Based in Portland, Oregon, Harriet Fasenfest gardens, cooks, writes, teaches, and speaks on the issues of food security and justice. Her book, A Householder's Guide to the Universe, was published in fall 2010. She is currently working on a new book and curriculum guide for teaching householding and householding economics.

Farmers are her friends

She also digs dirt

March 7, 2011

I have a fancy for farmers, for their heart and hard work. Not that I know, really, what it is to live such a life. I cannot. I am a city girl. Still, I love the little things about them, like the dirt stains driven deep into the creases of their hands, or the red blush of sun and sweat on their skin.

I love the glimmer of sky in their eyes and the twinkle of heaven and earth. I love their fortitude and the fruits of their labor: the blushed peach, crisp apple, and perky sweet berries of the season. I love the ritual of the harvest and am proud when they remember me — last year, this year, and hopefully for years to come.

I feel a partner to this life, and understand how fragile it is. I worry it might go away. It is a reasonable concern. I take it to my householding heart. But for now, I simply love the animals, vegetables, and minerals of this world, and for the improbable good luck of having them all so close at hand.

In full reckoning, it is the land, pasture, orchard, or field beneath it all that I love the most. It is the good earth with its teaming underworld culture, its rich fragrant crumb, its dark and luscious loam, that I love above all else.

And though I can tend my household plot in reverence for these things, it will be the farmers and ranchers who will manage the rest. It will be in knowing who these good farmers are, and helping them on their journey, that the whole of our planet depends.

I am not being dramatic. Good farmers, humble farmers, farmers who are called by insanity and faith to tend the soil are my heroes. More than once I have heard the phrase, “I don’t grow food, I grow dirt.”

There is a certain madness to this obsession, a hunger. These farmers know what healthy soil will look like and how long it takes to get there. There are generations of misdeeds to repair. Great farmers understand the systems, the small-scale interdisciplinary relationships between fields and forest, between livestock and pasture, between inputs and outputs, and the rotations of it all.

They are part artist, part scientist, and part businessman, but Lord knows, it is not profit that has lured them to this life. Not that they do not try like heck to coax a simple living out of their endless chores, but taking the soil to heart was never just about profit. Never just that.

Oregon farmer Kendra Kimbirauskas uses oxen to work the soil.

So why do we not offer them a fair shake? Why do the rules and regulations designed to manage their lives make their lives so difficult? Why do they yet struggle so hard?

The plight of the family farmer is hardly news. Here and across the planet, the challenges persist. From land costs to land grabs, from empire building to suburban tracts, from green revolutions to subsidies, from an ethic of cheap food to the plight of the hungry, from the promise of affordable access to our seasonally indifferent palates, from our busy lives to our love of convenience foods, the obstacles and intricacies connected to feeding an ever-growing planet can confound the notion of what a sound agricultural policy might look like.

It is with these complexities in mind that I extend a hand to those who have, to date, sat behind the pen of agricultural legislation and regulations. Some may have willingly turned a deaf ear to the concerns of the family farmer, but my sense is that we have all been swept up by industry, by its logic and its promise. Industry, and the particular form of agriculture that was born in its wake, promised great things: an end to hunger, a freedom from toil, an invitation to the good life. What was not to like?

So I do not fault lawmakers, or at least not as easily as some might. Rather, I rely on them to set things right in the hopes that they, too, realize what has been lost. I rely on them to look over the horizon of our farmland to see what is missing: the family.

It is support for the family farm, and the good and honest farmer, that has been erased from our agricultural policy. It has been the wholesale embrace of free-market capitalism and economies of scale — large scale, corporate scale, world-market and commodity-trading scale — that has chased them away.

Who could compete with such things? Who can make a living there?

At first, we imagined there could be a alliance between good farming, good husbandry, and the good earth with the mandates and demands of global economics and free-trade ideology. We know better by now, but the old logic is a harsh and resistant taskmaster. It demands loyalty. It refuses change. It has captured our legislators and deafened our leaders.

Sadly, it is dollar signs, not heaven and earth, that glisten in the eyes of those who control the agricultural horizon. And frankly, that is not something I love. Quite the contrary.

But here is the good news: We have a voice in the matter, and on March 15, the Friends of Family Farmers are going to use it. For those of you not yet acquainted with the Friends of Family Farmers, it is a nonprofit organization that works on a number of issues related to the needs of family farmers and ranchers. Legislative advocacy is just one of their roles, and I encourage you to learn the full scope of their efforts.

Along with a number of partner organizations, Friends of Family Farmers has organized a rally for March 15 in Salem, Oregon, that hopes to push forward the Agricultural Reclamation Act, a document (and specific bills) born out of a statewide consensus of small farmers.

This opportunity to join forces in a show of support for just such an act is thrilling to me. It turns all the poetry and fancy talk of my world into a tangible act of support for the very thing I love the most: the soil, and by extension the family farmers and ranchers who promise to care for it. So join me there. It should be the party of the year.

There are 2 comments on this item
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1. by Katherine Deumling on Mar 7, 2011 at 7:36 PM PST

Fabulous post! I’m trying to figure out how to make it down to Salem that day. . .

2. by anonymous on Sep 14, 2012 at 1:37 PM PDT

I DO fault the lawmakers. Most of them come from cities, having no clue as to what it takes to raise a crop or livestock. They enjoy the fruits of other people’s labors, while making laws that impede the very industry they need to survive. I live in agricultural area and see the damage the economy and the restrictions and requirements have done to the farmer and rancher. I see how much more difficult it is for them to make a living. I see the abandoned farmsteads and it makes my heart sad. The best people in the world are farmers and ranchers, in my opinion. The worst sit in D.C. and legislate against them.

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