NEWSLETTER

Fall 1996


An Old Connection

Her name was Ruth. I never found if she had a last name. Her house was on the three mile route I walked to school. She never gave me a ride but I know she always saw me pass by no matter if there was sunshine, rain, snow, sleet or just plain crappy weather (that's tornadoes to you folks up here). There she'd be standing in the picture window with a cup of coffee in hand with her blue hair and a great big schnauzer beside her called "Cadillac".

Miss Ruth taught me a lot of things about life. But, most of all, she had me singing at every event she could think of. She taught me three songs: I believe, He and The Star Spangled Banner. Every time somebody got together for anything, I'd be there too singing one of those songs. I remember stopping at her house to practice two or three days a week. There would be Cadillac waiting for me in the front of the house. He didn't have a tooth in his head so he'd start barking (it was more like a "moof moof" sound) and that stub tail would start to wiggle and then he would try to gum me to death with his mouth. He was bigger than me, so Miss Ruth would come and pull him off. Drool would be all over my face and hair so I would have to wash up.

Miss Ruth would always have cookies and milk waiting for me. She would always wear a green terry cloth robe over her clothing. She always smelled musty but with a faint scent of lavender. Cadillac would always settle down and doze on an oval throw ruy in the middle of the living room. Occasionally, he would lift his lids and eye me with that hungry look.

Miss Ruth worked her pump organ with the robustness of an athlete in training. She taught me sound, tone, and expression. For almost four years Miss Ruth graced me with her musicality and character. Then my family moved away.

Twelve years later, I visited her in a nursing home. Cadillac had died, and Miss Ruth had crippling arthritus in her hands and was suffering from Alzheimer's. Someone still did her blue hair and kept her in terry cloth robes that smelled of lavender. I sat with her and spoke of my journeys. We both shed tears when recalling Cadillac. She asked me my name many times. I sang three songs for her, and she pretended to play the pump organ. Something struck a chord in her imprisoned self.

How I long for mentors like Miss Ruth. How I long to be gummed to death by Cadillac. How I long for that connection.

Billie R. Dalton


Fall Colors

As I gaze out our kitchen window(I'm having trouble terminating this several year case of writer's block), I see a landscape almost wholly created by myself(okay- nature was involved too). The house garden is under a thin cloak of rye, a row of red currants with its dry leaves, looks exhausted after producing its usual heavy crops. The hazelnuts and filberts produced only an occasional nut which the bluejays and squirrels were grateful to get. The chestnuts are almost cropless after 8 years. The ohio buckeye straight out the window produced its usual several gallons of nuts, which nature in her somewhat arbitrary cruelty made inedible. Everywhere trees and schrubs are in their fall color garb. From this rambling, the reader can surmise that on this farm, permaculture isn't living up to its potential in terms of producing edible crops.

Well...- I'm not taking this criticism lying down. Yields have never been my priority. I purposefully crowded my trees and schrubs and I stayed away from grafted trees concentrating on rough(but ready) seedlings which in many cases, I propagated myself. Yields are low (but I like to point out our cherry hardwood floor and trim, and homegrown bamboo curtain rods), but I know that I have created a woody perennial landscape where there was none, provoking profound changes in a denuded farmed out weed patch.

The farm itself is evolving. I continue to raise cattle and to take only what I need for hay. This year I worked on the southern boundary-inspired by the close proximity of our new neighbors. I planted 500 white pine and about 200 homegrown oaks. I moved fences and made fields and pastures smaller, to protect the trees-not a popular notion in agricultural circles. I added new trails for tractor access, foot traffic and cross country skiing. The barn received a new facelift, completing a new floor and the replacement of many rotten supporting posts. Time sure has flown since we built it. Gee, that was when Jimmy Carter was pres.

We are continuing to fix up the house-but doesn't everyone? The highlight this summer was putting in a deck off the kitchen door. This should have been done years ago! Now we can truly spend time outside during mosquito season. They don't seem to find you when you are 2-3 feet off the grass.

The wind is picking up and leaves are swirling down into the garden(bullseye!) from the elm, honey locust and kentuckycoffee tree. It sure has been dry, if it doesn't do some serious precipitating, the pond will dry up in a couple of months. This hasn't happened since it was dug in 1988.

Our lives suffer from filling specialized roles that society practically requires of us. I know my life has suffered since becoming employed as an RN-in some ways at least. But I do get the rewards and financial security from helping people who are truely in need, knowing that even on "days from hell", I will soon be going home to my family, farm and forest, a sanctuary from the "real" world.

Well I'd better sign off now and get some more firewood cut before going back to work this weekend(sigh....).

Jon Towne


Squirrel Agriculture Redux

Many of you will recall from a previous newsletter my suggestion that squirrels practice agriculture. This was based on observing squirrels carrying corn from the garden to their trees, and on corn growing in the flower garden under their trees. The question became: Will the squirrels pick the corn they've planted?

The answer is no. Our dog knocked over the corn in her vain attempt to catch a cat. This threw the scientific process into turmoil.

This year's crop of choice seems to be gourds. These were planted in the area just off the front porch designated for Becca's wild flower garden. I believe this to be yet another case of squirrel agriculture for two reasons: 1. I watched the squirrels gnaw through last year's crop of gourds, squash and pumpkins, which had been placed on the front porch for reasons both aesthetic and practical; they proceeded to drop the seeds over the edge of the porch into freshly turned soil; 2. This particular garden is in close proximity to the trees for quick escape from the predators of the house.

Much to the squirrels chagrin, we harvested the gourds for ourselves... and left them on the porch for reasons both aesthetic and practical.

Conrad Kaufman


Why Should the Family Farm Survive?

In view of the current trends it is not clear that family farms can survive as viable economic enterprises. But unless we as a society more clearly understand why they should survive little effort will be made to insure their survival.

Most books about the demise of small family farms accept that demise as inevitable. At least three such books have been published in recent years by authors who grew up on Michigan farms. In 1972, Curtis Stadtfeld, who grew up in the Remus area, published From the Land and Back, a book that portrayed "what life was like on a family farm and how technology changed it". In 1988, The Last Farmer: An American Memoir, was published by Howard Kohn. This author grew up on a farm west of Bay City, and his narrative is more a personal tribute to his father. And in 1990, Ronald Jager's Eighty Acres: Elegy for a Family Farm was published. Jager grew up on a farm in Missaukee county and his subtitle summarizes the elegiac tone of these books and others like them. They are written out of a nostalgia which acknowledges the "pastness of the past... and attempts preservation by images than conserve" as Donald Hall put it in his forward to Eighty Acres.

Each of these books remembers a farm powered by draft horses and a lot of family members. As fossil fuels powered tractors and larger machinery, the number of farms in Michigan decreased from 190,000 in 1940 to 53,000 in 1996. The average farm size increased from about 100 to 200 acres with much marginal land retired from cultivation. The mechanization of farming has reduced the number of family farms but those that remain are still mainly owned and operated by families. So why worry about the survival of family farms?

Why? Because another assault on family farms is now in full swing. While the mechanical revolution reduced the number of family farms, the new threat powered by corporate capital threatens the survival of the remaining family farms. This is brought into focus by yet another book on the family farm published in 1996: Fields Without Dreams by Victor Davis Hanson.

Hanson is a grape farmer in the San Joaquin valley in California who raised Thompson seedless grapes and dried them in the sun to produce raisins. Disaster struck in l983 when the price of raisins fell from $1400 to $450 per ton. Hanson gives many reasons for this crash: A ruined world market, a nonexistent wine alternative and flat domestic raisin demand, together with spiraling Thompson grape production, all collided in the space of a month (pp. 70-71)". He also blames the buying habits of consumers, processing corporations, money-grubbing brokers and bankers, global trade and the rise of corporate agriculture with its bigger government subsidies and vertical integration.. Embittered by his experience, his book is confrontational and contemptuous of those who write about farming out of nostalgia.

Much of Hanson's book describes the counter-productive and expensive efforts to which he and his extended family went to save the farm. He also reports on the tragic efforts of fellow grape farmers who similarly kept trying different money-losing ventures to save the farm instead of selling out. All this serves to illustrate the tenacity of the farmer's tie to the land. In fact, many family farmers support their agrarian way of life with off-farm jobs. Even Hanson dusted off his credentials and got a job teaching Greek and Latin at a local university in order to pay the bills. Hanson is also a Greek scholar who had earlier written three books on ancient Greek military history. Then, in 1995, he published a fourth book: The Other Greeks: The Family Farm and the Agrarian Roots of Western Civilization. It is here that Hanson, in a more deliberate and scholarly manner, develops his thesis about why the family farm is a cultural necessity. Just as the Greek city-states evolved out of the agrarian ethos of its independent yeomen farmers, so, he argues, following Thomas Jefferson, did the American democratic experience.

The subtitle of Fields Without Dreams is Defending the Agrarian Idea. Hanson borrows from The Other Greeks as he defends the agrarian idea. "The Greeks invented this idea that each citizen would live and work on a uniformly sized plot. . . . Born out of that environment, the egalitarian community of Greek yeomen developed peculiar ideas seen nowhere else at that time, weird thoughts like constitutional government, private land ownership, free enterprise, and citizen-controlled militias" (Fields Without Dreams, pp. 121). Not only did our democratic institutions evolve out of that vibrant agrarianism, Hanson argues that they will not survive without the farmer's gruff critique of shallow materialistic affluence.

Hanson does not sentimentalize farmers.. He recognizes them as curmudeons who distrust bureaucracy and a rootless urban society even as they reject the sentimental vision of living in harmony with nature. "As orchards and vineyards are tamed by agriculture, so too culture--law, statute, statute, tradition and custom--domesticates man, teaches him to become productive, and so forces us all to repress and abandon our innate savagery(p. 123)". Hanson would like to hope that if even 10% of our population lived on farms they would provide a countervailing influence against the drift into social and moral chaos. But he sees no hope because we are at that stage in the evolution of agrarianism when the concentration of capital in few corporate hands will obliterate family farms as a cultural influence. "They no longer care where or how they get their food as long as it is firm,fresh and cheap. They have no interest in preventing the urbanization of their farmland as long as parks, little league fields, and an occasional bike lane are left amid the concrete, stucco and asphalt. They have no need of someone who they are not, who reminds them of their past and not their future. Their romanticism for the farmer is just that, an artificial and quite transient appreciation of his rough-cut visage against the horizon, the stuff of a wine commercial, cigarette ad, or impromptu rock concert(Fields Without Dreams p 270).

Yet Hanson did write this book, however hopeless it may seem, and we must assume he is a voice crying in the wilderness to wake us up. His work urges those of us who worry about the survival of the family farms to be more shrill about the urgency of the situation we face. If we lose the family farm we lose the last bastion of the democratic system.

Maynard Kaufman


The End of Summer

Re-election Express Blows Through Village:

People gathered from town and the outlying areas. Friends and neighbors conversed in small clusters. The high priests of business, church, and medicine had arrived and all of a sudden seemed inconsequential. Then there were the children and the subdued old folks. Thankfully, it was a small town. The volunteer fire department and village police performed crowd control with customary friendliness and authority. In between their pickets, children dashed back and forth across the rails not sure which side of the tracks offered the best view. Rumors flew. The hushed word from Kalamazoo was that it would make an unscheduled stop. There was a tour bus parked nearby with an out of state license and a camera crew from a local TV station was providing coverage. There was electricity in the air.

After twenty minutes, a train flew by. It was well-scrubbed and quite unlike the usual charred, half-empty Amtrac relics that usually rode the rails with too few passengers to stare out at us whenever we were held up at the crossing. We waited some more.

A low flying military helicopter strafed the line with its pilot waving at us from his cockpit. On the ground there were placards, cameras and video recorders. We hugged close to the tracks despite pleas from the volunteer firmen to back away. Then on the horizon, a bright single head lamp of The Reelection Express beamed. It was coming and it was coming fast. It wasn't slowing down. In a 60 mile per hour whirl of diesel and dust, the crowd was blown back from the rail. Parents turned their backs and cowered as they gathered and clutched their children. There wasn't time to snap a picture. But it glistened and flags and banners blew in its high speed breeze. Some sycophant in suit waved at us between two of the cars. It was all over in an instant.

There was silence and a kind of collective shrug of the shoulders as the crowd dispersed. It was a brief glimpse of power and myth that we believe can be remotely accessed on the first Tuesday of November every four years.

Ultimately, it was just an Olympic moment. It was a ten second Pepsi commercial featuring Michael Jackson. Hell, it lasted less than ten seconds. It was a sliver of a super bowl half-time extravaganza. It was something or someone safely ensconced in a speeding metal rail car and thoroughly inaccessible to the salt of the earth. It was just a couple of trains. It was supposed to be an event, but it really was nothing at all.

McDonald's Employee Offers Up First Child to Customer:

Yeah, yeah, McDonald's sucks the money out of the local economy. Still in only three minutes and for only $3.57, you can get a chicken sandwich with fries and a medium Coke. You can run but you can't hide because it is everywhere. And the help there is so friendly. So friendly. In the next line, a kindly old grandmother was desperately trying to get a large order straight for a young carpenter's apprentice: $40.00 worth of grease and salt and she was intent on nailing it right down to the last six-piece chicken mcnuggets with sweet and sour sauce and a small Coke. She was so nice. Warm reassuring voice. Color-coordinated casual wear just like her coworkers. Meanwhile, the young woman waiting on me was so polite. Lovely smile. It was lunch time and I wondered why she wasn't in school until I raealized that she wasn't that young. She filled my order promptly and asked if there was anything else she could do. The employees were so nice. The corporation must make quite an effort to promote teamwork and employee-customer relations. I got a real sense of commitment to the locality. The dining area attempts to reflect the region between the plastic benches and formica tabletops. There were fruit and grapevines etched in frosted glass and a display from a local vintner. Funny, I just recently read that a lot of McDonald's beef is shipped up from Argentina.

Most of the people behind the counter were older. Some looked like retirees while others were well beyond high school and acne. Many of them wore headsets with microphones and wireless transmitters and looked as it they were launching jet planes from an aircraft carrier back there behind those stainless steel countertops: "I've got two Big Macs up." People hustled and morale was high. Hopefully, that makes up for the lousy wages. It's not like McDonald's employees are still living with their parents these days. More likely, they're living with their children.

I remember back in the 1970's when Lee Iacocca pleaded with congress for the federally financed Chrysler bailout. During televised hearings, a congressman remarked that McDonald's employed more folks than any one of the Big Three. The glib Iacocca retorted that you couldn't buy a house or a new car with fast food wages. Eventually, he got his bailout. Chrysler was saved. and it went to pay healthy stock dividends. Invisible hand my ass.

The newChrysler corporation has been a success. Unfortunately, 35,000 laid-off auto workers never, ever got called back to work.

Over the years I often wondered where the 35,000 former Chrysler employees go to earn comparable wages ? Where does anybody go when companies downsize? I wonder if McDonald's employs any former auto workers? I also wonder if Ray Kroc ever had any moments of lucidity in his last days?

These are the good days

We're raising four turkeys this year. It's the first time that we ever tried raising turkeys. Mixed them right in with eight or nine barred rocks and light Brahmins.

I had no idea just how dumb and endearing they can be. Every time I stoop to empty their food trough or change their water they get right up into my face and stare. Sometimes they'll peck at my wedding band. They follow me and the boys around gurgling and making funny turkey noises. They'll eat rotting tomatoes and table scraps or any other organic matter we throw into the pen.

The boys do their chores with minimal prodding. Our oldest son, James, learned that the goats will just as soon eat mulberry branches as hay. So we were able to cut out a lot of miserable mulberry saplings and put them to good use while buying little or no hay which has been selling at a premium this year. Raising animals has been good for the children. Hopefully, it helps to counter- balance the predisposition's of their displaced tract house dwelling parents. 

 This morning I sat across the kitchen table from a lovely old farm woman with a bum ticker. She's almost 90. She likes to talk and I like to listen. Often times she will recall growing up on farms near Lawrence and Decatur. Real horse and buggy days. This morning she spoke of her predilection for raising "fat hens and brown eggs... I learned real quick that people around here preferred the brown eggs. And I never had no use for those little banty hens, either." The woman was always able to scrimp and save a little bit of money to keep her daughters in school clothes. She says that those were good days.

These days she worries about other people and other people's children. Too much television. Too little responsibility. She also worries about her small town that is about to lose its only market and she worries about farmland giving way to development. She knows that nothing lasts and that change is inevitable. But some things have to be held on to. "It's not good... It's not good," she muttered.

Michael Phillips editor


Future online issues will hopefully include the art work and graphics that are present on the paper version. Apologies Mike.