Sunday, March 6, 2011

Sisters, Oregon: Lynn Miller, editor, The Small Farmer's Journal

I'm working on an editorial right now, I just came up with something.
Sometimes you just put two words together and you think, well why didn't
I ever think of that before? I'm trying to understand what this means.
It could be good, it could be bad, but it's bouncing around in my head.
And the two words are "civilian agriculture." 

Because what we have had is a military agriculture...not militant, but this
institutionalized, industrialized agriculture has lost its...its
civility, certainly, but it's also lost its civilian aspects. And I
figured, if I'm permitted to stay at this for another 10 or 20 years,
I'll get something right.

In the spirit of Spring we thought we would skip around a little, and share our interview with Lynn Miller of The Small Farmer's Journal based in the idyllic town of Sisters, Oregon. Before I write about Lynn I will set the personal scene. Travis and I met while we were both living in the slightly bigger town to the southwest, Bend, Oregon. Sisters is named after a set of three mountains that tower gracefully in the background, known simply to most as the Three Sisters, or Faith, Hope, and Charity to the more detail-oriented. They stand over the town like good reminders and the folks who live there do seem to have the extraordinary community that can accompany a small mountain town, where the owners of the cafes are also the waitresses and they know all the locals' names. Everyone gathers at the unabashedly Christian-themed coffee house for good coffee, conversation with friends, and a game of checkers on the huge checkerboard, or a rock in the rustic rocking chairs.

Besides being an extremely pleasant town, Sisters is home to the Sisters Folk Festival and a world famous quilt show each year, which makes its population bulge with tourists in the summer.  Trav and I timed our arrival to coincide with the Festival, which is my favorite music festival to be at- there are about 6 stages set up throughout the downtown area and talented musicians play all day and into the night for a weekend, with enough variety to satisfy every ear. We both have friends that are like family to us in Bend, so finishing our trip here was like a big homecoming for Trav and I. I spent that week with 4 girls I had lived with and we share a connection that expands when one of us goes and snaps back like a rubber band when we are all together. It was a week of beautiful weather and friends and music and wrapping up an epic journey across the country.
Back to Lynn Miller of the quarterly publication, The Small Farmers Journal (SFJ). Lynn has his office in Sisters; it is a two story building filled with all kinds of things that could start a thousand conversations. There are racks that hold past and present issues of the SFJ, farming implements, Lynn's own paintings all over the walls, and his office is piled high with papers and books which over the course of the interview he often refers to. Lynn himself is a distinguished-looking man with a white goatee and a cowboy hat.  His bearing and speech are undeniably intelligent and passionate in a dramatic sort of way, a product of a life of "more keynotes and presentations than I care to count."

Lynn started the interview off by telling us who his enemies are and why he considers them threats.  The folks who have brought much popular attention to small-scale and organic agriculture, like the producers of Food Inc. or Michael Pollan, outrage Lynn because he believes that they are creating a fad that will pass away sooner rather than later. Boutique agriculture is my enemy.

The public eye is on agriculture in a way that it hasn't been before as most people are far removed from the farm but the public is getting more and more concerned about food supply, cost, and manner of production.  But he sees a great and inspiring movement amongst people of all ages, a new agrarian momentum.

Those 20-something people that you're talking about, that we're talking
with and to and about all the time, they're about the craft of farming.
Not the industry. The craft. That's what they're drawn to. And
they're drawn to those models, examples, where the craft of the farming
will pay the bills for them, give them the character of a life, a
working life, that they feel genetically drawn to. It's like a
genetic memory.

Lynn feels that popular agricultural celebrities, like Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser, are making capital off of the attention ag is getting without making a substantial difference in the way that people see farmers and farming. Basically, Lynn thinks that anyone who trivializes agriculture is in danger of having the masses lose interest in the "fad" of agriculture that exists right now. Lynn proposes a much more rigorous (and truthful) education for non farming folks, so that they can know that agriculture isn't a trivial matter; survival is what it comes down to.

Lynn gave us some personal history (My mother is Puerto Rican. English is my second language. I grew up in the barrio. I have degrees in the fine arts. I was a professional musician and singer. I was a ballet dancer. I was an actor...) and about how he started the SFJ about 35 years ago. He had experience managing different farm operations, and bought his first farm and team of horses when he was in his late twenties. Farming without tractors was rare and Lynn found that lots of people wanted to know where to get old equipment for horse teams, as well as how to use it. Lynn and his father brainstormed creating a quarterly magazine chock full of information applicable to small scale sustainable farming. The SFJ has an ever increasing following, and with the rising prices of fuel and interest in alternative energy it is sure to keep growing.

Lynn, a regular speech-giver, was one of the most poised and articulate interviewees we encountered.  Read on for the full interview, including insight into agricultural movements, pig roasts, and some poetic views on how we all connect to farming...

At the risk of heading this discussion where you didn't want it to go,
because you did give me an outline in your email, and maybe to save you
some time, I'll give you a couple of ingredients that fit into what
you're talking about. First, to ask you, do you know who Eric Schlosser


Do you know who Michael Pollan is?


They are my enemies. They are the enemy of the small farm. A lot of
people would say, "What? But they're bringing the public attention to
boutique agriculture." Boutique agriculture is my enemy. It doesn't
matter who my enemies are except in the context of as we you
know who Gary Nabham is?

Hm mm.

He's the man who Michael Pollan has plagiarized for the last ten years.
He's a brilliant Arab American living in the Southwest who is our
premier food ethnologist. He's been studying where food has come from.
He has...I'm gonna show you a copy of one of his books right here {gets
up to find a book}...a gift he gave me, we were both keynote speakers at
the organic farming conference in...pardon my mess here...Gary, where
are you! This is the curse of having so many interesting things to look
at...{continues sifting through things}...Gary's the one who was
credited with this concept that he doesn't want to take any credit for,
of locavores. Did I loan that out? Oh here it is. One of many books.
If you can look him up, and I think you're going to find a treasure, there are two things that we started to talk about that
contextually are very important to the work that we're doing today.

One is this notion of wherever we have an opportunity to try to correct
what is rapidly becoming the fashion of the day and the lingo around
food. Short pieces in Newsweek in the current edition are talking about
how the new heroes are farmers, is an insidious little piece of
journalism because it's written from the perspective of someone who last
week must have been writing about shoes, and doesn't understand some of
the practical realities of things that I'm sure that you're keen to
understand, and probably already have a good grasp of.

So, it's important for us, wherever we have a chance, not to let it

"Us" who?

{pauses} I'm one of the founders of the Small Farms Conservancy, which
is a non-profit. I'm the founder of this publication. And forgive me
when I will reference "we" or "us" in a way that is a little bit
oblique. We just take ourselves maybe too seriously as a champion of
the disenfranchised when it comes to agriculture. By the
disenfranchised I might mean somebody who's having a hard time paying
the bills and has a small meatcutting plant in Prineville. Or it might
be a dairy farmer that's struggling, as I'm going to speak about in a
minute, in an Amish community in Ohio. Or it might be a 20-something
person who really wants a chance at farming, but at every turn can't
seem to break into it. So it's a little bit nebulous. But maybe those
examples give you a sense of it. Along with that is a vast group of
people who have been working for upwards of four decades now on
so-called alternative agriculture issues. Everything from seed saving
to farmland preservation to justice for migrant workers...all sorts of
overlapping domains that fit in here.

So, right now it's fashionable. But 1973, when Eliot Coleman and I
first got together in Nebraska, it was weird. It was...why would
anybody question corn, soybeans, and wheat? Why would anybody even
suggest that you could feed the world with organic production. It was
unthinkable then, except to a handful of people. And now it's a
fashionable situation, and I'm concerned that that fashion is going to
make it transitory. So wherever it's possible to shoot a gun at the
whole issue of fad, when it applies to this, I want to do that. I'm not
trying to knock down what you're doing or some of the things that maybe
you need to be concerned about in your project, but for us it's
important, I believe, that we not let it slide.

For example, you were talking about the Amish dairy farmer. One of our
subscribers some 30-odd years ago was a small dairy, horse-powered, in
Wisconsin, his name was George Siemon. He's the CEO of Organic Valley,
the dairy co-op in Wisconsin. On the surface, Michael Pollan will tell
you here's an example of how we're gonna correct agriculture. Let me
give you just a very short, brief anecdote of what's happened here.
Organic Valley...which credits at its core that it formed its marketing
co-op on the precepts that I had written about in the Journal...had
become part of the problem. What they did was they went into the Amish
communities aggressively, as recently as two years ago and back before
that...they went to the Amish and they said, "We need your milk. We're
willing to pay you a premium. We'll come and get it." These are dairy
farms with an average size of 11 cows. Many of which had no modern
technology. They had been hand milking using cream cans, using tanks
filled with springwater to cool their milk, and having a long history of
supplying that milk and cream to local creameries, local cheese
factories, in a patchwork quilt all along, say, the Wayne Homes and
Tuscarora region of Ohio, where the cheese factories were withing 5 to
15 miles of one another. And they were everywhere.

Organic Valley went in aggressively, won the attention of some of the
deacons of the church communities and said, "We're gonna pay you a
premium, we'll get you on contract, we'll come pick up your milk."
Sounded like a good deal. So many, a very significant percentage of
those Amish dairies, signed on with Organic Valley. What happened is
that then the co-op went back to them after a year, year and a half, two
years, after the cheese factories closed because they didn't have
sufficient product to continue business...Organic Valley went back to
them and said, "We're dealing with some economic realities. And in
order for us to justify picking up milk from you, you have to have twice
as many pounds. So now you need to have at least 30 cows. Then it went
to 40. Then it went to 50. Then it went to 80. And that was a total
breakdown in the cultural fabric for these families and their dairies;
they couldn't do it. Some have been successful, but most have been
unsuccessful, and we now have this problem where they can't restart
those creameries.

When I confronted George with this in telephone conversation, some seven
months ago, he said, "Lynn you might be one of my heroes, but you're
delusional. Because we can't feed the world with small farms. We have
to get real here. We can't afford to send a semi truck 500 miles to
pick up the milk production of a handful of dairy farms that have only
11 cows." And I said, "Then why did you sign them up? Why didn't you
see what you were doing to the fabric of that culture potentially?" We
agreed to disagree. He feels that the best model for organic
agriculture is a production scale model. And production scale is a
euphemism for industrialized scale. And its also a euphemism for a
given vertical integration, which requires a production-credit
relationship between the farmer and, in this case, the marketing co-op,
or whatever the case may be.

So they're our enemy. But you see in the media now, if it's organic milk
it's got to be part of the wining equation. So it's not that simple.
In the media Eric Schlosser and Food Inc. and Michael Pollan have got to
be part of the winning equation. But they're not. They're the enemy
because they're pointing us in a direction of a false inevitability. It
is not inevitable that our agriculture has to be an industrial equation.

Those 20-something people that you're talking about, that we're talking
with and to and about all the time, they're about the craft of farming.
Not the industry. The craft. That's what they're drawn to. And
they're drawn to those models, examples, where the craft of the farming
will pay the bills for them, give them the character of a life, a
working life, that they feel genetically drawn to. It's like a genetic
memory. For so many people that we talk to who are one, two, three
generations away from farming, the first time they smell the inside of a
chicken house it triggers something. Where have I smelled that before?
The first time they hear a cow calling for a calf that's wandered off,
it triggers something. It's a genetic memory in so many things, the
smell of the dirt, smell of a given season, what water smells like in
the summertime when it's on a dry crop. Those things are part of our
genetic memory, I believe that. People are drawn to that, and they're
drawn to this suspicion they think...but again, I think it's a deeper
ingrained intuition...that there's a working life here that they want
for themselves. I see it as a return. And the industrial equation and
this false inevitability doesn't give them that.

When somebody is 20-something years old and decides they want to be a
farmer, and I once was...when they go out into the wider world, for the
longest time, they were told "You gotta have a lot of money to be a
farmer, and you gotta get real about it. You're gonna need chemistry,
you're gonna need heavy metal technologies, you're gonna have to get
with the program or you're just not gonna make it."

Everything isn't changing. Everything changed. It already happened. We
are here right now at the end of industrial agriculture. It is dying on
the vine. It will not survive the next 20, 30 years. It will not.
It'll be gone. Hopefully I'll still be around to be at the party. But
it's a dead beast.

It's a dead beast because, in a broader sense, in the so-called
developed world, everybody worries about their food safety. They
don't know now whether they can trust it when they take it off the
shelf. For the longest time they didn't think about it! If you bought
a dozen eggs or a package of hamburger or some vegetables out of the
supermarket you didn't have to think about being sick. The federal
government does not want us to even begin to dwell on the fact that for
the last three consecutive years there have been over 70 million food
poisonings in this country alone. Every year for three years. This
year we're already past 75 million food-based poisonings. Most of
those fall under the category of the E.coli concerns and the situation
right now with salmonella in the eggs and hamburger and all the rest of
it. But the scale of that is staggering when you think about the
mindset people had when they were afraid about these new strains of flu
and potential harm from those new strains of flu... the scale pales by
comparison to what we have going on with industrial agriculture. What
it's giving us is a basic insecurity in our food products. Very few
people can trace the food, let alone adequately test it for whether or
not it's gonna make us sick. Where has it gone? All the way through
the process? Whether its Organic Valley or any of the conventional
dairy marketing units, they're putting their milk into bulk tanks and
it's coming from everywhere, into one bulk tank. It's impossible to
retrace those steps to identify exact which cow contaminated that
milk. And it doesn't take very much to contaminate 8,000 gallons of
milk and make a whole lot of people sick.

But I'm getting off on a tangent, just to tell you that, for me...I
said, pompously, that I know what's going to happen and that it isn't as
simple as it seems to try to understand what's positive and what's
negative on the landscape. We're working right now on some things that
we find tremendously exciting in terms of identified opportunities and
how to possibly address those. Those people that are getting started
with farming right now on a small, modest scale, independent operations,
they're having to revisit the same problem that we've had for decades,
and that is...what do you do with the lettuce or the lamb after you've
done a good job of growing? Right now the whole concept of community
supported agriculture or CSAs, marketing co-ops, is very popular, but it
isn't an answer to the wider scale of things.

The answer to the wider scale of things is to revisit, at an appropriate
scale, the middle man. What we need, for example, whether it's here in
Central Oregon or in Ohio, or where have you, a very specific example,
we need fully-licenced and certifiable mobile slaughtering facilities.
We need something that can go to a farm and process 50 ducks, 5 lambs, 2
pigs, 50 cattle, I mean not all in one swoop, but to be able to deal
with that at a custom level. Now the economics of it are fascinating,
because they all work when you stack them up, except at the outset, the
initial investment. The demand for the service on a continental basis
is there. If there was a mobile slaughtering unit here in Central
Oregon it would be busy every single day for 6 months out of the year.
And it could charge the going rates of a stationary facility, pay its
bills, pay a good wage, and pay for the equipment. If we had them, then
more people would be raising small quantities. If we had...just stay
with that example for just a second...right now I could place 500 mobile
slaughtering units in the continental US. It doesn't seem like a lot,
but those 500 mobile slaughtering units, withing 6 months to 12 months,
would create a demand for another 500. Just because people would say,
"Well I know now that I could raise 50 or 100 hens at a time and sell
those because I don't have to cut their heads off and clean them," if
that's the process. So you would invite new farmers who were thinking,
"Now I have a way to get my product someplace." And that in turn would
create a demand for an additional unit. And those additional units
would then create a demand, or feasibility for more of the small-farm

The stock of the large multinational food concerns like Tyson Chicken,
and so forth, they're fragile right now because people who own the
stocks say "Wait a minute...if we're gonna recall a whole bunch of
stuff, maybe we should sell our stock and place the stock somewhere
else." In the agribusiness industry, there's only one sector that is
still realizing significant capitalization, and that's bioengineering.
Genetically modified organisms. For example, you've probably already
seen that information that the Gates Foundation had placed several
hundred million dollars into purchases of stock in Monsanto. That's
been in the last 2, 3 weeks. Because they see that genetically modified
seeds and organisms are the best way to feed third world countries. I
don't know how they're coming to that conclusion. But that money's
still being placed in that direction. But there are things that are
starting to happen already that are, well, how do I say this...Monsanto
and a few other multinational organizations placed a lot of money into
India and did a lot of field testing of...are you familiar with what
happened there? I don't have to tell you the story. But that's falling
apart. In a very big way. And now we're starting to see some
scientific evidence of the devastation that could be caused when we
aren't paying attention to how we break the chain in our biodiversity.

So it's gonna happen, and it's gonna happen relatively soon, maybe
within the next half-dozen years, that genetic engineering is gonna fall
to its own ax. But not before it has done a lot more damage.

Jumping back and forth, we already have, and you already know it, you're
part of it because you've come here to talk about these things, we are
right in the middle of a new agrarian revolution. It's here. Monsanto
is no longer the enemy; Monsanto is a dying dragon. It's gonna die on
its own. It's dying. Tyson Foods, Archer Daniels Midland, Cargill, so
many of them, they will not be able to survive; they're dying on their
own. Our enemy is within our own ranks, like I said. Trivializing what
we're doing by making it fodder for a vogue magazine article; by
misappropriating some valuable information that are tools and putting
them through some kind of food mill to come out with anecdotes to sell
more books for Malcom Gladwell and Michael Pollan, it's not helping us.

Heirloom varieties are very important; biodiversity is incredibly
important. We have on our side the fact that we can, by using an
intelligent approach to organic-base agriculture, be growing soil at the
same time as we're producing food. We can increase our soil fertility.
There are still people within the land grant college system that see
that as impossible, that soil fertility is something...once you remove
it it cannot be replaces, that it's like a mining process. They either
see that as an inevitable and "so what?", or they see it as lamentable
and "we can't do anything about it." Both camps are wrong. Dead
wrong. We can grow soil. And we should be growing soil. As we're
producing food.

Alan Savory, who started something called holistic resource management,
a renegade agronomist from Africa, you familiar with him? Okay. Savory
has this perspective... we were at some meetings together in Nevada, and
talking about this idea that for grazing animals, the amount of pounds of
meat, if that's your objective or goal, that you produce should never be
a factor in your equation. You're growing soil. And you're trying to
produce calories with the least number of caloric input. The premise
being that if you ended up with more cattle, that basically was a waste
product that you could turn into some revenue. But that wasn't your
objective. I think that we should be looking at the food we produce off
of farms the same way. That our objective is not to feed people, our
objective is not to grow as many tons as possible of something that you
could take off the ground and take it someplace else, but our objective
is to grow the soil. And return it to its highest level of fertility.
If we do that, we end up with more waste product, in the form of
broccoli or what have you, than if our objective was to grow more

In the 40-some-odd years that I've been working on these issues, there's
never been a time when there was so many sensitive,intelligent, caring
people involved in these issues, and wanting to be involved in these
issues than there are right now. Never been this many. And there's
never been a time when the impediments to actually making it happen were
falling away like they are now. It used to be, as I said, the quotient
was that you had to have a pile of money to be farming. And now we're
finding out that that's not the case. There's some really tricky stuff
that still has to be played out, which has to do with our cultural ethic
toward land ownership.

I had a meeting in Maine about 11 months ago with two
incredibly...master farmers, absolute master farmers who had managed
farms for other people and now wanted farms of their own. And I had,
through the Conservancy, some farms that were available, that belonged
to the Conservancy, and could never belong to anyone else, basically in
the public trust as a nonprofit holding. And I offered to the two of
them that they could take over these farms, and farm them in the way
that they wanted to farm. We could work out all the details, and they
both said no. Organic farms, handed over for their stewardship. And
they said, "No. We want to own the farm so that the work we do is
building equity." Because we're still in this cultural notion that is,
in many respects bizarre, that what we're gonna do with our lives is end
up at some point with the biggest pile of whatever it was that we value,
that we can possibly create, on that day that we leave. And I guess we
give it to our family, or whatever the case may be, but that all happens
in those final moments. In this country we have this embarrassment of
riches that's created problems within our notions of property ownership.

In Europe I have a friend who's a retired high school ag teacher in
France.  He lives...{pulls up a photo}...this is
his home in France. He's on a 300-acre farm that he rents in France for
the equivalent of $400 a month. He can never own it. It's so embroiled
in 400 years of ownership that all he can ever do is rent it. It's
inconceivable that he would ever own it. But it's his. He's protected
in the way that the government has structured its laws with regard to
protecting farming and the family's position there, so that in parts of
Switzerland and France and Germany and England, this whole issue of land
ownership...very different than what we have here. If somebody comes to
me now and says, "I want to farm, I need a piece of land," I can put
them on a farm. I can't give them the deed, but I can put them on a
farm. And now, for the first time, we have people who will listen to
that. Who will think about creative ways of how that might work for
them for the long term. That's staggering. The door's just barely
cracking open, but it's gonna change.

We have called for a whole new homestead act in this country. Just
yesterday we may have gotten an incredible alliance started toward this,
but the concept that we had before yesterday for this homestead act goes
to the fact that a huge percentage of this country is public lands.
What a lot of people don't realize is the extent to which that is land
that was transferred by foreclosure to the federal government during the
depression for lack of payment of taxes. Arable lands, we're not
talking about Yellowstone. We're not talking about some mining claim
someplace, or oil claim. We're talking about farmland that is vacant,
as part of the Bureau of Land Management's trust. What we're trying to
do is make a case that the federal government needs to make that land
available to people in a similar fashion to the old homestead act we
had. So we could repopulate. Because we contend that, globally, today,
and the number is going to be growing as we move forward, we need 50
million new farmers. 50 million farmers. And that number will expand
because were talking about the consolidation towards
bigger farmers...that's actually stopped now. We're at the tail end of
that tide. It's just starting to come back the other way, where large
holdings can't cut it, whether it's corporately held or these are family
corporations, what have you, they aren't able to pay the bills. It's
gotten very complicated. It's not just as simple as the fact that they
don't make enough money to pay their bills...they're embroiled in all
kinds of complicated relationships with regard to how they get their
production credit, who owns shares in it, what relationships's
falling apart. Those places are being vacated rapidly.

So we have a situation now where we are actually importing more food
into this country, from other countries...more food than we have in over
a hundred years. On a percentage basis. In terms of the sheer volume,
tonnage, it's more food than we've ever imported, it's staggering! If
those trends continue and we don't come up with a lot more farmers, and
a way to have that production localized and distributed locally, we're
headed for a real class warfare issue here, where poor people are not
gonna get food to eat, unless they take it. There are a lot of
sociologists working on those concerns, looking at that in the future,
I'm more concerned and more interested in all these opportunities we have,
and how to make that work than in the doomsday stuff.

As I go through my mental Rolodex with the things I started to tell you,
each and every one of them, realizing I could talk to you for the next
12 years, and you won't have an opportunity to ask me whatever you'd like
to ask me. So I'm gonna shut up.

You're doing a great job of covering a lot of the questions we were
going to ask. I would love to hear your story. And how you got
involved in ag, and why you started this journal, and how that's

I don't doubt that you would. But I'm not sure that my story's gonna be
interesting. But let me give you a thumbnail and then you tell me
whether you want more.

My mother is Puerto Rican. English is my second language. I grew up in
the barrio. I have degrees in the fine arts. I was a professional
musician and singer. I was a ballet dancer. I was an actor. And then
I decided that my two passions, not the things I was good at, but the
two things I cared most about, which was this genetic memory for
farming, whatever it was...whenever I'd see an image that had anything
to do with a general farm type situation, it just flipped every switch
inside of me...and the fine arts of painting and drawing and ceramics
and so forth. So I, having finished high school in Southern California,
had to make a decision, and I was accepted in many places, but I decided
to go to the San Francisco Art Institute. While I was there, in the
latter part of that experience, and I have graduate degrees, I started
farming on a very small scale. Left there and moved to Oregon to take
any job I could, managing anything in agriculture. I managed a
commercial broiler operation, 88,000 birds. I managed an
organic goat dairy. I managed purebred Angus cattle operations and
sheep ranches. I went to trade school to become a licensed and
certified artificial insemination technician for cattle and studies
cattle genetics. At the time I was given a job managing a purebred
Angus ranch for the chairman of the International Trade Commission, and
he was flying me around to buy bull semen and to show me off at cocktail

So I spent time in Washington DC and got inside those circles
and...things troubled me in those circles. When I was able to I bought
my first farm and a team of horses. And I knew, because all my personal
experiences had been with organic gardening or farming since San
Francisco...I had a house with a half-acre yard that was an organic...I
call it my farm, but it was an organic garden, out near the ocean in the
Sunset district. So I bought my first 77-acre farm and didn't have
enough money for tractors, got another team of horses and was doing
everything with mentors, organically, with horses, and got involved with
a handful of people who...we all identified that we needed to do
something to help with the marketing, so I was part of the group that
formed Organically Grown Incorporated back in the early '70's. Because
I couldn't shut up and because it was pretty glamorous to see this guy
out there working six head of horses on a two bottom plow, I got a lot of
media exposure, and that spread all over, and people started to get in
touch with me. A guy came and did a series of interviews and pictures
for a chapter in a book by Readers' Digest called Back to Basics. And
that chapter was about me. That had even more people calling and an
article on the front cover of the Wall Street Journal, and the people
that were calling me were saying, "Where can I get harness, where can I
get a team of horses, how can I learn about growing green beans
organically?" Lots of questions. So I had this idea that maybe I could
do, on a kitchen table, do a small newsletter and augment my farm
income. My father, who was very interested in what I was doing, made
the case and he said, "Why don't you do it four times a year? Why don't
you make it a big magazine like the old ones that used to lay out on the
table?" He said, "I'll throw some money at it, we'll get this thing
going, but I want you to realize that there's not that much information
and in about 3 or 4 years you're gonna run out of stuff to write about."
That was 35 years ago. My father's now 95.

So we produced that first issue and put an ad in Organic Gardening and
Farming Magazine and we got 800 subscribers immediately. And it's just
gone on from there. Because of the experience I had working for the
bureaucrat, managing his ranch, and because of what I was doing with the
magazine, I got involved in state and local task forces and projects and
feasibility studies. I was on several boards and I worked during the
late '70's as an unregistered lobbyist for the Lane economic development
council, the Amenity Foundation, a number of organizations, going back to
Washington DC to raise money for them. And I used that also as an
opportunity to make connections for the publication and get information.
And that just further cauterized my feeling about how things were wrong
and how they could be. And so I've been blabbing about it ever since,
I've written 14 books, I've delivered more keynote addresses and
lectures and presentations than I can possibly count. I'm old enough
now that occasionally I'll say, "Ah, that's right! I remember that, I
was at Amherst!" Completely forgot about it.

But we are small, small, small potatoes. We are the proverbial sand in
the clamshell. I don't know that we'll be around to see the pearl, but
it's forming.

Are you farming still also?

Trying. I've been on a sabbatical for about 2 or three years as things
have sloughed off. And now I've sold 49% of the business, so I'm
getting back to it. This is a picture of our place, which is 16 miles
north of here. We have no neighbors for 10 miles in any direction.
Surrounded by Forest Service ground. And it's my dream to get back to
the farming. I mean, I paint all the time now. I write in the morning,
I paint at night, I try to farm in the daytime, and the farming is the
thing that gets sacrificed when I have to come in here.

It is either contradiction or the ultimate hypocracy that what you see
here are all these computers. And for me I have to work on two
Macintoshes and eleven PCs constantly, just to keep everything going.

So. Questions.

Yeah. You...

But my story's not important.

It is...

No, no, no, no. Use whatever I say any way you want to, but what I'm
saying is, I don't want to be an example. What we are is a funnel, what
we are, and this could be a good or bad word, we are an enabler for this
agrarian revolution.

I'm working on an editorial right now, I just came up with something.
Sometimes you just put two words together and you think, well why didn't
I ever think of that before? I'm trying to understand what this means.
It could be good, it could be bad, but it's bouncing around in my head.
And the two words are "civilian agriculture." Because what we have had
is a military agriculture, or a...not militant, but this
institutionalized, industrialized agriculture has lost its...its
civility, certainly, but its also lost its civilian aspects. And I
figured, if I'm permitted to stay at this for another 10 or 20 years,
I'll get something right.

You're not happy with the way that there's a sort of a pop culture
around farming and food right now it sounds like...

Well no, I think we need to differentiate there. I don't have a
problem with a pop culture notion per se...what I have a problem with is
this kind of coattail aspect of what's hip and what's not hip. I know
that sounds like they're one and the same, but how do I separate that...
For example: although I don't buy into it because of my age, or whatever
it is, I can see that the so-called hip hop culture, which is a pop
culture, has managed, for whatever reason, to etch itself into our
society in a way that's much more ingrained than, say, whatever was the
surfing culture. Or whatever was the disco culture. Does that make
sense? It's almost like a tattoo in the sense that it feels like...not
that it's going to stay the same and last a long time, but that it's
gonna last a long time and that it's breeding. There's something coming
out of that.

So I'm not casting against necessarily pop culture, but the
taste-makers, the ones that would have you believe...they're the ones
that are going to decide what the next big thing is. And when they do,
whatever the last big thing is, it's so gone...does that make sense?

It does. But what I'm curious about is...I mean, you're referring to
some of these things as "the enemy," which is a string word...


...and what would you like to see in their place? For all the
non-farmers out there, who are most of the people who are in that
discussion, what would you like to see them seeing?

I would like to see, and maybe this is asking way too much; what I would
like to see is that people be more willing to make more of an
investment, okay? For example, instead of having their reading
experience be defined by a bowel movement or what is the first thing
they see on a home page, to actually read something. To actually read
an entire book by Wendell Berry. Or an entire book by Gary Nabham. Or,
if they don't want to go that direction, let me share a book with you
that everybody should know about and nobody does. {gets up and searched
through shelves} It's fiction. Written by the woman who wrote Lost In
Translation. And an amazing book about food. In a way that is so
completely...I mean, you can't go through the experience of this without
feeling fully permeated. {laughs} Can a person feel permeated?

Sounds like a great quote to have on the binding.

{laughs} My daughter...I have two daughters, 15 and 33. My older
daughter married a Frenchman. Juliete and Alexis Poullion. They have
avineyard and an organic farm in Lyle, Washington on the Columbia River.
Alexis' mother, Nora Pouillon, had the first organic restaurant in the
US, in Washington DC, Restaurant Nora's. She is the lover of an
Italian, who started something called Slow Food. All of that is to say,
nepotism, whatever you want to call it. Small world stuff.

The Slow Food movement is very interesting. It has aspects of pop
culture, it has aspects of this other insidious taste-making, transitory,
paper-thin stuff that we're talking about also. But the idea that you
take your time with some of this, be willing to make that investment, is
where you start to realize this.

When I was 10 years old, on the island of Puerto Rico, one of the
initiation rites...{chuckles} Someday I'm gonna write this story,
because it's one of those stories I never think of when I'm writing, but
every time I remember it, it stops me cold. At Christmastime is a
tradition to roast an entire pig in the ground. And it takes ten,
twelve hours, and there's a long ritual process. I hire out to roast a
pig in the ground now. I did one a year ago in Maine for a meeting for
the Conservancy. I did one at my daughter Juliet's wedding. And
every time I do, I remember this initiation right.

When this pig, that had been wrapped in banana leaves and red clay after
all the seasonings and everything had been done, is lovingly lowered
into a bed of coals that have been covered with palm fronds to create
steam, then covered with dirt...that was done out, the first time I
experienced this, on the banks of the big mountain in Puerto Rico, El
Yunke... My job, in this courtyard where they buried this pig...there
was a little stone wall all the way around...this is a terrifying image,
but it's real...they used it as the Colosseum where they would fight
roosters. And around the outside edge of this they had these little
huts and they would stake a rooster out, so there was all these fighting
roosters staked out. A rain forest, palm trees and banana trees. In the
middle of this, this dirt ring. And in the middle of that they buried a
pig and they set out this, I don't even remember what it was they gave
me to sit on, and they gave me a stick. And they said, "your job is to
stay awake all night. And when the wild dogs come from the rain forest,
your job is to make sure they don't dig that pig out." I was 10 years

The men in the family would dress up like what were called jibaros,
which were bums who live in the forest, like Hispanic gypsies, whatever
you want to call them. So this thing had its own peculiar Puerto Rican
aspect to it that was almost voodoo in nature. And they're out there
making all kinds of noises all night long while I am terrified guarding
the pig.

And for me, that is...that's what you cannot make into something
transitory. That...speaks to the fabric of the culture, to go beyond,
way, way beyond what it meant to raise that pig, what it meant to be
capable of killing that pig and dressing it and preparing it, to this
other ritual and rite of passage and all that stuff. That's the
ultimate of slow food.

So at my daughter's wedding, my son and I raised a pig on our ranch. My
son butchered it. I prepared it, and we put it in the ground at the
vineyard. And Nora from Slow Food shows up with all these folks from
all over the world for the wedding, and she's horrified at the prospect
that the wedding meal is going to come out of a hole in the ground.
And I said, "this is absolutely the ultimate slow food experience." I
had to hold her hand. You know how a woman can be at her son's wedding,
and everything had to be just so-so. Now imagine that this is a
French-Austrian woman with a restaurant...and we have lowered a pig in
the dirt!

And all these guys come out in the middle of the day, they're drunk, we
have a tripod, and we're all trying to get this pig in one piece out of
the ground and over to where we can open the whole thing up and serve
it, because it has been stuffed with fruits and sausages and all sorts
of...stuffing mix and the whole thing's been coated in achiote's a ritual.

And for me, I can't do that without remembering the stick, all night
long. And the whole full-circle thing is just overpowering. What
really made it for me was that all these folks that came, who were
prepared to be disgusted, they still talk about that wedding feast from
three years ago, that it was...nothing like that had ever happened.

And that's...that's speaking to what we're talking about here. We might
be saying, "Okay, we know Thelma and Bruce, and they want to have at
least 40 acres, and they're gonna try and grow organically, and they
want a CSA and they're gonna grow corn and they're gonna have some
eggs...", all those patterns. But for me...that's why I go back to Gary
and to The Last Chinese Chef and these models that are the stories we
need to revisit and cherish. Because they talk about how deep all of
this is. The connective tissue. So, when I hear that somebody who
credits me with the philosophy to start a marketing co-op to buy milk
from the Amish, 'cause they're gonna save the Amish, and he destroys 200
years worth of culture that went into these cheese varieties, and that
whole process...I don't think enemy is too string a word.

There's nothing frivolous about this. So when I read in an article that
some New York food writer says..."Arugula. I just like the way it
sounds when I say it," I think to myself, that's paper thin! And why
does it feel like, when I hear that, I need to say something 'cause
they're taking something away from us.

I'm sorry, I'm getting carried away. This is not what you wanted!
{laughs} I've said too much, I know I've said too much.


Mike Lorenz said...

Thanks for the fantastic interview. I love the SFJ (especially Lynn's writings), so it's great to read about him in such an engaging and candid way.

Anonymous said...

I'm sure no one will ever read this. Like the Amish farmers Lynn mentioned, we were screwed by Organic Valley. In the aftermath, I wrote many influential people (including Lynn) with my story and asked for help. None was ever given. Among the 'influential people' was also Wendell Berry, what a fraud. I gave all his books away, I never want to see any of them again and I never read Small Farmer's Journal anymore. I stopped, it is too painful. We (my wife and I, late 50's, early 60's in age) are still trying to farm, small dairy--the work horses, my love--are long gone. And we have been hurt, betrayed, terribly by the small farm community, principally Organic Valley but also by everyone to whom I asked for help and who failed to respond in the least. We got one 50 dollar check (we lost thousands and thousands of dollars) and a hand-written reply from Berry saying he would do nothing. And he didn't. Additionally dozens and dozens (probably contacted 50 or more) of lawyers also turned their backs. I have no kind words to say to anyone. Good bye.


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