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The New Farmers’ Almanac: A Collection of Essays for Beginners

What agrarian future can we realistically build together? This is a question the Greenhorns hope to answer in their latest book, The New Farmers’ Almanac 2015.

Greenhorns is an organization for young farmers—a non-traditional grassroots network with the mission to promote, recruit and support the entering generation of new farmers. It exists to celebrate young farmers, to welcome them into the movement, and connect them with the human and cultural resources, training, skills and community they’ll require to succeed, professionally, in American agriculture.

The theme of this year’s almanac is “Agrarian Technology.” With essays from more than a hundred authors, artists and other contributors, the Almanac holds a civil, lived testimony from thoughtful agrarians across the continent whose work, life, and behavior patterns beamingly contradict normative values of the macro-economy called America.

In this volume of essays curated for the producer culture rather than consumers, new farmers will find information on a wide range of topics including restoration agro-forestry, reclaiming high desert urban farmland, starting a co-op, pickup truck maintenance, cheap healthcare, farming while pregnant, farm terraces, and so much more.

Severine von Tscharner Fleming, farmer, activist, and founder of the Greenhorns, wrote the foreword and introduction to The New Farmers’ Almanac. Read the full foreword and a part of her intro below.

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The New Farmer’s Almanac 2015 – Foreword and Introduction

FOREWORD

This Almanac is our second one, but still New. The first wrinkles have arrived from squinting and grinning in the sun, but we’re still young. A bit like the organization that publishes it, this Almanac is an amalgam of talents, built by a community who dip in and out of campaigns and literary works as their farm lives permit. Some members are more scarce than others—an ephemeral convening of feral cats. After the first Almanac, we decided to make it a biannual publication, which was Louella Hill’s discernment at play. So let it be known that the deadline for submissions to the 2017 New Farmer’s Almanac is January, 2016.

The issue currently in your hands is themed Agrarian Technology. We aim herein to present a civil, lived testimony by people whose lifeworlds and work patterns beamingly contradict the mainstream. If American capitalism is corporate canola mayonnaise, we are the wild pickle—not as a condiment, but as an inoculant.

My elder Wendy Johnson passes on bits of Buddhist wisdom whenever she’s given the chance, and she recently shared some words from Thich Nhat Hanh for when things get nasty, murky, sticky and unlivable. He says “throw some straw on that mud, so we can walk over.” It is a barnyard allegory, suitable for more than mud.

And the barnyard is more than an allegory—it’s the poetic and powerful locus for much of the work that needs doing. It’s no surprise that we’re all here working in agriculture. Bent over in the sunshine, ears open to the reality of birdsong and chainsaws, bearing witness to the degraded stream-beds, and foaming aquatic dust bunnies, as drainage tiles spill fertilizer runoff into the ditches. The baseline shifts for every generation, and we’ll never see the ecosystem our grandfathers knew. We struggle to measure in human terms the destruction we each cause in our modern lives. In principle a prerequisite for civilization, farming seems to have become a portal for deliberate, cultural and joyous retort against the terms of our civilizational phylogeny. In this volume, new agrarians explore alternative histories and possibilities. Tapping into a deeper, more complex past—and operating in expectation of an imaginal, but plausible, feasible, deep and tempting future.

INTRODUCTION

Modernity tended to look down and backwards at Agriculture—in alternating moments romanticizing and de-politicizing or romanticizing and politicizing. The former usually from the top down and the latter from the bottom up. It is fertile ground for metaphor, for direct action, for true, naked experience, and for conjecture as well. Exploring what is possible within the boundaries of one farm and one lifetime encourages such sweeping notions of potential. As more and more of us engage in agriculture, and throw down straw, seek local ownership, experience stubborn local holdouts, watch bright stars overhead through twinkling under-stories of nurture—we become radicalized by what seems possible. An elongated sense of history provides a plentiful repertoire of resistance strategies. We hope here to hack open a few avenues, and leave a few scent-traces into the less-known micro histories of our agricultural tenure on this continent, as well as those we’ve replaced.

And it’s important because as we build upon history there is a question of attitude. Is this scar tissue on an old stump, or is it the site of potential, for regrowth, adaption. Are we doomed?

The rules that matter are the rules of life.

Life: plant, animal, insect, and estuary-complex. Life! is the meta-economy. An alliance with ecology is the strongest, because, as Wes Jackson would tell us, “nature as measure.” Because agriculture happens in the context and canvas of living systems, agriculture is exactly the right place to discover space for an economy based on sounder principles. Thank goodness for organic growth, the resilience, bounce-back, and massive productive power of photosynthesis and her sister systems. Ecological agriculture gives us the benefit of autonomy, and production, to afford rebuilding with a different priority. It’s not just apps and startup companies designed, like crystal patterns, as a quick fix or convenient candy rack to tempt and sideswipe a bit of revenue from the appetites of powerful ones at the top. That logic pattern is loud and animated and it seeps through mass media and hype marketing into every corner of our brain. What a particular place wants, what it can bear, that is a quieter pattern and a softer song of possibility. But this is the song of possibility that sings in the ears of our Almanac authors. We are squinting, hands on our hips, at the sagging barn to see which beams can bear a new wing. Where can we prop it up? Where should we rip it down for salvage?

Restoration

“Restoration agriculture,” the term, came to prominence as the title of a book by a radical midwestern edible forester named Mark Shepard. I see this functioning also as “Reconfiguration agriculture”—a working system that actively reshapes the economy, as well as the ecology, in which it operates. Attentive stewards with reform on the mind, and enough wiggle room, can sometimes set up systems that buck the mainstream. And like a little check-dam, they slow the erosive force of a river swollen in the storm.

Our agricultural system seems like just such a surging river—flowing through degraded wetlands, swollen and muddy with petrochemicals. When you’re scavenging waste oil from the back of a strip-mall Chinese food joint, with infected wrists from the rat-festering tanks, that’s the buttonhole of industrial agriculture. It’s worth protesting, worth decrying, and hard to change. It’s time to go upriver.

What do the narrow, animated upriver streams look like—those streams which constitute the headwaters of a new system, a “new economy” that’s so profoundly needed? An economy that acknowledges the future, the externalities, the consequences, the integrity of the system? Unfortunately, it is not being taught as a discrete set of practices aimed at steady-state. There aren’t any plans written by genius committees that chart out the way. This isn’t a top-down, command and control situation. There are no orders to follow, no blue print, and if there were it would be suspect anyway. John Jeavons has his system, Alan Chadwick has his system, Fukuoka has his system, but these aren’t prescriptive of how land managers, operating according to ecological principles, can conjoin their micro-economies into meso-economies.

On the heroic spectrum there are examples of dynamic, proactive formats for land health which hold inside them the rich kernel of a peaceful political economy. Both of my examples started out on rented land, and through power of virtue, charisma, luck and stamina managed to translate their commitment into ownership. A 500 acre, full diet, horse-powered C.S.A in the coldest, most sparsely populated and nearly poorest corner of New York state? Only mad people could do this. There, they produce a full diet—beef, lamb, pork, poultry, dairy, vegetables, grains—all on a weekly “free choice buffet” system with on-farm distribution. Essex Farm created its own format, overcoming structural obstacles with a pioneer ferocity, and it spawned 10 new farms in the surrounding area. Another example is Brookford Farm, with 25 milk cows, silos, wheat, pigs, cheese, milling, markets—all built knee deep, like Russian peasants in the mud of a barn-yard they did not own. They stored their grain in an old paper mill, convinced a town and millionaire to back them on a farm of their own, and built a small army of utterly devoted customers throughout the state. They even started their own bottling plant, all with four tiny children hanging off their fronts and backs.

Through sheer force of will it seems, such pioneers make a new format possible in an inhospitable world. And what follows their success is a set of dynamic successional ripples—the talent that they attract, inspire, and spit out into the world. There are now 13 new farms in the towns around Essex—mostly connected in some way to the energy of initiation at Essex. The model that they invent is then observed, adapted, modified, re-enacted in other places and other towns. There is a heterogeneous pace and a very specific place-based quality to these remarkable farms, their ability to capitalize on the specific local opportunities and make a go of it.

And yes, the macro-economic conditions are inhospitable. And yes, labor is expensive and yet too cheap, food prices are higher than people can afford and yet lower than a reasonable cost of production. The technology platforms we use can connect us with markets, but also siphon away mental energy, time and resources. It is a tight turning radius to work within—to have enough yeoman, to be punk. To have enough capital to take risks. To be wily enough to adapt to change. To be sound-footed enough to dance around broken barbed wire, backing out broken equipment in a soggy autumn hedgerow.

There’s a kind of natural law, obvious to people who take care of animals. It goes like this: If you are the only one who knows that the horse has no water, it’s your responsibility to clean, plug, and fill the leaking trough. I’m sure we are not the only ones who have identified the massive shift, the next time coming, in agriculture, but that doesn’t remove our responsibility to begin filling the trough.

It’s up to us to navigate a truce making with the outgoing generation. We cannot afford to lose the land, we cannot afford to let the barn slip down, let the greenhouses lurking by the side of the road be bulldozed for a strip mall. Bankruptcy is a financial construct—ecological insolvency leaves us nowhere. We need to negotiate. We need to figure out real needs, and how reasonably they can be met. We need to assert. We need to bravely and with open-hearted, hard working honesty engage in a discourse of possibility. […]


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