The farm that came to be
by Joel Huesby
The story of "the farm the came to be" began as an idea; an idea that was both ahead of its time and in a very real sense an idea that was also behind the times; both progressive and traditional at the same time.
My family moved out to the farm when I was 12 at the passing of my grandfather. He died in his pickup truck while talking to the hired man, Otto, who is now 88 and lives just below my folk's house. Otto had worked for my grandfather since before my mother was born in the 1930s. My grandfather built a house on the hill above the original homestead when he was first married that my parents now live in. I built a house a little farther out in the field after Cynthia and I got married. Our four children are now the fifth generation on this family farm.
I worked for my uncle through all my school years until I graduated from college in 1986 and began to farm on my own. I thoroughly enjoyed working for my uncle. I have great memories of riding my mare, Peaches, on cattle roundups in the mountains or out in the sagebrush with my cousins. Among the other tasks that helped form the person I am today was hauling wheat or equipment to and from my uncle's other ranch near Baker City, Oregon, baling hay and repairing broken down equipment. I begin with these thoughts because we are all part of a grand continuum from our ancestors through to the very moment you are reading this — and into an unknown future.
I continue to have ideas and plans of what I'd like to see from this farmland like my great grandfather before me back in 1908 when it was mostly sagebrush and bunchgrass. All things change with time. We know that life is dynamic and not static. Some change is harder to accept than others. Our particular reaction to a change or reality we face comes from deeply held beliefs — truths we accept. We carry tendencies toward certain behaviors, which may even be transferred through our very genes as well as environmental influences.
Twelve years ago now I experienced a life-changing moment while out in one of my fields burning wheat stubble. Something clicked in my mind — I had a change of heart — and all of my commodity farming ideas and practices were blown away with the smoke from that fire. I began to cultivate this change by reading many books on alternative or sustainable agriculture, some from University Extension publications written back in the early 1900's. I began thinking differently. At cattlemen meetings I would ask questions which challenged many current practices. Gradually, and perhaps inevitably, these conversations began to create tensions. When I would share my "new" farming ideas with fellow farmers and ranchers, I was generally not well received. What I saw as a solution to decades of farm life erosion, was perceived by much of the "old" farming community as just some radical ideas that would fade once I came to my senses.
What my neighbors didn't know was that I had come to my senses!
Much of the unrest was of my own making, but I knew that if we wanted extraordinary results we must do extraordinary things. I put into practice "new principles" that would shape the future of the farm: giving the soil new life, using non-invasive farming methods, and managing the farm as a living holistic system just to name a few. The fact of the matter was that, however good they looked in theory many of my new sustainable farming practices were, for the most part, failures. Perhaps disappointment was the predominant attitude toward what I had become. An outside perception may have been something like, "He had such great potential and now look at him. That's what happens when you get crazy ideas and run with them." So, for a time, my outward failures were nothing more than positive reinforcement to my farming neighbors that this was not the way to go. I can't blame them. Once a neighbor asked me, "What are you growing?" I replied, "Dirt" which, as it turned out, came to be true.
I think that I am still somewhat misunderstood by many of my neighbors. For several years I had avoided conventional farming wisdom practiced by others and there seemed to be little good coming from it. I did not throw the baby out with the bathwater! But what do you do when the dirty bathwater is drowning the baby? What should be abandoned and what should be embraced? I, together with my family, am building a viable family ranching business where we can enjoy the lifestyle of riding horses through cattle and grass, experience the almost infinite variety of activities with the changing seasons and, most importantly, grow a natural and sustainable food system. I want to share this new farm life in words and actions with others. But in many respects we must first recreate and refashion production and marketing methods to fit today's realities.
Looking back, my farming failures were caused as much by what I perceived was a soil that no longer knew how to feed and clean itself as from my own misunderstandings of living processes. In my opinion, it took many years for the soil to be depleted of precious organic matter and it will take years to fully restore it. This is why it is so hard to begin. The biological transition time may well do you in! But Nature demonstrates remarkable resiliency if left to her ways or only helped along a little. I have witnessed amazing results with my own eyes. Transitioning to organic status is possible and, I now contend, may well become the best farming option for reasons other than biological!
Through these years, my wife, parents, and immediate family were supportive of my farming philosophies and practices. In 1998 I held a family meeting at the kitchen table. I have the notes from what I said at that meeting here in front of me today. I began by describing the current situation — that the fundamental changes pressing upon agri-culture (for it is a "culture") were not fads but trends that have been building for decades. I suggested a "Declaration of Independence" — that we would no longer follow the current "Rules of Living," the paradigm of our commodity agri-culture. Further, I suggested that we adopt a constitution, which outlined the foundational laws on which we would build our future family farm business. Thundering Hooves was born in January of 2000. It speaks to the power of nature, it is the grazing herds on the grasslands, it is the cavalry to the rescue, and it was the sound of my draft horses running by the house at night that sounded like an approaching storm! We find ourselves making a new world within the old. Like rain brings renewal and refreshment to the parched land, our sustainable methods are rebuilding the life of tired soil and giving hope to people who have lost faith in current systems. But with many rainstorms there is lightning. It strikes with force and illuminates a darkened sky. There is risk and danger; there are no guarantees in this new farming business but we can minimize these risks with good planning and execution. We forge on to what we know to be the right path. True sustainability remains to be proven in the long run. Most of the trends are moving in our favor now that we have repositioned ourselves. As a family, we have invested our time, talent and treasure in this idea and are always evolving the areas of production, processing and marketing to their best size and fit for us.
But, a lifetime of work remains before us. Although there are still reservations among many, I am finding a new attitude that is encouraging. I recently talked with a man who worked for the lima bean cannery I used to contract with. I hadn't seen him in 10 years. He asked how I was doing and I told him what I was up to. He also spoke of his concerns about the cattle industry and wished me the best of luck. Comments like these are becoming more common. My message has evolved over the years. I now speak more to the positive aspects that are unique to organic farming approaches and less to the negative consequences of commodity agri-culture and I look forward to continued personal growth.
As we honor many of the traditions of our family farm, we can also be progressive in generating new connections with the soil, the animals and with one another. We are not alone. We are growing new communities, common unities, and finding common ground. And as the days and years continue to pass, I can only wonder what my great-grandfather would think of what has become of the ground he first homesteaded nearly 100 years ago. I choose to believe he would be pleased with the farm that came to be. Let's talk more.
Updated 20 October 2005