Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Farming On MY Prayer Bones

I originally wrote a version of this article in 1994, a few years after I had started Glen Eco Farm. I hadn't attempted writing anything since college days way back in the early 1970s. I had spent several days diligently working on the manuscript with thoughts of sending it to one of our church publishers or maybe to some small "country living" magazine. Finally I proudly handed it to my oldest daughter (then in her senior year of high school) for her evaluation. Her response: "You have got to rewrite this! Its full of word junk!" She then proceeded to go through the document marking out what seemed like 3/4 of the content and writing in suggested changes. "For gosh sake" I protested. "Its no longer my writing!"

I printed off one hard copy and then laid the thing aside for awhile with the honest intentions of working on it again another day. Before long a busy spring season took my mind away from writing and the saved file containing the article eventually went the way of virtually all used computers after one has had them for several years.

Ten years and several computers later I got inspired once again to resurrect "Farming On My Prayer Bones". Copies of my original writing, both electronic and hard copy, were no where to be found. I decided to rewrite the whole thing as much as I could remember and several weeks after completing a draft that I felt fairly satisfied with, I found myself at a sustainable agriculture conference in Pennsylvania, shaking hands with the publisher of a small circulation country magazine from the heart of Amish country in central Ohio. "Sure, send me a copy! I would like to see it" he replied. "Farming On My Prayer Bones" became my first and thus far only attempt at writing for publication. It appeared in the summer edition of "Farming Magazine-Land,Community,People" in 2006.


Farming On My Prayer Bones

About ten years ago, I had just finished spending a long morning down on my knees weeding a large strawberry patch and putting in transplants. I had come in for lunch and one of my brothers in law had dropped in for a short visit. Noting my morning activity, he told a story he had recently read about some naughty boys who had tried to get revenge on a neighbor by seeding his strawberry patch with hay chaff from his barn floor. The boys had gotten caught and had to pay for their mischief by spending much of their summer vacation down on their “prayer bones” undoing the results of their misdeeds. My own knees were feeling a little sore at the time, and the threadbare condition of my blue jeans bore witness to the reality that I too had been “farming on my prayer bones”. The metaphor appealed to me and gave me the idea for writing this story.

My story begins on the family dairy farm that I took over in 1975 and operated for sixteen years until a chronic and debilitating illness forced me to sell out in early 1992and begin anew with a different style of farming built on principles of healing and sustainability. The five year struggle with this illness literally brought me to my knees both in an attitude of humility concerning my abilities and in practice as I performed much of the work on my new farm, transplanting, weeding, and picking vegetables on my prayer bones. The story continues with the lessons and observations I’ve made while transitioning from the style of farming which wrecked my health to the style of farming which is restoring it.

I took over the management and work of the family dairy farm immediately following my return from an overseas agricultural mission assignment with the Mennonite Central Committee in the mid 1970’s. I was working with my dad in a partnership which began with me providing most of the labor input and he carrying all of the real estate and most of the capital investment. It was a typical conventional farming operation, following the pattern of most dairy farms in Virginia. I grew silage corn and alfalfa hay in the summers and immediately following the corn harvest; I would plant rye for a fall and winter cover crop which was often harvested for silage the following spring. The fields would then be sprayed with a mixture of herbicides, insecticides, and chemical fertilizers in preparation for planting the corn crop into the dead rye stubble without further tillage. Most of the crops were put into silos for feeding throughout the year along with a little hay and pasture. Our 50 Holstein cows spent most of their time in a free stall loafing barn and were milked in a modern milking parlor.

Like most dairymen, I constantly struggled to control numerous herd health problems endemic to modern dairying: mastitis, milk fever, ketosis, uterus infections, cystic ovaries and various foot and leg problems. These herd health problems resulted in my need to cull cows nearly as fast as I could raise replacements. Though I felt that these problems were environmentally related to the way we handled cows, I accepted them as a normal “cost of doing business” in modern dairying.

As my dad got older and less able to work, I systematically bought into the operating capital and took on increasingly more of the most difficult, dangerous, and dirty work. On two occasions in the 1980’s I became acutely ill following massive exposures to airborne molds while working inside silos. The first time I toughed it out. The second time I went to the doctor three days later when I realized that I wasn’t getting better. I now believe that these illnesses set the stage for the multifaceted illness that would put me out of the dairy business a few years later.

In the late 1980’s, came a major and much needed remodeling of the milking parlor, expansion of the cow loafing barn, and installation of a computerized supplemental feeding system. Despite the upgrading of the facilities, I still found myself disappointed with improvement in the work load or the herd health problems and knew that the production model I was following was still seriously flawed. The long hours of frustrating and strenuous work impressed on me the realization that I was still spending too much money and energy putting out the fires caused by an unhealthy environment, both for the cows and for myself. I tolerated this situation primarily because it was the norm for all the dairymen I knew in our part of the country and because I was deeply invested in the operation and breaking out of the pattern seemed difficult and risky.

It was during these years that I had begun reading Rodale Institute’s New Farm and other magazines devoted to sustainable agriculture, and had been inspired to experiment with farm scale composting, alternative soil management practices, and more intensive pasture and crop rotations. I began adopting integrated pest management (IPM) practices which allowed me to reduce by 50% and more my use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides on the crops. I learned to use hot water baths and “Absorbine” veterinary liniment on swollen udders to reduce the need for antibiotic treatment of mastitis. In response to improved herd genetics and better control of feed utilization, the herd’s production climbed steadily. I took pride in my work and saw my farm as at least partially successful in transition to a more sustainable operation. Compared to other dairymen in this area, I was among the more successful (as measured by milk production per cow). Deep down I knew that I was headed for an eventual breakdown or burnout, but I continued to press on, assuring myself that I was doing some things right, was physically strong, and could take anything. Little did I realize that major changes in my life were about to occur as the 80’s drew to a close.

The first hint of trouble began during the winter of 1989 when I developed a dry and persistent cough. At that time I was tearing apart and hand feeding to a group of calves some large round hay bales with a few moldy spots. I suspected then that my exposure to this hay mold might be causing my cough but I didn’t become concerned because I was otherwise not feeling sick.

The symptoms gradually worsened during the following year, leading me first to the family doctor, then to an allergy specialist without any fruitful resolution to the problem. Two years after my illness began it reached a climax with a four day hospitalization in late September of 1991. I would later tell people that on the day that I entered the hospital, “I felt like I had chronic fatigue syndrome, smoke inhalation, and a nervous breakdown all rolled into one”. All diagnostic tests were negative except for one which indicated that I had reactive hypoglycemia, a condition exacerbated by stress and my other underlying illness, I would later learn. I was discharged from the hospital with a diagnosis of “Panic Disorder” (a type of psychosomatic illness) and a nerve medicine prescription which I refused to have filled. I then proceeded to seek out a clinical ecologist in Washington DC who diagnosed “multiple environmental sensitivities” (also known as “environmental illness”) brought on by long term and frequent exposures to molds, diesel fumes from tractors, and various other chemicals used around the farm.

I knew then that I would have to get off of the farm and proceeded to hire someone to do my work for the remainder of the year until I could complete arrangements to have an auction sale for the liquidation of the dairy on Jan 1, 1992. God had allowed my farming career to be derailed and would soon be setting me on a different track. The long journey up the road to healing was about to begin.

One of the hardest challenges for me in the coming months and years would be to face my vulnerabilities. I had been raised to endure pain and discomfort and to not complain or back off from work because of minor illness or injury. A few years earlier I could pick up 200 pounds and walk away with it. Now I could feel thoroughly exhausted walking a short distance to help one of my children collect a few leaves for a school science project. Once I could work in any kind of hot, dirty, and smelly situation. Now all it took was one whiff of a woman’s hair spray or body perfume to send me fleeing out of a church service in search of an open window or door where I could stick my head out for fresh air. The world I lived in had apparently become a hostile place where I could no longer go anywhere or do anything, including being inside my own house, without finding myself reacting. Many times I could be reacting and have no idea what was causing it. Doctors had proved themselves to be of little help. Well meaning family members would try to convince me that I needed to “get in control of my emotions” or to “go get some exercise”. Sometimes I could sense the Devil taunting me with the thought that I would probably continue feeling like this for a few more years until I would die with something like cancer. Several times I wasted money on questionable alternative health modalities in a desperate search to get relief. I found some solace in reading the book of Job and being assured that I was not the first person in history to go through this kind of experience. At least I still had a good wife and healthy children. It was even still possible to find someone who would pray with and for me. Then there would come times when some of the symptoms would go away and I would feel healthy again. It was these periods of remission that gave me hope and carried me through the numerous periods of relapse that would return during the following months and years and occasionally still happen even today.

I now end the account of my journey through environmental illness to tell the story of my transition from being a conventional dairy farmer to becoming the ecologically oriented market garden farmer that I am today.

In order to adequately articulate the magnitude of adjustment I had to make in my thinking as I made this transition, I will quickly summarize my background of involvement in agriculture. My parents both came from a farming background, and they in turn reared their family on a farm where I learned to do farm chores from early in my childhood and began driving tractors around 12 years of age. I took vocational agriculture classes in high school and was an active participant in the “Future Farmers of America” organization. Following high school, I attended Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, one of the better known land grant agricultural universities in the nation, and earned a BS degree in Dairy Science and Agronomy from that institution in 1972. I spent the next two years in Bolivia teaching Bolivian farmers and Mennonite colonists to care for dairy livestock which had been imported to Bolivia through the Heifer Project International organization. Following the Bolivia experience, I returned to run the home farm for the next 16 years. Shortly after I had liquidated that farm in early 1992, I attended a sustainable agricultural conference or two and did some reading about alternative agriculture in an effort to prepare myself for the new style of farming I was about to undertake. Only then did I come to the humbling realization of how pathetically little I actually knew about agriculture! It is now 12 years later and I still feel that I have much more that I need to learn.

I started out small, feeling very much that I didn’t know what I was doing, but I did it anyway. I began by planting some perennial crops like asparagus and raspberries and a modest variety of conventional garden vegetables which I sold at a local farmers’ market two days per week. From my experience as a dairy farmer, I knew lots about producing but nothing about marketing. As a novice market garden farmer I had a strong tendency to overproduce certain items and would end up running around town and walking into the back doors of restaurants hoping to sell them some of my surplus. Invariably I still ended up giving lots of good stuff to local soup kitchens and food distribution centers. I pretty much learned by the seat of my pants the intricacies of retail marketing and how to talk to restaurant chefs. Later I added to my marketing venues by starting a Community Supported Agriculture Program and by accommodating Kurdish immigrants who began appearing at my farm gate preferring to buy produce directly from my farm.

As I grew in my hard won knowledge about what does and doesn’t work in marketing (and also growing things without weed and insect killing chemicals), I developed a deeper understanding of the needs and wants of people and the need to understand and appreciate the interconnectedness of people of all racial, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds. A similar interconnectedness also exists among the complex mixture of microorganisms, plants, insects, birds, and animals found in a farm ecosystem. Understanding this interconnectedness goes a long way towards one’s success in managing and cultivating a healthy diversity among the diverse life forms on the farm without having to deal with pests (any life form which can harm crops) by applying toxic materials (the equivalent of warfare). Likewise among the human population we are sometimes affected by pests (any fellow human being or group who offends or threatens us in any way). Our choice is to respond with force (complaining, litigation, or warfare) or something gentler like peacemaking (mediation, forgiveness, or nonexclusive defense tactics). Like the farmer who has to accept some pest damage in order to avoid spraying toxic chemicals on his farm and thus putting himself and others at risk of toxic exposures, we also are challenged to absorb some injury from other persons without striking back at them and risking our own peace of mind and soul. As a practicing organic farmer I have learned that some weeds are even more nutritious as food and possess greater healing properties than many of the crops I cultivate, and if managed appropriately, can do other beneficial things like cycling soil nutrients, and providing habitat for beneficial insects and wildlife. Some pestiferous insects are needed to support beneficial insects, bats, and birds. As we transfer this understanding to our interpersonal relationships we can then realize the extent that we need one another, need to appreciate and cultivate our diversity, be patient with our differences, and forgive when necessary. Thus an organic farm becomes a good laboratory for learning the principles of applied peacemaking needed in many of our interpersonal and international relationships.

Having learned in a new way the reality of interconnectedness of the various elements of a farm ecosystem and how that relates to how humans interconnect with each other and to the natural world, my next step has been to enter more deeply into the concept of relationship marketing and building of community. Many of the problems affecting modern agriculture and the environmental degradation so well known in our world have to do with the separation of people from their agricultural roots and indeed the natural world itself. This loss of connectedness has been hastened by widespread industrialization throughout modern civilization, especially the industrialization of agriculture. This has resulted in increasing tensions and alienation between the urban and rural elements of our society as they now increasingly encroach upon each other’s space. I now find myself seeking ways to restore that broken connectedness by building bridges of understanding and relationship to my urban and suburban customers.

This process started when I stopped letting the milk processing plant market my product and I began producing something which I could sell directly at a farmers’ market. I was now free to invite my customers to come out and visit my farm if they desired to do so and it wasn’t long until some actually did that. Later on as I began organizing the Community Supported Agriculture program, this process took on new meaning as the process of building closer relationships with my customers became a primary purpose and focus of my work. Offering some of my CSA clients the option of working on the farm for a part, or their entire share, became an essential part of making the operation of the CSA program possible. Then the Kurdish immigrants began coming. The result has been the formation of numerous new friendships, not only with neighbors from a nearby city, but also with people from the other side of the world. This has indeed become an enriching and gratifying experience to know that I am not only healing physically, emotionally and spiritually, but I am also contributing in a small way to the healing of our society and world. This is well worth the price of sore knees and worn blue jeans.

Whenever I work on my knees, my thoughts go back to the rural conservative Mennonite church my family attended years ago during my childhood. That church had a custom that would appear to many modern folks as peculiar and quaint. During the course of a typical Sunday morning worship service, when a call was made for a congregational prayer, the congregants would turn around in the pews and kneel on the floor, facing towards the back of the pews with their arms resting on the hard wooden benches as the prayer was led. I vividly remember this somewhat uncomfortable yet humbling exercise.

In a sense I had to do something similar when I transitioned from dairy farming to the kind of farming I do today. God brought circumstances into my life that made it necessary for me to turn around and to face a different direction, looking backwards and taking some cues from the wisdom of earlier generations, not only for the restoration of my health, but also for the healing of my farm. I not only had to turn around and face another direction, but I also had to get down on my prayer bones in order to see what God needed to show me and to be humbled enough to be teachable.

At a time in my life when most people are moving forwards and growing their businesses and financial investments, I had chosen to divest and to start over on a smaller farm and at a much smaller scale of operation. I had sold most of my tractors and equipment and was now preparing to set out on a new farming endeavor with little more equipment than the average suburban homeowner owns for the maintenance of his yard. Occasionally during the first years following my departure from the dairy farm, I would walk onto other farms, look at all the equipment they had, and realize how radically I had divested. Then when I would go home and go out to my field to pull some weeds I would feel small and somewhat ridiculous and wonder if I had downsized too far.

My little farm has an 8 acre field alongside an 800 foot road frontage where I planted my first market garden. From the vantage point of one driving up that road in a pickup truck, the field looks small. It was in this field that I first began kneeling on the ground to plant rows of strawberries, raspberries, tomatoes, broccoli, and lettuce in little subdivided patches, making the field to appear even more diminutive. A year earlier I had traversed that same field with a 90 horsepower tractor pulling a four row corn planter. Now as I knelt on my knees in the middle of that field which looks so small from a pickup or tractor seat, I couldn’t help but notice the difference in perspective that one gains when he comes down off that tractor and sees the same field from on his prayer bones. What a difference it makes to move one’s vantage point from nearly eight feet above ground to eighteen inches above ground!

The first thing that always hits me when I set out to weed a 200 foot long by 20 foot wide strawberry patch, especially if the weather is a little hot, is how big it appears from down on the knees. Now 200 x 20 feet is hardly enough width and distance to get a tractor turned around and well revved up, but while kneeling on your prayer bones that little plot can look as big as a Texas ranch.

The other big difference a farmer experiences while looking at his land while on bended knee is what he can see, hear, and sometimes feel going on near the surface of the soil. Now he can see and hear earthworms, ladybugs, spiders, ground beetles, bees, and other interesting creatures going about their busy lives and know that their presence means that the soil ecosystem is alive and well. He can enjoy the sweet aroma of healthy soil instead of enduring the acrid smell of diesel fumes. He can be warmed by the sun shining on his back and at the same time be cooled by the dampness of the moist earth. While kneeling on his prayer bones in intimate contact with the land, he is closer to God, and in an appropriate position to communicate with Him in an attitude of humility and gratitude. In this position God can give the farmer the guidance he needs to cultivate his land in such a way that it nourishes and sustains all of the life that lives on it. The guy on a tractor easily misses much of this.


One can now ask. “What effect does farming on our prayer bones have on our lives?” It has much to do with our feeling of intimacy with the earth, our quest to understand and work with the natural realm, and our reverence for the God who created it. Like the small child who finds comfort and nurture while sitting on his mother’s lap, soothed by the sound of her voice, her breathing, and her heartbeat, the gardener can kneel on the bosom of God’s good earth and sense the vibrant pulse of life carried on by the myriad variety of microorganisms, insects, birds, and animals living there. Feeling nurtured by this good earth, he can respond by recycling organic matter, and by using discretion in decisions to do anything that might endanger the farm’s complex ecosystem. As we try to comprehend the incredible complexity and diversity of a healthy web of life in and near the soil and also throughout our farm and the universe, we are humbled to an appropriate level of smallness and honored with the awesome responsibility to treat this land and all who depend upon it for their sustenance with love and respect. It is our hope that the efforts we expend here plus our personal witness and testimony, will point others to God.
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