At last year’s Mother Earth News Fair I had started my talk when someone in the audience raised their hand and said, “But how do you know all this stuff?”
I guess I’ve fallen into that small-town habit of not introducing myself, since everyone in the neighborhood already knows who you are! Let me make up for that now.
When we bought this 210-acre former dairy farm 20 years ago, we didn’t realize quite how lucky we were to find reasonably cheap land with a livable house and good barn, close to the job my husband had found in a nearby small town. This area was still reeling from the effects of the 1980s farm crisis, when farm land values collapsed, but the price on this place was even lower than average since only 60 acres of the farm is actually farmable – the rest is swamp and woods. Back then that was considered wasteland, and priced accordingly. Still, it took some creative financing, help from our parents, and eating a lot of macaroni and cheese for a while to make the financial end of things work. But we dove right in, and after the first few months we at least had veggies from the garden and some eggs from the hens to round out our diet. By the time the boys were teenagers and eating like starved elephants we had all the beef and chicken and pork even they could consume, with leftovers to sell.
Now all of a sudden I’m not a young farmer anymore, I’m getting to be one of the old ones. The years do whip by.
Though I have to say I’ve hardly noticed. Between raising our three kids, and learning how to run machinery and wrangle cattle and raise chickens and prune apple trees and get a garden into canning jars and the freezer and make firewood and thin pines and repair everything from the round baler to the crumbling stone barn foundation, it’s been non-stop. Thank goodness the kids pitched right in, all along, and my husband helped whenever he had time! And never for a minute have I regretted giving up an office cubicle for a tractor seat. Small-scale organic farming has been incredibly fun and satisfying, even if sometimes frustrating, and completely absorbing. It still is. Though I never did get the hang of loading pigs.
Then all of a sudden (it seemed) we needed college tuition money, so I ramped up my free-lance writing to a job at a farm newspaper. Talk about interesting! Every week I went and visited other farms, interviewed farmers, attended farm conferences both conventional and organic, and talked to ag professionals – extension agents, foresters, bankers, entomologists, whoever might have the information I needed for a story. This is where, I think, I really gained a bigger perspective on farming. I’d like to say I completed my ag education, but that never happens – there is always something new to learn from other farmers, and on your own place. But I did get asked to write a book, and then some more books, so now I’m off the paper and working from home again. I don’t miss all the driving, but I do miss meeting farmers. Every one of them has something to teach.
One important thing I have learned over the years is that an old farmer just about never gives you a straight, black-and-white answer when you ask them how to do something, or what you ought to do about something. By this time of life, a farmer knows in their bones that what works for them on their place will probably need at least a little tweaking to fit your way of working, and your place. This used to make me crazy. I’d ask a simple question, and instead of a simple answer, the old farmer would look off into space for a moment, then say, “Well, a guy could do it this way.” And then I’d hear about some ideas, or things to try, but never just a “do it like this.”
Now I find that I do the same thing. People ask me how, and I know that unless I’m inside their head and on their farm, I don’t have a specific answer. I can tell you the general rules and procedures, how I would do it, and some little tips you could try, but after that you’ll just have to figure it out yourself. That’s what will make you a real farmer.
But if you’re interested in hearing some ways you could go about making hay, or rotationally grazing your livestock, or making your woods healthier and more diverse, please join me at the Fair!
Ann Larkin Hansen will present workshops at the Puyallup, Wash. 2012 MOTHER EARTH NEWS FAIR.