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.”