The Real Dirt on Family Farms

tractorIt had not yet begun to rain when we left the dog at the vet and Jonas started into town to return the trailer. Three days on River Run Farm & Pottery in Kentucky and Mattie had had her share of adventures: She had chased down several sheep, nipping at their heels, endlessly “herding” them before they launched themselves headlong into fences in vain attempts to escape and, gaining their footing, the chase would continue until someone stepped in to save the sheep. She had made her way into the pig pen and, thinking she might herd pigs as well, was, in turn, run down by a relatively small hog, which she not as much eluded as the pig simply quit, but, nonetheless, found herself tangled in the electric fence; the harmless 6-volt shock enough to scare her into an immobilized heap from which I untangled her. She had had minor skirmishes with Kai, the male Pyrenees-mix farm dog who properly knocked her back whenever she got too close to his rabbits or sheep or food. She had been kissed by Eo, the baby lamb, and had ignored the chickens (thankfully) but had terrorized the rabbits

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. And, now, on our third full day on the farm, she had inadvertently been run over by a truck.

10 miles away in Lebanon, KY (pronounced Leb-nen), Dr. Jim Cook told Jonas and me a story about the time he accidentally ran over a friend’s small dog with his truck and the dog had “got squished deader’n a hammer”. He told the story offhandedly as one might expect a rural veterinarian might. Of course, the point of his story was to lighten Jonas and my present discomfort by illustrating how fortunate we were while assuring us that Mattie’s broken leg would mend just fine in six to eight weeks.

sheepLater, thinking about all of the things that can, and do, go wrong on a farm, I recognized how fortunate we all were at River Run Farm: Dr. Jonas Hurley, his wife Julie, their two boys, Henry, 7, and Walt, 6, Kai and his Black Lab sidekick, Merton, Anastasia, myself and, yes, even Mattie. This 17-acre farmstead is about as idyllic as one can imagine. The pace here is slow and steady and the prize, though still unformed, seems always within reach.

Jonas is a man of big vision who, along with Julie, imagined this farm into being and, now, they and the boys (with the aid of a variety of WWOOFers and interns) are putting in the long hours to make it a reality. It’s not an easy life but it is rewarding. Dr. Hurley puts in two or three overnight shifts a week at two local hospital emergency rooms and now that summer has come Julie has two very active boys to manage in addition to her daily farm chores. The days are long but the schedule is loose enough to spend time with the boys playing chess or making origami birds or floating down the river behind the house. This, I believe, is what a small-scale family farm is meant to be.

chickenAfter World War II, farming in America took a turn towards the big and bigger still. From 1950 to 1955, over one million agriculture workers were “migrated” into other sectors of the economy as farms became larger, more specialized and more dependent on heavily financed machinery and petro-chemical herbicides and fertilizers. By 1974, the small farmer had been marginalized into extinction and former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, Earl L. Butz, told farmers to “Get big, or get out.” Today, thankfully, we are beginning to see a resurgent small farm movement.

The public’s interest in farmers markets and organic and local foods is certainly part of the story, but the real meat of the movement (so to speak) seems to be birthed in the hearts of men and women who are independent, free-thinking and, primarily, interested in the health of their families, farms and fellow beings. I am but seven-weeks removed from my urban life in Los Angeles so, at first, this sort of idealism sounded a little Green Acre-ish to me but, now, having lived with and spoken to several small farmers about their lives and aims, I can tell you for certain, there are people growing food with the intent of making the world a better place. They care about the soil and plants and animals and, ultimately, they care about you.

sheep2In Kentucky, there is a man who has developed a large and active cult following of like-minded, dissident farmers – his name is Wendell Berry. I just finished reading his book, The Unsettling of America: Culture & Agriculture, it is a scathing criticism of American orthodox agribusiness. Written in 1977, I marvel at how his ideas seem so current…and then I realize just how far behind the curve I truly am. Berry illustrates the corporate, academic and governmental marriages that invented, hailed and now protect the reign of Big Ag. Oddly, Berry did not demand a dismantling of these profit-driven behemoths, instead, he called upon “responsible consumers” to force changes on the industry. Today, 36 years after the publication of “The Unsettling of America”, organic foods are the fastest growing segment in the agricultural industry – driven plainly by consumer demands.

Though Berry is best when writing about agriculture, his book is equally about politics and changes in culture and meaning and the role of the individual and many of his aphorisms apply across the entire range:

The life of one year must not be allowed to diminish the life of the next; nothing must live at the expense of the source.

Desires that cannot be fulfilled in health will keep us hopelessly restless and unsatisfied.

If competition is the correct relation of creatures to one another and to the earth, then we must ask why exploitation is not more successful than it is. Why, having lived so long at the expense of other creatures and the earth, are we not healthier and happier than we are?


pigIt rained part of nearly every day after the accident at River Run. That was good – the farm needed it and it gave me time to finish the book and hang out with Mattie a little while she recuperated. I am thankful to Jonas for thinking to share Wendell Berry with me, and even more so for his stewardship of the land. And I am grateful that we spent our first few weeks at River Run where I could see, firsthand, the nurturing principle that Berry suggests is the key to healing our planet and ourselves. Farms are not perfect, they’re not meant to be. Things happen.

On our final day at River Run when Jonas suggested that the farm motto might be “Doing things the hard way.” We all shared a big laugh because it is funny…and because we know that farming really IS the hard way. And the hard way is the necessary way – farming is the exchange of human energy for food. It is the transfer of sun energy into plants; plants into animals; animals into waste; waste into soil and back into plants. Farming is humans’ role in keeping that cycle moving effectively and efficiently and, most importantly, sustainably. The benefits are the rich, fresh foods we eat, the brotherhood we develop, the communities we grow and, when we do it appropriately, the fertile world we pass on to the future.

chicken2We know farms aren’t perfect – Mattie would attest to that – but farms, especially small-scale family farms, are one of the best ways to ensure the integrity of the foods we eat. And these farms may be the best way to start to heal the wounds of the planet and reconnect human beings with the cycle of life and death that is so easily forgotten in neatly packaged urban environmenst.

And me, well, I’m always looking for a little more connection. And some bacon.

About JC Jaress

JC Jaress has been looking for something his entire life and he's pretty sure it's been looking for him as well. Whether they find each other is not nearly important as the little dance they're doing.

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