it for $900, new. And they’re making money at that. This is cottage industry at its best."
Yoder also designed a transplanting machine that is pulled by two horses and can apply starter fertilizer. Two people sitting in the back of this machine set plants. The machine costs $1,100 new.
Yoder told Miller he was getting $50,000/A, primarily from tomatoes, but with companion plantings, using his implements. His family cultivates 10 acres with two horses and this equipment--but he warned Miller that "most people, all they see is the $50,000, and they think they can just go out and do it. But this is expensive work! There’s a lot of labor... you amortize these two machines--that’s $2000! These machines have only got a life of maybe 25 or 30 years! Then we’ve got to hire people, buy plants...’" Miller asked for a figure. Yoder responded that his expenses to get $50,000/A, one year when they were starting, were as high as $10,000; they were $8,000 last year.
Coleman told Miller that from 1 1/4 acres outside and 1/4 acre in hoop houses, his farm earned $100,000 last year.
"We don’t need the USDA," Miller proclaimed.
Coleman also reminded Miller that J.I. Rodale originally opted for the "organic" term, while Aldo Leopold liked "biotic." Coleman and his wife, Barbara Damrosch, said, "We need something that’s more contemporary." They came up with Biagra.
USDA Organic: Trojan Horse?
"I believe that the USDA’s participation--and I know many people disagree with me and it’s a sensitive issue--in organic agriculture is but a Trojan Horse, set out to destroy us from within," Miller said. "I suspect their motives...that they, and those who lead them, want us to disappear from the market horizon. Their first goal is to render organic meaningless as a distinction."
He noted a whisper campaign from so-called public interest groups claiming that organic is unsafe. "Throughout the United States, we are hearing and reading preposterous statements suggesting disease and even death from organic practices, most notably the use of animal manures as fertilizer. Manure teas, living compost, etc. The campaign is in its infancy. It’s insidious. We can link it directly to the USDA operatives. They’re going to say ‘No.’ Dick Cheney says he’s not associated with Halliburton."
"Maybe you think I’m paranoid," he continued. "I have a test I apply whenever I feel my fears swell: The Dancing Cow Test." Miller related a story from the high desert ranch where his family raises cattle, draft horses, grain, hay and other crops and lives in a thick-walled, 1917 cabin. One evening when he was home alone, with no neighbors for 10 miles, he noticed a silhouette pass the window. He saw it again: the shape of a bent-over man wearing a hat and running by the window. He heard rustling. The back door rattled. "Who’s there?" he asked. Nothing.
He heard the same noise again, saw the same shape, dropped to his knees, crawled to the cabinet for his rifle, ran through the door--and didn’t see anyone. He let his dog loose, then saw a shadow run into his shop door. He snuck up to his blacksmith shop and finally saw five or six familiar shapes.
"I put up hay loose, in four big haystacks, in the back yard, about 10 feet from each other, where I can drive my sled to take loose hay out to teams of horses. I saw marauders headed between the haystacks... all six of the cows that had broken out. They see me and run around the stack. The Australian shepherd is trying to help me... the cattle and we are going around in circles." Miller then stood still, and "sure enough, they turn around, and as they go away, the posture they have when they’re feeling really good--noses in the air, tails up, swishing at half mast--Carmen (the lead cow) was feeling really good. She’d been out just long enough to get some treats, steal some things. As she’s moving away from me, she kicks sideways, runs over here, kicks sideways, again and again, perfect timing: She was dancing!"
So when Miller thinks he’s too paranoid, he applies his "Dancing Cow Test," and he’s concluded that his concern about USDA is warranted.
"Poverty and the dissolution of community are our two biggest social challenges. They are at the core of hunger, war, terrorism, environmental degradation, pestilence, genocide, all the worst man has to offer man. The cure is art... music, painting, dance, theater, literature, ceramics, architecture, the art of science, farming, living...and all of the creative, nonviolent arts." Miller himself paints, exhibits and sells his works, and has a dozen published titles of his writing. For 32 of his 40 years as a farmer and stockman, he has "by choice used horses and harness as my motive power source. I do all of these things because they drive me; they immerse me constantly in the creative process."
Miller tells himself every day, "what little I do with my life does make a difference. I am focused on that horrific fact that every...Count with me: 1, 2, 3, 4: Somebody just died of hunger. 1, 2, 3, 4: Somebody just died of hunger. Anything I can do to help the poor and contribute to true community, I must do."
Miller read from a letter from Colorado physician, farmer and political activist Dr. Colin Anderson, who had just refurbished an Amish buggy; bought a Standardbred Amish buggy horse (Ranger); and had a small barn moved to the hospital where he works. "Soon Ranger will bring me on the buggy to work. I just can’t keep buying gas, not with our neighbors dying over in Iraq to ensure our oil supply."
Success, said Miller, lies in perceiving and retaining connections, such as 5 million Chinese households who use biogas from chicken and pig waste, which is 60% methane, for cooking and lighting. "The effluent from the biogas digesters accounts for a 12% increase in their aquaculture production, but only after it has been used to soak seeds, thereby increasing sproutability by 95 percent.
He talked of his friend, Maine farmer Paul Birdsall: Someone named "Birds-all" was meant to be "sharing their song." He cited the hundreds of apprentices that Birdsall has trained, and the "phenomenal difference" that has made, "as has all of MOFGA’s apprenticeship program... On my visit this time, [Paul] told me that since Molly’s (Paul’s wife’s) passing a few years back, Andy and Donna, his son and [son’s] wife, joined him in the farm and are getting things going again..." Miller noted that the menu at the Blue Moose Cafe in Blue Hill listed vegetables from Birdsall’s Horsepower Farm. "Connections!"
Likewise, Miller said that Russell Libby had mentioned MOFGA "adults" whose kids have returned, wanting to farm. "Gotcha! Connectivity!"
Miller discussed a letter that ran in the Small Farmers Journal stating that children and spouses shouldn’t be needed in order to farm; that the farm should be operated as a business: "Family farms are nice, but the economic model should not be based on the requirement for all members to work, especially at low wages." Miller responded that his children had worked on the farm: "Their contributions, besides helping to define us as a family, added profits, added music, added depth to the adventure. Without them, an important reason for being here would have been lost."
A subsequent writer told of growing up on a farm: "It was the best and most valuable thing that happened to me in my entire life. I still did the high school sports and activities, but my memories of those are insignificant compared to what I got from the family farm." While shucking corn, his father told stories about his youth that he would never mention elsewhere. When the writer was a young teen, his father was sick. "I spent one two-week period, dawn to dusk, sitting on a Case tractor with a two-row cultivator, going over corn and beans... Nobody said a thing about it at the time, but later I overheard Dad telling one of the neighbors about how I had saved the crop when he couldn’t work. I have never, and I never will have, a compliment that means as much to me as those words. Certainly nothing that any coach or teacher ever said to me came close... When you work on your own farm, the family labor is part of the profit, not part of the cost. The worst thing that ever happened to this nation was when the federal government decided to subsidize the ‘Get Big or Get Out’ movement. Those who never had a chance to live the life cannot even conceive of what was stolen from them."
Miller continued, "We mustn’t ever forget that farming is about food. About ultimately feeding people. If we take no interest in where our food goes, we sell it short, we sell ourselves short. The biggest, most powerful broker, distributor or processor will never, never offer us the best prices. And most important, they seldom offer respect and never offer certainty nor dignity nor usable humor nor common sense. And they have no sense that our generosity is an important aspect that we need to carry forward with the food. We need to seek, create and entice the best, most beneficial, direct connections with markets and a distribution that enables, ennobles and empowers us collectively and individually." Direct sales enable us "to do end runs around the system, around the man."
Pirates We Be
"It may have been Monsanto who first referred to many of us as pirates because of our disdain for patenting law, for the power brokers of the food chain, because of our disdain for the regulations set up solely to level the playing field--that government euphemism for limiting the game to a few member players... The idea struck me as preposterous and then quite funny: farmer pirates." Pirates of old, he said, robbed the mean and silly rich folks, got drunk, buried the loot in some remote spot, went home and got drunk again, then couldn’t remember where they’d buried the loot.
"Today we are accused of piracy by the feds and corporations. Our crimes are gathering seeds, labeling our produce without a permit or permission, raising unlicensed livestock, applying manure. They say we are polluting and stealing from society, allowing precious GM seed to drift onto our property. If pirates we are, pirates we be! Let’s not forget where we buried the loot. Let’s keep focused on what the loot is."
Miller related a story about his son, Ian, who was killed in a tractor accident in 1985, at the age of seven. The previous fall, Miller had sown oat seed he had gathered. "I had worked that small plot with horses that were the offspring of horses that I had raised. These horses...were spiritual extensions of myself. I had put together the implements I had used to plant... it was a triangular field, and I had worked on some really slick side passing maneuvers with my grain drill to try to make it so there were no bare spots in those corners... And the oats came up just perfect! I could see my history starting in that field... One day my son and I were walking back from the barn...I stopped and I was leaning on the post, looking at that field, and Ian tugged at my pant leg and said, ‘Dad.’ ‘Just a minute, son. I just have to look for a little bit here.’ ‘Dad!’ ‘Just a minute.’ ‘Dad!!’ ‘What?’ ‘You’re looking at the oats again!’"
Miller advised throwing out simplistic notions of monetary and political success. "Our goals should include good humor, generosity, independence, individuality, good health and good society. Our social environment must always have room for the challenges of ugly disagreement, collective disappointments, bad apples, attitudinal fungus, stinky mistakes. Bill Moyers suggests that our time and this time is defined by a mounting tension between the haves and the have nots. We are losing...civilization, and he says, ‘Civilization happens because we don’t leave things to other people.’
"I don’t want utopia. I want beneficial decay. I want more small farmers. I want food streaming to hungry people. I want us to argue about how to get it there.
"The man says the world cannot be fed by organic farming. I say to the man, ‘You’re afraid because you feel the control slipping through your fingers.’"
Organic is Not the Answer
Miller told of Teruo Ichiraku’s 1987 visit to his farm. Ichiraku was minister of agriculture for Japan during WW II, after which he decreed that the Western agriculture being imported into Japan was destroying their country. He founded the organic farming movement in Japan in the late 1950s, with help from J.I. Rodale; then created the CSA idea.
At Miller’s farm, Ichiraku--88 years old, 5 feet tall, and dressed in a silk suit--insisted on being in the hay mound while Miller loaded hay into it, using his horse, a haul back rope and trolley. Miller explained that "when the hay comes in that mound door, it comes wheeling down through there, we pull a cord and it drops and the whole mound fills up with seed and chaff and pieces of hay."
"I want to be up in the hay mound," Ichiraku said.
So he was helped up. "I trip a load," Miller recalled, "and I can hear...Has anybody here ever heard anyone giggle in Japanese? I trip the load and I listen and he’s giggling! And he says something, and the translator says, ‘More! More!’ We unloaded the whole wagon, and we brought him down. He was beaming, he was covered with bits and pieces of hay, carrying his coat.
After lunch, Ichiraku told Miller, "I’ve discovered too late: Organic is not the answer. Organic should be the inevitable tool, but it’s not the answer. The answer...is scale. If you are an organic farmer, and you’re a big farmer, you are part of the problem. It’s all about getting small."
Eliot Coleman reminded Miller "that Thomas Jefferson said nothing frightens government more than one-third of the people able to feed itself.
"We got them scared. We’ve got people in certain rooms at the USDA frightened. We have arrived.
"Look around you. The MOFGA story is incredible. Farmers in training, apprenticeships, on-site plant breeding projects, year-round education on the grounds... the Maine Food Festival...Maine Apple Day, a Pork Processing Workshop, a forestry workshop. Wow! Connections all over the place!"
A spike proclaims a spot at Notre Dame in Paris as the "Center of the Universe." Miller disagreed. "The center of the universe, my friends: We just moved it. It’s right here. There are societies thriving today with a history of their crops and livestock, the history of their fields, the history of their farms, the history of their harvests and storage, the history of their food preparation and the history of their very meals are at the core of who each individual in that society is. All that is their farming, from seed to supper, is of their individual and collective essence; it is their soul."
He told of Dominican nuns in Mexico’s Santa Rosa Convent who used egg whites to paint convent walls, then invented a dessert to utilize the yokes. "For some of us, the connection between food and farming is moist, comfortable and holy. We appreciate flavors, smells, textures and process, back and forth, between the fields and the kitchen. The table in the barn, the future in the past, the family in the community... we have a profound effect on everyone around us. No one is completely immune from the romance of the nuns valuing eggs to paint the convent walls and appreciating the remaining yolks for the sweets they bring... It is in this way that we are true farmer-pirates. I believe that when people see us whitewashing the fence as we smile and whistle, smiling as we cultivate the garden and offering prayers of gratitude, the examples will draw them in, and they’ll be in their own future. The results will be economic, fertility and a whole lot more farmers."
Noting the fragility of life, Miller ended: "Please know that I embrace all of these moments I have been granted sharing with you. Thank you."
After his talk, Miller was asked about an editorial in which he said that the mythic dragon often disappeared when we no longer granted that it existed. "Many of the core elements of that I still believe," he responded. "The dragon of corporate fascism only exists if they’re able to sell their product. But something is starting to happen. We now have a federal government that is only a hair’s breath away from being operated just exactly like a corporation." Although he still believes "in the idea that if we spend our lives in sword play with Monsanto, we are not going to accomplish as much as if we live our life doing those things that in essence deny them to a certain degree... in my old age I’m enjoying baiting the simians and hiding behind the tree as they come and throwing rocks at them. I don’t believe that we can beat them head to head... Maybe we’re adding some gorilla aspects to the definition of piracy, but I expect there is a 50-50 chance that some of us will be arrested for what we do. The value in what I’m doing comes from what I do with my farming, what I do with the magazine by way of holding up a multifaceted mirror so that perhaps you guys can see each other. And that’s not hand to hand combat with the dragon."
--Jean English; ©2005 by the author; for information on reproducing this article, please contact the author.
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