Our hope lies with the ‘one degree deflection’

By Jim Van Der Pol, Kerkhoven, Minnesota — Joel has challenged me to begin to think and write about a better and more satisfying life on our farms and in our rural communities. So this and several columns to follow will assume that we all pretty much know the problems, that we as farmers, graziers and Americans live every day in the midst of the damage and could benefit from encouragement to talk together about another direction in our lives and businesses.

This encouragement I will attempt to provide, but there is an important caveat. We live and farm in a powerful national and nationalizing economy that will not take kindly to any kind of real change, and has immense power to block change. Much of this power inheres in the wants, desires, and thoughts of our own minds, so that we tend to enable this powerful economic structure while it sucks the wealth out of our communities and the satisfaction from our lives.

Necessarily then, we will be talking always about the idea of the “one degree deflection.” To understand this idea, visualize standing beside an archer who is in the act of drawing back his bow, arrow notched to the string. At the very instant he releases the arrow, we are going to blow a very small puff of air at it from the side. The puff is so small, the archer will not feel it on his hands or face. The effort required to release the air toward the arrow is so slight that a bystander is not apt to notice it happening. But it is enough to change the course of the arrow ever so slightly.

If the archer is able to send the arrow a thousand feet into the distance, and we have managed to deflect the arrow by even one degree, it will land many feet wide of the archer’s intended target, and toward the direction we are trying to encourage.

The archer is the national economy/culture, the arrow is the passage of time, and the puffer of air is, of course, anyone with the audacity to think that his /her life can make a difference.

I would not say that this slow and incremental change over a long period of time is the only change possible. Huge and relatively fast change happens frequently. Think of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, or the end of apartheid in South Africa. Imagine what change will come from the passing of the peak in oil production, or some of the likely results of foolish government policies such as free trade and trade deficits, as well as our attempted military control of the entire globe.

But the slow change is change that each of us can drive. If we have a wholesome view of ourselves, such change will be beneficial to many people. It is less apt to be violent and more likely to be permanent, rather than just being an excuse for the next war. If we have accustomed ourselves to searching out the needs and desires of our hearts and minds, and have learned to judge them and to put the good and necessary ones on the road to becoming reality in our own and our children’s lives, we will by that exercise be better equipped to cope with the change that huge events are going to force upon us, and possibly even turn some of that change to our advantage.

And we are fortunate, because most of us have some kind of ownership and management interest in a business that is biological — part of the great beating heart of the earth itself. We have therefore a tool that is potentially more powerful than any held by any hand in Washington, DC.

How do we use it? I think we start by taking up one by one the common, mundane things we deal with every day as we manage our farms and businesses, and examine them for meaning and opportunity.

We must, for instance, regularly deal with labor. Generally this is our own labor, but also sometimes, and for some of us, that of others. Labor is related to physical work; in fact physical work before the advent of modern machines and technology would have been the entire definition of labor.

The idea of physical work has, in my lifetime, endured a complete change in meaning and significance. It was honorable in 1955; in 2007 it is not, having been replaced in our minds with the idea of games and the passing interest of the outdoor “sports enthusiast.” A farm boy in 1955 would swell with pride at having first kept up with his elders at stacking hay; a farm boy in 2007 expects to “work” in a suit while occasionally “working his body out” in a weight and exercise room.

This compartmentalizing of work in our minds is not so much useful to us rural people as it is a very real marketing opportunity for the economy surrounding us. Because our bodies are less healthy, we are a market for the health sales companies. Since we will not walk, we can be sold gadgets to ride. What we will not put our hands on must be handled by a machine sold to us by a farm technology company. If we soon develop a horror of having to exert hands to control the machine we bought to do the work we didn’t want to do, we can be persuaded to buy a computerized control for that purpose. The entire oversold biotech industry, from the bag of manufactured seed to the needle full of growth hormone, is a triumph of technology over labor and management.

It is important to realize that we have been sold this concept. It is one of the foundations of our entire economy, which functions to delete or at least outsource all labor so that profits may return exclusively to capital.

But when we rural businesses outsource labor, we delete ourselves, and shrink our communities. This is not something we will ever hear from the farm financial advisors. The disdain we have been taught for physical work translates into a knee jerk tendency to always choose technology over labor in the management of our farms.

Richard Levins, formerly an economist with the University of Minnesota, uses four Schedule F-based measurements for farm sustainability. One is the amount paid out for labor, both in terms of the bottom line return to operator labor and management, and the categories for hired labor and custom work hired. These labor costs are put into a ratio with the total expense. Levins concludes that for this measurement, the higher the ratio of labor to the total, the more sustainable the farm. He is right.

Actually getting there is a little complex and involves a route with which we are not entirely comfortable. The deck seems stacked against any move in this direction. This is where it gets discouraging. But remember the one-percent deflection. Take our own example.

Our farm has changed and grown to the point where we have two families living and working on just 320 acres, a situation unheard of here on the prairie. In addition, we are part of the cause for employment of several meat cutters and part of a trucking firm, all local. This works in large part because we have marketed the concept of local support to the buyers of our products.

But this also means we forgo some laborsaving technologies. The livestock housing and handling systems we certify to our customers dictate that we use straw, and therefore pitchforks. The flush toilet system of livestock production is not an option for us. We keep a small-bale baler, because that is the best way to feed calves, and our farrowing systems are based upon straw and grass.

None of this is the most “economical” method of livestock farming, but it is what people seem to want in their meat purchases, and it better fits the choices we want to make in terms of where we invest our money. Nothing is sadder than the farmer who keeps a brand new tractor, but cannot afford decent shoes for the kids or a family vacation.

We do not keep Sunday-go-to-meeting pickups, and we do not trade machinery when we are lean on income for family living. We do keep a skid-loader that is in no danger of being disposed of anytime soon. It helps us cope with this huddle of obsolete livestock buildings. But we also have in the tool inventory a half dozen useable pitchforks that go where the Bobcat cannot. I am instructing my grandsons in the use of these, so that when they get to the situation where fuel for the Bobcat gets to be a problem, they will understand that there is always another way.

Work that kids can do is a way of binding them to the farm so that they can see farming as an honorable occupation. An occupation that uses mind and body both, and helps them imagine their lives proceeding forward on this land and among these people. They must be mentored in this by a respected adult who is not afraid to use his body sometimes, instead of the latest technology. If we are to continue any kind of life here in the country, we must at least demonstrate to our young this difference between us and the culture. This work must be securely fastened to a reward that is both remunerative and satisfying. Youth must be able to see the progression from the well-bedded sow to he thrifty piglet and the healthy bottom line. They must be encouraged to feel the connection between tired muscles and the satisfaction of owning a healthy and valuable calf.

We should remember that many of our kids are very unhappy in the culture and may very well be longing for a respected adult to point another direction. We need a little more confidence in our own ability to lead.

Jim Van Der Pol grazes and direct-markets pork, chicken and beef from his farm near Kerkhoven, Minnesota.