A Small Vegetable Operation in Western Massachusetts with Horse Power

NPR Article

An interesting article on a vegetable farm at a small scale using work horses.

Some comments that David DeFrancesco and I will elaborate in future posts:

  1. It is our experience that there are carefully made pieces of equipment that can enhance production and environmental health without damage or externalized problems created by the making of the equipment…much of the equipment is not American in design or manufacture.
  2. Scale of farm is critical to viable economies…so they are struggling at a small scale even though highly productive…and even though they work long hours.
  3. It seems they have become very integral to the community with the CSA…wonderful and loving.
  4. I wonder what harvest/picking tools they use?…It is back-killing work. I would quibble with the article in that both writing and photography leave out the ‘hard stuff’.

Note the picture of the family – the parents and children. They remind me of past Kentucky farm relatives and friends in their leanness and spirit.

Order of Existence

Over the past few years my colleagues and I have drawn from our own experiences, research materials, knowledge of other colleagues/acquaintances – as well as life and farming intuition – to develop what we first titled ‘ A Handbook for Agro-ecological Practices on Specialty Farms’.

In a larger context (over the past 20 years) we’ve worked with colleagues, farmers, scientist, economist, etc. to provide tools and methods to evaluate land and land use. Those methods and tools, primarily scientific and technical, have been designed to allow a more conscious and comprehensive ethic for land use decisions.

The interest in our work has been narrow and limited…..and I think there are numerous cultural conditions which explain the limited interest.

Since July of this year, I see our past work in a much different light. Recent political, economic, and personal events have changed my perception. Those events have also given the work a more compelling validity.

As a young person, my father had a printing and small publishing business. His typesetter, Joseph Dickson, spent a good bit of his life working on a volume based upon his belief that the Book of Revelations was – at its heart – a farmer’s almanac.

Ever since that experience I have  often interpreted the Gospels as metaphors for nature (and the workings of nature).

I have come to see our agro-ecological work as a very particular ‘order of existence’.

Our work is an ethical set of behaviors and practices within a specific societal situation (our community).

We have worked diligently toward defined, justified beliefs – rather than opinion.

The knowledge we derive cannot be generalized. It is location specific.

The methods for deriving the behaviors and practices, however, could be used in any location. The resulting ‘order of existence’ will vary dramatically based upon local conditions. There will also be certain practice truths that will remain relevant to diverse locations.

Our work is both agricultural and religious. It respects Berry’s Solving for Pattern in Agriculture. It holds possibilities for rural communities.

Knowledge Informing Affection

I’ve been doing research, readings, and some meetings in search of an approach that respects scientific knowledge, knowledge development, historical agricultural intuition, agro-ecology…and affection, love, and reasonable compassion.

It has been driven out of a dissatisfaction with much of current industrial agriculture as well as some current agricultural jargon…. organic, sustainable, bio-dynamic, resilience, externalities….. and a few other terms I find troublesome cliches.

Also, I simply don’t like ‘fancy’ language.

A few of the previous weblog posts begin to address this concern.

Recently I’ve concentrated on a few sources/conversations that begin to identify a path:

  1. The writings and sermons of Dr. Russell Moore, whom I’ve previously mentioned…and, by extension, the Bible.
  2. Review of past writings by Wendell Berry…particularly Life is a Miracle.
  3. Conversations and an exchange of writings with the new President of my undergraduate engineering school concerning the engineering curriculum and engineering ethics….and the straightforward recognition that perhaps the best method to improve an ‘industrial’ engineering curriculum is through the student’s food services.
  4. Some research in the fields of psychiatry and psychology.

Three comments:

  1. Scientific knowledge, although extremely important, is severely limited.
  2. Love and affection are sound pillars for human action.
  3. Humans are deeply flawed moral beings.

An agriculture based upon ‘knowledge informing affection’…and acknowledging that science, truth, data, etc. are best utilized as information for affection…seems worth pursuing.

Playing the Long Game of Cultural Renewal

I first became aware of Dr. Russell Moore two months ago….saw a link to a speech he gave in October titled Can the Religious Right be Saved?

He is Southern Baptist and holds the position of ethicist…President of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.

It was a bit before the Presidential Election and I was morally appalled at the discourse of our Presidential candidates. I also was appalled by seeing evangelicals and other religious conservatives actively supporting (and apologizing for) morally reprehensible behavior.

The speech was about 45 minutes and – by the end – I was riveted to every word. He was knowledgeable, intelligent, caring. He also spoke to my beliefs about culture and character.

His speech contained the following vision on the future institutional needs of religions:

It will mean institutions that have the vision, and the financial resources, to play a long game of cultural renewal, rather than allowing themselves to be driven by the populist passions of the moment. More than that, it will mean a religious conservatism that sees the Church as more important than the state, the conscience as more important than the culture, and one that knows the difference between the temporal and the eternal. We will make mistakes. We will need course corrections. We must remind ourselves that we are not inquisitors but missionaries, that we can be Americans best when we are not Americans first.

The Proper Farmer is about genuine behavior – specifically in care of the land, preparation of food, and awareness of nutrition. It also represents a long game.

We are interested in small, direct, neighborly economic development.

We believe farm and food enterprises represent the most integral economic connections between land/people/living things.

I agree with Dr. Moore’s vision.

In the form he eloquently defines, I do not see the culture and character transformation as limited to conservative religions.

Lucille and Livestock

Due to ‘circumstances beyond my control’ I am, beginning about a month ago, the sole caregiver for a wonderful dog.

Lucille is a mix of Irish Setter and Poodle. She is 10 years old (and we’ve been together since she was a puppy).

She is beautiful…with a lovely personality….a great companion.

I’ve been bringing her to the office …which she seems to enjoy…as she continues to make new friends.

She has been a wonderful gift…and a privilege to care for her.

When you search Google for livestock a definition pops up:

farm animals regarded as an asset

I grew up on the edge of farm country in Kentucky. I was a city kid (mostly) but spent time with dogs and farm animals as a child.

…never as a child did I see a farm animal as a commodity. Food, yes. Financially valuable, yes.

But not a commodity.

Did not matter if it was the goofy chicken or the super smart herding dog, they were our companions.

My great grandfather on mother’s side and my grandfather had a large truck farm – with pigs and chickens. They slaughtered animals with names and personalities…and prayed the Bible at dinner to mourn the dead and give gratitude for the food.

It was simple,  small,  dignified, and lovely.

Just like Lucille.

Solving for Pattern in Agriculture

  • A good solution accepts given limits, using so far as possible what is at hand. The farther-fetched the solution, the less it should be trusted. Granted that a farm can be too small, it is nevertheless true that enlarging scale is a deceptive solution; it solves one problem by acquiring another or several others.
  • A good solution accepts the limitation of discipline. Agricultural problems should receive solutions that are agricultural, not technological or economic.
  • A good solution improves the balances, symmetries, or harmonies within a pattern – it is a qualitative solution – rather than enlarging or complicating some part of a pattern at the expense or in neglect of the rest.
  • A good solution solves more than one problem, and it does not make new problems. I am talking about health as opposed to almost any cure, coherence of pattern as opposed to almost any solution produced piecemeal or in isolation. The return of organic waste to the soil may, at first glance, appear to be a good solution per se. But that is not invariably or necessarily true. It is true only if the wastes are returned to the right place at the right time in the pattern of the farm, if the waste does not contain toxic material, if the quantity is not too great, and if not too much energy or money is expended in transporting it.
  • A good solution will satisfy a whole range of criteria; it will be good in all respects. A farm that has found correct agricultural solutions to its problems will be fertile, productive, healthful, conservative, beautiful, pleasant to live on.
  • A good solution embodies a clear distinction between biological order and mechanical order, between farming and industry. Farmers who fail to make this distinction are ideal customers of the equipment companies, but they often fail to understand that the real strength of a farm is in the soil.
  • Good solutions have wide margins, so that the failure of one solution does not imply the impossibility of another. Industrial agriculture tends to put all its eggs in fewer and fewer baskets, and to make ‘going for broke’ its only way of going. But to grow grain should not make it impossible to pasture livestock, and to have a lot of power should not make it impossible to use a little.
  • A good solution always answers the question, How much is enough? Industrial solutions have always rested on the assumption that enough is all you can get. But that destroys agriculture, as it destroys nature and culture. The good health of the farm implies a limit of scale, because it implies a limit of attention, and because such a limit is invariable implied by any pattern….a healthy farm incorporates a pattern that a single human mind can comprehend, make, maintain, vary in response to circumstances, and pay steady attention to. That this limit is obviously variable from one farmer and farm to another does not mean that it does not exist.
  • A good solution should be cheap, and it should not enrich one person by the distress or impoverishment of another. In agriculture, so called ‘inputs’ are, from a different point of view, outputs – expenses. In all things, I think, but especially in an agriculture struggling to survive in an industrial economy, any solution that calls for an expenditure to a manufacturer should be held in suspicion – not rejected necessarily, but as a rule mistrusted.
  • Good solutions exist only in proof, and are not to be expected from absentee owners or absentee experts. Problems must be solved in work and in place, with particular knowledge, fidelity, and care, by people who will suffer the consequences of their mistakes. There is no theoretical or ideal practice. Practical advice or direction from people who have no practice may have some value, but its value is questionable and is limited. The division of capital, management, and labor, characteristic of an industrial system, are therefore utterly alien to the health of farming – as they probably also are to the health of manufacturing. The good health of a farm depends on the farmer’s mind; the good health of the mind has its dependence, and its proof, in physical work. The good farmer’s mind and his body – his management and his labor – work together as intimately as his heart and lungs. And the capital of a well-farmed farm by definition includes the farmer, mind and body both. Farm and farmer are one thing, an organism.
  • Once the farmer’s mind, his body, and his farm are understood as a single organism, and once it is understood that the question of endurance of this organism is a question about the sufficiency and integrity of a pattern, then the word organic can be usefully admitted into this series of standards. It is a word that I have been defining all along, though I have not used it. An organic farm, properly speaking, is not one that uses certain methods and substances and avoids others; it is a farm whose structure is formed in imitation of the structure of natural systems; it has the integrity, the independence, and the benign dependence of an organism. Sir Albert Howard said that a good farm is an analogue of the forest that ‘manures itself.’ A farm that imports too much fertility, even as feed or manure, is in this sense as inorganic as a farm that exports too much or that imports chemical fertilizer.
  • …In an organism, what is good for one part is good for another. What is good for the mind is good for the body, what is good for the arm is good for the heart. We know that sometimes a part may be sacrificed for the whole; a life may be saved by the amputation of an arm. But we also know that such remedies are desperate, irreversible, and destructive; it is impossible to improve the body by amputation. And such remedies do not imply a safe logic. As tendencies they are fatal: you cannot save your arm but sacrifice your life. Perhaps most of us who know local histories of agriculture know of fields that in hard times have been sacrificed to save a farm, and we know that though such a thing is possible it is dangerous. The danger is worse when topsoil is sacrificed for the sake of a crop. And if we understand the farm as an organism, we see that it is impossible to sacrifice the health of the soil to improve the health of plants, or to sacrifice the health of plants to improve the health of animals, or to sacrifice the health of animals to improve the health of people.
  • It is the nature of any organic pattern to be contained within a larger one. And so a good solution in one pattern preserves the integrity of the pattern that contains it. A good agricultural solution, for example, would not pollute or erode a watershed. What is good for the water is good for the ground, what is good for the ground is good for the plants, what is good for the plants is good for the animals, what is good for the animals is good for people, what is good for people is good for the air, what is good for the air is good for the water. And vice versa.
  • But we must not forget that those human solutions that we may call organic are not natural. We are talking about organic artifacts, organic only by imitation or analogy. Our ability to make such artifacts depends on virtues that are specifically human: accurate memory, observation, insight, imagination, inventiveness, reverence, devotion, fidelity, restraint. Restraint –for us, now – above all: the ability to accept and live within limits, to resist changes that are merely novel or fashionable; to resist greed and pride; to resist the temptation to ‘solve’ problems by ignoring them, accepting them as ‘tradeoffs,’ or bequeathing them to posterity. A good solution, then, must be in harmony with good character, cultural value, and moral law.


Source: Solving for Pattern, Wendell Berry, The Gift of Good Land: Further Essays Cultural and Agricultural (New York: North Point Press, 1981, pp. 134-145)

Note: This list – directed at the farm – has much broader cultural meaning given the state of our current American economy and government.Movie All Is Lost (2013)

Mystery, Original Sin, Agriculture

I’ve been reading a new work by an old friend, Wendell Berry, titled A Small Porch.

Also…have been reading from the writings of Russell Moore, ethicist for the Southern Baptist congregations.

Both writers are concerned about our societal loss of soul.

Industrial animal agriculture and the treatment of soil by industrial grain farming are unfortunate and enormous examples of a loss of soul.

Mr. Berry points out the inherent mystery in our universe…how, whatever new knowledge we gain, there ALWAYS remains great mystery. From that realization he infers the need to act humbly.

Mr. Moore points out that, as humans, we are profoundly flawed…thus the religious concept of original sin. He also infers from that original sin a need to act humbly.

I too am concerned about our souls.

Both writers believe careful scale, humility, and reasonable compassion are central to good work.