The day was bright and clear, but there was a feeling of expectancy and almost heaviness in the air. A good friend came down from Kentucky to lend a hand and share his gourmet daffodils. We made the most of a beautiful day. In the top garden, we planted one hundred and fifty feet of peas, six hundred row feet of potatoes, and about two thousand onion plants. One (or maybe two) at a time. With our hands. By the time we turned our shoes homeward, the moisture in the air was thick and the cirrus clouds of the morning had grown into masses of dense gray water, a storm-in-the-making.
I never sleep as well as I’d like in thunderstorms, but at least I could rest easy knowing we had put in a good day before that solid rain. The pressure of impending rain pushed us into high action.
This time next week, Lulah will be finished with dress rehearsal and starting into the first nights of a five night run of performances, her first dramatic stage experience. As I’ve observed the past couple weeks, the group has felt the opening night drawing near, and the tension has sharpened. The pressure is on. It’s not an easy process, necessarily, but anyone who has been part of a creative performance knows that strange magic way that chaos suddenly organizes itself into entertainment at the last minute. The pressure of the looming opening night helps to shake the collective creativity into form.
So, there is a dynamic element to pressure that really sparks advancement, creativity, and goodness. There’s a flip-side, too, of course.
During yoga class, it’s the pressure of an instructor’s presence or gaze, that can inspire us to do our best. But for some people, too much scrutiny causes us to freeze up or falter. There’s a threshold to how much pressure works before it begins to do more harm than good. Everyone’s tolerance is different, and subject to change. Too much pressure can make us physically ill, anxious, or depressed. But, sometimes it is by pushing our threshold that we really test our mettle, and gain new ground. Sometimes we don’t even know how strong we are until we’re under pressure. There’s a balance to keep here.
It was in the 1950’s that then Secretary of Agriculture Ezra Taft Benson told American farmers to “get big or get out”. His word became law, it seems. In 1950, we had more than five million farms, averaging in size about 200 acres. By the year 2000, the number of farms in the US was hovering just over 2 million, and the average farm size increased to over 400 acres. Hmmmmm.
I have many thoughts about American farm policy, past and present, and there’s neither time nor space in my mind right now to elaborate on those thoughts completely. What is clear to me is that the small family farm is and has been under a lot of pressure. It’s also pretty obvious that most of that pressure is destructive. It leads to poor stewardship, poor food, and poor farmers. It makes unreasonable debt-loads and terrible stress on people who grow food. The people and soil of this whole continent suffer because of these policies. It’s no good, and it ought to change, for everyone’s sake.
Never-the-less, I contend that there can be unintended undergrowth from extreme pressure as well. In terms of the small family farm, it looks like some homegrown goodness has leaked out the sides of that industrial-sized weight, sort of like seedlings that thrive in the broken cracks of pavement. When I look around at what I consider our “farming community” I see families on smaller pieces of land who are making it work. We work long and hard for not much financial remuneration. But we eat well, we live the values we believe, and we create local economy. Some of us barter and work in exchange with our neighbors and friends to meet the needs of our families and land. Some of us have taken the middle man out of the financial picture by securing loans with friends and families rather than contributing to the strangeness of the financial mainstream by taking on bank debt. We draw in and reach out to people around us, with our food and our families, and the beauty of our land and gardens to share in abundance.
For our family, as for many small growers, there are several streams of pressure to balance and coordinate. We recognized the need to change when too many various stressors came into play at once. Our bodies, our minds, and our gardens were being max-ed out, with no end in sight. We were not saddled with a heavy debt load, and we didn’t have more land to expand our operation. The decision to downsize what was already a very small vegetable business was our most harmonious alternative to the mainstream pressure to grow more and more food for more people. It has been a gut-wrenching decision at times. The CSA model is so good, and we believe in it, and enjoyed the connection with the people who shared our harvest. We still do. There are just less of them now, and we only feel compelled to be a full-service grocery store to ourselves.
Don’t think that I am going too easy on the situation of agricultural policy. I am one to get scratched up while seeking rosebuds in the thorn bush. Maybe this whole small farm/homesteading movement hasn’t been in response to the horrible politics of agri-culture-turned-agri-business over the past sixty-five years. I think what our community is doing, in some ways, echoes what family farms used to be, before corn became a commodity. And I do believe that what I see in so many people now – this hunger for a simpler, more humanly and naturally interconnected life, and beyond that, the fact that so many of us are taking the plunge into this lifestyle, is at least in part a response to the various inhumanities of the modern, industrial agro-economy.
Maybe Lulah will get a taste of this when she takes her first bow at the end of the opening night. You don’t have to be planting potatoes to feel the shifting of the weight, balancing of the load, or the release of collected pressure from our lives. When the first raindrops hit the roof, I was still counting onion seedlings in my head. My body was tired and my fingernails still weren’t perfectly clean, but there was a sense of rightness and relief, a deep breath and a ready sense of invigoration for whatever the season brings.
Whether our pressures are tremendous and heavy, or just enough to make us exert ourselves, I believe that we can learn and grow and even thrive in the midst of those forces. Perhaps we can even learn to balance that weight to our advantage, and use it to create the world we want to live in, starting here at home. One seed, one row, one child, one breath, one life at a time.