Ink print of a farm in harvest, from the mid 1800's

What does it mean to me to be a 9th generation family farmer?

It means we have experience. Wisdom passed down for generations. It means we are tuned into the natural world and our own instincts.  Sure, we've made a lot of mistakes over the years but they say an expert is merely someone who has made all possible errors within a very narrow field.

My grandfather, like all the generations before him, was a farmer in the Midwest.  He started out farming using the latest technology available to him at the time, horses. He trained teams of horses to do farm work like cutting hay or planting corn. Within his lifetime the “Green Revolution” happened as we entered the machine age, transitioning over to small tractors that make the farm more efficient with greater yields. We needed less people to do more work. Horses were not as critical. The machine became a rapidly growing technology central to farming. 

In my father’s lifetime those small tractors grew much, much larger. The acreages of land one person could now farm  became exponentially larger.  Sadly, the number of farmers actually touching the earth for their livelihoods dropped off significantly. 

I was born in the midst of this change.  By the time  I was in college studying agriculture, the tractors looked more like spaceships, complete with satellite uplinks, and the tracts of land had become oceanic. “We had come a long way”, my dad would say pointing to driverless tractors and skyrocketing corn yields, “no one could say we hadn't.”

But the question I ask is this: did we steer the ship in the right direction? With extraordinary scientific discovery and a Herculean effort we definitely hit the bullseye of higher yields. But, is only looking at higher yields the right target? What had we missed along the way?

I pondered this long and hard. I talked with hundreds of farmers of all persuasions.  Some were indigenous farmers living in roadless areas of Mexico and Nepal.  Some were neighbors from my childhood in Illinois: literally the sons and daughters of the pioneers who still own the same wash basins and hand tools that their ancestors brought with them on covered wagons.  Each and every person told a story that circled back to the same conclusion. When farmers started buying expensive, labor saving equipment they were less able to employ their sons and daughters: the machinery took the money and the job.

It was a lot to take in.  After all, the inertia of our culture is a powerful thing, and it is difficult to change the momentum of agriculture.  So I forged ahead on my own, little by little, and started removing barriers to truly listening and understanding the cycles of the land.  My ancestors made  changes in every generation using the knowledge they had at the time.  Now I had to be willing to change how I would farm.

First I sold the tractors.  Then I got rid of the modern hybrid pigs and brought in several heritage breeds.  I replaced conventional grain with non-GMO grain without antibiotics.  Then I got the pigs out of barns for 9 months of the year.  I built moveable shelters and started rotationally grazing the pigs on pasture and under acorn-producing oaks.  I started composting on a mammoth scale.  Our farm reduced our dependence on purchased grain by feeding spent barley from a local craft brewery.  In the spring of 2021 we'll take our biggest leap forward yet: we'll be partnering with Yale University's School of Agroforestry to plant around 500 fruit and nut trees on our hilliest ground.  With this we'll be beginning the process of integrating our pasture-based pig farm model with a permaculture-inspired fruit and forage system.   

Does it seem crazy?  Maybe.  But here is the challenge: who am I to think small? What is really gained by following a system that isn’t working for independent farmers or the needs of the land? What example would I be to my children if I were to shrink back from courageously pursuing my calling?

Looking at my family’s timeline of farming for the last 8 generations there is a clear pattern that has emerged: as farmers, we  spent so much time looking at yields, we forgot to look up and consider the larger world that comes with food production.  The natural world thrives on healthy soil, clean water, abundant and diverse wildlife, and a greener, cooler planet.  We also need human interactions, people coming together to work and celebrate.  I have made it my mission to create a farm that radically pursues that vision.  Because, like my dad always said,  “There's no stopping progress…”

- John Arbuckle


photo credit: ideabug/Getty Images

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