Reflections from a Midwestern organic farmer of the year
Our individual success should be measured by our interdependence with others, says this prairie resident

By Carmen Fernholz

Editor's note: and The Rodale Institute were pleased to sponsor the 2005 Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service Farmer of the Year Award at the 16th annual Upper Midwest Organic Farming Conference, held February 25-26 in LaCrosse, Wisconsin. Presented annually by the MOSES board of directors, the award includes an honorary plaque, $500 cash, a $100 gift certificate to the MOSES book sales booth, and free conference registration, meals and lodging.

This year's award was presented to Carmen and Sally Fernholz of A-Frame Farm in Madison, Minnesota. The Fernholzes have been farming organically in southwestern Minnesota since the 1970s, and have been tireless contributors to a variety of organic farming research, education and marketing initiatives throughout the Upper Midwest. Today they grow organic corn, soybeans, golden flax, oats, wheat, and barley on 360 tillable acres.

Reproduced here are Carmen's remarks on receiving the award, as delivered to the Saturday morning audience.

February 26, 2005:

“If a ‘place’ or ‘region’ is defined by what most scholars of regionalism argue is the intersection of land and people or culture and environment, then local food and agriculture together constitute a profound expression of place. . . . For it is in the toil of human activity on the local landscape that food and other tangible products are created that reflect the cultural uniqueness of a place.”

--Duncan Hilchey, regional planner for Cornell University's Community, Food and Agriculture Program

What a humbling experience to be honored by all of you. I have never intended for it to be this way. I have only wanted to do for myself what I have hoped others would want to do for themselves as well: To generate pleasure, happiness and self-fulfillment from being a farmer.

It has long been my dream, and still is, that I will again experience the time when three or four viable family operations will populate each section of prairie in western Minnesota. Over the years, it has become clear that the most likely way this dream will be fulfilled is through the evolution of organic management systems of food production.

It is this dream that has motivated me these many years. It is the seasonal maturity that keeps me going. It is learning and then accepting that all experiences cannot happen in one season because no two seasons are ever the same, just as no two days are ever the same, as no two people are ever the same, as no two real entities or substances in nature are ever the same. It is the lesson the good Sisters taught me early on when they said, “Behold the snowflake.”

In honoring Sally and me today, I like to think that you are honoring yourselves equally. Let me explain. Noam Chomsky, in his book, Understanding Power, talks in one chapter about a revolutionary change in moral values. Here are a few excerpts:

“Again, people just have to remember: there is nothing in the mainstream culture that is ever going to tell you you’ve succeeded – they’re always going to tell you you’ve failed.”

* * *

"That’s what people always hear from the intellectual culture. . . . It’s beating into your head another story – that you failed, and that you should have failed, because you were just a bunch of crazies.”

* * *

“And, of course, it’s natural that the official culture would take that view: it does not want people to understand that you can make changes, that’s the last thing it wants people to understand.”

* * *

“That’s what they’re always going to tell us, and we should try to remember that.”

When each of us imagines what we want the future to look like for our children and grandchildren, I ask each of you here this morning: What do we really mean when we say we want to give our children more than we had?

For me it is the dream I spoke of just a moment ago: People again populating the prairies of western Minnesota. What does that really mean in terms of my own personal lifestyle-altering commitments?

In one short sentence, it means for me, moving from living a life of independence to nurturing a lifestyle of greater interdependence, to borrow from Stephen Covey.

For me it means sharing knowledge and skills with whomever.

It means cultivating a trust with institutions in society I have many times felt betrayed by.

But for me, foremost and personally, giving to my children and grandchildren more than I have had means confidently understanding that we create an economic, social and environmental opportunity here on the land to pass on.

And, in order to do this, we truly need to become interdependent in our marketing and commerce, and in our understanding that a totally free society has a division of labor and responsibility.

It means that I can be successful at growing a saleable product but not necessarily skillful in retailing it.

It means that I can be successful at processing a raw product into some useful piece of work, and know that there is someone who will be my supplier and someone who will be my retailer, and I can focus, therefore, on my skill and talent of creating.

It means that I tolerate and nurture diversified skills and desires.

All of us must understand that this interdependence ultimately generates the environment of economic opportunity that allows all of us to pass on a better life to those who follow.

This interdependence allows this, not because we make more money or have more “stuff” but because we have more firmly woven a web of security by our cultivation of greater interdependence.

Let me conclude with a poem I wrote a good number of years ago but that has come to mean more to me with each passing season.


By Carmen Fernholz

The job is there.
It’s always there--
constant chattering of stones into a wagon,
human rhythms of another springtime.
Yearly they are picked and hauled
seasonally they appear again,
Earth’s insistence,
her star-stuff inheritance.

The task is tedious if only a task
picking these shapes of turbulence
that speak of nature’s patience.
Glaciers have carried them underfoot
rivers have washed their dimpled lines.
What other eyes have gazed on these ancient-fired pieces?

Bits of me have surfaced through the years
the masonry art of maturity
creating my cosmic mansion.