Friday, May 1, 2009
The Agrarian Rat Race
Spring is a busy time on most small farms. We are done with lambing, but with grass now coming on, my inevitably saggy old fences need repaired. They are holding the sheep in more through the custom and good manners of the flock than by design. I need to change the oil in both tractors, do some clean up in the orchard and grape arbor, and I should be cutting next year's wood. We do have sweet and yellow Onions, Broccoli, early cabbage and cauliflower set in. The next month will bring serious gardening, buying feeder pigs, and more tasks than I care to list. I always chuckle inside about those who talk about the quiet lazy life of the countryside.
My Spring rat race is as old as farming, but there is today a more disturbing kind of agrarian rat race. I have seen many small farmers desperately try to break into commercial production to "make the farm pay". They channel enormous amount of energy into livestock or produce that they can sell, and forget to provide well for themselves and their household.
This trend is visible in both traditional commercial agriculture and the newer "sustainable models". On the traditional commercial side, I have neighbors whom I dearly love that are milking hundred of cows but buying their milk, eggs and most vegetables from the store. I have also known farmers who tried various sustainable or organic approaches and literally burned out financially or emotionally. One good man I know went broke following a "sustainable" grass based beef production model as he was trying to get the right cattle genetics and buying expensive New Zealand and Dutch grass seed.
I tried going down this road in my youth. My ambition was to clear most of the woods of the back of the farm and develop a big dairy beef grazing and feeding operation.
We also tried direct marketing vegetables and raspberries. On the former, I lost a pile of money when beef prices collapsed. On the latter my wife and I just burned out, especially her, as she was also baking to add to the lure of our produce. My big goal was to break free from off-farm work and make a full time living on the farm.
I was saved from this treadmill by a bit of luck, as I watched a much better capitalized farm go under. I was also greatly influenced by the writing of Gene Logsdon, who advocates the "garden farm" or "cottage farm approach much more akin to my grandparents farming style. You can read Gene's Blog here. I also recommend all of his books. He tends to have more practical how-to advice than his more famous friend Wendell Berry, and he is more irreverent, earning him the epithet of "the contrary farmer".
The basics of the cottage farm approach are built around the needs of the household. We need vegetables, fruit, meat, and heat in the winter. Meeting these needs diversifies the farm. I find that working at a wide variety of activities takes some skill and planning, but also prevents burnout. We don't make much money but we save money. By way of example, I only drink about a case of good beer a month, but some months the beer bill is as high as the grocery bill.
Cottage Farming is NOT "hobby farming". Our approach to farming allows my wife to stay home full-time. It pays our land and property taxes. Sometimes it allows for a few extras, like a new gun or a check to Ron Paul. It also allows us to eat healthy food, and get beneficial exercise form a variety of work. To trivialize this as a hobby is offensive. I do know real hobby farmers, but that is another story.
The other great thing about the cottage farming model is that it can work on a wider variety of properties and settings than modern commercial farming of either the conventional or sustainable kind. We could do much of what we do on less land than we have and the model would still work. For those with only a couple of acres, there is no better model than Harvey Ussery, a homesteading genius from Virginia.
Any aspiring agrarian should beware of any sustainable farming advice that makes lucrative financial claims. "Make $3,000,000 raising groundhogs on 20 acres" might work in very narrow circumstances, but the promoter has probably made more selling the groundhog raising book and getting speaker fees at organic agriculture conferences. It may very well be possible to make that three million on groundhogs, but the lifestyle it creates may not be a whole lot different from owning a real estate brokerage.