Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Nicodemus, Kansas: Florence Howard, 79, retired farmer.

I was born and raised up on the farm. Been a farmer all my life. I got married in 1950, the guy I married, he was a farmer and a rancher. He passed away in 2005, and I moved down to Nicodemus, been here ever since. We raised cattle, milo, and wheat. Our farm was twenty-five hundred acres, you know, and we had all type of different machinery to work with.

First we stopped in Bogue.  The wide streets seemed like the set of a wholesome movie, with kids splashing away the 100 degree day in a kiddie pool in a front yard; the banker and the postmistress gave us helpful advice about who would be good to talk to for the project in this area.  This former railroad town was struggling though, especially since the authorities took the train away a few years back.  What is a rail town with no rail?

We went a few miles over to the next township, Nicodemus.  It held memories of being a thriving community, though the population has steadily declined to less than 40.  We stopped into the museum to check out displays regarding what Nicodemus was like when the first African Americans came here to settle in the mid 1800's (it was one of the homestead towns, to which emancipated slaves relocated).  The display that I recall the best was about the first abodes in Nicodemus; there was a lack of wood and folks made there homes in caves and holes in the ground.  There was a diary excerpt of a very disenchanted settler who was shocked to see the first settlers coming out of their caves to welcome the new folks.  

Nicodemus grew fast in industry and soon the transplants were doing business on main street and the first farmers were trying to make sense of the plains.  Every summer there is a big family reunion in Nicodemus for all the town residents (who are mostly related somehow) and their relatives who have since moved away.  A man at the museum told us that it's a terrible place to try to score a date; he found out that a woman he had been pursuing all day was his cousin, a few times removed.

The volunteer at the historical society was most helpful in connecting us with the retired farmer, whom they called Miss Florence.  After peering out the window at the other side of town (there are only three or four streets, with few trees) she ascertained by which cars were parked who was in, she picked up he phone to call Florence.  Not getting any answer did not deter her in the least and she jumped in her car with promises to be right back and sped off to Miss Florence's house.  Miss Florence was convinced to come in shortly thereafter and be interviewed by us, and we were grateful to have her unique perspective.

Miss Florence is a vital resident of Nicodemus who looks much younger than her physical years.  She and her husband farmed until his death and her retirement about 6 years ago, and her son still farms in the area.  She patiently answered all of our questions, and seemed too modest to talk much about any subject that she herself introduced.  Discussing her farming life seemed to wear her out.  She shone with energy and pleasure though when she talked about fishing in the nearby river.  Her portrait is particularly eloquent and beautiful, and I think the look on her face betokens the hard work she's accomplished in her farming life.  

When we asked her if she missed farm life, she said, "Oh, yeah. Mmm hmmm. I was lost when I moved back down here. Nothin' to do. Just sit around visiting, go fishin.' Quite a change."

On the biggest issue of being a farmer:

Money. Money to keep it going, you know. One bank we dealt with was real nice, and the other, they got kind of crazy. Found out they finally went under theyself. We had nice neighbors, one thing I was thankful for. There wasn't very many, at that time there wasn't very many black farmers south of here, and they was way older than what we were. Then they all died out and just left us there.
Click below to read the full interview with Miss Florence!

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Nicodemus, Kansas: Gil Alexander.

I want to be a good farmer, but I also want to be a good steward too...but I’ve got a banker I’ve got to satisfy too, so I’ve got to grow those bushels.

It was hot and dry in Kansas.  And it had been dry for some time.  The farmers here in dryland counties were struggling, having no irrigation infrastructure, and with drought years fresh in their memories.  

As we traveled and made connections, looking for interesting people to talk to and farms to visit, at some point we called Edgar Hicks of the Kansas Black Farmers Association.  Groups and associations often gave us terrific leads and introduced us to farmers that we would never have met otherwise.  Edgar encouraged us to drive to Nicodemus, Kansas, a town 40 miles from the nearest interstate.  When we looked it up on a map, we saw a tiny footprint of 3 or 4 streets upon a backdrop of fields.  In Kansas, in farm country, the roads around the fields are set in one-mile-square grids.

There we met a number of great people, and learned about this historical community, the "only remaining western town established by African Americans during the Reconstruction period following the Civil War" according to its website.  The current population is roughly 40.  More on Nicodemus in the next post.

We met Gil Alexander, whom multiple people insisted we contact.  We met him on his farm in the evening, as the sun was getting low.  Thunderclouds were forming suggestively as we entered his house.  

When the interview was over, we went out into the darkness to take a photo.  Thunder could be heard, and Gil looked up into the clouds, hopefully.  We all smelled the stirred-up dust.  Then it rained.
I’m the family historian.  Whenever an aunt or uncle dies, the trunks all come to my house.  I’m actually fourth generation.  The whole thing was started by that gentleman right up there {points to a photograph}, Sam Garland.  He was a slave in Mississippi, he was half black; his mother was a Cherokee Indian.  They were gonna make a field hand out of him, so he ran off at the age of 14.  Worked on the Mississippi River as a cabin boy, and he eventually heard that Congress was forming the 24th and 25th Infantry in the 9th and 10th Calvary for black soldiers to serve.

Gil is one of few remaining farmers in the area, working about 2,700 acres of wheat, corn, and sorghum.  He is a founding member of the Kansas Black Farmers Association, and with that group is working on several projects.  He feels that they need to create a niche for themselves, as commodity prices and operation costs have not been friendly recently.  Some years ago, the railroad pulled out of town, making it harder and more expensive for Gil and his neighbors to offload their crops.

He is at times solemn and at times jolly as we talk, alternating between discussion of hardships and pleasures.  Like many farmers, he left the farm when he had the chance, and never intended to come back, but ended up in charge when he returned one season.

I’m a flatlander.  I like looking out my window and seeing the town 30 miles away.  While my dad was alive, we ran cattle and I worked at Winter Park Ski Resort during the winter.  I would leave Thanksgiving weekend, and dad could handle cattle by himself, and then about the second weekend of April I’d come back to the farm to work.  Guys out there thought I was nuts, arguably the most beautiful scenery in the world, right?  The Rocky Mountains.  And after about 2 months, man, I was going nuts, I was like, “I need to see what’s over there!”  I just couldn’t see far enough.

We asked about the KBFA and the associated projects, such as the Flour Co-op (he sent us off with a package of pancake mix, made from his white wheat flour and sewn up in a lovely little bag) and the Nicodemus Teff project, which hopes to grow and market teff to the American Ethiopian communities who can not import it from their home country.

[The KBFA] came together through Glickman vs. Pigford.  Remember the lawsuit?  Gosh, my timeline’s probably way off here, probably even 10 years ago.  Tim Pigford files a lawsuit against the USDA for discrimination.  It just went nationwide immediately.  In fact, there’s still some issues with it.  And because of that, we started going to different meetings to learn about the lawsuit.   I never will forget, we went to a meeting in Oklahoma City and I walked into a pretty good sized room, and there were probably 300-400 people there who were black farmers.  Which just blew my mind.  I had never really talked agriculture with  another black person before, it was just strange.  A lot of them were ranchers, still involved in agriculture.

Click the link to read the full interview.  Gil speaks about no-till farming, his wariness of the direction that his type of agriculture is going, and about why he feels so connected to this spot.

When we asked him, as we asked everybody, what the role of the farmer is society should be, he had one of my favorite answers:  

We should be kings.  Seriously, we feed y’all!

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Sisters, Oregon: Lynn Miller, editor, The Small Farmer's Journal

I'm working on an editorial right now, I just came up with something.
Sometimes you just put two words together and you think, well why didn't
I ever think of that before? I'm trying to understand what this means.
It could be good, it could be bad, but it's bouncing around in my head.
And the two words are "civilian agriculture." 

Because what we have had is a military agriculture...not militant, but this
institutionalized, industrialized agriculture has lost its...its
civility, certainly, but it's also lost its civilian aspects. And I
figured, if I'm permitted to stay at this for another 10 or 20 years,
I'll get something right.

In the spirit of Spring we thought we would skip around a little, and share our interview with Lynn Miller of The Small Farmer's Journal based in the idyllic town of Sisters, Oregon. Before I write about Lynn I will set the personal scene. Travis and I met while we were both living in the slightly bigger town to the southwest, Bend, Oregon. Sisters is named after a set of three mountains that tower gracefully in the background, known simply to most as the Three Sisters, or Faith, Hope, and Charity to the more detail-oriented. They stand over the town like good reminders and the folks who live there do seem to have the extraordinary community that can accompany a small mountain town, where the owners of the cafes are also the waitresses and they know all the locals' names. Everyone gathers at the unabashedly Christian-themed coffee house for good coffee, conversation with friends, and a game of checkers on the huge checkerboard, or a rock in the rustic rocking chairs.

Besides being an extremely pleasant town, Sisters is home to the Sisters Folk Festival and a world famous quilt show each year, which makes its population bulge with tourists in the summer.  Trav and I timed our arrival to coincide with the Festival, which is my favorite music festival to be at- there are about 6 stages set up throughout the downtown area and talented musicians play all day and into the night for a weekend, with enough variety to satisfy every ear. We both have friends that are like family to us in Bend, so finishing our trip here was like a big homecoming for Trav and I. I spent that week with 4 girls I had lived with and we share a connection that expands when one of us goes and snaps back like a rubber band when we are all together. It was a week of beautiful weather and friends and music and wrapping up an epic journey across the country.
Back to Lynn Miller of the quarterly publication, The Small Farmers Journal (SFJ). Lynn has his office in Sisters; it is a two story building filled with all kinds of things that could start a thousand conversations. There are racks that hold past and present issues of the SFJ, farming implements, Lynn's own paintings all over the walls, and his office is piled high with papers and books which over the course of the interview he often refers to. Lynn himself is a distinguished-looking man with a white goatee and a cowboy hat.  His bearing and speech are undeniably intelligent and passionate in a dramatic sort of way, a product of a life of "more keynotes and presentations than I care to count."

Lynn started the interview off by telling us who his enemies are and why he considers them threats.  The folks who have brought much popular attention to small-scale and organic agriculture, like the producers of Food Inc. or Michael Pollan, outrage Lynn because he believes that they are creating a fad that will pass away sooner rather than later. Boutique agriculture is my enemy.

The public eye is on agriculture in a way that it hasn't been before as most people are far removed from the farm but the public is getting more and more concerned about food supply, cost, and manner of production.  But he sees a great and inspiring movement amongst people of all ages, a new agrarian momentum.

Those 20-something people that you're talking about, that we're talking
with and to and about all the time, they're about the craft of farming.
Not the industry. The craft. That's what they're drawn to. And
they're drawn to those models, examples, where the craft of the farming
will pay the bills for them, give them the character of a life, a
working life, that they feel genetically drawn to. It's like a
genetic memory.

Lynn feels that popular agricultural celebrities, like Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser, are making capital off of the attention ag is getting without making a substantial difference in the way that people see farmers and farming. Basically, Lynn thinks that anyone who trivializes agriculture is in danger of having the masses lose interest in the "fad" of agriculture that exists right now. Lynn proposes a much more rigorous (and truthful) education for non farming folks, so that they can know that agriculture isn't a trivial matter; survival is what it comes down to.

Lynn gave us some personal history (My mother is Puerto Rican. English is my second language. I grew up in the barrio. I have degrees in the fine arts. I was a professional musician and singer. I was a ballet dancer. I was an actor...) and about how he started the SFJ about 35 years ago. He had experience managing different farm operations, and bought his first farm and team of horses when he was in his late twenties. Farming without tractors was rare and Lynn found that lots of people wanted to know where to get old equipment for horse teams, as well as how to use it. Lynn and his father brainstormed creating a quarterly magazine chock full of information applicable to small scale sustainable farming. The SFJ has an ever increasing following, and with the rising prices of fuel and interest in alternative energy it is sure to keep growing.

Lynn, a regular speech-giver, was one of the most poised and articulate interviewees we encountered.  Read on for the full interview, including insight into agricultural movements, pig roasts, and some poetic views on how we all connect to farming...