Right Livelihood: Reflecting on my 24 years working for NCAT’s ATTRA program

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By Guy King Ames, retired NCAT Horticulture Specialist

This past summer I found myself stranded in the Manchester, NH, airport where I had landed three or four hours later than scheduled because of flight delays. It was a Sunday night around 11 p.m. and Andy Pressman and Mike Lewis, my co-workers who had been there to pick me up at 7 p.m., had — with my permission granted over cell phone — left for the two-hour drive back to our motel in Keene where we were giving a week-long Armed to Farm workshop to military veterans scheduled to start the next day.

The airport terminal was shutting down for the night, passengers hurrying to their cars and rides. No taxis were lined up outside the terminal, and even Uber availability seemed unlikely at that hour on a Sunday. As I was steeling myself for a miserable night in the airport (something I had done just three weeks earlier in the Chicago airport), a fellow passenger from my flight approached and confessed that she had been eavesdropping on my conversation with another passenger and knew that I was going to Keene, which was on her way, and asked if I’d like a ride.

Wow, was I grateful! I’m 72 years old and the thought of spending a fitful night on the floor in some remote corner of the airport terminal was not a soothing prospect. But the ride she offered turned out to be much more than just a lucky hitchhike. It was a journey to the past, reconnecting me to some of my earliest inspirations for my back-to-the-land dreams.

In 1971, my girlfriend, my brother, some friends, and I were immersed in hippie fantasies of returning to nature, starting a commune, and side-stepping the societal ills of the Vietnam War, racism, consumerism, etc. This was beginning to be a well-worn path in 1971, the trail already blazed by Helen and Scott Nearing (Living the Good Life), readers of the Whole Earth Catalog and Mother Earth News (the first issue came out earlier that very year), and many others. One book in this idealistic genre that had fired my imagination was Total Loss Farm: A Year in the Life (Raymond Mungo, 1970), that a recent New York Times book review characterized as “the best and also the loopiest of the commune books.”

My ride and benefactor had overheard enough of my in-flight conversation to know a little about why I was in New Hampshire and as we drove away in her car, she told me she lived on what had once been a hippie commune, Total Loss Farm in Vermont. Had I heard of it? Holy Modal Rounder! Honestly, one of the reasons I had signed up to help instruct this particular workshop was to visit New England where I had never been but felt an unrequited love for because of these people and these books (including the much older works of Thoreau, Emerson, and Whitman). Incredible! Groovy! Magic! Right?

It’s easy — and a mistake — to attribute such coincidences to magic. Providence, as Emerson might have called it, has no special plan for me and is not giving me signs, nor does it design symmetry into my life so that it seems that “things have come full circle.” No, for me at least, the truth is even better than magic and that is that all things are connected and the things we do today are connected in a grand fabric or web so that if you pluck on one strand here, you set in motion the vibrations that make some part of the web hum over there. The fun stuff that can look so much like magic is that it’s not always clear what and where the connections are. The connections are absolutely unavoidable but very often invisible. The so-called “butterfly effect” is an almost absurd example, but true, nevertheless. So, it’s ecological or cybernetic or complexly interrelated, but it is not magic. Given that, the connection between reading Total Loss Farm in 1973 and getting a much-needed ride from a stranger from Total Loss Farm in 2023 is explicable but still awesome and astonishing!

Describing and illuminating this web is the “warp and woof” of sustainable agriculture. Instead of following a single, linear thread (reductionist approach), the science of sustainable agriculture acknowledges and attempts to illuminate the wholistic truth that the thread is part of a fabric, a braid, a web where everything is connected to everything else. Few thinkers describe this more convincingly than Wendell Berry when he evinces the many unintended disasters of industrial agriculture, which has, for its part, tended to trivialize such disasters as unconnected, inconsequential, or unavoidable collateral damage.

I started working with ATTRA, a program of NCAT (National Center for Appropriate Technology) in 1989 when NCAT opened its Fayetteville, Arkansas, office. Before that, realizing that I didn’t know enough about plants and farming, I had entered the University of Arkansas where I received my master’s degree in horticulture in 1983. Most of that work was in IPM (Integrated Pest Management), a more wholistic approach to pest management than the us-against-them mindset that had preceded it.

Taking a job at that point in 1989 was absolutely necessary to pay the mortgage and support the family, but I saw it as a compromise, a bargain with myself and society until I could achieve the holy grail of beginning farmers: self-sufficiency — enough income from the farm to pay those bills. In retrospect, that goal was unattainable and — surprise to me — not even desirable!

If you’re doing the math and looking at dates, you’ll see that things aren’t adding up. I should have 34 years with NCAT, not 24. In 1999, after a couple of disastrous crop failures in my orchard and feeling that I had no business advising others about growing fruit, I quit farming and started teaching high school English. I left teaching 10 years after that, and NCAT was gracious enough to hire me back. I never sold the farm throughout that period as it was still my emotional refuge, if not my money maker.

“Right livelihood” is part of the Noble Eightfold Path in Buddhism. It refers to making a living that does not cause harm and is ethically positive. “Self-sufficiency” is a form of selfishness (just look at the words!) that denies the social and economic connections between and among people. Hey, if you’re stranded alone on a desert island, embrace self-sufficiency; otherwise, accept the truth that we need each other. Right livelihood acknowledges the larger community of all things, people included.

Farming could have been right livelihood for me (and, in part, it was and is), but it could not by itself pay my mortgage, and frankly, it was lonely. Returning to NCAT/ATTRA in 2010 at first seemed a little like another personal failure, but that feeling did not last long. Margo Hale, Linda Coffey, Robyn Metzger, Nina Prater, and others in the Walker-Stone House office helped me make the personal and professional transitions to the right livelihood of our ATTRA mandate to help people who are trying to farm. I am hesitant to single out more of my coworkers for mention for fear of leaving someone out. As I think of some of them, I am moved to tears for their friendship, and for all of them I am filled with gratitude to have worked alongside them in right livelihood.

Before I end this blog, a little postscript is in order. While in New Hampshire, I didn’t jump the border into Vermont and visit Total Loss Farm, but along with Mike, Andy, Lee Rinehart, and Fred Bahnson, I hiked up Mt. Monadnock on the very trail that Thoreau and Emerson once walked together. A web is a serviceable metaphor for complex relationships, ecological and human, but I want to employ another connective metaphor. I’m currently in the middle of Braiding Sweetgrass, an important book for our fraught times, by Robin Wall Kimmerer, Ph.D. botanist and Potawatomi Indian. Braiding sweetgrass, as she writes, connects her to her past, her people, the plant world, and all creation. I’m going to claim braiding sweetgrass as a more apt metaphor for my relationship to NCAT/ATTRA, the institution and the people. Each blade of grass is just a few inches long, but that blade is braided into many other blades so that a few inches becomes connected to many more and a braid is made that can, in fact and metaphor, go on forever and even connect with other braids along the way to become useful things like baskets and bridges!

The braid I’m a small part of is bright and shining and very, very, long.

Related ATTRA Resources:

Blueberries: Organic Production

Apples: Organic Production Guide

Peaches: Organic and Low-Spray Production

Organic Pear Production

Tree Fruits: Organic Production Overview

Episode 327. ATTRA and SARE: The Commercial Potential of Mulberries in the Midwest

Virtual Farm Tour: Risk Management at Ames Orchard and Nursery

Fruit and the Freeze of 2021

This blog is produced by the National Center for Appropriate Technology through the ATTRA Sustainable Agriculture program, under a cooperative agreement with USDA Rural Development. ATTRA.NCAT.ORG.