who is a farmer?

shawn and babyIs the sustainable farm movement missing a major piece of its puzzle?

Organics conferences seem to consist of a very small percentage of people who make (or at least in the last couple of years have made) a reliable (if sometimes marginal) living at it, a larger percentage of people who at the end of the year are hovering between being in the black and in the red, and an even larger percentage of people only just starting or thinking of starting.  All the people in the second and third categories wish they were in the first, and most of these latter are here as speakers or organizers.

Is there perhaps a missing piece of the puzzle – a class of people for whom serious farming, for food and for a lifestyle, is the goal, but who have no expectation, perhaps no desire, even, that farming should generate sufficient cash completely to replace whatever else they do?  People who perhaps already like what they do for cash, but still want to be in the country and raise food/live, too?  Or people who have something they would like to do – art creation or performance, ministry, craft work or skilled labor – from which they do not expect to be able to derive an adequate cash income, and who in addition would like to live in the country and raise their food? – People who, if they could farm for food, beauty, health and pleasure, might be able to make the smaller income they could derive from their avocation be an adequate one?

One thought that comes to our minds is that the sustainable agriculture community of the future may — perhaps should — come to include in large proportion a class of farmer that once made up most of the human race, and today is hardly on our organic maps.  We mean the family farmer, the man, woman or couple who stewards a few acres very well, grows his own and his family’s food with some over for extended family, community and charity, and also plies a trade or avocation.  Not just one or the other, farming or avocation, will make up his entire occupation and living, but both or either, simultaneously or cyclically.

It is pretty well accepted among small-scale farmers that direct market, farm-to-consumer sales, allowing as they do that the famer should receive retail prices for his goods, is a necessary condition for most small farmers to pull down a cash income even remotely comparable to what is generally considered a living wage.  But a glance at the map of the U.S. in particular, or the world in general, will inform inquiry that, indeed, much of the habitable portion of the planet is too far from a civic center of any appreciable size for direct-market (farm to consumer) sales to make up an entire income anyway.  What then?  Is that land to remain in the hands of ‘conventional’ (and destructive) agriculture?  or is it to return entirely to grazing lands, for large herds which will have to be shipped long distances to market?  If land far distant from concentrated populations of people with money to spend on responsibly, sustainably grown food, is to be regenerated and restored to deep fertility, this land will have to be farmed intimately by careful stewards — and that, at least for the foreseeable future, means without the farmer deriving a full living from cash crop sales.

Who then is to farm these lands?

Our visits to sustainable agriculture fairs, workshops and conferences suggest to us that there is an army of interested, informed and avid farmers of many ages eager to take up the challenge.  It is an issue we think is going to need great deal more attention over the next few years.

18 thoughts on “who is a farmer?

  1. Well said. I’m in with 7 acres. I have been functioning under this belief for some years. The economics of many small farmers making an acceptable wage will not improve until the population considers cheap food and expensive healthcare in the same frame of reference. Otherwise, it is hard to pay $6/doz eggs (organic free range) when you can pay .76 (CAFO).

  2. We definitely fall into this category, I run the farm primarily to feed my family then selling the surplus to pay for the expense of running the farm. Markets are too distant to be any more commercial. Thankfully Gosia is able to make enough with her homemade cosmetics to pay the real life bills. In fact this way of life is becoming very popular here in Poland, people leaving the big cities behind and setting up with a small plot of land. Although the cost of and drives people to the lower cost areas.

    1. we’d love to hear more about small farms in Poland! Shawn and Beth Dougherty The Sow’s Ear shawnandbeth@att.net onecowrevolution.wordpress.com twosisterscreamery.wordpress.com

      Check out our new book, The Independent Farmstead

      The Doughertys capture both the soaring majesty and the down-and-dirty reality of farm life…. This book encourages and inspires all of us, no matter if we’re just wannabes or if we’re old hands. —JOEL SALATIN, from the foreword.

      Library Journal starred review.

  3. I’m one of the “multi” types, working on getting my life so I eat what I grow, sell some for cash, and do my crafty-artsy stuff as my income/hobby. I think there definitely needs to be more info out there for us in-betweens, I see lots of stuff for “run an organic farm on only 50 acres!” and lots of “garden in 10 square feet!” not a lot of the middle way.

    LOVE your blog! Been too busy to comment (building a house!! YAY!!), got lost for a couple hours the other day in your posts about making cheese and churning butter, LOVE it!! 😀 The concept of the cheese production area being part of the inoculant for the cheese really got me thinking. Wonder if I can make an area (in my cheese aging room?) and add good cultures to it (splash them on the walls?), so my cheese works better, like taking a probiotic, but for a room… Fascinating!

  4. We are farmers in the exact manner that you mention. My husband worked for many years while I stayed at home and raised the kids and we all worked our little 1 1/2 acre farmstead. I worked outside our home the last 20 years. We have no interest in farming as a business. We want to feed ourselves, our kids and grandkids and give the rest away. We both retired from corporate work and have no desire to be back in the business world. We are fortunate in that we earned traditional pensions so our immediate financial needs are met. I believe it’s Wendell Barry that best describes our now retired personal farming philosophy. Our vision of earth care involves our property, our extended family, our lives and those we contact on a daily basis. We have this land to feed, shelter and provide a sane environment in which to live.

    1. There are many, many such examples — Ben Hewitt comes to mind as well. Shawn and Beth Dougherty The Sow’s Ear shawnandbeth@att.net onecowrevolution.wordpress.com twosisterscreamery.wordpress.com

      Check out our new book, The Independent Farmstead

      The Doughertys capture both the soaring majesty and the down-and-dirty reality of farm life…. This book encourages and inspires all of us, no matter if we’re just wannabes or if we’re old hands. —JOEL SALATIN, from the foreword.

      Library Journal starred review.

  5. I think there is a way little considered or tried these days, a way I would just call a village, that would involve fewer full time farmers and greater part-timers that are also tradesmen/craftsmen. I believe sharing responsibility and ownership over the “village commons” is the key to success. I imagine, for example, a master farmer overseeing the job, while the other members of the village contribute some chores (less skilled time and labor) but spend the lionshare of their energy toward a craft or other avocation that supports the community either directly (carpenters build houses, potters make dinnerware) but more likely indirectly by selling their wares or services outside the village. According to thinkers like Aristotle a village is a natural level of organization of a human community. We have mostly destroyed the intermediate levels so that little exists between the individual and the nation-state. Even in Catholicism we tend to focus on the family (in a way rightly so for it is under attack, but also a more fundamental or “lower” level of organization) and we look at the laws of the nation-state, but we overlook the intermediate levels. This is in part why parishes are failing. The parish is rightly at the “village” level. Village is certainly a flexible notion and could be perhaps as few as 4 families? Perhaps as many as 150? But not much more because the personal connection breaks down and shared ownership or responsibility becomes more remote, more abstract. It must be “these” fields, “our” lands, “our” table…

  6. I’m sixty years old and grew up on a small, mixed (poor) farm. Most years, both my parents worked off the farm (Dad as a welder, Mom as a clerk/typist) during the school year. They would typically quit their jobs at the beginning of the summer and then be working again by November. We had, at various times, pigs, cattle, chickens, goats, cash crops, hay and grain for on-farm use, a big garden and a small woodlot. Very small, very diversified, very labour-intensive. I remember one vacation. We drove to Niagara Falls one morning and were home in time for chores.
    The rural economy has always been a “gig economy” with small farmers doing off-farm, non-farm activities such as sewing, cutting wood, upholstery, welding, tax return preparation, small engine repair, school bus driving, waiting tables, caring for others’ children, etc., for cash or barter. This is financially precarious living, but it allows for creativity, initiative, social engagement, flexibility and all the fresh air you can breathe and good food you can eat.
    I think we need different words for the two worlds of “farming” to distinguish between the production of internationally-traded agricultural commodities and local food farming.

    1. Thanks, Wendy, your picture is like many we’re heard from relatives and others. Words are so often a problem, aren’t they? And this one — ‘farming’ — is so important, and so overlooked. Not even ‘organic’ can compare with it for misuse —

    2. I agree with the concept of needing more words for farming. Just one word doesn’t work. And yeah, I don’t use “organic” either, it’s become a marketing weasel word. I use “beyond organic permaculture” and generally have to explain it 🙂 Words often make communication difficult.

  7. “We mean the family farmer, the man, woman or couple who stewards a few acres very well, grows his own and his family’s food with some over for extended family, community and charity, and also plies a trade or avocation.”

    That’s been us for the last 14 years. We have on occasion sold excess produce and eggs, even ducks and chickens. And we usually have pigs to sell.

    So we have provided much of own food and dairy on our own 2 acres and occasionally leasing an 1/2 1 acre from our neighbor.

    But I ply a fulltime trade, albeit with flexibility.

    This very well could be the future.

    cheers.

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