Marvin Brisk not only uses horses to power his farm, Oak Tree Ranch, but trains horses and fabricates horse-driven machinery to power farms, orchards, and ranches across the United States. Described as a “prairie mechanic” by his neighbors, Marvin is a quiet champion of alternatives to fossil fuel centered agriculture. “Why would I buy gas when I can simply grow food for the horses on the farm?” Marvin demonstrated horse-driven corn cultivation as well as hay windrowing with incredible skill and focus — the same skill and focus that keeps his ranch profitable enough to support a family. Marvin was recently approached by a religious group focused on going to “a better place” and, as he looked out over his hayfields, responded, “Can’t you see we’re already there?”
At the downtown Saint Paul Farmers Market, interacting with customers is a nearly-unanimous spring of excitement between farmers. While this marketing outlet is often less convenient and profitable than wholesaling, farmers markets allow growers direct gratification and feedback from the people they are feeding. This gratification augments a farmer’s identity and satisfies many of the “whys?” Some growers feel like local heroes thanks to their patrons’ enthusiasm for their sweet corn, melons, cuts of beef, or flower arrangements. At the end of a long day or times of financial uncertainty, that feeling can be enough to justify keeping the farm. This commitment to producing food for a supportive cliental reminds us that farmers are not unlike teachers, artists, clergy, and social workers in that they’re, “certainly not in it for the money.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sx7Lbrqy-2M
Sara Katz started to farm in order to augment the herbal medicines she was producing through Herb Pharm. Along with co-founder Ed Smith, Sara realized that cultivating medicinal plants would allow for a local and reliable source of fresh herbs. Further, it would reduce the gathering of wild herbs which can be destructive to threatened species. Today, “Pharm Farm” has the economic stability of channeling all produce directly to Herb Pharm and in turn is fortified by the business. The greatest value of “Pharm Farm” to Sara is as a nucleus of herbal medicine education: training interns, exploring how to cultivate various species, and educating the public.
Matt Dybala farms to support his farming habit. His story juxtaposes the difficulties of keeping a family farm economically viable with the joys of farming as a “nine-to-five.” To be a farmer does not necessitate the sole source of income be the farm. In fact, supporting a farm with external income diversifies the farm’s economics, which may save a farmer from “burning out.” Likewise, one needn’t own a farm to be a farmer. Matt chooses to saturate himself in both worlds: farming for Herb Pharm as a career and farming at home as a lifestyle.
Andre Houssney farms on at least two different continents. He began farming during his upbringing on his family’s orchards in Lebanon. As a missionary in Zambia, Andre became acutely of aware of opportunities for native Zambians to generate income for their families through selling their products internationally. He now manages a distribution company providing organic, fairly traded products such as soap and lip balm from ~6,000 Zambian farmers. Andre also co-manages a small farm producing vegetables, lamb, and pastured ducks for the Boulder, CO community. He feels that his diversified farm in Boulder allows him to experiment with innovative farming practices that may be used to increase opportunities for farmers in Zambia and elsewhere. Andre also feels he must remain directly acquainted with farming and is nourished by “seeing a system work from beginning to end.” He continues farming because he “loves the connections with creation, with nature, and feeding his kids” and would “continue farming even if [he] didn’t make any money.”
While Joe Kluender no longer raises hogs nor prepares seedbeds, he still wears the family farm hat in every sense. Joe was raised on a farm in southern Minnesota and became the third generation operator. After 25 years devoted to farming, his family mutually decided to prepare an exit strategy and sell their farm. Through this journey and further training, Joe cultivated an understanding of family farm dynamics and how to mediate farm transitions. “Each generation needs to put aside some of their personal values in order to support the core values of the farm…a common mission is what’s important.” Joe is brought on as an objective third-party representing the common goals of the farm and as an expert in preparing plans such as exit strategies, business plans, and succession plans. Less than one-third of U.S. family farms have a succession plan (Mishra, 2010) despite the crucial role of a plan in facilitating a successful farm transition. “Communication is always one of the biggest issues,” says Joe, “and succession plans increase communication between farm members.” Farmers are stewards of the land, and with the average age of farmers increasing while the number of farms decreases, there is an acute need for people like Joe to be stewards of the family farm.
Joe’s family farm consulting services can be found at: http://www.farmfamilydynamics.com/
Within 10 minutes of meeting Bob Cannard, it becomes crystal clear that he is very, very passionate about growing food as much as increasing the health of the soil. Over 30 years ago, Bob “ditched the nursery business…despite making good money” as he was “sick of being polluted.” He began to farm on seven acres of a former turkey farm in order to “put [himself] to [his] passion of studying nature…and grow plants with good shelf life, good flavor, good character and physical completeness that brings physical completeness to the people.” Bob’s dedication to soil health can be seen in his heavy use of cover crops among the vegetables in which he figures, “50% for people and 50% for nature.” As well as farming, Bob teaches aspiring farmers at the Green String Institute “sufficiency in all farm tasks, the foundations of natural process agriculture, and to develop a work ethic and the body into an agricultural athlete.” He also has an exceptionally deadpan sense of humor.
Jeff Moore has farmed alongside his two brothers, John and Joel, since they “were old enough to walk.” The family weathered the Farm Crisis during the late 1970′s-80′s, though in the midst realized that their diversified farm in southern Minnesota would not be able to support multiple families. Each of the three sons pursued secondary education and started their own families while continually working alongside their father and mother (Melvin and Marian, respectively) at the farm. After the death of their father, the Moore’s farm became a source of support for their mother as well as the nucleus that bonded the brothers’ families.
We sat down in August 2011 to a full, midwestern lunch prepared by Marian and learned a great deal from each of the brothers and their mother about the difficulties and joys of conventional farming in the Midwest. After lunch and a walk around the farm, as we watched some of the grandchildren play in their treehouse, Marian remarked, “It’s not an easy life, but it sure is a good place to raise your kids.”
Bruce Stanton raises over 20,000 hogs per year on his farm near Mapleton, MN. Born onto a small, diversified farm, it only took Bruce one year of working away from the farm to realize he missed the lifestyle. He built his current farm from the ground up and has felt the key has been to continually “increase the efficiency” of the operation. Consistent with the core value we have seen in many family farmers of “leaving a legacy,” Bruce would like to leave something for his grandchildren should they ever want to farm.
Hector Black manages a remarkable nursery and orchard near Cookeville, Tennessee. At 85 years of age, he continues to pick fruit, plant trees, and raise cuttings, living on the farm with his family and friends. ”I’ve been raising plants my whole life, no matter how small the space.” He finds life on the farm “incredibly peaceful” and is able to “make observations of nature that [he'd] otherwise never have the opportunity to make.” Though Hector leads a life of apparent quiet, he has a long history as a civil rights activist — Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. bailed him out of jail during the 1960′s civil rights demonstrations. Farming has provided Hector a peaceful life in the midst of the tumultuous social issues which he’s long fought to amend.
David Alderman married into farming. His advice to beginning farmers, “You almost have to marry into it.” At 63 years, David “enjoys the change in agriculture, more than anything,” and raises corn, soybeans, and wheat on ~400 acres near Ottawa, Kansas. He feels his co-op allows him to keep current with the technological advancements in farming, and couldn’t afford to keep up otherwise. ”If a compromise is to be made, it will be made on my terms– for example, I don’t buy new equipment.” David’s motivation to continue farming is “certainly not for the money,” but to try to sustain his land. ”I may not always build nature up, but I try to, at least, not tear her down.”