I grew up in a rather stereotyped suburb of New Orleans. Except for residents' last names, which reflected the post-World War II migration out from the city center, it could have been a suburb in Chicago, Cleveland, Denver, or any other American city. Suburban kids learned early that food came from grocery stores and supermarkets. An uncle had a small farm across Lake Pontchartrain, and we visited a time or two. There’s even a picture of five-year-old me on a horse to prove it.
Decades later, I found myself working for a company in the agriculture business. I had one the best jobs imaginable – I gave money away. For years I traveled back and forth across the country, funding programs for wheat growers, corn growers, soybean producers, farm youth, farm broadcasters, and more. I’d visit farms, tour grower associations, and visit research centers. And I’d attend their conventions – in Nashville, Des Moines, Reno, Denver, San Diego, Orlando, Phoenix, and more. Once I was even forced to spend a week – on business – in Honolulu.
I was a latecomer to agriculture and farming, but once I was in it, I learned that farming is something for life. Even when you retire from it, you still pay attention.
Brian Miller came to agriculture considerably earlier. I found his blog, A South Roane Agrarian, through a site called Front Porch Republic. Miller posts weekly about weather, raising cattle, sheep, and pigs, weather, farm life, neighbors, weather, crops, life in rural East Tennessee, family (he’s a southwest Louisiana boy), weather, and more. Oh, did I mention weather? (No one in the planet is more concerned about weather than a farmer. That’s true for every culture, climate, and continent.)
The book arm of Front Porch Republic has published Miller’s first book, Kayaking with Lambs: Notes from an East Tennessee Farmer. The title is based on a true story. Yes, it may not be the most expected of activities on a farm, but kayaking with a lamb can happen, not unlike the Biblical story of leaving the 99 and searching for the one lost sheep. Except in a kayak.
Miller’s farm is not Big Agriculture. It’s diverse, not monoculture. It’s him, his partner Cynthia, and (usually) one of the neighbor’s farm kids. And, as he points out, there’s a huge difference between a farm kid and a kid raised on a farm. If you get a choice, always, always hire the farm kid. That’s the one with the work ethic.
With Kayaking with Lambs, what you walk into is a world animated by the values of family, faith, neighborliness, caring for the land, and respect. These aren’t the values of contemporary culture; they are the values the culture has forgotten and for which we’re already paying a tremendous price.
There is a structural emphasis upon the sacredness of the life Miller is describing. The book is organized by eight of the monastic offices of the day, combining Vigil and Matins under Matins. Without ever becoming overtly religious, that organization tells you much about the thought animating each entry in the book. There is a time to be watchful, to pray, to work (and work hard), to rest, to celebrate, to mourn, and to cherish. This is a sacred business to be about.
Miller doesn’t romanticize farm life; it’s extremely hard, physically, emotionally, and mentally taxing labor. But it’s the life he’s chosen, the life he lives, and the life he obviously enjoys. Even with the freezing nights when you find your arm inside a ewe struggling to give birth.
Since 1999, Miller and his partner Cindy operate Winged Elm Farm in eastern Tennessee, supplying pork, ham, mutton, and beef to customers in Knoxville and Chattanooga. And he updates his blog weekly (I subscribe to it, so I had some idea of what this first book of his would be like).
Kayaking with Lambs is already one of my top five favorite books of the year. It’s written with humility and self-understanding, and with a deep love of the land and the work that’s organized upon it. It’s also written with a strong sense of dry wit; I found myself often smiling and occasionally laughing out loud as I read it.
Some Monday Readings
The people who ruined the internet – Amanda Chicago Lewis at The Verge.
John Thomas Smith’s Rural Cottages – Spitalfields Life.
A Blank Page – poem by Jerry Barrett at Gerald the Writer.
Employers are fed up with college ‘waste,’ opt for skilled blue-collar workers instead – Taylor Penley at Fox News Business.