Now and then you get a good reason to reflect on your choices, the big ones. This week, I’ve had the opportunity to think about all the reasons we’ve had for moving back to this beautiful piece of the country. There are many.My parents, in their fresh, idealistic twenties, bought a piece of land in an adjacent county when they were pregnant with me. They wanted to live simply, in a small rural community, surrounded by the natural world and good people. If that sounds familiar, then you’re not alone.
Their dreams didn’t proceed according to plan exactly, but one part that seems to have worked out is that I came up into the love of this place, and a general appreciation for small towns and countryside. Of course, I also wanted out of here when I was a teenager. I wanted to explore, and I did. But it didn’t take much exploration to realize how good we have it here. I hiked miles and miles to see gorgeous vistas, and I’d seen just as nice from home. I bathed in clear pools in exotic places, that reminded me of the clear pools of home. We don’t have big mountains, or beach front worth mentioning, but other than that, the land is beautiful, rainfall regular enough, the air is nice, and the cost of living reasonable.
And of course, then there’s the fact that my folks and friends are here.
Everyone wants a good place to raise their children, right? Safe enough, clean enough. But many many people all over the world raise their children in un-safe and un-clean environments because they have community. By ‘community’, let’s suppose I mean extended, strong-knit groups of family and friends that support one another as needed in their daily lives. This used to be completely normal. It is the foundation of civilization. But now, with the greater mobility of humanity, things have changed, sort of.
In the old days, community was tied to the land, and to whatever works that hands and bodies could do to keep everyone afloat. And the folks in the community could decide what to do in and with the land and the water around them, how to use their resources to support themselves. Since it is very important to have clean water to drink and healthy food to eat, no one would engage in an industry that would infringe on those basic factors, because it wouldn’t be good for the community at large, and the community at large was just as key to one’s quality of life as the water, air and soil.
So, ideally (and I know I am functioning on the realm of ideals here), a great many people on this earth used to live with the support of their family and friends in small communities with clean water, good food, and a fair amount of access to the great outdoors (seeing as that’s where clean water and good food come from).
I count myself extremely fortunate to be able to live here and raise my family. Many people are not in the position to make that leap for reasons cultural, physical, or economic. We are engaged in that sort of whole-community that I’m describing, as much as any modern Western family could hope. The busy-ness of our life includes our extended family on a day-to-day basis. We grow most of our own food and have friends who help provide what we can’t grow. We have training lines of work that allow us to make enough income inside and outside of the farm. And we love it here. We love the beauty of this land and the slower pace and spatial freedom of rural life.
That’s the beautiful part. That’s the love. This said, I’m disappointed in our larger community right now. A few years ago, a commercial chicken hatchery moved into our county. It set up shop in the industrial zone of our county seat. This is not a chicken house, exactly, since they don’t grow the broilers (the birds that are for sale in the meat section of the average grocery store), but they are a piece of the industrial chicken industry (you can learn about them, and even download their mobile app, here). It didn’t take long for another chicken factory to open up on a farm right next door to our friend and neighbor Jeff Poppen (a piece of Jeff’s story can be found here). Those houses, again, not broiler houses, but just a step removed, are just several hundred feet from what was Jeff’s back door. Their scale is staggering, and Jeff fought through the difficult situation as far as he could. In the end, he didn’t feel good about litigation because it wouldn’t come down on the corporation itself, but on his neighbor who had signed the contract with the corporation.
Now, a couple years down the road, more chicken houses are in the works in the neighborhood, just a couple miles north of our place as the crow flies.
A small community in the next county over has several chicken farms established, and it isn’t a pleasant place to drive through with the car windows down. I guess the smell wasn’t too bad at first, but it has grown over the years. I can’t say much about other effects that the industry has had on the neighborhood because I don’t have much reason to go there.
In my opinion, a rotten stink of over-crowded poultry in the air is a pretty big detriment to quality of life. Right now, when I walk outside, I can take a deep breath and the air is good. Sometimes, it’s sweet. As I walk around the farm and woods throughout the seasons, I get all kinds of different smells. Falling leaves have a scent of their own. Winter has a clean and cold smell. And in the growing season there are wild roses and honeysuckle, and so many blooms to mingle in my senses. I don’t live here just because the air smells nice, but it is an integral part of the sensation of HOME for me.
People say all kinds of things to help justify the stink. “Smells like money”, is one I keep hearing. But what is that money for if the land of your farm is polluted for generations to come, the well is contaminated, and you and your neighbor’s property values plummet? In my opinion, this movement toward industrial factory agriculture indicates a profound lack of creativity. There are a great many ways to make money, to feed people, and to steward a farm.
Here in our home, we have several small businesses. None of them on their own are enough to support us, but altogether, they make enough. It’s not hard to grow food here. Sure, there’s rocks and clay, but seeds sprout readily and the rain falls, and we have enough. We grow most of our own, and though it takes time and is some hard work, we sure don’t need a gym membership to keep ourselves fit. We’re not even close to wealthy, but we don’t take hand-outs, we have plenty of food, and our landscape is clean and beautiful. That means more to us than the promise of a big paycheck.
Farming is not generally profitable in our modern economy. Strange thing, really, since the only true profit happens in nature – have a bred cow and soon you will have two head of cattle – plant a singular tomato seed and before long you will have LOTS of tomatoes – no one else offers dividends like nature. With a little creativity, a little imagination, farms can stay beautiful and keep a family alive, too. My fellow farmwives and many of our other friends, are living examples of this reality. I doubt any of their neighbors have ever been bothered by unpleasant odors or a damaged vista from their livelihood.
I’m saddened that this small, beautiful, rural community has lost touch with the intrinsic value of clean air and water, and the blessing of decent land to work. I’m saddened that a farmer, land owner, and neighbor can, with the assistance of the corporate agriculture industry, make decisions that will degrade the land they steward, and their neighborhood, for years to come. I’m wondering where we took a wrong turn and ended up here, in this time, with these poor choices being played out. There is no singular answer to that line of wondering. I am sad, and I do my wondering, because I love it here. I don’t want to turn tail and flee. I don’t want to see bad feelings created between neighbors. We all want the same things. We want to be happy; we want a good home.
There’s no doubt I’ll be mulling over issues of this nature for awhile. If you have any stories about rural communities dealing with the in-flux of industrial agriculture in creative and inspiring ways, I would love to hear them.