When most of us think of Swiss cheese we think of creamy, holey slices on our ham sandwiches. The truth is, Swiss cheeses are as diverse as cheeses anywhere else, coming in all shapes, sizes, forms, and textures. Most common are the traditional Alpine varieties that come in gigantic wheels of sweet, nutty, calcium-rich, deliciousness from which we in America have singularized into those "Swiss" sandwich slices. Recently, photographers Fabian Scheffold and István Vizner have been tromping around the beautiful Swiss countryside photographing these cheese makers. Their description of the cheese landscape in Switzerland sums up the attitude of most artisan cheese makers anywhere:
"The Book about Swiss Cheese Makers began as an editorial project for a journalist friend. " I expected this to be an agricultural trip, meeting people who make a living through the production of cheese in a more or less industrial way, " Scheffold confesses."But fare(sic) from it: I met unorthodox lateral thinkers, visionary fellows, modest canny and successful people living and working in some of the most spectacular landscapes of Switzerland. Some sell their products abroad, inventing a new cheese every other month, some work exactly as they have learned from their fathers, now sometimes just selling to hikers visiting their remote location by chance. But all of them seemed to follow an individual vision they are not willing to betray for growth and money."
I believe that this quotation is an example of an excellent and honest observation of the appeal of artisan cheese making and artisan farming in general (not just in Switzerland) and why so many young people are drawn toward it as a valid career option. We have become terribly jaded by the consequences of an endless pursuit of money. I recently watched the 1980's film Wall Street, made by Oliver Stone as a kind of modern morality tale about the perils of big money. Despite the creative intentions for the film, the reaction of most young, upstart business people at the time was that the film's villain, Gordon Gekko, was a hero, calling out to young businesspeople and showing them the unqualified pleasures of making gobs of money, regardless of the shady ways and shaky ethics this pursuit necessitates. I wonder now, though, in a world with Etsy in it and the New York Times doing pieces on people like this as real business, if Gordon Gekko's famous quotations would fly: "I don't create, I own."
With some, it probably always will, but it seems that the incoming generations are placing a higher value on the benefits of the qualitative aspects of life: a vision that is uniquely their own that attempts to define what a good product and process is over which product and process gives the most economic gain. There is a strong pull among young folks to create for a living over creating money in pursuit of owning for a living. Along with this notion comes the idea that a business is more than a money-generating enterprise. It can have multiple bottom lines. Businesses are accounting for triple bottom lines more and more, looking out for things like impact on people and environmental impact alongside profits. Multiple bottom lines can generate a variety of tangible and intangible values that the business creates and is responsible for; it is at once more complex and diverse than the simple profit bottom line, and yet can yield a drastic cut in the chaos of running a business. It can force it to slow down and can limit the business in helpful ways. In other words, multiple bottom lines can close doors to certain options, making the path that the business needs to take much clearer. One thing this means is that a business often has to be clear about how big it will get from the outset: when a business has unchecked growth it is often at the expense of either people, the environment, or both. We've seen the results of the illusion of infinite growth both in economics and in agriculture. It ends in disaster. That an entrepreneur and business person can draw a hard line about how big his or her company can grow and still be hugely successful and economically viable isn't a new thought in America, but the increased traction is. And it's encouraging. Let's hope we can all become Swiss cheese makers.
Many of us never meant to become farmers. We had ambitions to enter the world as accountants or lawyers or teachers or some other clean, respectable professional. We never really thought about the origins of our food; we always knew that the supermarket shelves would fill themselves, that food came in boxes or cans ready to serve and that farmers were simply one dimensional photographs in the mix of a hot new marketing campaign. Farming was at best some idyllic retirement scheme, never a seriously considered career possibility. But then something happened. In the previously steady route of our lives, a shift occurred. The soil moved under us somehow, got stuck in the creases of our pants, in the ridges of our shoes, in the lines of our palms. Suddenly white picket fences, situation comedies and mutual fund returns didn’t seem so interesting anymore…(Read More)
The other night I was rifling through the internet, looking for bells for our dairy ewes. We have been considering using bells for some time, largely because they add a magical sound to the already magical sight of sheep in a green field, but also because they are quite practical to help find sheep, especially if one has gone astray. In my search, I ran across the video above. As I sat and watched, transfixed by the tinkling bells, vibrantly green grass, peaceful sheep, and the amazing sight of the waterfall that frames a pastoral landscape that would have made Theocritus weep, my sense of awe came to an abrupt, angry halt. The author of the video addresses the sheep, "hi sheep!" which is, of course, adorable. However, her companion, in the background, innocently inquires, "how can you. . . what is the difference between sheep and goats?" [email protected]!)*&^%$#!
Ok, yes, I accept that not everyone has the same interest in livestock that I do, not everyone has made it their business to gain intimate knowledge of the wonderful world of ruminant creatures. But for the love of god, didn't they go to kindergarten? Are farm animals simply not covered in kindergarten anymore, or only in some schools? I am continually stunned by the way many of the adults I have encountered since beginning this endeavor have collapsed "sheep" and "goat" into one being. At least every other time someone asks me about the farm, they ask, "how are the goats coming along?" when these people, my friends, neighbors, and acquaintances, all very smart, savvy people, all of whom have been told that we raise sheep, can't seem to separate sheep from goat. I find this troubling. Honestly, I have no bias here. I've got nothing against goats. I love goats. I plan to keep a goat or two as a kind of farm ambassador for people who want to visit the farm and pet the critters. Goat milk is lovely. Chevre, a fresh delicious goats milk cheese, is a large part of the reason I want to make cheese at all. The first cheese I ever made was a goat cheese. Goats are great. Sheep are super. I make no distinction between them on merit. I do make a distinction, however, between species. Make no mistake, I would not begrudge someone mistaking a baboon for a mandrill the same way I wouldn't begrudge someone for not knowing the difference between a standard TIE-Fighter for Darth Vader's TIE-Advanced X-1 Starfighter (though, those of you who know me well might argue otherwise!) Given that we live as members of the Western World, not central Africa or a galaxy far far away, these distinctions are pure esoterica. No, what is troubling is how very, very disconnected people have become from the very animals that have assisted us in our pursuit of civilization for a millennia. So clear was the division of sheep and goat in the ancient world that St. Matthew saw fit to use the distinction between the two species as a metaphor for the separation of the blessed and the damned!
Are we so far removed from our agrarian ancestry that our brains no longer see the difference between two similar, but altogether different species? Indeed, two species that have shared our history and have helped to form what we are today. It used to be that everyone knew the difference between a white oak and a red oak. Now you're lucky if a person knows the difference between an oak and a pine. Are our livestock going the same way? Will chickens and ducks soon be collapsed together? To put a very contemporary spin on it, I feel like it's as if Paris Hilton were being constantly confused with Ivanka Trump, only, blonde, celebrity, socialite heiresses are not fundamental to the bedrock of human civilization. Who knows, maybe, at the end of the day, the distinction is just as trivial. Frankly, I'm over it already, but I can't help but wonder if perhaps this indistinct perception between sheep and goats is a larger reflection of how our lives have become ill-defined and uncertain; we can no longer make fundamental distinctions; perhaps lines have crossed and blurred on some greater, cosmic level. Or maybe, just maybe, we all would do well to spend a little more time outside, paying attention, and giving attention to the creatures that give us what we eat. But that is just my totally biased opinion.
As many of you out there know, Ross and I are in the throes of building our business plan for our farm. The one topic that keeps coming up in every advisory conversation I have with farmers is the issue of management. Not management of crops or land use, no, that's the easy stuff. It is the management of people that is tricky: employees and interns. This issue seems to be the biggest bone of contention on small farms right now: how to manage interns, how is that different from managing employees, should a farm have employees or interns, how much structure should be used, what kinds of structures, how much responsibility should be given and when, should there be rewards, how do you deal with inevitable mistakes? The list goes on and no one seems to be providing satisfactory solutions.
I've been spending a lot of time thinking about how I have been managed, both on farms and in other "city" jobs. I honestly feel that I have never been well-managed. As I've considered my previous management experiences from the receiving end, I have come to the conclusion that there is one main issue that has tainted each experience: persistent failure to communicate, which in at least three instances lead directly to a passive aggressive relationship between myself, my employer, and co-workers. A secondary issue has been that I have failed to demand, as well as failed to be given employment and internship opportunities that were sufficiently challenging and mentally engaging to keep me there. It is from these experiential threads that I hope to put together a theory of management.
With these anecdotal experiences in mind, I would posit a list of attributes a good pair of hands on a farm must have:
1) a good pair of hands, strong, stalwart, and willing in all cases to work
2) a good mind, one that can make decisions, problem solve, and can process mistakes
3) a good spirit, a person who can learn to use the mind to inform the hands so the mundane can become profound and so that each task can become a joyful one
Never hire someone you don't pay to also think. If you need a lot of menial tasks done, hire a day-laborer or a good kid from the neighborhood. Smart people who have these three attributes in abundance can make outstanding employees. However, in return for their good qualities, an employer must be willing to create an atmosphere where these attributes can fully express themselves. So, in order to attract and keep a good pair of hands, an employer must maintain:
1) clear and consistent lines of communication
2) clear and consistent expectations
3) clear and consistent space for free thought in balance with boundaries
This last guideline needs a bit of explanation. If you want smart people on your farm or at your business, then what they do every day must be mentally engaging, must require them to think hard and think in genuinely creative ways. This creativity can only come from idleness, time and space to sit and think. When we visited Polyface, one of the best things Joel said to me was that the reason Southern farmers are so backwards is that they don't have a winter to sit and think. It's about disturbance and rest all over again, only for the mind as well as for the land. Folks need to do, but then they need time to stop and consider what it is they've done. Without that time and space, we just keep cogging forward while any improvements are either slow to come or accidental; left more to chance than ingenuity and craft, the very things that, as I understand it, are what much of farming is about. But there's a balance. Farmers, I think, would benefit from giving this space, but I think they would also benefit from being hard-line defenders of boundaries. In every business, there are boundaries, indeed, in any relationship: there are structures and lines that do not get crossed without serious consequences. These boundaries on a farm should be wide to encourage creativity and learning, but clearly articulated and fiercely guarded so as to prevent a lack of understanding about one's place.
If you're in the business of growing food, then just grow food: hire labor, manage them conventionally, get what needs getting done done. But with that simplicity comes the burden of being the person who is singularly responsible for the oversight of just about everything, something much too complex for one person to handle well. One can start walking that fine line of micromanaging, and that's really more work than I think anybody really wants to do. Traditional management is great if you want compliance with standards of how you want things done, but if you want a worker who is engaged with the farm (which is what I think most interns crave), self-direction works better. I am in the business of growing food, yes, but also educating: the cultivation of minds goes hand-in-hand with the cultivation of crops. That means being both farmer and teacher, and not a kindergarden teacher, either. Though some interns or employees may have a kindergarden-level knowledge of farming (since that seems to be the first and last time kids get exposure to farms and farm life), they need not be hand-held. Smart people can figure stuff out when asked to; it's the teacher's job to ask. Of course, this gets us no closer to answering the questions of what do we ask our workers to do and more importantly, how do we ask it.
To address these questions head-on as well as to provide evidence for my thinking that goes beyond the anecdotal, I present a "true fact" about management brought to my attention, as with many good, thought-provoking things, by the good people of TED. If you are not familiar with this organization, you should be. In its most distilled version, TED is an organization that gets a bunch of terrific thinkers together to give an 18 minute speech about their work. In this particular talk, Dan Pink gives some real insight into progressive management strategies that I think, both from his "true fact" and my experience, are very worth pursuing as a core to a management strategy:
Mr. Pink deals with the problem of functional fixedness, that is, we see things and define things based on what we immediately know the thing is for. If you are given a box of tacks, then the box is for the tacks and nothing else; it has been predefined. But seeing a box and tacks, where both are tools to help solve a problem takes a certain openness about the task at hand; indeed, as Mr. Pink says, an ability to see the periphery as well as what's right in front of you. Incidentally, the brilliant animal behaviorist Temple Grandin writes at length about how animals do not seem to have issues with functional fixedness; they tend to see things just as they are, exactly what is actually there, whereas we tend to skim the details out through a kind of mental clumping based on a pre-existing definition of the object. An example of this phenomenon is the Gorilla Suit trick. In this video, put together by the University of Illinois Visual Cognition Lab, the viewer is asked to count the number of times the team in the white shirt passes the ball. In the viewer's careful attempt to get the right answer, he or she focuses intently on the white team's movements to the exclusion of everything else that is going on. Try it yourself. Aiming for total accuracy, count the number of passes the white team makes. Then, watch the video a second time, but this time, don't count, just watch. And here's the clincher, once you have seen the whole picture, you can't ever again fail to see it. Don't believe me? Try it. Once you've done the first part of the trick, try to only focus on counting the white team's passes without seeing everything else. You can't do it. The implication of this little example is that once you start to see the whole, you can't ever not see it as a whole: the periphery is as much in focus as anything else. This phenomenon is exactly what Mr. Pink is referring to in his talk. If we give a person a specific task with a specific goal, that person's understanding and ability to work within the whole system is crippled. Sure, we get the correct number of passes, but what is the cost of what we miss in the process?
The point is, we tend to see what we expect to see rather than what is actually there. To echo Mr. Pink, this is not a feeling, this is not an idea, this is a fact. This is exactly what the overwhelming majority of human beings do and it is exactly this tendency that we must fight as we seek to find new and better ways of doing things.
Consider the application of these facts on a farm. Most farms manage interns by teaching a skill, say harvesting beets, and then are asked to repeat that skill in the future ad nauseum. Later in the day, they are asked to plant seeds in the same way they were taught ad nauseum. They are told to then repair a fence, make a delivery, etc. All are straightforward, menial tasks. The problem with these tasks for interns is simple: so often the reward is not great enough for this kind of work to be done correctly, efficiently, and happily. Furthermore, if you were to ask the intern in this situation to manage the whole farm for even a day, six months in, she or he would be likely to have huge difficulties keeping everything in mind. When all the operations of a farm are rote, that is, memorized and repeated, understood only insofar as direct instruction, then that person's total knowledge may be considerable, but it is also fragmented; rendered unstable because it has yet to begin to engage the mind beyond what is a very narrow cognitive scope. The intern in this situation can count the number of passes and can melt the wax of a candle to stick it to the wall, what I disparagingly refer to as the "git-er-done" method of running a business, but at the end of the day, it's not enough. The question you have to ask as that person's manager is "what are they missing?", and more importantly, "am I presenting the information they need to know in such a way that I am setting them up to miss the big picture? Am I inadvertently creating an atmosphere where thinking through something is actually inhibited rather than encouraged?" Interns seem to be constantly taught what to look at, but not how to look. In a nutshell, that is the difference between an intern and an employee. You can give an employee lots of rote farm tasks because you pay them a real wage that directly corresponds to how well they complete tasks. Employees who do more than rote, such as managers, get paid substantially more in kind because you are asking them to both work and think. But based on what I have learned from Mr. Pink, I would posit that you in fact don't have to pay your interns more to get better results. Indeed, you don't even have to have employees who are rewarded with a more substantial monetary gains for work. What I am suggesting is that interns can be more productive at less cost if you engage them in creative decision making processes in tandem with rote tasks. Punishment and reward does not work in an intern situation. You're rarely going to find that gem of an intern who does rote work consistently well without substantial reward. I find, purely anecdotally, that this is especially true the smarter and more educated the intern is.
So, for all these smart, well-educated willing workers coming onto farms, I would suggest using Mr. Pink's three tools for management:
Allow your employees and interns the freedom to manage themselves. This does not mean give them free reign to go nuts, one of the features of freedom is clear awareness of boundaries.
Give employees and interns especially the opportunity to gain mastery over one or more aspects of the operation. Give them responsibilities from the very beginning with guidelines and deadlines for aspects of mastery. Most importantly, give them room to fail. Understand that mastery comes from failures. Mitigate the consequences for failure for the business by scaffolding the task for the intern.
Purpose is everything. Most people work best when they clearly understand the purpose of the task, both in the immediate sense and in a larger sense. Make sure your interns and employees always, always, always understand the purpose of what they are doing on both the immediate and mundane levels, as well as how it serves something greater that is meaningful to them.
Put these three words up on the wall of your office and meditate on the ways you can leverage these tools with the people who work for you. I am keen to try a results-only work environment, or a variant thereof. I am definitely going to work to have 20% time or more for autonomous work. My interest in trying these ideas is not just because they are the product of good science and good reasoning; my interest comes from the fact that these are things that, when I have been least well-managed, I have wanted the most. I think there is something in that intuitive pull worth bringing out into the open. I'll let you know how it goes.
Is Becoming a Farmer the New American Dream? by Makenna Goodman
In the post-Omnivore's Dilemma reality, where farmer Joel Salatin is known far outside his county, it doesn't take a genius to say it: farming has totally blown up. What I mean is, alongside the cultural idolization of growing your own, there has been a notable increase in college graduates who opt to spend their first year out of college on a farm. These, mind you, tend to include (but are not limited to) folks who could otherwise get jobs in the film, art, banking, engineering, psychology, academic, etc. worlds--if they need a job at all. But more than just recent graduates; there is a growing number of young people opting out of school altogether, or on the flip side, actually up and leaving the corporate world after years to start farms, collectives, co-operatives, and even communes. There are kids quitting their high-level jobs in the city, moving to small-scale farms or homesteads in Vermont, and haying their butts off for no pay other than a roof and food (like my friend who worked at the #1 restaurant in NYC, and now picks squash blossoms in South Royalton, VT). And there are a number of flush youths who are cashing in their trust funds--in some cases--for cows. But why? Because unless you invest in a big-organic company that sells to WalMart, there's not much money in farming. It's a touch-and-go kind of life, incumbent on the weather, commitment, responsibility, and hard work. In this economic climate, especially--look at all the dairy farms going under--why is farming becoming a desirable life for young people who have the luxury of choice? Some might say it's a passing trend, like flannel shirts in Williamsburg. Some might say it's because there's a dearth of "real" jobs, and farming is a good interim experience until the economy perks up. But perhaps it's something more profound: you know, a deeper desire to get back to the agrarian life. Or, a more emotional reaction--a re-establishment of home values, a switch in the long-term goals of the entitled, and a deepening need for connection to one's food, and work ethic. Perhaps we're looking at a new world of homesteading, manual labor, and life on the land. A life of farming, in other words. But are these kids real farmers? Because alongside manual labor, some of them might also be writers. Or painters. Or teachers. Some of them might not even sell their food; they're just into living off the earth's bounty. According to Gene Logsdon--to whom Wendell Berry refers as "the most experienced and best observer of agriculture we have"--the answer is yes, they're real farmers. If they're serious about it. If they love it. If they work hard. In his book Living at Nature's Pace: Farming and the American Dream, he talks about this very issue: It seems to me that, living at nature's pace on our little farm, I come closer to making my living from farming in a literal sense than "real" farmers. Carol and I raise most of our food including our meat, and some for other family members, keep a garden almost an acre in size, produce half of our home heating fuel from our own wood, derive most of our recreation and satisfaction from our farm, grow corn, oats, hay, and pasture, keep a cow and calf, two hogs, twenty ewes and their lambs, a flock of hens and broilers, and sell a few lambs and eggs. I'm sure I spend more time living on our farm than any industrial farmer in our county does. When they are not golfing in Florida or fishing in Canada, they spend a lot of time in the coffee shop or in my office telling me how farming is going down the drain....But urban people are also bringing agrarianism back to the cities. Developers build subdivisions that look and function like yesterday's villages or neighborhoods. Gardens and home businesses are planned into the landscape, as are nearby retail and service shops. Some communities even utter the almost forbidden words, "neighborhood schools" again. New neighborhood houses of worship in the ghettoes, small and humble and unassuming, return in the shadow of the abandoned cathedral-like churches. A surge of market gardening and farmers' markets recalls those years not so long ago when thousands of tiny truck farms, using horse manure for compost in their hotbeds and coldframes, supplied their cities with vegetables and fruits nearly year-round. The term "urban farming" turns out not to be an oxymoron. Chicago is even encouraging animal husbandry as part of its urban farming projects. In the heart of Cleveland, in the shadow of skyscrapers, horses plow garden plots. And with the returning agrarian spirit comes its wonderful offspring, agrarian ingenuity [....] I think I hear a faint rustle under the blacktop of shopping center parking lots, under the abandoned animal factories of yesterday and those yet to be abandoned tomorrow. Not only are the weeds pushing up through the cracking pavements, making way for the trees, but the irrepressible agrarian impulse is pushing through too. As long as humans are free to follow their hearts, there is hope.
I've already spoken at length about my feelings about this trend-cum-movement among the young, educated, and well-resourced. Yes, there are some who aren't cut out for farming and who are in it for the "romance" or the desire for a meaningful, post-college "experience." These folks will either become disappointed and move on to other things, or they will fall in love and spend their lives in the service of that love, no matter the hardness of the work. I'll say it again, current farmers must be willing to teach their craft and engage the young and talented. To quote Joel Salatin, "if we don't romance the next generation into farming, no one is going to do it." We as farmers must be receptive to the wooing of our many suiters.