One of the songs sung at the Northern Plains Sustainable Ag Society meetings by a group of young girls
Tonight everything that is good and right with the world can be found in Aberdeen South Dakota. Just so you know, I'm sure it's not the only place. But this minute I'm sitting with hundreds of farmers and farm families. Not just any old farmers, but that creative, passionate and talented group that makes up the self-proclaimed 'sustainable' farmers at the Saturday night banquet of the Northern Plains Sustainable Ag Society meetings. Looks like it will be a record year with over 500 people attending.
I'm sitting among old men who still carry hankies and young guys wiping tears from their faces as a 20-something year old man sings the song he wrote for the farmer dad he lost at age 13. A lament for the father he wishes could take him around the field to plow a couple more times and teach him more about how to run the tractor- the hum of which is like a hymn. And, ultimately, how his faith comforts him in his bereavement. And then you should see the smile and joy that come when our kids, from toddlers to teens, put on a show for us singing and marching and then ending with the call out:
"Sustainability for the Future!
Sustainability for the Future!
We are the Future!"
These talented and unselfconscious kids stand up there with a confident based on scooping up chickens in their arms, milking cows, driving tractors, and in general being a needed and helpful part of running a family farm.
This is the Home Grown music event and these farmers have basically just pulled together a show in a couple days. Poetry, fiddles, harmonica, singers of all ages, a bass and a couple electric guitars. I said to my daughter "what do you think these families do for fun?" "They play music and sing together." So not only do these folks farm their own counter-industrial way, but they are raising their kids differently and in some ways better than I am able. Music- it is just woven, woven, woven into these children. We should all be thankful that these kids are being raised to farm independently and entertain themselves, their families and their communities independently. Here they are singing:
I'll Fly Away, sung by Home Grown Music at the Northern Plains Sustainable Ag Society
What I love about these farmers is that they thrive on being creative, innovative, poetic and spiritual. I was at the Grain Breeding Roundtable break out session for the Northern Plains Sustainable Ag Society's Farm Breeding Club on Saturday morning. Farmer extraordinaire David Podoll placed in our hands a bag of oats that he had been growing out for a dozen plus years. The remarkable part of that bag of oats is that it is a collection of 1200 oat varieties that had been selected by farmers (and more recently agronomists/scientists) over the past 7,000+ years. It's called a landrace and it is a rich, diverse set of genetics. In a time when the gene pool is getting more and more narrow, having a keeper of this range of diversity is invaluable. It is exactly the level of diversity needed to adapt to a changing climate- wetter, dryer, hotter, more erratic.
Let me tell you something about that Grain Breeding Round table, which was attended by farmers, PhD Agronomists, and more. We talked about the usual grain breeding stuff- like what is needed for grains in organic systems, things like a fast growing canopy that can shade out and out compete weeds; more straw/taller plants; and a good root system to withstand drought. But then the tones got hushed. David passed around the 1200 variety mix of oats- which we held in our hands- then we talked about how it feels to run your hand through your harvested crop. What it feels like to have the grains run between your fingers- and how all farmer do that. That there is a spirit in some plants/seed- like a certain variety of flint corn--there is something else there. David says it is the choosing of beauty--not just the needed traits but the beauty that draws us to certain plants and their seeds. There are farmers and plant breeders that, in our long evolution of crops, have put their life force into their plants. And so we have an obligation to make sure it is not lost--that spirit, passion, and (I'll say) the loving attention. An attention that comes from doing one thing and doing it season after season- farming.
Then our conversation turned to not just the loss of genetic diversity, but that greatest tragedy of the last 20-30 years- the loss of knowledge and skills in cropping systems. There is a dependence that grows, after just a few years, on the packaged farm input that expert advisors provide and GPS guided tractors plant .
Do you have a sense of how precarious our 14,000 year evolution of farming has been and on whose shoulders it rests? We have such a fervent belief in progress, science and technology that we forget all the subtle skills and knowing that have successfully brought humans to the year 2013. I believe that there is a balance- that the scientific understanding of the world has brought us tremendous good and prosperity. But not at the expense of losing 100's of generations of built knowledge, skills, and connection with the natural world that got us to this point. Now, I don't think that everyone should be farmers- it is a calling like other callings. Some people who farm were simply never meant to farm- there were people who were thrilled to leave the land and become accountants. But there are also people for whom the connection and work of farming is in their blood- they can feel it in their bones (in a good sense). Those are the folks who attend the NPSAS winter conference.
There was a speaker at the conference that I was surprised to find that I really loved and
enjoyed--Amanda Brumfield, Mrs. North Dakota. Mrs. North Dakota spoke of her experience representing rural women at a national pageant. She is a domestic violence nurse educator who works with children. One story that she told is especially important to repeat. The loss of young adults from our rural communities is something that many people would like to reverse. One day she was talking to a group of 8th graders and asked them to anonymously write down whether or not they would want to back to their small rural town. 18 of the kids said 'no.' Amanda asked the crowd to guess the reasons that the kids gave for not moving back. The crowd shouted out "jobs" "entertainment".... But those weren't the answers--15 of the 18 kids said "gossip" was the reason they wouldn't move back.
The kids she surveyed had seen and heard the adults in their community tear each other apart. Because of that, they wanted to live safe away from prying eyes and harsh tongues- someplace where their foibles, weakness, shortcomings, and mistakes would be anonymous. That is an important message for those of us in small communities. We should demonstrate to our kids, over the supper table and in our conversations, a generosity of spirit towards those around us and a gentleness of words toward our neighbors.
Back to the Home Grown music entertainment and the farmer poet. I'm hoping the folks
at NPSAS can post his poems on their website. Each poem ended with a twist and with the poet a sparkle in his eye and a grin on his face- poems on bulls, -30 degree weather, the intelligent and strong women in his life who understand compassion, beauty and creativity. To which I say "back at'cha farmer poet." And ending with the abundance that comes from a jersey cow milked for a family and neighbors- and how you reach that balance between what you need and what you get.
I could go on for pages on what I learned, enjoyed and felt. But I will end with a simple "Thank you" to the staff, board, and members of the Northern Plains Sustainable Ag Society. See you next January in Aberdeen South Dakota.