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Scratch An American, Find A Farmer

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Old sayings like “scratch a Christian, find a pagan” or “scratch a Russian, find a Tartar,” have a counterpart in agriculture: Scratch an American, find a farmer. There are a whole lot more people involved in farming than generally meets the eye or gets counted in the demographics. For instance, reading the latest (Spring, 2016 edition) Draft Horse Journal, I learned that Leroy Van Dyke, world famous country music star (his “Walk On By” has been named the most popular country music single of all time) lives on a farm and raises mules . He remembers his youth on his father’s 3000 acre farm, where, he recalls, “in 1936 we planted 650 acres of corn with mules.” So much for my notion that horses and mules are only practical on small farms.

This issue also carries a story about Andy Mast, an Amish artist and farmer who is now receiving national recognition for his amazing pencil sketches. Then there’s an article about William Busch, the fourth generation of the Busch family which made Budweiser beer famous. Growing up, he worked on the family farm estate and learned to like farming and breeding horses, which he is still doing. In addition, now that the Anheuser-Busch beer business has mostly been merged out of his family’s control, he has started his own new craft beer business, brewing a brand he calls Kraftig.

I personally know a doctor who maintains a working farm and grows open-pollinated corn. We’ve traded ears of our corn. I just got a letter from another doctor in Idaho who farms and writes newspaper columns too. He has “a few cows, sheep, chickens, dogs and horses including a team.” He is in the process of acquiring a hay loader for putting up hay loose, that is un-baled. Anybody willing to work that hard is a real farmer, I don’t care what else he does. Reminds me of the article I wrote for Farm Journal in 1965: “When Doctors Took Over Farming.” It was reprinted in the Wall Street Journal. It was supposed to be humor but not everyone thought it was funny. Right after that Farm Journal hired me and perhaps doctor farmers were part of the reason.

The most image-busting farm I know about at the moment is Will Witherspoon’s “Shire Gates Farm,” a 660 acre spread raising “animal welfare approved” (AWA) cattle and chickens on pastures, no added hormones, sub-therapeutic antibiotics or feed additives (image from their website above). Witherspoon is a retired pro football player using his money from that part of his life to show how healthy food from healthy animals can be produced very cost effectively without polluting the earth.

N.C. Wyeth, the famous painter, loved to work on his farm. At one time, he took his grain to be ground to the local mill in Chadds Ford, Pa. which is now the museum showplace for his and his son Andrew’s work. The even more famous Andrew grew up on his Dad’s farm and on the neighboring Kuerner farm where he executed some of his most famous paintings. His grandfather was a farm supply dealer in Maine. Still today on the Kuerner farm, the third Karl Kuerner makes his living as an artist and an art teacher but helps his father bale hay in his spare time.

Wendell Berry is a working small scale farmer, I assure you, even now over 80 years old. He has become one of the most revered of American writers. But when I visited him the last time, what he really wanted to talk about was the barn he was restoring for his sheep.

My eye doctor is an enthusiastic farmer in his spare time. The founder of the accounting firm that does our taxes was a locavore farmer before that word was invented. The electrician who wired our house was a spare time lifelong farmer. Another local electrician today is also a farmer. A topflight manager in a local business and a telephone maintenance professional in our neighborhood are both farmers on the side, good examples of the new age agriculture— they farm calendar-perfect farms seriously but not necessarily for money.

Wes Jackson is a world famous scientist and winner of a Genius Award from the MacArthur Foundation. He is shaking up the agricultural world with his work to develop perennial grains that could revolutionize farming and make annual cultivation obsolete. He is actually a farmer growing his experimental plants at his Land Institute in Kansas not so far from the family farm where he grew up. Scratch an American and find a farmer.
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