Monday, March 24, 2014

The Importance of Stories

A little over a month ago, I wrote a blog post about the drought that referenced Caroline Henderson, an Oklahoma farmer who wrote "Letters from the Dust Bowl" for the Atlantic Monthly during the 1930s.  Her letters were quoted extensively in Ken Burns' "The Dust Bowl" on PBS.  I found her observations about the weather and economic conditions to be especially articulate - and relevant to our own struggles with the current dry spell.  Her firsthand account of farming in the Dust Bowl inspired me to tell my own story - and to encourage other farmers and ranchers to share theirs as well.  In the intervening weeks, I've recorded two short videos and helped my 10-year-old daughter Emma record a third.  With the help of the UC Davis Plant Science Department, I also recorded an audio story about the drought's impact on our farm.  And I've continued to write regularly about the topic here in Foothill Agrarian.  While I hold no illusions that my stories are told as eloquently as Henderson's, I'm motivated to continue to tell them for several reasons.

First, as a rancher who until recently has focused on marketing my meat products directly to customers within my community, I want my neighbors to know about the impacts the drought is having on their food supply.  As part of a local food system, I think it's important to share both our challenges and successes - and the drought is certainly presenting us with challenges.

Second, I think our stories are important for a wider audience.  The drought has impacted those of us closest to the land in profound ways.  In a state with a population of over 30 million, those of us who farm and ranch need to tell our own stories - in our own words - to our suburban and urban neighbors.  We also have a responsibility to document our experiences for future farmers and ranchers.  Sharing our own thought processes may help other producers avoid our mistakes!

Third, I find the process of organizing my thoughts (either in writing or verbally) to be therapeutic.  The drought (and our response to it) is stressful.  Telling stories about it helps me process information and relieves this stress, in some ways.

I know that some people are tired of sad stories about the struggles of farmers and ranchers.  I guess I'm guilty of dwelling on this topic to the exclusion of most other issues this winter and spring.  But I continue to tell stories about the drought for an intensely personal reason.  I want my daughters - and their children - to be able to look back at this time period and understand what their parents went through.  While I didn't grow up on a commercial farm or ranch, I vaguely remember the 1976-77 drought and the worry it caused my parents.  I wish some of their thoughts had been recorded (on paper or otherwise).  I don't expect my girls will read my stories this year - or even perhaps in this decade.  I do hope, however, when they are my age that they can look back at what we experienced during this drought - and I hope it helps prepare them for the inevitable challenges they will face, regardless of the professions they pursue.

Our own current drought (at least so far) cannot match the duration and intensity of the weather-related challenges of the Dust Bowl years.  For me,  the uncertainty about the impacts of climate change and an ever-growing population makes this drought especially worrisome.  Those of us dealing with the drought on a day-to-day basis owe it to record our stories for our customers, our communities and our families.

Here are links to my own stories:

Drought Story - Flying Mule Farm (YouTube digital story)

Emma's Drought Story (YouTube digital story)

Drought Story 3-3-14 (YouTube digital story)

Audio Drought Story (SoundCloud recording)

Also, you may want to check out the following repositories of current drought-related stories:

Farmer and Ranchers Voices from the Drought (Facebook page)

Voices from the Drought SoundCloud Stories (audio stories)

My View of the Drought (YouTube digital story by fellow rancher Carolyn Roberti)

If you are a farmer or rancher, I hope you'll record your own stories soon!  Our neighbors need to know what's happening - our families need to know what's happening.  Let me know if you'd like help with the technological part of this!

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