When it comes to food, chefs get all the fame. A few weeks ago, New York Times food guru Mark Bittman tried to right the wrong. In an online piece called “Celebrate the Farmer!” he wrote about the need to honor the men and women who put the food on all our tables. Their work raising and butchering cows and pigs requires “weeks, if not months, of daily activity and maintenance,” but the chefs, who might spend 20 minutes preparing a dish, get the high-profile recognition.

Bittman didn’t mean to praise big industrial farmers. “We need more real farmers, not businessmen riding on half-million-dollar combines.” He asks readers to “imagine thousands of 10-, 20- and 100-acre farms … the vegetables sold regionally, the pigs fed from scraps, the compost fertilizing the soil, the cattle at pasture, the milk making cheese.” Bittman echoes the idea of a “local economy” advanced by Wendell Berry, whose many books have helped define contemporary agrarianism. He even sounds like Andrew Lytle in his essay “The Hind Tit,” from the prophetic 1930 Southern manifesto, I’ll Take My Stand.

On the other hand, Bittman’s policy suggestions to help farmers—raise the minimum wage (so workers can afford healthier food) and steer recipients of food stamps toward farmers’ markets—are big-government solutions, if not utopian fantasies. But the vision of an America of small farmers is on the mark, and it’s certainly no utopia.

My wife and I met such a farmer, Mike Scannell, at Logan Airport as he was waiting for a plane and rereading Lytle’s essay in I’ll Take My Stand. Intrigued, we struck up a conversation that has grown into a friendship.

Mike Scannell and Joan Harris have been raising cattle for years on Harrier Fields Farm, about 20 miles east of Albany, New York, and they’ve been doing it the way Wendell Berry would approve. The cattle—purebred Devons, the oldest breed in North America—graze the acres in a way that benefits both them and the land itself. Scannell is as far from the opinions of the New York Times as it’s possible to be, but at the same time he has nothing in common with the porky populists who think everything organic is elitist.

The way of life Scannell chose several decades ago is a glimpse back into the 19th century, which is just as Scannell would have it. He admires the Amish. He doesn’t like the idea of being on anybody’s big grid—electrical, financial, partisan, you name it. Because of his principles, he encounters fortune head on, unprotected by the usual safety nets, including the nets of community that the Amish and most of the characters in Berry’s Port William novels can count on. Scannell finds Wendell Berry’s work compelling, and unlike many who admire Berry but support themselves in other ways, he’s built his life around the vision of a sustainable life on the soil. But bad fortune almost broke him.

 

A Vietnam veteran and former rodeo rider, Scannell attended a conference on holistic resource management at about the time he paid off his 30-year mortgage 17 years early, back in the 1990s. (He hates usury.) He expected to find “a bunch of hippies.” Instead, he encountered the thought of Allen Savory and a technique of sustaining the land through proper management of cattle first developed by a Frenchman named André Voisin. Using this method, Scannell lets his cows graze for a day or less in a “paddock” defined by light, moveable electric fences (a single strand of wire), then he moves them to another paddock. The cows leave behind healthy grasses, not over-grazed by being bitten down to the roots, and their droppings fertilize the ground naturally. When the cows return to the area later, the grass is better than before.

The results have been phenomenal. After being in danger of depletion when Scannell was growing hay commercially some years ago, the soil at Harrier Fields has been fully restored. Over the past decade, the grass-fed Devons raised by Scannell and Harris have been widely recognized for their extraordinary quality. They have been written up on the website of the North American Devon Association and in The Valley Table, a magazine devoted to “Hudson Valley Farms, Food & Cuisine.”

Harris and Scannell know the animals intimately—the chickens in the yard, who hop up on the kitchen windowsills; the horses in a distant pen, who whinny as soon as either of them comes out the back door; the heavy Devons who lumber over like pets, wanting to be scratched. Harris’s five-year-old grandson loves visiting the farm. Once she took him to a nearby industrial farm—“Everything is GMOs,” she told us—and he looked around in confusion. The cows he had seen grazed in paddocks, but not these penned creatures. “You mean they go and get the grass and bring it to the cows?” he asked, incredulously. “Yes, they do,” she admitted. He watched for a while and saw something even more astonishing. “And they clean up their mess?”

Both times my wife and I have visited, Harris, who is an artist and retired art teacher, has served us a simple lunch. “We don’t have much money, but we eat like kings,” says Scannell. The first time it was superb Devon beef with mustard; in May, it was a light cheese she had made from that morning’s milk from a cow named Princess that Harris marveled at. She didn’t know how to account for the fact that Princess produces milk containing over 6 percent cream, except that both her mother and another cow (who had just lost a calf) had nursed her. For us, it was a little startling to be served cheese made from milk drawn that very morning, but for Scannell and Harris, it was nothing out of the ordinary. It’s the way they live, even without the three connected barns from 1835 that used to distinguish their property.

 

Andrew Lytle’s essay “The Hind Tit” is about what happens when the blandishments of the market start to erode the integrity of a self-sustaining farm. According to Lytle, the market keeps urging the farmer “to over-produce his money crop, mortgage his land, and send his daughters to town to clerk in ten-cent stores, that he may buy the products of the Power Age and keep its machines turning.”

It became evident in the first few minutes after we met him in the airport that Scannell’s whole aim has been to reverse this process, at least in his own life. He has never renounced machines per se—in fact, he served in Vietnam as a helicopter mechanic—but he wanted to free his farm from any reliance on fossil fuels. In his barn he had a pair of draft horses and enough painstakingly acquired, animal-powered equipment to farm without reliance on petroleum. Not too long ago, he was nearing the point when it wouldn’t have mattered at Harrier Fields if the power went off and the oil supply dried up.

That’s where bad fortune comes in.

Shortly before noon on a hot Tuesday in late July 2010, the dispatcher in Columbia County began receiving 911 calls about a fire on County Route 21. A blaze had broken out in the barns at Harrier Fields Farm. The first company to respond from nearby Schodack Landing needed help, especially pumper engines. The fire chief from Stuyvesant told the Register-Star, the newspaper serving Columbia and Dutchess counties, that the fire was already “fully involved” when the first men arrived on the scene. Before the site was cleared that night, more than 25 fire companies from the area had assisted, and one nearby pond was pumped completely dry.

The effort went for nothing. The barns were a total loss, and so was everything in them, including two Suffolk punch mares in foal, all the horse gear and antique horse-drawn equipment, thousands of bales of hay, and scores of miscellaneous items from seed to tarps, ladders, and ropes.

Once a central symbol, deeply felt in its importance, the barn has become for most people a relic from a lost world visible from the Interstate. My students have always been mildly perplexed by the seriousness Faulkner’s characters bring to the loss of a barn in his short story “Barn Burning.” In this age of the insured, the vaccinated, the replaceable, the outsourced, and the digitized, they have difficulty seeing why it would be more than a temporary inconvenience to lose a barn. Now if it had been a hard drive…

But for people like Scannell and Harris, as their friend Peter Zander explains, the barn is “the basis of the farm after the ground, after the soil. It makes what you do possible.” He tells of going to see them in their farmhouse, which is as old as the barns were. The roof leaked—he helped keep it from collapsing once—and he thought Scannell was crazy for putting money into the barn first. “I thought, ‘Put a roof on the house!’ He’s spending money to have a guy rebuild the windows on the barn and build new doors that would slide nicely. They were beautifully done,” Zander says. “And then I got it! One of those aha! moments. The barn was what made it work.”

Two days after the fire, Zander—a professional photographer—organized a fund and had his nephew put up a website to raise money for his friends. He described them as “two of the finest people I’ve met and a rare breed of farmer. These are people that work 14 hours a day, seven days a week to earn a small, but very honorable living. As is the case with most small-scale organic farmers, they had little insurance … enough to cover a very small fraction of the replacement costs.” When I asked Zander what the day of the fire was like, he said that he was one of the first people Scannell called. “There was a horrible tone in his voice. All he could say was ‘It’s gone. It’s all gone.’”

 

But it wasn’t all gone. It just took awhile to recover. After lunch on our second visit, I asked the question that had been on my mind: what had fundamentally changed with the fire? Scannell and Harris were silent for a moment, because it is obviously a very painful subject.

“It just humbles you,” said Scannell.

I knew from Zander, and from things that Scannell had told me already, that the fire had three terrible ironies. First was that Scannell had bought hay for the first time in his farming career instead of growing it himself, thinking it would be a better use of his time. The man he bought it from baled the hay before it was properly dried. Wet hay heats up when it’s stacked, and after a certain point, the chemical reactions produce flammable gases that ignite when they’re exposed to air. Spontaneous combustion from wet hay—bought wet hay—caused the fire that destroyed Scannell’s barn. The second irony was Scannell’s opposition to insurance, which went along with his hatred of debt, so the barn was disastrously underinsured. The third irony was that the community around them, generous as it was, could not be the community they needed.

“I think it involves the realization that the important things, God created. What man created can disappear overnight. It’s pretty humbling. It just set us back so far it made us realize how old we are. There’s a lot of soul-searching on it.”

One of the things he’s done the most soul-searching about is what it means to be leading his life in an age when very few people see what he sees.

“I think it’s difficult or impossible to be a separatist by yourself. Community is so important.” He gave me an example from an Amish friend in Ohio. “He told me that somebody in their community lost his barn to lightning. And in three weeks they had a barn again. And I asked, ‘How the heck do you do that? I mean is there a fund or something that you borrow from, and then you pay it back?’ And he said, ‘There was no debt.’”

Scannell had to stop talking.

“That was David Kline?” Joan Harris gently interjected, and he nodded.

Kline, an Amish farmer, edits Farming Magazine. He is the author of three books about the Amish farming life, including Great Possessions. What Kline meant by “no debt” was that the community got together and did a barn raising. Friends and neighbors contributed the new barn as their gift. In other words, the farmer had insurance that wasn’t financial in nature: the community itself. The misfortune of a neighbor was an occasion for unanimity and generosity.

No debt: it is difficult to overstate what those words mean to a man like Scannell. The idea of the United States running up trillions of dollars of debt simply convinces him that he’s taken the right course. There is a great gulf between the bond of personal gratitude and the nature of modern debt.

“The community that we have here,” Harris said, “really worked hard to help us in the way that they knew how to help us.”

“They tried, they really did,” Scannell added.

“People that we don’t even know—even people from other countries—sent money to the barn fund,” said Harris. “I don’t want to sound ungrateful.”

But by its very nature, the way of life they have been trying to live differs so radically from the conventional one that it’s difficult for others to help. Who has workable, animal-powered farm equipment on hand, for example? Who knows how to do a barn raising? Everyone was willing to help, but no one could give them what they really needed.

Crippling as the loss of the barns was, Scannell and Harris have humor and patience. They love conversation, especially talk about the farm, about books and ideas. They laugh easily. They convey the conviction that they’re doing well, even if they don’t have the money to get the bathroom repaired, and some of their hopes have had to be revised. They still have the animals and the land. Zander praises the simplicity of their lives and their consciousness of “the things that are important—keeping the farm free of debt, living without the encumbrances that we have all come to expect as being essential, being the norm.”

These are the kinds of farmers conservatives ought to celebrate. Not only do they raise excellent beef, but they have a daily virtue that has nothing to do with “environmentalism” in the abstract. They have consciences, not causes. They understand themselves as answerable to the natures of the things given into their care. They fear that what they have learned will not be passed on, except perhaps to Harris’s grandson. To lose the knowledge would be a loss worse than the fire. Scannell thinks about it all the time.

As for the barn, he thinks daily about what to do. He opposes a cheap temporary shelter, but on the other hand he doesn’t want to have to pay exorbitant taxes on the kind of barn he’d like to build. It’s hard to know what to do or what their future will be. In the meantime, daily life sustains them. When Harris took my wife and my daughter outside to look at the Devons, she pointed out the different shades of the animals.

“Aren’t they gorgeous? Sometimes,” she said, “Mike and I just look at them and think how fortunate we are—that we get to share our lives with these beautiful creatures.”

Glenn Arbery is d’Alzon Chair of Liberal Education at Assumption College and the editor of The Southern Critics: An Anthology.