july

It’s July and the hits just keep coming. Coming out of a week of heat fever, a week under the heat dome, and I’ve just recovered from pleurisy, my body’s panicked nod to the days of the industrial revolution, breathing the hot and muggy air through inflamed lungs, a heavy chest. i misdiagnose myself for a full weekend with anxiety, but it’s a real medical condition. i take drugs for it, they work. It’s July. The season farmers quit farming. Both last year and this year, the people we think of as peers, dropping out. It’s too hard.

It’s July. Listservs are heating up about climate change and policy and land ethics. Everyone is heated. The full thunder moon comes and goes, eclipsed on the other side of the world. The neighbor weans his cows on the moon, and the screaming moos echo across the county. He’s three miles away and they sound like they’re outside my window.

What do we do? What do we do? Is the drumbeat of July.

It’s July and we’re too busy to reply to the emails. Those who do get flamed for asking questions, for being concerned. Everyone is heated.

It’s July and it’s tomato season. Finally, I get to hike out to our furthest field and plunge myself into the forested rows. The plants aren’t as big this year, but the toms are already turning and my heart breaks and reforms. The closest I feel to being religious is in the tomato field. Season of devouring. Season of burden, of blight, of blooming. I pick with my heart, and I miss my friend Annie (hi Annie) as I scour the full row of heirlooms. A sheet pan full of the half-rotted ones, roasted under the broiler with fresh garlic over pasta, the juice is the sauce. My favorite lunch.

I’ve been working on essays about climate change, responses to articles that come out that I don’t have time to respond to. Responses to people who think they know what they’re talking about, from the outside. Always from the outside. My words sit here, in my files, untouched. I haven’t felt well enough to open them in three weeks.

It’s July and I finally feel alive again. There is too much to do (always) and everyone is heated. The drumbeat marches on (what do we do? what do we do?)

January 25: a few reviews

Review of A Song for the River, by Philip Connors

For some reason, Philip Connors is one of the only white men who have written things that belong in my top books list. I’m not sure what it is. Maybe it is his self-deprecation, maybe it is his pretty good analysis of American Wilderness and its Flaws™, and maybe it is the ways he turns to the natural world to deal with his Feelings. Probably a combination of these, but I loved A Song for the River.

Image result for a song for the river by philip connors cover

In contrast to his first memoir, Fire Season, which has boundaries and more or less stays within topic, this book is a wandering treatment of grief, physical illness, both of himself and the forests that have been deprived of wildfire since the invention of “Wilderness,” and a deep telling of the current state of the rivers and forests he knows and loves. The book is filled with quiet odes to the natural world around him, despite all of these things. He doesn’t shy away from the stories of the deaths of one of his dear friends or the deaths by plane crash of three young students he knew. He doesn’t shy away from the gross details of his own physical illness. He sits in the pain, and makes some pretty nice meanings out of events that could make you pretty jaded. Amidst the intertwinings of these personal stories and history of the land, he is constantly distributing the ashes of his friend in new places. He doesn’t glorify wilderness, but he does respect the ecosystems that, as a fire lookout, he inhabits. There are a lot of women in the book, and he writes them all with the most respect– even the young women who died in the plane crash, he depicts to the fullest.

I really liked this book. I cried several times. In a good way. A quote from his little commonplace book section at the back:

“We will be nearly finished, I think, when we stop understanding the old pull toward green things and living things, toward dirt and rain and heat and what they spawn.”
– John Graves

I will say– I loved this book, and don’t feel like Connors himself glorifies the wilderness too much, but the assemblage of quotes in the back definitely does, and is too full of those old white men who defined our times. That’s enough of that.

Review of my first week sans instagram

I have been surprised by how great I feel about the time off my favorite social media. I don’t know if I expected to miss it more, or just feel kind of whatever about it, but it has really given me some more brain space/ time back in my life. I’ve been reading more. A lot more. And it’s not like I’m not scrolling– I still look at facebook– but I hadn’t fully processed how much time I was spending scrolling through Instagram.

The things I truly miss:
1. The book recommendations from my close friends, and posting about books myself.
2. Researching MTV stars’ social medias while watching trash tv
3. That’s literally it.

Review of last night’s squash pasta, aka squashta?

I literally can’t stop eating it. Mac n cheese with some leftover buttermilk and the final trash squash that grew from the compost pile this year. And five cloves of roasted garlic. WINTER FOOD. GOOD.

 

 

Things I am currently concerned about, a list:

  • is it SEASONAL AFFECTIVE or is it GRIEF? a constant january question. does it matter why/ how I’m sad? do any of my coping mechanisms count as ‘healthy’? why is year six so much sadder than year five? how did I forget its possible to feel this way?
  • am I using instagram as a crutch, as an obstacle to create things that are not instagrammable? why do I think about what to write on my instagram captions instead of what to write in my NOTEBOOK, which will NOT BE SHARED until it is ready?? why do I even care? I’m not interested in being insta-famous and literally gain nothing from sharing my art/creative juices on there, besides affirmation from my friends. how do I detach in order to create things that are more productive? how do you create things without a goal/deadline in mind? how do you find deadlines?
  • will I be burned out forever? or is it a cycle like my grief, washing up and down like the goddamn tide?
  • why am I having such vivid dreams? will my sleep ever become restful again?
  • will we ever be able to farm without the constant pressure of the county and their need to regulate regulate regulate?
  • how can I use my resources for good?
  • when will I write my novel? will the haralsons wait for me forever or will that plot slowly dissipate until all I have left is the chaotic barn party scene I have already written?
  • when will I count as ‘a writer?’
  • do I have what it takes?
  • is love a state of being or a verb or a decision? can it be all three?
  • how do we live against that horizon? (stolen from the intro of Storm Lake, by Art Cullen, which I have not read the rest of because it was a gift for my grandpa which then I stole back to read snippets of during our visit. it is *on the list*)
  • what other books should be on my to-read list?

It turns out this was a list of questions. Reading them all together induces a slight panic.

In other news, the best book I have read so far this year is Seed to Harvest by Octavia Butler. I’ve been finding solace in making my way through her works and admiring the ambition and scope of her writing. The worlds she could imagine??? The ways of being human and not-human??? The resistance of every single character??? Incredible.

However, it may be replaced by the best (only) book I am currently reading, which is Very Different: H is for Hawk, by Helen Macdonald. Only because it is a book so relatable, a book for Maja in January. A book about birds of prey and grieving the death of one’s father. I’m glad I bought it. It is the particular style of memoir that resonates the most with me—artistic and wandering, uniting an entirely procedural plotline (taming a goshawk) with the deep and chaotic wonderings of grief and how did I become this way and in how many ways does this thing fill a void in my life/heart?

I would rather be reading it now than writing this list, but I have to d o s o m e t h I n g and get back on track. I would like to be making such an incredible amount of art, and there’s only four weeks left before lambing.

The only question I have an answer for is this: will I address the three-season long hiatus between blog posts? The answer is no.

Sepia-toned Storytelling

I have not posted in a long time. Many reasons for that, including the instant choke-hold having an audience (albeit a small one) put on my writing confidence, but mostly because there have been some crappy things at the farm and that’s hard to write about.

A good friend, at the beginning of my blog sharing, told me to write about every bad thing, write it down and talk about it and acknowledge it. And I think that is an easier thing to say than do; and much easier to do if the bad thing is like, “I was so cold harvesting vegetables today that my fingers went numb,” or “A deer ate 80 cabbages last night.” Those things suck, and the cabbages is definitely a significant loss, but at the same time, you can pick yourself back up from that.

But this spring. Oh, this spring. Up until yesterday, there was still snow on the ground from a heavy snow on April 8th, we can’t get our plants (including hundreds of dollars worth of onion starts going dormant in our basement) in the ground in any foreseeable future, and we are having x number of health concerns about our animals. But I’m not going to write about those problems just yet, because there is too much to say and too much emotional sewage to wade through.

What I want to write about is why I feel like I can’t talk about things that are going poorly on the farm. As farmers, especially ones that market directly to our customers, who for the most part care about us using organic and humane practices (which we care about too, for the record), we have to sell more than our produce. We have to sell our image, which too often gets cast as this sepia-toned instagram farm filled with bounty and beauty.

It’s complex to try and parse out what this means for us and for farming. On the one hand, this happy and pastoral farm image we must sell is kind of true– many weeks out of the year, it does feel pretty idyllic out on the farm, and I love to share pictures and stories about how much I love my life, because I really do. But that image is also one-sided and doesn’t leave any room for us to be human, to make mistakes, and for bad shit to happen. The customer wants to believe that organic, local produce comes without any struggle, that they are buying into this pastoral ideal as well as the vegetable.

And we work to maintain that image because we cannot afford to lose customers. Our dependence on our customers makes it hard to be truthful when we want to talk about things not going well. We don’t want them to lose trust in us or think we are doing a bad job. So we continue to paint things with a positive spin, to look on the bright side, and work to remain a source of not only healthy vegetables, but healthy vibes in our community. But the truth is that there are so many variables in farming that are so outside of our control. We are one of the only industries that is fully dependent on the weather– drought, snow, rain, flood, wind, heat– all of those things can destroy our livelihood pretty dang quick. And simple mistakes– like planting the cabbage 16 inches apart instead of 12– can drastically impact our yield. There is so much uncertainty in farming that sometimes it feels like stuff is always going wrong, but that is just par for the course.

What this shiny image of farming does is furthers the separation people have from their food. The consumer has become so distanced from the food being grown that many of the industrial processes today I think would horrify them, and do, when they end up watching those food documentaries that exploit people’s sense of horror/ emotions. But beyond this type of storytelling, those stories are hidden away by the vertical integration of food production. They are hidden because they’re not great.

The stories the customer does have access to (and wants to) are ours– local producers, members of our community, women or minority farmers with a hopeful and positive story to tell. However, if we continue to just propagate this shiny idea of what “our” kind of farming looks like, is it actually helping our food system? If we are not truthful about our experiences growing food, how could we possibly get the support we need?

Someone running for state office in our district came out to visit the farm the other day, and he said something along the lines of, “I’ve noticed a lot of women farmers in the area. Is that mostly what you’re finding these days, that this is a growing movement of mostly women farmers?”

The answer was of course not, if you look at the statistics, over 90% of young/beginning farmers are white men (New Food Economy). The reason it seems that way to our young white male politician is that the women and minority farmers in our area have to do so much more outreach and storytelling to be accepted, to be heard. We are creating a narrative that includes us, but in doing so, it is somehow skewing the reality.

I’m sure if you looked at our farm community from the outside, it would seem to be filled with women farmers. However, that farm community is mostly vegetable and farmer’s market producers. If you include the commodity crop producers, the women farmers would be a much smaller percentage of the whole.

And from the inside, I can tell you that I know or know of almost every woman farmer in the area. There’s not actually that many of us. While it seems like a lot, I think that is actually just indicative of the dearth of minority farmers in the area.

So where does this leave us? This eternal question of how to tell our stories. If we want to sell our food, we have to sell the shiny instagram farm. If we want to be respected as women farmers, we have to be perfect. We have to be tough and fierce and badass, as well as being goddamn nourishers of the land that are able to grow food so well, so wholesomely. We have to hold ourselves to such a high bar, because the spotlight’s on us. But in making room for different kinds of farmer’s voices, we can’t forget how far we have to go. We can’t change the reality by overwriting the narrative. We can’t forget about every farmer and farmworker in this country that struggles to make a living. We can’t see some examples of unconventional producers succeeding in our area and think that we’ve made it. Keep the goal in mind, our freedom and food is on the line.

Endnote: And it’s funny, even as I revise this post, I find myself toning down my description of our current strugs on the farm. I hate for anyone to think we are having a bad time, I don’t want anyone to worry. We’re fine. We’re fine and we’re doing a good job and we’re gonna have a great spring season!! That’s the story it’s so tempting to tell. Because it, too, is true, and is easier to palate. So if there’s anything you take from this post, it’s that we’re doing great.

Reasons why I’m glad I didn’t go to MOSES this weekend (Also filed under why I don’t always feel like a farmer, ALSO filed under everyone should be a farmer)

MOSES is the largest organic farming conference in the country. This weekend there were many many farmers, young and old, etc etc attending workshops about organic production, from vegetables to grains to livestock, in La Crosse, Wisconsin. I didn’t want to go to MOSES this weekend—I’m very relieved I didn’t go, actually, for a number of reasons. Some of which are practical:

First, we’re lambing, so leaving the farm even for a few errands is sometimes a stretch. Our lives are in the barn right now.

Second, I personally don’t do very well at conferences. Introvert, emotional, interacting with hundreds of people. Not a great combination.

But the third reason is something that kind of bugs me about myself—an assumption I have about who goes to things like MOSES. Because while a lot of people attending MOSES are actually farmers, there are a lot of non-farmers, aspiring, or beginning farmers too. People growing on a single empty lot in a city, or on a sixteenth of an acre of their grandparents land, or grow microgreens hydroponically in a trailer. And because they aren’t doing what I’m doing—not to the scale of the farm I’m a part of—the snarky, judgmental part of my brain wants to say they aren’t farming. Because we maybe don’t have a lot to share with each other, production-wise, I want to write them off, I don’t want to talk to them. I don’t have an idea of what someone growing smaller than me can offer me. And I want to write them off because I don’t think their experiences count under the category of farming. And it’s stupid, because I know there are farmers that would do that exact same thing to someone like me—who call vegetable farms gardens, and would scoff at our flock of 30 ewes (36, but who’s counting (just kidding, I’m definitely counting, we’re lambing, don’t you remember)).

And I think this thing I struggle with, with categorizing other producers in a way that excludes them from *what is farming*, is exactly the same thing that makes me sometimes (often) feel like I am not a farmer. The most common barriers to farming are things that I don’t have a straight-forward relationship to either, so why am I judging these other aspiring or beginning farmers? Let me lay a couple out for you.

Land access

It is safe to say that land access barriers mark the number one obstacle to young farmers actually farming. In Iowa alone, farmland is over three times more expensive than it was in 1990, even after adjusting for inflation (Iowa State Farmland Values Survey). When you combine that with the fact that 97% of Iowa is privately owned, and 92% is farmland, and the average age of the Iowa farmer is 57 years old, you can see why it is hard to access farmland in Iowa (State Data Center). Land is too expensive, owned by old white men, and privately owned/ not for sale.

(A quick note to acknowledge that it is pretty fucked up that we even talk about land in this way—that it is very colonial in the first place to approach land from an ownership perspective, and that all land in America was stolen from indigenous peoples.)

Not only that, but not all land is the same, according to county and state zoning laws. If you have land that is not zoned ag, there are a multitude of different restrictions on the type of business and farm you are allowed to run, and higher taxes to pay on residential or commercial property. Not only that, but in my county, there is an inane law stating that in order to be zoned agricultural land, one must have a property that is 40 acres or more. Based on the average price of an acre of farmland in 2017, 40 acres in Johnson County would cost $293,040, an amount that is inaccessible for beginning farmers.

My personal relationship to farmland is a pretty good situation, all things considered. My sister purchased a farm from a woman we’ve known our whole lives, and while I haven’t yet decided how I want to permanently be involved, I’m working for and with her on the vegetable CSA and our livestock operation. My own troubles with this barrier are trivial—it is just me, making a fuss about calling myself a farmer without my own farm. But that’s pretty dumb.

Capital

Related to the fact that farmland is so expensive is the fact that start-up costs for a new farmer are monumental. Depending on what enterprise you start with, after you find access to land, and depending on the situation on that property, you not only have to buy seed stock, but you probably need to buy tractors, tractor attachments, fencing, feed, livestock, etc, and each one of those things I just named costs a buttload of money. Even cows. Cows are fucking expensive.

This is why family farms were a thing. Because it is almost impossible to start from the ground up, passing functional operations on through the family was one of the only ways to make ends meet. But now that even that often leads to debt and ends not meeting, rural farmkids are leaving. They have been leaving, and it’s still true. There are no jobs here besides the struggle of farming, so kids of farmers move to cities for other kinds of work. For a “better life.”

Capital always has been and probably always will be a huge obstacle to new farmers. It’s a big topic and there are new and creative ways farmers are attacking it, from kickstarters to grant writing. For the record, I don’t think it is realistic or a good example to fund your farm off of grants and then sell what you are doing as economically sustainable farming. Just for the record. But anyway. Capital is a big problem. My sister was able to purchase the farm with a combination of money our family had and loans. Not everyone has that privilege, and even with that privilege it was logistically difficult to buy the farm. And the farm came with the infrastructure to run a CSA and keep sheep on pastures– many of the other starting costs were incorporated into the sale of the farm.

Experience

This one is a little subjective, and I think one I struggle with a lot. There’s no education or training requirement to start farming, if you have access to land and capital. So then what amount of experience qualifies you to begin farming? There are ag degrees at many colleges, but what do those actually prepare you for? On graduation day, can you go out and just start farming successfully, from land management to bookkeeping? Probably not. How many years do you need to work on someone else’s farm before you should strike out on your own? What if you have worked only for short amounts of time on many farms? Do you have enough relevant experience with the day-to-day management, year in and year out, to do it by yourself?

Should anyone be farming by themselves?

Confidence

Once you overcome all these massive obstacles to becoming a farmer, you still have to have the guts and wear-with-all to say: “Yeah. Fuck yeah, I still want to do this. I’m going to farm because I like growing things more than money, personal time, or any other priority I might have. And I have the confidence to do so, because I know I’m a badass and can make it work.” (And while I am privileged to know so many awesome badass women farmers, I’m going to go ahead and say that this type of confidence comes more easily for men, who have been socialized to have confidence. Yay for them!!!)

I have confidence issues every damn day. From how I ask my sister whether we should go check on the animals to my hesitation to even write this article, I’m constantly asking myself whether I’m good enough. Whether I qualify. If my experience gives me the authority to say anything on the subject. Whether I could do this by myself if I wanted to, or if I wanted to start my own enterprise.

Conclusion

All of these barriers and definitions of what is farming are keeping people from working together. Also these are not the only barriers to farming– there are many many different obstacles besides the ones I mentioned. We all need to get over ourselves and our own ideas of what can constitute a farmer Pretty Damn Fast. Because we have a crisis on our hands, a crisis of aging farmers and changing climates. Everyone needs to adapt their expectations, and stop perpetuating stereotypes that you have to have land, capital, experience, and maybe be a white man to be a farmer. Because the goddamn answer to this crisis is that everyone should become a farmer.

Of the people I know from college, I literally think I know two others besides me that are farming. Of my high school classmates (from RURAL IOWA), there are even less. There are a lot of jobs to do in this world, I know, but I think the stigma of what farming means and who should do it, and then the logistical impossibilities on top of that, are stopping a lot of people who would be great farmers from farming. There are so many different ways to grow food, and so many types of food to grow. The options would be endless, if it wasn’t so hard to start farming.

Everyone who attended MOSES this weekend should be a farmer. Everyone who owns farmland should either be farming or rent to their land to a young farmer. Or both. Everyone who has capital or could help young farmers access capital should be doing all they can to get young people on the land before all the old knowledge goddamn dies with the old generation. Everyone should have relationships with farmers, even if they live in big cities, and should put their money where their mouth is. Everyone should be a farmer.

It has begun

Lambing: the time of year when all the ewes you bred back in September/October start popping out their babies, heralding a sweet hope for spring.

Lambing: a season of profound anxiety, where cups of coffee and sheep checks in the night intermingle into a strange glowing orange blur, where decisions become a battle between urgency and patience, where new life brings you constantly face to face with death.

Lambing: the time of year where I probably feel most like a farmer, where my gut instincts are good, when handling animals feels like a thing I know how to do. Also the time when I feel the most doubt about being a farmer, where the gaps in my knowledge become most evident and glaring.

Last year, lambing felt like a celebration and a discovery. I was figuring out that I wanted to be a farmer, I was beginning to claim the word as something I could use to talk about myself. We had some difficult births, and the times when we succeeded felt symbolic, probably too symbolic. One lamb we had wasn’t breathing at birth, and I noticed, and, for lack of any other option, attempted to do lamb CPR like I had read about in one of my sheep-keeping manuals. I got it completely wrong, but in the process, managed to clear the lamb’s airway and he started breathing. We called him the Boy who Lived. Everything felt significant. Everything we were doing was right and good, and we were learning every step of the way.

This year, everything is different.

The season started with struggles. One of our most troublesome ewes, that we have tried and failed to get rid of for the past two years, somehow prolapsed her uterus a week early. We got it back in, and thought she was going to die, but gave her a chance. A week later she passed three dead lambs, and now she’s got mastitis. Troubles upon troubles.

Our dear original dairy goat, Mommy Rockstar (named by the dear boy when he was four), followed this past Sunday. She had gotten a knee injury in the fall, and so the pregnancy has been very hard on her, and her kids needed a little hand getting out into the world. The smallest one died, we think of a birth defect or pnemonia, maybe both. The other two are looking good, but her milk hasn’t really come in so we are bottle feeding.

Since then, we’ve had some good lambs born. The maternity ward of lambing pens is full, the heat lamps are on, we’ve been giving shots and docking and tagging. And it’s funny—when I started writing this piece, the direction I was planning on going was talking about how I have personal struggles with feeling or not feeling like a farmer, and how this year, the struggles have deepened what I even think that means.

But now, now that lambing is going in earnest, and we’re doing bottle feeding shifts and the barn checks aren’t just expressions of anxiety but actually are discovering new lambs or ewes in labor, and all the shit about being a farmer or not feeling like a farmer doesn’t really matter. Because we are doing it, ready or not.

Waiting, part one million

Because we don’t preg check our ewes and goats, we don’t have exact due dates for any of the animals. We know when we put the ram and the buck in with our girls, and have calculated the range from that, and now all we are left with is a waiting game. We are in the period of possibility, but no one has dropped any babies yet. Every day I feel my anxiety growing, and the urge to race out to the barn and check keeps getting stronger. I keep dreaming about the lambs._IGP1712.jpg

It feels like there is more at stake this year, in regards to catching the births. It’s fucking cold out, and if we don’t find the babies soon enough, they might just freeze. High stakes. Last year it was warm, sweatshirt weather even, and this year we are getting buried in February snow, negative temp nights. _IGP1750.jpg

Waiting waiting waiting.

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