The Key to Sustainability

As soon as you set out to do anything on a farm these days, someone will come along telling you about an “easier” and “faster” way to do what you’re doing.  Whether you’re milking cows, preparing a garden or shearing sheep, the old-fashioned way that sustained thousands of years of farmers all over the world will be quickly attacked as terrible because of a false way of thinking that (you’ll notice) always keeps the people talking from doing anything themselves.

We need to understand that there are four different groups of people in the farming world:

1.  Small-scale “family” farmers.
2.  Large-scale  “commercial” farmers.
3.  Equipment manufacturers.
4.  Idle talkers who don’t understand groups 1-3.

Group 2 is important because when most people think of farming today, they think of large-scale commercial farms who are running farms in hopes of making some cash profit in the end.  To do that, a large and efficient system must be maintained to cut out all waste and maximize profit gained (usually) through the production of a SINGLE product.  Since the 1940s, this has been the mindset of farmers and most of what is written in America on farming ASSUMES you belong or want to belong to this group.  Well, we don’t–and what works for them, that is, what allows them to turn a profit doing what they’re doing, really doesn’t have anything to do with what we’re doing.  So, yes, I know that there are $1500 milk machines available…and $15,000 machines.  I know there are $300 electric sheep shears available.  I know that farms spray fields with RoundUp and nitrogen.  That’s part of their system, but it has nothing to do with us.  We know what’s available, but CHOOSE to do things differently.  Why?  Our aim isn’t cash profit.

Group 3 is also important because all of the catalogs you receive, websites you visit and trade shows you attend are developed with the purpose of selling stuff to you.  Now, everyone knows that for N thousands years, men milked cows and goats by hand, turned fields with oxen and sheared sheep with hand shears.  The problem is that there’s no sales to be found for people trying to make a living selling agricultural equipment if they allow everyone to do it the old fashioned way.  Therefore, they study to persuade farmers that some benefit will be gained by switching from the old fashioned way to THEIR new and improved way.  If you’re a person who wants to live on a farm and avoid toil and avoid spending money, you’re their ideal customer.  Their two biggest arguments will be “saves labor” and “saves money”.  Either or both of those claims may be true, but is it your goal to save labor and money?  Is that why you’re farming? What they don’t tell you about is how your labor will simply move from milking a cow to repairing pumps, cleaning equipment, replacing hoses, paying for chemicals and repairs, etc..  Nothing good is free.  You know that already.

Therefore, realize that you are not a commercial farmer.  You probably do not have to milk 150 Holstein cows or prepare 3,000 acres for a dent corn planting or shear 800 sheep.  You don’t need the equipment and should examine the suggested methods carefully. Yes, you would need to do what other farmers are doing if you want to be like them…but if your goals are different, your methods should be as well.

For example, we shear a handful of sheep for wool in the Spring.  It’s an annual shearing that takes a couple days, among all the other work that needs to be done as a farm family.  Put the sheep on the ground…cut her wool off.  Done.  We milk a handful of Jersey cows, whose pregnancies are staggered.  We bring the cow in the barn, set her feed in front of a wooden headlock, sit down beside here and milk using two milk cans.  Done.  We don’t need all the stuff because our goals are simple. We want wool to spin, milk to drink, vegetables and grains to eat.

The small scale family farmer is not trying to produce a single “cash crop” that can then be sold so that all of the family’s needs can be bought from stores.  The small scale family farmer gains its cash income (which is very important for farming!) from other work, as mine is through academic writing, but produces its own needs on the farm.  They must do a little of everything–milk cows and goats, raise meat animals, raise wool sheep, grow fruits and vegetables, grow grains and hay, etc.  To do all that, commercial methods won’t be sustainable and new equipment is rarely the answer.  This farming has been done since the beginning of time and one of the reasons that modern people don’t like it is that it is impossible for man to succeed without God’s help.  The old-fashioned farmer is a praying farmer who seeks God’s blessing and, when he obtains it, enjoys a life that none can match:

The LORD will affirm his blessing upon you, on your barns and on all your undertakings, blessing you in the land that the LORD, your God, gives you.  Provided that you keep the commandments of the LORD, your God, and walk in his ways, he will establish you as a people sacred to himself,  as he swore to you;  so that, when all the nations of the earth see you bearing the name of the LORD, they will stand in awe of you.  The LORD will increase in more than goodly measure the fruit of your womb, the offspring of your livestock, and the produce of your soil.

The key to sustainability is understanding that you’re not everyone else…and what you so shouldn’t look like what the commercial farms are doing, or use what the equipment salespeople are pushing on you.  A family farmer farms with his family and his family’s religion, education and culture are all oriented around and woven throughout the work of the farm.  🙂


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