guest essay: a viable vocation
A Viable Vocation by Kathryn Miller – Blackbird Farm
My story: If you count the suburban backyard that I filled with vegetable boxes, a chicken coop and goat barn in 2013, then I have been farming for about 3 years. But, I have been farming in my heart and mind for over 50 years. Stories and experiences from my childhood imprinted on me in such a way that farming was an identity that I claimed early in my life… or perhaps it claimed me. As I came of age in the late 60s and early 70s, I embraced the “back to nature” movement and began to devour every how-to book on the subject of self-sufficiency and “living off the land”…. books like the Foxfire series and Back to Basics still fill my bookshelves.
I married at age 19 on the promise of a life homesteading in Alaska, but several events altered those plans. However, I still persevered in my journey towards becoming a farmer. I had short but meaningful experiences with farm life during my early years of marriage and got a good taste of working with the soil and livestock. My husband was supportive but clueless when it came to farm life, so I was the spearheading force in those endeavors. Our farming was more of homesteading and it seemed to always be in brief spells interrupted by years of city life driven by income needs. I had an exceptionally long period of 25 years without farm life and I spend those years dreaming, planning, researching and longing for it. As my husband can attest, I was not a contented human being during that time. We lived in several different places… all in lovely suburban sub-divisions. During those years, I enhanced my skills by attending classes at a local community college and earned a certification in landscape management, which was as close as I could come to a farming related education. I worked odd jobs at plant nurseries, mowing yards and as a landscape designer. I also began using my talents as an artist in the field of graphic design, ultimately creating my own business designing and producing custom stationery and invitations. (Needless to say… many have garden and farm animal themes.)
Other than a very nice residence, there was no infrastructure in our new location to support farming. We spent the first year building barns, installing fencing for livestock and trying to improve the extremely poor quality soil. Within 12 months we officially became Blackbird Farm. Currently our only source of revenue produced from the farm is through livestock sales. We raise dairy goats and this year we have pre-sold several kids. Next year we will double our numbers of expected kid offerings. Our state laws do not allow for direct sales of raw goat’s milk but does allow for a “herd-share” type program for providing milk to individuals who lease a share of our herd. We are in the planning stages of expanding our facility to accommodate that program. We are expanding our small flock of chickens to enable us to sell fresh eggs. Our garden experiment last year was minimally successful and our plan this year with the improved soil, is to produce enough to offer a CSA type service to a very limited number of customers. We believe in starting small, staying out of debt and producing quality over quantity. Our next planned source of revenue is to create educational programs, offering training for those interested in learning skills for small scale farming. We will start with training workshops in small livestock farming and then incorporate other workshops into our repertoire.
Though our scope is small, we believe that the future for sustainable agriculture is in the “small” farm and if you are not fortunate enough to have 10 acres or 100 acres, you can still achieve the desires of your heart as a farmer right in your own backyard…. Although from experience I can tell you 2-5 acres are a whole lot better than a suburban backyard.
I think the key to our future generations’ support of women in farming is for our children to be taught what farming actually is and to see that it is truly a viable vocation for women. In order for small scale farming to survive, I also believe that the key is to educate our children about what REAL food is and the COST of real food. I would love to see a teenager from an affluent suburban family sit down to eat at an upscale restaurant and be informed enough and concerned enough to ask the questions: “Was this meat from animals raised on grass or in a feed lot? Was it humanly slaughtered and then butchered in clean conditions, untainted by diseased and manure covered animals? Were these salad greens organically grown on a local farm or commercially raised with chemicals and trucked in over thousands of miles?” I would like to have them understand the reality that the scoop of ice cream they ordered for dessert cost the farmer countless hours and extensive financial resources. Starting with the conception of a calf or goat kid, to their birth and then the years required to raise it to a breeding age. Then after breeding, the months of gestation, the resulting birth and finally the lactation required to produce the milk and cream needed as the ingredients for the smooth cold confection they casually enjoy and consume in mere minutes. REAL food comes at a REAL cost and if we want to enjoy healthy and quality food, we should be willing to pay what it is worth. We need to waste less and consume less with an emphasis and appreciation for quality over quantity, convenience and cost.
Public education about food and its source is foundational for the future success of REAL farming. We must also continue to work to remove the governmental restrictions to; women in farming, small farming in general and supplying farm products to the consumer. Then, maybe women operating small farms that provide high quality products will be the norm in our society rather than an oddity.
The Female Farmer Project is part of the pivotal role that public education plays in awareness and support of today’s REAL farmers. As a woman with the confidence of finally being able to call myself a farmer, after waiting and dreaming for half a century, I am honored to be a part of this sisterhood that will change the face of farming in so many more ways that we can currently grasp. So keep up the good work and plow on ladies… plow on!
My deepest gratitude to Kathryn for sharing her story with us. You can find Kathryn, Blackbird Farm and her goats here
Images courtesy of Kathryn Miller
Originally published February 29, 2016