The Happiest Farmers



Carol and I attended the first annual Organic Farming Conference in Mt. Hope, Ohio, recently, and were struck by how happy the attending farmers appeared to be. Unlike typical agricultural meetings this spring, I heard no handwringing discussions over which kind of government insurance to apply for to keep from going broke this year, nor any obsessions over whether one’s farm was subject to the new Bt corn rules and practices coming along. Instead, a whole group of farmers were talking to each other about how good things look right now. What made that particularly remarkable is that most of them operate dairy farms with no more than 40-50 cows which the economists say is too few to make a living.

The group was composed mostly of Amish and Mennonite farmers with a sprinkling of us “English” types. The organizers had figured they might get 200 people to attend. Instead the count was closer to 500. All of them were excited about farming organically. I was a bit taken aback since in the circles I usually move if I move at all, this type of farming is hardly new. One of my big mistakes in life is to think that new ideas that I favor will take over much quicker than they actually do. It was certainly obvious at this conference, as it had been at the Acres conference last December, that really practical and profitable organic farming was now, 50 years after I first got excited about it, stepping into the trenches of real agriculture.

The first eye-opening experience of the conference for me was a sparkling new, one-bottom horse plow on display along with other advanced horse powered machinery. What amazed me was that I could push it as easily as a baby buggy across the concrete floor. I thought of the earth-moving giants on conventional farms today that take 300 horses to operate, not the two or three horses that could pull this one. Which really symbolized the more advanced kind of farming?

I got to meet for the first time Leah Miller, director of the Small Farm Institute. She organizes farm activities throughout eastern Ohio and operates a small farm herself. Earnest Martin and his brother Mark, pioneers of grass farming who routinely organize grazing conferences in addition to this meeting, were there, as was George Seimon, dairy farmer and  CEO of Cooperative Regions of Organic Producer Pools (CROPP) the largest organic farm cooperative in North America, known for its Organic Valley and Organic Prairie  brand names. He prefers being referred to as the CEEIO, as in Old Macdonald’s E-I-E-I-O. Also my long-time friend, David Kline and all his family, who publish Farming  magazine, attended. All these people are directly and personally involved in everyday organic farming and all brimmed with optimism. Mr. Siemon and Mike Kline, one of David’s sons who works for Organic Valley, both told me more than once that CROPP was being almost overwhelmed with business as more and more farmers apply for organic certification. Organic milk and grains and hay are high-priced compared to conventional farm crops. I asked George if he worried that maybe farmers were being drawn into organic methods only for the money and if that were a good thing. “An interesting question,” he responded in a way that told me he had thought a lot about that too. “But you’d be surprised at how many dairy farmers, attracted by the higher prices, become convinced after they get into farming this way that it is the most sustainable alternative for the future.” Mike added that if farmers didn’t get imbued with that kind of philosophy, they didn’t stay organic for very long.

The biggest eye-opener for me was attending a panel discussion for the  mostly Amish and Mennonite women in attendance. Almost all of them were not only busy with housework and children, but carry on what elsewhere would be considered more than a full time job in the barn and fields. The ones on the panel bemoaned not the heavy workload, but the lack of more hours in the day and night to get it done. Three of the five on the panel kept saying how much they LOVED to milk their cows. (I put that word in caps because they stressed it that way which really impressed me. When I was milking 100 cows I might have said occasionally that I liked the work, but rarely that I LOVED it.) Their biggest complaint? Mud! Also interesting to me was how articulate they were— no incorrect grammar and a nice sprinkling of five dollar words as they expressed their satisfaction and enthusiasm for their way of life. Two of them were members of the Kline family whom I have known since they were children as being well-informed, highly intelligent and clever enough to do the impossible— help their parents and neighbors publish a successful magazine while they farm full-time— so I was not surprised. But one panelist, dressed as stylishly as a model out of a New York Times ad, which her Mennonite church allows, spoke as smoothly and articulately as a college professor. An outsider would never have guessed that according to the program she is the chief milker on a 600 acre, 170 cow, certified organic dairy farm.

Every one of them emphasized family togetherness as their main source of happiness and delight in their farming way of life. Secondly, they liked the regular weekly to monthly paycheck that dairy farming provides. All of them mentioned how nice it was to have their husbands working right there on the farm. “We have family togetherness day every day,” one of them remarked. When questioned about how much they LOVED milking, they said that milking time was actually more relaxing and more interesting than housework, and that it gave them time to carry on meaningful conversations with their children working alongside them— “to really get to know them,” one mother remarked. Another observed that “when Mom enjoys farming, the children will too,” an observation certainly true for Carol and me— our mothers both loved farming.

As Carol put it on the way home while we talked about how much we enjoyed the visit: “It was great. They think like I do.”

o2 ~~


Love farming the old fashioned, diversified way. Use to ship organic milk, the price was good but after awhile the paperwork burden became too much, all the new rules to calculate grazing time, etc., are ridiculous. I just went back to the old (non-bureaucratic) ways, when the grass grows the cows graze, when grass doesn’t grow, cows get hay and corn silage. My pigs eat like pigs always have, after all, they don’t read labels.

P.S. Love David Kline’s writing and, of course, yours too, Gene. How about a sequel to The Man Who Built Paradise?

Just Farmers, I’m fairly sure that either Leah Miller and her Small Farm Institute composed that creed or David Kline at Farming Magazine, P.O Box 85, Mt. Hope, Ohio 44660 email, Gene

I was delighted to see the agricultural “creed” on the bottom of the page. Am I allowed to republish it? Who wrote it (which organization)? I am going to put a rather long piece below (I hope it’s not too long) that is the “creed” of the newsletter I publish in central British Columbia.

Just Farmers: Principles

Foundation: We are stewards, not owners, of the land we farm. We are accountable for the way our land use affects the environment which includes land, water, air, plants, animals, and human beings.

We affirm and attempt to:
1. Use practices that treat the earth gently. We try to use appropriately-sized machinery.
2. Use inputs that approach the principles of regenerative farming. We avoid the routine use of industrial chemical pesticides.
• Conventional farming routinely uses chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and insecticides.
• Sustainable farming usually reduce such uses and may use integrated approaches (chemical and organic) to reduce chemical applications.
• Organic farming, as regulated, uses natural fertilizers, rock powders, and biological controls: no industrial chemicals (or acidulated fertilizers) at all.
• Regenerative farming seeks to improve the fertility of land, aims at ecosystem health and environmental diversity.
3. Foster an appreciation for natural plant propagation. We reject any use of genetically-modified seeds or organisms.
4. Practice good soil-care. We think of the soil as an organism and work to feed our soil as a complex web of life, not as a mine for crops.
5. Practice curiosity. We consider research, discussion, learning from our neighbours and regular walks through our property as essential to our vocation.
6. We participate actively in public, communal institutions to bring about change.
7. Maintain high ethical standards for treatment of domesticated animals. We try to mimic animals’ inherited lifestyles by allowing cattle and sheep to graze, providing rangeland or vegetated outdoor pens for poultry, room for hogs to root, etc., weather permitting.

• To encourage and support the agricultural community. This includes sponsoring educational activities, local farm tours, etc.
• To provide healthy, locally-produced food for human and animals.
• To provide a voice for those often ignored by agribusiness.
• To participate in discussion of local community plans.

I just came in from dressing the asparagus beds (ran out of compost again!) and undressing the strawberries. That’s an Easter to savor. Thanks for sharing with us every week.

I hate farming. Perhaps I should go organic…

The people I have met at organic and sustainable ag events have always struck me as more content and positive than people whom I have run into at “conventional” ag meets. Besides, the food served at our kind of ag events is honking great. And in the big scheme of things it all goes back to what ends up on the plate. Good clean soil, good clean foods.

Happy Easter Gene and to all others. Fresh dug carrots are a tradition for Easter Brunch!!

I interviewed a lady just this last week, here in Latvia and she mentioned that she got into organic farming of oats because of the premium but was converted to the philosophy afterwards, as are her children who have now joined her on the farm. Amazing lady who also has a cafe, shop and theatre on her farm for the local community.

You’ve always been ahead of the herd on farming issues.

So happy to hear the Kline’s are doing well since last I saw David with you at Ag Tech. Wish Robert Rodale had survived long enough to see this. Things are coming full circle again!

I remember when i first learned about organic farming from my mom and the Organic Gardening and farming magazine.we also got The Farm Journal so I got info from both sides.Old conventional and new /old organic.I’ve done both but the one that makes me feel the best is organic. Organic has so many more wins or successes than just the check book.When you play the big industrial way , it is more like gambling in a casino. The house always wins.But with organic ,every time i saw a nice ear of corn. or a healthy pig or lamb,a field of alfalfa raked and ready to bale or had the time to fish for some bluegills I won.When i did mine there was no premium for organic grain or livestock.What i wouldnt give to be young and healthy now and starting out.

How wonderful to hear that the organic farming community continues to grow, and that they are motivated by sustainability. Reading this article really brightened my day.

You know that’s the way farming really should be,I think really deep down the sane sensible farmers as you described know that the future is bright for them and Industrial Farmers know their days are numbered and their attitudes reflect such.Along those lines I went down near Oxford NC awhile back and bought an Oliver 1550 tractor the owner on the phone was
pretty upbeat for a farmer I thought before I went.Once I got there he had a very large operation met the fellow and he was very friendly and talkative about his operation he had 2 large greenhouses come to find out he grows organic green peppers and some other vegetables plus organic wheat.Said he can easily sell all he can grow.Said he actually started making good money farming once he switched to organic a few years back.Most of the fellows growing conventional grain crops are growning about how they can’t make any money since the prices are down.So I guess its a chicken and egg question.Do happy people farm organic or does farming organic make one happy?

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s