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.


Valley Visions said...

Thanks so much for another well written, insightful post.

While country life is anything but quiet and lazy, there is something about a hard day's work on the land that can be very satifying (when it is not exhausting).

Thanks, again!

ChristyACB said...

Great bit of writing there! Much to think about.

On a side note, for those of us who do work small scale (right now I'm an urban/suburban homesteader who is an executive by day) almost ready to retire to the country homestead, it is entirely possible to be sustainable.

Sustainable, in itself, shouldn't be such a dirty word with people. I mean, if it isn't sustainable, then it is unsustainable and can't be continued without taking away form other things.

I do it, it isn't hard, it's cheaper and it means I don't have to spend precious time buying things that I can create right here. The side benefits are pretty amazing too on a harvest and personal and appearance level.

But, you don't make money at it. It takes time, more planning and a love of the land you're working even beyond the agrarian level. Not flaky new-age stuff, but real, get your hands full of dirt and take a big sniff love.

Amanda said...

Thanks for this. We bought our 'hobby farm' two years ago and have been working to improve our levels of self-sufficiency ever since. I agree with you completely that somehow the word 'hobby' trivializes the whole process. Thanks for making me feel a lot better about what we're trying to do!

The Midland Agrarian said...

Thank you all for the kind words!

Valley Visions,
I agree that hard work is innately satisfying. I think my past frustration with commerical farming was the result of working hard and seeing so little monetary return. If I work for the household rather than serving the economy, the returns are a warm house and good food. This is much more satisfying than eating bologna because we sold all the raspberries, and did not have time to cook becasue we were picking.

I also agree that sustainability is a good goal in itself. I have more than a passing interest in sustainable forestry. Unfortunately, The word can get co-opted by hucksters for their own purpose. Any farming that burns out the farmer is not sustainable by definition, no matter what it is called.

You should feel good about what you are doing. Don't ever let anyone tell you that farming for self-sufficiency is not "real farming" or that feeding your family is a "hobby"

dogear6 said...

My husband works as a fine art photographer and finds the same thing. People assume he just strolls out there, points the camera a few times and then makes money with no effort.

They are appalled when they hear about being in place before sunrise and sunset both, waiting hours for the right shot, driving hundreds of miles a day, eating crummy food, staying in crummy hotels, and having no medical insurance, 401(k) or pension plan to just barely break even.

It always looks a lot more fun from a distance than when you actually do it for a living.

Kristin said...

I really like your "Cottage Farming" definition. We don't sell much of anything but we grow most of what we eat. We're certainly not hobby farmers and don't want to be.

The Midland Agrarian said...

I am a crummy photographer, and understand that it must take great skill to do it well. I hope your husband still finds joy in his vocation. In spite of the work, I do find much joy in mine.

Thanks, Kristin, but the "Cottage farming" phrase is Gene Logsdon's not mine. I believe he borrowed it in part from William Cobbett's "Cottage Economy" a homesteading classic from nearly 200 years ago.

dogear6 said...

Yes, the hubby still loves it after all these years. He's also toughened up a lot to the constant stream of comments of "must be nice".

vera said...

I just came across an apropos quote from My Ishmael (Quinn):

"In any economy based on products, wealth will tend to be concentrated in the hands of a few." When farming is based on subsistence and mutual aid, with only some surplus to sell, most of the wealth stays in the community. When it starts with products to sell, wealth flees and people go broke. What puzzles me is what has made this obvious wisdom so rare?

berryvine said...

I enjoyed reading your post. Very well written.I am a small farmer but I also am employed by commercial farming. The burn out level is high.We don't have family land and had to find a way to pay for what we have.

Dan said...

I love Gene Logsdon. I've read quite a few of his books... Full of good information, but still fun and easy to read.

And yes, absolutely don't call it a 'hobby farm'!

William Cross said...

Excellant post and very true in all aspects. The agrarian lifestyle has to be an ever forward family serving one first and foremost. Otherwise, what is the reason.