Of Farms and Fables combines the efforts of professional and non-professional artists by engaging artists in farm work and farm workers in storytelling and acting. The result will be an original performance in October of 2011 which will engage performers and audience in dialogue about local agriculture, farming, and the future of small family farms in Maine.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

What Concerns Everyone (Cory)

Last time I saw Eddie, he told me to look out for Benson cows in Germany. They're here, though he says even he wouldn't know how to find them. I haven't run across one yet, but this summer's experience on the farms continues to resonate with me in many ways even all the way across the pond.

When I walk down the produce aisle in the German grocery stores I frequent, in Netto or Lidl or Aldi, I am very aware of the Ursprung of the potatoes and the tomatoes, the peaches, the onions. Germany? Italy? New Zealand? It doesn't mean that I stick with only German products, but when I do buy nectarines from Spain, that's a choice of which I am conscious. It's clear that the local/organic fad is here, too, and it's similarly complicated (people tell me, for instance, that you can't necessarily trust a food item marked "BioBio" or "├ľkologische" to be organic, due to wide disparity in controlling and evaluating organic farming). I've had a surprising, to me, number of conversations in Berlin about eating locally and eating organically -- are people here more aware of some of the food-related issues the OFAF team started to consider this summer? Or is it just that I'm more aware? It's hard to tell. But I am definitely more aware. And I feel that my perspective on food, the way I think about it, purchase it, and prepare it, has changed. Permanently, if not massively. As someone who as of six months ago saw nothing but price tags in the grocery store, I feel excited about this change in myself because it seems to me an indication that just opening the dialogue is a big step. I mean, really all that did it was getting to know some farmers and hanging out on some farms for a while.

From two months' distance, these themes and surprises rise to the top for me:
  • Farming is a job. A farm is a business. (Small farms have to find their niche to survive.)
  • For a small farmer, farming must also be a lifestyle. (No vacation, or not REALLY.)
  • Tradition is significant, as is the breaking of tradition. Farmers are not stuck in the past, but they are certainly in dialogue with it.
  • Working extensively on or owning a farm gives you a close and unique relationship with the life cycle.
  • There is no set definition of "farmer." (Pride.)
  • Farming is a rollercoaster of emotion.
  • Each generation on a farm has a tough decision to make.
  • Farming is about family. Growing up on a farm is something special.
  • There is no easy solution to the difficulties these farmers face. It's all complicated.
And these images: Bright vegetables and faded clothing. Early morning mist and dew so that everything looks old or like a dream. A July afternoon when everything sticks to you -- straw, your clothing, sawdust, cat fur, the smell of dung -- and small blisters pop out on the palm of your hand under the hoe. When it's too hot to talk. White shirts showing scrubbed-in dirt. Picking a lemon cucumber and eating it, in the field, with its prickles and its cool watery insides that quench thirst. (Cool as a cucumber. How is it that cucumbers really are still cool on a ninety-degree day?) A sick cow, the way her eyes turn glassy, the way the fight comes back into them after an IV. Or the deep sleep of cows -- a cow passed out with her tongue lolling from her mouth, Ryan pulling on it, the cow sleeping on. Tali in his hooded sweatshirt and thin plastic gloves. Huge sudden welts from afternoon mosquitos layered over a rash of tiny bites from early morning invisibugs. Stout geese running, wings spread. The absence of the barn as strong as its presence. Clothes that people wear every day or almost every day, like Penny's polka dot boots or John's feminine straw hat or Trey's orange rubber apron or the Crocs that abound in Broadturn in the morning -- like costumes or uniforms. Flora's porcelain-doll face smeared with homemade cheese spread, white and peppered with fresh herbs. A field full of weeds bigger than the fragile salad greens sprouting underneath.

For me, theatre, indeed art in general, is about asking questions -- not providing the answers to them. Artists alone don't have the solutions for the things farmers are facing. Neither do the farmers, alone. Neither do the scholars who study agriculture, alone. Friedrich D├╝rrenmatt wrote 21 "points" to accompany his play
The Physicists which I find to be absolutely lovely, and a few are very pertinent, I think, for us:

15. [A drama about physics] cannot have as its goal the content of physics, but its effect.
16. The content of physics is the concern of physicists, its effect the concern of all men.
17. What concerns everyone can only be resolved by everyone.
18. Each attempt of an individual to resolve for himself what is the concern of everyone is doomed to fail.

Strongly worded for sure, but what I like about it/take from it is that it's our job to identify important questions, and to start helping to ask them. So, some questions that I've thought of:
  • What role does farming play in our world? What role should it play?
  • What role does it play in Maine?
  • What is going to happen to farms like our three farms in the future? What should happen?
  • What are the sacrifices and rewards that farmers make/receive? At what point do the sacrifices outweigh the rewards?
  • Why should non-farmers care about farmers/farming?
  • What is the role of tradition in farming?
  • What is a farmer? (SURPRISE!)
The question for us, then, is not how to answer the questions we come up with, but how to dramatize them. And, also, how to craft a story out of farm life that will be dramatic and at the same time not seem to the farmers played up, overblown, unreal.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

By Intelligent Experiment (Jennie)

Describing the role of agricultural organizations and fairs in 1870, Grange Master Daniel H. Thing had this to write in his annual report to the Board of Agriculture (Reznick, T.):

When a large number of individuals combine together for the purpose of accomplishing a certain object, there are just as many minds at work and just as many intellects laboring for the same object as there are individuals in the association, and among persevering, progressive men, there is always a noble contention or rather emulation to excel, which is continually spurring them on to greater exertions. Again, it is essential in order to make the greatest improvement, that these associations come together and compare notes and products, that they may know who excels in any calling or department, or in regard to any particular animal or article, and how they do it; whether by chance or by intelligent experiment.

For most of us, the succession of county fairs that mark the passage of mid-summer to deep autumn recall sticky hands filled with fried dough and the nausea of one-too-many trips aboard the almighty Gravitron. We might remember blueberry pie contests and big trucks smashing smaller trucks; we may even look forward to the ox-pulling. But with the distractions of the midway, it can be difficult for the average fair-goer to remember the original purpose of the county fair: agricultural education.

I recently attended the Northeastern Giant of ag fairs, FRYEBURG, with my family. I insisted that we travel to the fair on Thursday, not Saturday, so that we could see some part of the Open Dairy Show. Shows of this kind have been an annual tradition in Maine since the Somerset Agricultural Society held their first fair in 1819. At that time, the animal deemed best cow was awarded a premium of $5. (Reznick, T.) I don’t know what the premiums are these days, but Eddie could tell you. Eddie could tell you because the Bensons’ prize milk cow, Dolly, was named Grand Champion in the Holstein show at Fryeburg this year.

The Of Farms and Fables artistic team attended a smaller fair, the Ossipee Valley Fair, in July. At Ossipee, I developed a bit of an addiction for watching the Bensons compete in dairy shows. This addiction was in no way mitigated by my attendance at Fryeburg. First of all, the cows look gorgeous. They are carefully clipped and brushed and primped and pampered before each appearance, and the result is stunning. Second, the entire Benson family is on hand to do their part – prepping animals, showing in the arena, texting results back to Ryan at the farm. I have never seen Eben show, but Erica and Kati exhibit the utmost professionalism in their work; neat and trim in bleach white pants and bright blue Benson Farm shirts, they are graceful, poised, and attentive. And then, it doesn’t hurt that the Bensons tend to do really well. It’s kind of like I’m a Benson groupie; I know the stars of the show, and I get to hear praise lavished upon them (“the best udder in the show”!) and then sit in suspense as the judge walks down the line, trophy in hand . . . and then this cow – this cow that calved in my first week on the farm – wins Grand Champ!

Dolly (with Kati) wins her class at the Fryeburg Open Dairy Show.

Eddie and Becky both have described to us the role that the fairs play in the vitality of their farm. Doing well in competition helps them market the herd, and participating in the events helps them improve the genetics of their animals. Just like at the first fairs, it keeps them informed. And it is not without contemporary relevance that my opening quotation refers to "intelligent experiment"; science is a discipline increasingly embedded in a dairy farmer's lexicon of required knowledge. From individualized feed blends to embryonic transfer, experimentation and awareness of the latest trends keeps small dairy farms afloat in an industrialized agricultural world. The Bensons' herd of 60 cows in milk is average in Maine, but compared to some state averages of 1,000+ it is small. (National Agriculture Statistics Service) The Bensons remain competitive because of the quality of their animals. I’ve heard multiple stories about the friendly (and sometimes not-so friendly!) competition between Benson Farm and other area competitors, and I know that it means a lot when their animals are selected as the best of the breed. It is abundantly clear upon one’s first visit to Kay-Ben that the Benson family are experts in their field and that they are constantly working to improve their knowledge and approaches. Despite the fact that for many who attend them the fairs are all about rides and cotton candy, it is heartening to witness the core of their original purpose in full and thriving good health.