Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Farming and Art

Last week, my colleagues and I were discussing the future of our farming and ranching endeavors.  I work at the Placer-Nevada office of UC Cooperative Extension.  Like me, my colleagues are both farmers and “community education specialists” (according to our official UC job titles).  While each of us finds our extension work enjoyable and fulfilling, we’re all farmers (or ranchers) at heart.  Our off-farm jobs, in other words, allow us to continue to farm.  Even with our off-farm income, however, each of us continues to struggle with the economics of our agricultural enterprises.  We’re in love with farming, but we’re not sure we can continue.

While listening to our local community radio station over the weekend, I heard a song by Rita Hoskings, a regional folk/Americana musician whose work I enjoy.  I started thinking about the economics of art.  I don’t pretend to know what Rita Hoskings’ financial or employment situation is, but I can’t imagine that an artist who is played on a regional public radio station can make a living solely from her art (at least initially).  And I imagine other local artists face similar challenges – challenges not unlike the ones I face as a small-scale rancher.  At the same time, I imagine that when Ms. Hoskings started making music professionally, she introduced herself as a musician (rather than as whatever her other job might have been).  In other words, I suspect that an artist’s passion for her craft defines her as a person – and that she works other jobs to allow her to continue to pursue that passion.

Similarly, when I introduce myself to someone, I say that I’m a sheep rancher or a shepherd – I rarely (if ever) introduce myself as a community education specialist.  My ranching work is far more important to me than simple economics – it defines who I am and how I view the world.  It’s my passion – it’s integral to my physical, emotional and mental being.

Given the similarities between artists and farmers, then, I wonder whether the economic considerations are also similar between farming and art.  How does someone like Rita Hoskings keep making and performing music?  When does art move from hobby to livelihood (even if it’s only a partial livelihood?  In my own case, can I find the balance between the time I spend being a shepherd and the income I receive from my work?

I’m relatively new to Twitter, but I follow a shepherd from the Lake District in England who raises Herdwick sheep.  Just today, he tweeted, "Love to listen to best shepherds talking about their flocks - its like listening to Camus talk about writing, or Van Gogh about painting." Part of what I love about raising sheep is the long-term commitment that is required – I won’t see the benefit (economic or otherwise) of the decisions I make this fall until next spring at the earliest.  We have dedicate years to developing the genetic base of our flock.  And there is an art to managing our pastureland.  Perhaps what my Twitter “friend” is saying is that shepherding, when it’s done well, is more avocation than vocation – and as much art as science.  Given the thin margins involved in raising livestock (and making art, I’m sure), it’s this sense of avocation that keeps me going.

To learn more about Rita Hosking and her music, go to www.ritahosking.com!  Click here to learn more about Herdwick sheep!

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