Songs of a Frozen Farmer

IMG_9205This was a tough week on the farm: our hens’ once plump-red combs are specked with telltale black spots of frostbite, we’ve coaxed more smoke than heat from our fussy wood-fired boiler, and facing day-after-day of lukewarm showers in a 50-degree farmhouse has made the depth of winter feel inescapable.

I also had the genius idea of hauling our welding machine across the shop, and in the process transformed myself into a 90-year-old man by spraining my back. The damn welder is as unwieldy as a cardboard box filled with 17 bowling balls, and it’s my own fault for trying to move it solo (Dina made me say that). But now I’m left without my most important tool – my body – and instead, I’m humbled by each of my 35 years every time I try to put on socks.

IMG_9286At the crack of dawn on Friday, I gingerly folded my sorry self into Dina’s Honda Civic Coupe for the three-hour drive to the NOFA-NY conference (Northeast Organic Farmers Association of New York) where we huddled together with other winter-weary farmers.  Picture hundreds of crunchy-granola farmer types and grizzled old-timers milling about the Saratoga Springs Hilton’s metro-chic lobby wearing hand-made t-shirts scrawled with slogans like “Fuck Fracking.” Two days in a hotel promised to be a welcomed break from our losing battle with winter, but the discomforts of farming followed us even there.

Since embarking on this journey, the economics of farming have loomed heavy on my radar, as I fear we may be following our hearts straight to destitution.  So despite sexy conference offerings like ‘seed-saving’ and ‘forest-farming,’ my inner accountant signed us up for offerings like ‘Books and Payroll on a Small Family Farm.’ Really inspiring stuff.

Back at Farm School, we’ve spent the past two months hashing and rehashing the dollars and non-cents of farming, drafting business plans and visiting area farms to see how they stay afloat.  In that time, and my worries have only persisted.

This propensity for financial doomsday-ism peaked at NOFA’s ‘Whole Farm Budgeting Shop Talk,’ which tightened the vice around my head until I finally cried uncle. I get it: there’s no way to plan around the financial struggle of farming.

IMG_9484But just before I spreadsheeted my way straight of out farming, another presenter came to my rescue.  Erica Frenay of Shelterbelt Farm spoke of ‘Holistic Management,’ which sounded suspiciously vague at first, but managed to reframe the tough financials of farming with the concept of a ‘triple bottom line.’  It holds that businesses ought to be accountable not only to the financial bottom line, but to the social and environmental bottom lines as well: if one comes up in the red, none of the rest can add up.

If for a moment I could have shed my inborn Protestant reserve, I might have bellowed ‘amen, sister!’ Her simple permission to lend equal weight to the motivations that landed me at Farm School in the first place rekindled a bit of the perspective I had at the beginning of this journey – a perspective that had been smothered by the cold in my bones, a stiff back, a column-full of unpromising numbers and the encroaching due-date for our first child.

Life B.F. (before farming) checked out on two out of the three bottom lines.  Our financials were working out swimmingly: as homeowners we were building equity and saving regularly for retirement.  And as journalists, we got the sense that our social contributions were generally a net positive.  But our environmental accounts kept coming back in the red – despite attempts to balance things with solar panels, gardens and chickens.

The triple bottom line concept made solid sense to Dina and me, but things really fell into place during Saturday’s keynote address by Scott Chaskey, NOFA-NY’s Farmer of the Year (and rightful recipient of NOFA’s non-existent ‘Outstanding Beard’ award.)

IMG_9491In a speech that borrowed heavily from the greats (Wendell Berry, Aldo Leopold), Chaskey talked about poetry’s ability to express truths deeper and more powerful than words alone.  This, ‘whole being greater than the sum is the sum of its parts’ logic is a canny critique of reducing farming to mere economics.  As in poetry, there’s something larger happening in the silent potential of seeds touching dirt.

Chaskey’s words lead me to consider a fourth pillar on which I base my life’s accounting: a spiritual bottom line.  I’ve spent much of my life in and out of traditional religious settings, but more and more, the language in which I once found meaning has begun to feel limited and ‘human.’ Rather, it’s the magic Chaskey referenced, the vibrations at the center of everything that lure my spirit. And these days, I find it easier to connect to that by praying, but not with words – rather, through my body and the rhythm of life on the farm.

IMG_9258So with Chaskey’s words ringing in my ears, I put down the calculator and headed to a tiny conference room for a ‘Work Songs’ workshop. What followed was nothing short of sacred.  Farmers, both seasoned and new to the struggle, crammed body-to-body on the generic hotel carpeting to bend their voices into a joyful chorus – and in the process, they transformed my mid-winter’s longing into a sense that the work to which we’re committed is indeed something special.

In that moment, everything added up.

*****

Due to the shortened week at Farm School and the days I spent indoors nursing my back, the week in photos will be back next week.  But, in exchange I leave you with the beautiful sounds of farmers on a generic hotel carpet.  (Sorry Firefox users, you’ll need Safari, Chrome or Internet Explorer to play the files). Thank you to the incredible farmer/songsters at Sylvester Manor for the inspired leadership.  More information can be found at worksongs.org.

Cornbread Peas Black Molases


Lo Yisa Goy

Hollow Leg

Ham and Eggs

Dada Mele

9 comments

  • January 28, 2013 at 8:37 am // Reply

    I hope your back feels better soon. Nothing like a messed up back to make farming seem really scary (as you realize how fragile your body actually can be). Great post–including the fourth bottom line, the spiritual, is so important. I know as I’m going through all the planning for our second year of farming, it’s easy to worry about whether this whole farming thing can ever make sense financially. I still don’t know the answer, but I do know that, like you, I’m drawn to it and want farming to be part of the complete package of endeavors that makes up my life.

    • January 29, 2013 at 8:17 am // Reply

      Thanks Patrick. We’re lucky/spoiled here in that we have a farm mob to tackle any job, so being sidelined by a bum back doesn’t have much effect on the work that needs to get done. But as you’re well aware it is a bit of a false reality, and being hurt and on your own is a terrifying prospect. Good luck with the rest of your planning!

  • January 28, 2013 at 11:53 pm // Reply

    Beautiful post, Erik! I’m glad both your spirit and perspective were renewed over the weekend…it’s amazing how powerful music and the company of like-minded people can be. Hang in there with the cold!

  • January 29, 2013 at 12:26 pm // Reply

    Oh Erik, here’s hoping your back will heal quickly and that you will gain strength from the conference in NY you attended. It is always sobering to start any new adventure in life as we never truly know the “rest of the story” as Paul Harvey might say. I do believe that you have your priorities in clear order from spiritual to earth to personal and I have confidence that you and Dina and baby Jacobs are on a path to fulfillment. How full your wallet is may not reflect how full your heart is. Now I am not so naive as to forget that your stomach needs to be full too, but I think you will find ways to augment your income ( if needed!) as your plan continues to grow and unfold . You are both brilliant multi-talented young adults and this is a most worthwhile task you are embracing. Hang in there! We are all here to help you in any way you need.
    Tons of love ,
    Lynne

  • February 7, 2013 at 11:39 am // Reply

    Recordings played fine on Firefox for me. : )

  • February 11, 2013 at 6:55 pm // Reply

    I am new to your blog and enjoy it immensely – you make me laugh out loud at times -”a cardboard box filled with 17 bowling balls” – now there is a picture! A sense of humor can not be found on a balance sheet, but is a wonderful asset to hold on to.
    I believe that farming/gardening the way my grandparents did is full of spiritual meaning – it feeds us body and soul. Although, if I never saw another mosquito or tomato hornworm – I would be OK with that. A little practicality mixed in with the spirituality is a good thing.
    Feel better fast!

    • February 13, 2013 at 11:04 am // Reply

      Hi Carol!
      So glad you’re reading along. Sounds like we have a lot in common. Thanks for the note and well wishes!

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