I’ve been away the last week inspecting farms. You might imagine that Chump Lady spends her days penning snark about infidelity, but actually, I have a bit of another life as a freelance writer and organic farm inspector. Well, inspector in training. To officially put my shingle out there, I had to do an apprenticeship recently. Texas has no organic inspectors. I’m it. There’s no one in the Lone Star state to show me the ropes. Which meant I had to inflict myself on a group of kind-hearted certifiers in Ohio to knock this apprenticeship thing out.
It’s a weird skill set — giving advice about infidelity and inspecting organic farms — but surprisingly there’s a fair amount of philosophical overlap. Inspecting is all about maintaining integrity. Farmers who are USDA certified organic have promised to abide by certain farming practices and my job is to go there, snoop around, interview them, audit their books, and make sure they’re not cheating. Because, sadly, there’s some incentive to cheat. Conventional produce is cheaper, you could pawn it off as organic and get a higher price. Organic farming requires a hell of a lot more intensive management, and paperwork. It’d be so easy to cut a corner…
I’m pleased to note every farm I’ve ever inspected are committed to organic practices, and several of them are exceptionally inspiring. Verdant, lovely, well-managed.
To me, farmers are a lot like chumps — hard working, faithful, tenacious. I mean, what kind of insane person farms? You plant a field and a hail storms wipes you out, then the same thing happens again next year. And yet, you get back out there and do it again. Fuck it. You replant. Farmers are subject to the vagaries of the market too. One day they’re getting $32 per hundred weight for their organic milk, the next day it’s $14. When I was a newspaper editor, I covered the dairy crisis. Just heartbreaking. In 2008, dairy farmers in New Engalnd were going under, losing $100 a day on every cow. It was too expensive to keep them, and the prices were to low to sell off the herds. These multi-generation farms were just folding up (we’ve been losing family farms for ages, which is another story, but we were hemorrhaging them a few years ago). To farm is to suffer. The highs are high, the lows are low. The hours are long, and there’s no 401K or health plan. I often wonder why anyone still farms. I think it might be bloodymindedness.
Politically, I tend not to align with farmers. Most that I’ve met (in my former life as an ag journalist) are libertarians, and more religiously conservative than I am. But I respect their work ethic. And the graziers are just crazy — you want to have a beer with those guys. (I once covered an event called “graze-a-pa-looza” where the entertainment was watching a man bend frying pans using the “awesome powers of grass-fed beef” and lift an Amish buggy over his head.)
Thursday I shadowed a couple of inspections on Amish farms in Holmes Country, Ohio. I used to live in Lancaster, Pa., so the Amish aren’t a novelty to me. However, the gaudy tourist industry that surrounds Anabaptists committed to “simplicity” strikes me as rather perverse. Any way, I don’t romanticize the Amish. Live in Lancaster, Pa. and you too will feel the queasy discomfort of seeing toddlers cut tobacco. Amish kids quit school after the 8th grade. Yes, they have a choice to join the church, but really, what kind of choice is it when you don’t even have a proper middle school education? There’s quite a bit about the Amish that gives me pause, beyond rejecting buttons as “prideful.”
But these inspections this week, an Amish dairyman, and another Amish vegetable farmer, left me with a newfound respect for their lifestyle. The communality of it. In both inspections, we got to go inside the farmers’ homes. The vegetable farmer was 38 and he had 9 children. His wife was literally barefoot working in the kitchen. His sister-in-law (who looked to be around 15) was also living there with her identical twin one-year olds. So, yes, that’s eleven children in one household. Kids were running in and out, the father would gently correct them in German, or ask them to go fetch things. At one point, we were traipsing around the stables, and there was a little girl of about 4 in the barn, pushing a pram with an infant. Just hanging out. Clearly, there’s no helicopter parenting among the Amish. Childhood looks pretty free-range — and well, fun. I saw kids climbing trees, playing baseball, running around pastures. It looked pretty idyllic compared with the over scheduled, hyper managed, suburban childhood. I know there must be endless Bible verses, hymn singing, and hay baling. But it struck me that the Amish must not have much opportunity to be lonely, unproductive, or away from nature.
And I thought too, how completely at odds they were with our culture — far beyond the obvious rejections of technology. The playwright Tony Kushner has spoken of our era as one of “psychotic individualism” — essentially, I got mine, fuck you, and I wonder what’s on the shopping network? Our culture celebrates and rewards narcissism. Virtues of public spiritedness — joining the Elk’s club, a church committee, a charitable sorority are about as archaic as plowing with horses. Consider the civic structures people built 100 years ago compared with what they build today. Courthouses, schools, churches were built out of hardwood, masonry, and stained glass. Compare that to the cheap vinyl shit you see sprouting as subdivisions on what was once good farm land. Churches that look like strip malls, schools in trailers, government buildings seemingly designed by Darth Vader. What we invest in reflects who we are, our values. Near as I can tell we’re cheap, disposable, and have bad taste in carpeting.
Narcissists treat people and things as disposable. They want the next, new shiny thing and don’t value or invest in the things they do have. Why invest deeply in anything? Why commit? That would mean less kibble production. Let’s suck all the value out of this thing and then flip it! Then we’ll suck all the value out of that and flip that one too! Imagine if your soul were Bain Capital.
The Amish on the other hand celebrate (one might say fetishize) humility. The biggest sin in the culture is to be prideful. To put yourself above others, to put your individual desires over the good of the community. Yes, cults operate this way too — but consider that the Amish have a bishop (communally elected, you can’t run for office) and no church. They worship at each other’s homes and take turns. There is no cult of personality. The Amish are not sparkly people. They’re anti-sparkle.
We joke about them. (Those beards, those outfits, it’s easy to joke). But we lose sight of something rare about the Amish — they endure. People keep expecting them to go under, to disappear. Universities sent sociologists out in the 1970s to interview the “last Amish” — and damn if they didn’t keep existing. They’ve been farming in Lancaster, Pa. for nearly 300 years, many on the same piece of land their great, great, great, great grandfathers’ farmed.
What about our culture will endure? The subprime mortgage crisis? The Kardashians?
I think chumps can take a lesson from the tenacity of Amish farmers. Whatever the calamity, whatever the contrarian culture is doing, they plow forward instead. They replant the land. Every year. Every generation.