Rick Thomas, Faculty in Sustainable Agriculture & Food Systems at Sterling College, joins us and discusses the definition of draft animal power systems, the student experience at Sterling’s Wendell Berry Farming Program in Kentucky, and the philosophy of Wendell Berry. Rick guides us through challenges of working with draft animal power and the conscious choice of doing right for the land. In this episode, we explore the failed food systems and transition from what is to what can be.
- [01:41]-Definition of draft animal powered systems
- [05:58]-Student experience at Wendell Berry Farming Program
- [09:12]-Discipline and challenges of working with draft animals
- [13:10]-Doing what is right for the land, not what is possible
- [14:06]-Alexander Pope: Genius of the Place
- [19:17]-Failed Food Systems; Transition from what is to What Can Be
- [24:15]-Solutions will Draw on Ancient Wisdom; Nature is the Metric
Rick Thomas TranscriptOPENING CREDITS: [:
Welcome to Emergency to Emergence, a podcast produced by Sterling college. I'm Nakasi Fortune and I'm Dakota LaCroix.This podcast intends to engage in spirited, heart-centered dialog about intersecting,eco-social emergencies, featuring the voices and perspectives of people purposefully,engaging in ecological thinking and action, while fostering active community engaged responses, that offer hope.NAKASI FORTUNE: [:
On this episode we were joined by Rick Thomas. Rick continues to rediscover the wisdom from his childhood on an Oklahoma farm and is putting them into practice as a faculty member in sustainable agriculture and food systems at Sterling. He focuses on draft animal power-systems and is currently based at Sterling's Kentucky campus as the teaching teamster, with the Wendell Berry farming program.
Rick, thank you so much for coming along on this adventure with us to share what it's been 20 plus years of working with draft animals? I am sure that there's a thing or two that we can learn not only from you, but from these animals that you've dedicated so much of your life too.RICK THOMAS: [:
Thank you Nakasi, thank you, Dakota. It's a real pleasure to be here.DAKOTA LACROIX: [:
Rick. I wanted to ask you what is draft animal powered-systems.RICK THOMAS: [:
So for me, any transportation, farming, or forestry based system, which uses a draft animal as its main source of power is a draft animal powered system. And that's going to look. In different places around the world. I think here in America, we have this iconic view of a draft horse on the landscape farming. If we were in Burkina Faso, we might have a different view. It might be a team of oxen. If we were in a Lapland, it might be reindeer, if we were in British Columbia, it might be sled dogs. If you think about any transportation, farming or forestry system that at its very crux requires an animal to service that system. You have defined a draft-animal powered systemNAKASI FORTUNE: [:
How did you happen upon draft animals? And how did you get involved in working with them and discover this new current path that you are on?RICK THOMAS: [:
It is certainly to talk about this. It is important because the path that I chose to arrive at this point, I think is similar to what our students are choosing.
I was not born into this. I wasn't raised on a farm where draft animals, where the, the, the, the power system that provided the energy for the farm. You know, I was lucky in that I was raised in Oklahoma. And I was raised in a horse area. And so I had this good working knowledge of what it takes to be around horses.
Uh, I had a pony growing up, um, but what really, uh, got me going was, and it was a bit unbeknownst to me. My father and my grandfather were farmers and hanging out with them in the summertime. Uh, the stories that they would tell, not that I was paying attention to them, but I think somehow inside I was.
And, but the stories that they were telling was about the people in the, the town, in which they grew up in. And, and I was drawn to that. I think at some point, uh, certainly had, uh, image in my mind growing up the way I did and in Oklahoma and having the parents and grandparents that I had, uh, but really it wasn't until I arrived at Sterling and fell into a culture of draft animal powered systems, it just really clicked.
And so, you know, really fortunate for the college to give me the freedom, to explore that interest, and also a long list of mentors who took me under their wing and really helped guide me through and ultimately landing me here in Northern Kentucky, uh, teaching for the Wendell Berry farming program of Sterling college.
Uh, I don't, I don't take any of it for granted. I, I choose to, to try my very best to work with my animals in a, well, the word dignity comes to mind. I'm asking them to do a lot and I want them to be as healthy and as comfortable as possible. And I feel that is about dignity. It's it just simply, it it's an it's, it's an unending situation here.
You know, it, it might, my knowledge keeps, I keep learning things. I see students continuing to learn. I don't think you can ever get to that point to where you can say I've mastered the skills of the teamster.DAKOTA LACROIX: [:
What have you witnessed yourself from when a student first shows up that first day on that acre of land and when they leave?RICK THOMAS: [:
So I read something from, uh, Wendell Berry's writing the other morning. I won't get it right, but I'll get the gist of it. And it, he was, he was comparing the relationship of the muse of inspiration with the muse of reality. And I think when students arrive to their first class or the. First experience with me that muse of inspiration is in their ear. When they leave, the muse of reality has, um, taken over. And I think that's, uh, that's, that's kind of an important concept to understand. I think if nothing else, we make this process very real. We do meaningful work as quickly as we can safely do it with our students.
Yeah. So bear with me with a little bit of background here. Uh, first of all, one of the things that we're trying to do with the Wendell Berry farming program is to put Wendell Berry's writing to work. And if you have followed Wendell's work, draft horses are such a significant component. Uh, they've been, they have shaped his life. And so, for, for us to even consider not having draft animals involved in our program would be, uh, just wrong here. But the, the real question you're, you're getting at, and it's the exact question that I begin my courses. And it's the exact question that I, two years later end my courses with, and that is. Why would I choose to farm with draft animals in the 21st century? There is so much technology available to me. There's first of all, it's just simply a it's so antique it's so antiquated, right? It's, it's almost, it's it's anachronistic, uh, in some ways. And so, uh, why would I, why would I do. that? And so what I do is I say, well, we're going to park that question.
And we're simply going to say, here are the draft animals. Here's the work that needs to be done. We need to figure out the appropriate scale, what I call right-sizing. We need to figure out how to right-size our farm, so that the team of animals in front of me can manage the. work. Now I'm hoping that between the first time I asked and the second time I ask there's some content, there's some, that muse of inspiration and the muse of reality are starting to, to balance each other out just a little bit.NAKASI FORTUNE: [:
The, the moment that a student comes in and leaves, there's a huge amount of learning that happens. What are some of the challenges that, you know, a student would face working with these animals?RICK THOMAS: [:
A tractor can do all the work that the draft animals can do. They can do it faster, potentially more efficient, and certainly with a lot less frustration, potentially with a lot less frustration. And so I think when students arrive, there's, there's a, a fairly significant skillset required to work with these horses. The first being, the ability to stay disciplined around the care and the maintenance and care of the animal. Being able to muck the barn every day, being able to manage fences, it's a package deal. And so I think that sacrifice is sometimes hard for people to maintain. Muse of inspiration,muse of reality. Working with draft animals on the Sterling College farm is a gateway for a student who is interested in a bigger operation, a larger scale operation that is going to rely on many tractors because they had that ability to work with things again at a human pace where they can understand the systems.
And it takes a lot of time to gain confidence and to gain a level of competence, to jump into it and stake your livelihood onto the products of the farm when using draft animals. It creates a human scale of work, and that's something that Wendell speaks about. Yeah, I'm working at a human pace when the horses are tired, it's probably time for us to all, take a rest.DAKOTA LACROIX: [:
When you speak of language, can you talk a bit more about that and how it's used on the farm?RICK THOMAS: [:
You say language and what popped into my mind was the dance, because it's a very unspoken language. It's a very non-verbal situation. We are picking up cues in order to read the cue. You need to be a very, very good observer.
I teach a phrase that says something like, I want you to do a lot of work early to avoid having to do a lot of work late. In other words, I want you to make small adjustments in the animal's action to avoid having to make a giant correction. So do a little work early, continue coming, continue the communication, continuous conversation. And that's the dance you want to dance with your animal. Who's leading and who's following is immaterial, right? But you want to dance with that animal?NAKASI FORTUNE: [:
What do you think we'd be able to hear and understand from the environment, if we were to just be silent for a bit, and slow down?RICK THOMAS: [:
First of all, we'd hear the birdsNAKASI FORTUNE: [:
Yeah.RICK THOMAS: [:
We'd hear the birds. Uh, we’d, we’d, hear, we would hear the land speaking to us and asking us to do what's right here. Not to do what we can, but to do what's right. And if there's a common thread of all of the Wendell Berry that I have read, it is just that I need to, I need to do what is right here. Not what is possible, but what is right.
And so if we stop and listen, which I think it means, first of all, we stop, right. That's implied that we actually first stop. And then second, listen, we see things. We start to take notice. When you're working at the pace of a draft animal, you're stopping in the shade quite a lot. You know, you stopped to take a breath to get a drink of water, to take a snack.
Maybe your horses can nibble on the willows that are growing along the edge of the field. There's there's time. You have some time, right. And you can take some time to, uh, I think, experience what is means to be human. We want to come in here as what I think Alexander Pope referred to as acknowledging the genius of the place.NAKASI FORTUNE: [:
Yeah.RICK THOMAS: [:
And so, being humble in this farming community is probably a really good first step. There are some very, very good farmers and producers here who are doing amazing work, and we need to understand those lessons. We need to know what works. We need to know what makes sense. We need to learn the vocabulary.
And I think as students are interfacing with our farm and engaged with the instruction, um, the group of people who are here, teaching those classes, understand that notion.NAKASI FORTUNE: [:
Rick, you touched on something that is super important and that's connectivity and also collaboration working with people and not trying to, uh, go in and be saviors in communities, you know, working in Kentucky. And you've spent a great deal of your time in Vermont. What are some of the lessons that you've learned from both places that the world over can learn from. And what are some of the things that you're hoping to learn from, from other people in other communities?RICK THOMAS: [:
I think the notion that you, you said two words that certainly are important. The first one was connection connectivity, and the second is community. And as we are emerging from this crisis, meaning the pandemic. And as we have identified the fragility of our food system, and as we have become fully aware of how connected globally, we are the notion of farming or working within a community and having people that are sharing the same experience as you as a network of friends has just become so clear to me as a necessity for us to move forward. We cannot work. We cannot work out these solutions alone.
We've had access to an educational model that is unique. And, and for those of us who have listened to it and who have worked within it and who have, um, championed it over the years, It is super special and, uh, not, but it's not unlike, it is not unlike at all, what is required of a person coming into a new place. You need to learn where the community centers are. You know, where's the hub, who are the people that I need to learn about and talk to? The skills we learn in community meeting, are the skills needed to be successful as you enter into any other community.
It's something that we need to understand as being very special and training for your next step. Being able to engage with a community, community of learners, community of workers, religious community it doesn't matter, uh, it's the same set of skills. It's, it's the ability to engage conversation, uh, with people that you are don't know much about to find that common ground, right? To find that common ground where we can all work as a unit. This global pandemic, it has just shown, you know, how quickly the world can change. And while I think this could have, and should have been just as easily a conversation about, uh, you know, food apartheid. This could just as easily been a conversation about access to information, right?
This could, this could, this could have been so many things, but it was a, uh, it was, uh, it was a pandemic. It's difficult to see how it's going to work. And I think that's why I'm seeing so many ag educators right now, completely baffled.DAKOTA LACROIX: [:
Can you speak to that, Rick, when you say they're baffled, is this due to this, this digital age that we're in?RICK THOMAS: [:
I think it has to do. Yeah.DAKOTA LACROIX: [:
Could you lead that and tie that into what gives you hope as well?RICK THOMAS: [:
Yeah.DAKOTA LACROIX: [:
The work you're doing? What, what brings that connectivity and hope to you?RICK THOMAS: [:
So I think the first part of that is it seems that there's just simply so much uncertainty in the direction of the way agriculture is going to go. It's so much. It's just so unclear right now as to, uh, how do we transition from what is, uh, to what could be, and as we start to see the pressures placed on it. COVID has just been, uh, uh, it's just been a heartbreaking for, for so many people. And for, for those of us involved in the food systems, when we see the fact that we have grocery shelves with no food in them, and we say to ourselves, we're not used to that as living in the United States. We're not used to that, but other people are right? Other people are. That's the norm. Right? The fact that there is food in a grocery store is very much unique. And so I think that this has been a bit of an equalizer. Now will it be that golden opportunity? That is the tipping point to where we say, look, this happened, our food system failed. It was failed to begin with, but it has now fully failed and the solutions are this right?
Here's the, here's the playbook, for the next 10 years, that's what I think agriculture educators are having a hard time wrapping their head around is how do we write that playbook? Because we're so big, you know, we're producing conventional grain products to export to other countries. Where we're not growing nutrient dense food.
That phrase that farmers can barely feed themselves. Right.? I don't know how true that is, cause I bet there's a nice garden and there's always, if they're meat eaters, there's a side of beef in the freezer, but I get what, I get, what they're saying, right? That, that all of their money is being tied up in commodity crops.
And there are much better people to speak about that than me. But the one thing that is emerging to me is the notion that if you are going to build resilience in your foods, You need to build it in a very small radius from where you live. It's simply has to be that way. So, we've talked about local food systems for a long, long time.
We need to really put some energy into scaling out the skills that people need, whether it's through training centers like Sterling or other places that are doing good work. We need to scale those out so that more people have access to that knowledge and those skills. We need to scale up local food systems.rmer have the ability to feed:
I've heard Mary Berry, Wendell's daughter say this many times, that it's difficult to think about anything other than the two bookends, small and entrepreneurial or large and conventional. The, the farming in the middle has, has vaporized. We need to put something back into the middle.DAKOTA LACROIX: [:
What, in these future generations will students look back or others look back when you speak of this middle scale of farm or this, this particular way of life, what would they look back and be saying about the people, such as yourself and others in the work you're doing now, or what do you hope they'll be saying rather?RICK THOMAS: [:
Well, I hope there'll be saying that we got it right. I hope there'll be saying that we, we were, we were on the right track to begin with and that we, we got it right. If regenerative agriculture is to take off at any scale. And I think it will. I think it's going to have to do a lot with a variety of elements coming together at the same time. There's got to be this way of thinking that draws on ancient wisdom, and the solutions aren't going to come from anything new. They're simply going to come from remembering. We're in this period of great forgetting. And with draft animals that's, that's so clear. You can't walk out your door and find somebody who can harness a horse like you could a hundred years ago. Right? So we've, we've, we're in this, this yet another period of great forgetting. Where we really need to be in a period of remembering and you know, the, the leaders, we're not going to find them in, honestly, I don't think we're going to find them in institutions of higher education. We're going to find them in the fields and forests. We're going to find them working every day. We're going to find them working in a way that is, uh, very well. We talked about it earlier, where nature is the metric, right? Where we're developing some sort of harmony. Maybe peace, uh, with their process is, uh, is the norm not the exception,NAKASI FORTUNE: [:
Rick, who are some of these leaders within your world who can help us with this great remembering?RICK THOMAS: [:
Well, I think, I think there, there are people that have a. Well, They might be, they might be the misfits and malalignes' and pirates. Ya know. The right people,NAKASI FORTUNE: [:
The exact people that we need for this mission, controlled chaos.RICK THOMAS: [:
Yeah, afraid, you know, they're unafraid to speak up. Uh, they're unafraid to act in a way that they know is right there. They're not bound by any kind of, they're not owned by any corporation. They're there, they're there they're total Outlaws. You know, those are the people that do provide me with a great deal of inspiration. To name a few, of course, Wendell Berry, uh, you know, as I've gotten to know him and have been just blessed to spend some time with him, you know, the man's an outlaw and, and has been that way for a long, long time and has been so true to his message for his whole life. He believes so much in a way of thinking that just speaks to me. So there's that, uh, my wife is another one, you know, um, just a great inspiration and also an outlaw, uh, unafraid to speak up. And there's many, many more, but I think in a broad sense that we need to look, oh gosh, it's like, look to the helpers.
You know, it's like find, find the helpers, find people who are willing to share their knowledge and, and do it in a way that is humble. I love people who want to share information and, and want to help. Those are the people I think to look to and that's going to be different for everyone. I have just found that mother nature, is is the kind of the last word.NAKASI FORTUNE: [:
First of all, thank you so much again, for taking time out of your day to record this with us, you could've been doing any other things. I know you've finished your chores, so that's something.DAKOTA LACROIX: [:
Yes, given the farmer's life, my goodness thank you, Rick.RICK THOMAS: [:
You're welcome.CLOSING CREDITS: [:CLOSING CREDITS: [:
If you enjoyed this conversation, do come back for the commendation. We'll spend a few more minutes with our most recent guests identifying the specific works that inspire them. So you can route further draw new sources of nourishment and connect to the emergence of vital possibilities.
And before we come to a close Sterling, acknowledges that the land on, which we gather, places now known as Vermont and Kentucky are the traditional and unceded territories of several indigenous peoples. The Abenaki in the north and the Shawnee, Cherokee, Chickasaw, and Osage people to the south. We also learn in and from. A range of landscapes that belonged to other indigenous peoples and more than human kin. As we seek deeper reciprocal relationships with nature, we respect and honor the place-based and cultural wisdom of indigenous ancestors and contemporaries. Words of acknowledgement and intention, or just a first step. We must match them with acts of respect and repair.
Thanks so much for listening, you can subscribe to emergency, to emergence wherever you listen to podcasts. And a very special thanks to Sterling alum, Fern, Maddie, for her musical creations. For more information on how Sterling is advancing ecological thinking and action, visit www.sterlingcollege.edu.
If listening has prompted something new to emerge in you, we invite you to share your thoughts as a written message or voice recording, which you can send to [email protected]
Until next time, this is the Emergency to Emergence.