Lately the weather had been foul. In fact, most of 2018 had been a decidedly “bad year” for growing crops and farming - we got too much rain, everything is drowning. I have (had?) hope that 2019 would be better but its start pretty much spells “more rain”. For recreation I usually run around our 32 acre property, one lap makes about 1.5 miles and a few laps up and down the hills usually do enough to provide enough exercise. However, when everything is soggy and muddy, running outside is out of the question and I was forced to buy a treadmill. When outside, I choose to be aware and listen to the birds and nature, but uring my daily inside run I discovered the “farmer to farmer” podcast - a brilliant piece of journalism where various successul organic farmers are interviewed for experiences, knowledge and advice. It is truly remarkable to listen to these folks - every interview has provided a glimpse into a different part of the small farming experience. There are a few conclusions that jumped out at me after a number of these interviews, but also a major question I realized I had been asking for a while, albeit in a more disorganized fashion (more on that later).
Some things that make a successful farmer (and some that don’t)
After a few podcast episodes, it hit me - successful (small/organic) farmers are voracious readers. There are many books to consider - from “seminal” work such as Eliot Coleman, Sepp Holzer, Fukuoka, Jean-Martin Fortier (and many others) to day-to-day considerations such as “Fearless Farm Finances” or “Small-Scale Haymaking”. It all boils down to modern small scale and organic farming being about amassing as much information as possible and using that information to optimize approaches that work in a person’s particular situation. There are many people out there who succeed and thankfully, they are happy to share their stories. A budding (and existing) farmer’s job today is to learn and improve, learn and improve (did I say learn and improve?), at least until they find that sweet spot where things are chugging along and the farm is at its optimum.
Traditional farming resources are mostly of no help. I will come back to this later but most government publications, conferences, web sites, offices and employees preach and drive a different kind of agriculture (“agriculture”?), one that has nothing to do with sustainability and one that is of different agenda, focused on “food production” with the goal of producing as much sa possible (regardless of quality or consequences); in short - feeding the population by any means necessary. From one point of view this is understandable, the role of government is (at the bare minimum) to make sure that the population does not go hungry and that it gets access to reasonably priced sources of sustenance.
Similarly to the last point above, most local “farmers” are not of much help either. In fact, they can be detrimental to a budding small/organic farmer’s morale but also to their practical concerns (unless the local farmer is a small/organic grower themselves). Most local “farmers” only know one way of farming, the one that was handed down to them by their parents, and if they are of the conventional sort, that approach treats food as any other product, where the only goal is quantity, not quality. Chemicals are usually a part of this equation, so is large and expensive machinery and a lot of debt. If you have ever bought a new piece of land and stood in a field full of weeds and had a neighbor come up to you and offer to spray it for you, you know what I am talking about.
Successful (small/organic) farmers are dynamic, extroverted “types” who have an excellent sense for running a business, tuning and tweaking “farm variables” and in general, resemble computer hackers to a degree (I can say this, I have been working with computers for the last 30 odd years!). Like in any other business, you have to have love for what you do but love alone is not enough. You have to also posess that unique combination of curiosity and play drive but also a measure of methodical, ruthless discernment for what works and what doesn’t, what needs “to go” and what “stays”. Emotional attachments usually bring disappointment and a shrewd business like appoach of focusing on what works and exploiting it, while scrutinizingly abandoning what doesn’t, are necessary ingredients to the success of a small farm. The word “extroverted” above pertains mostly to the love of people - one has to love their customer base and has to want to interract with it, not because they have to, but because they want to. A likable, outgoing farmer will always win over an introverted, sulking type who prefers the cabin of his tractor, no question about it. One has to be ready to engage with their customer base and share their knowledge, educate where appropriate and generally be able to “infect” the crowd with their enthusiasm for their product. Love for the customer base also comes with respect for it - you will not succeed if deep down you think your customers are a bunch of uneducated fools who do not share your passion for the environment or the planet. Treating your customers just as a source of income or a vehicle in your agenda ultimately means no loyalty on your part and loyalty happens to be a two way street
A successful farmer is detail oriented and methodical to the point of obsession about observing things on his or her farm. Keeping track of these things, analyzing them frequently, learning from this data - it is all essential to the efficient and optimal running of any business, but it is even more critical in small scale farming. As an aside, making farm observations really means making environmental observations - in a sense, a responsible farmer is part food producer, part citizen scientist, part record keeper.
Finally, a successful small/organic farmer has to love their land. This may sound like a cliche but stop and think about it: loving one’s land means feeling for it (and all the creatures it supports). You cannot go and cover your land in glyphosate and claim you love it. You cannot go and leave your field barren in the winter (with no cover crop) and claim you love it. You cannot murder the animals who live on your land indiscriminately or in cruel, savage ways and hope that karma will repay you with a good harvest (it won’t - harvest is more than just what you take from the land!). Love of your land is infectious and all-encompassing - if you love your own land, you love your neighbor’s land and his neighbor’s land - you love the whole planet and everyone and everything on it. You feel for it and your heart breaks when others are not kind to it.
So, after all of the above - what is in a farmer? This question came to me yesterday as I was listening to Curtis Stone (of the “Urban Farmer” fame) being interviewed on the “Farmer to Farmer” podcast. He said (and I paraphrase) - “it astonishes me that most people do not know a farmer - I know a lot more accountants, musicians, lawyers but not a lot of farmers”. That got me thinking - would you really want to know a traditional “farmer”? What would you say to them if you did?
First, let’s answer the opposite question - if a traditional, chemical spraying, monocrop growing “farmer” is not really a farmer, what are they, then? What would we call them? Well, it all depends on history and the definition of farmer’s product - what is considered food.
According to Wikipedia, a farmer is a person engaged in raising living organisms for food or raw materials. According to this definition, our conventional “farmer” probably qualifies as a farmer, no doubt about it.
However, the actual history of the word (well explained over at Merriam-Webster) points to the fact that the word “farmer” only came to pertain to agriculture after the end of the 16th century and then mostly to describe people who rented/leased land to grow food on them. Today, most farmers own their land (well, the bank most often owns their land, they just lease it from the bank under the legal framework of a mortgage) and “farm hands” work the land alongside (or not) of the owner-operator. The actual word “farm” comes from the Anglo-French fermer, which means to “rent”, itself derived from medieval Latin firma, meaning “fixed payment”.
Where a lot of people get confused (or maybe not, maybe the delineation is intentional?), is the difference between a “peasant” and a “farmer”. Historically, a peasant was a “a member of a European class of persons tilling the soil as small landowners or as laborers”. Google says, a peasant is “a poor farmer of low social status who owns or rents a small piece of land for cultivation (chiefly in historical use or with reference to subsistence farming in poorer countries).”. The word itself derives from latin pagus (country district), then French paisent (country dweller). The part of the world I am originally from (Balkans) used to be powered by peasants (and to a measure still is) - peasants cropping together, bartering and sharing - all of this centered in villages. To this day the concept of a tight-knit village, both geographically and socially, is at the center of many Balkan and European countries. There is no such equivalent in the United States - small towns are spread out, no dense, tight knit communities exist that resemble the European village. Unfortunately, in most European countries today the word peasant carries a negative connotation of an uneducated person without basic manners. No wonder modern “farmers” dislike the association!
What is agriculture?
Now that we have the history explained, let’s visit one more topic - agriculture (since according to at least one definition, a farmer is someone who engages in agriculture). According to Wikipedia, agriculture is “the cultivation of land and breeding of animals and plants to provide food, fiber, medicinal plants and other products to sustain and enhance life”. What is immediately obvious from this (narrow) definition is the absence of the relation between the practice of agriculture and the environment it is practiced in or the relation between the practice of agriculture and the quality of its product (food). It is possible that the “sustain and enhance life” may contain some hint at the connection to food quality or environmental sustainability but it is not immediately obvious what that connection is - do we make “food” to keep us alive and, to be more specific, what is the “fitness function” (to borrow a term from mathematics and computer science) used to measure the connection of food and keeping one alive? Furthermore, the link between modern agriculture and the environment plus the link between modern “food” and “life sustenance” is one of many variables - how do we measure whether what we eat is simply “keeping us alive”, “slowly killing us” or “prolonging our lives”? The larger question is also whether agriculture is making the environment better, destroying it or maintaining the status quo. If you are wondering about the meaning of the latter - think about the cultures of the Orient - where food has been grown successfully for 4,000 years and yet their soil is the same today as it was 4,000 years ago (an excellent book on this topic is Dr. F.H King’s “Farmers of forty centuries” which you can read for free). Now compare that to the modern Western agriculture, where in a matter of 60-70 years we have managed to kill most of the soil, pollute the water underneath it and kill off most of the insect and animal life living on/in it. Clearly, not agriculture is created equal.
Questions, discussion and further direction
If some thought is given to the above, it seems that both the definitions of “farmer” and “agriculture” are inadequate, or at least incomplete. If one works 500 acres of a monoculture such as soybeans, using chemical pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers, producing food that retains some of these poisons to be passed on to humans for consumption and in the process those chemicals destroy the soils, surface and underground water supplies and contribute to deforestation, habitat loss and overall environmental degradation - could this person be rightfully called a farmer? Can the government offices/agencies (and hence, the tax payers behind them) that engage in full support and subsidy of such activities be considered to support farmers, farming and agriculture? When someone like Curtis Stone says “do you know a local farmer?” - who does he really mean? There are quite a few people that I know around here who do the above, but would I call them farmers?
After the above discussion, it is obvious that:
- the language we use is antiquated - our words have simply not kept up with the changing essence and consequences of our technologies and actions
- we need new definitions (or new words) to describe the difference between various approaches to growing food (and what food is)
- we need to be honest in creating our definitions and explicit in defining exactly what we mean by those definitions (maybe a better word than honest would be impartial?)
This short essay is not meant to give all the answers to the above questions. It is meant to provoke thought and start a focused effort to provide an alternative (or replacement) for definitions and words we use every day. It is my belief that it is important what we call things, because words are what we use when we think of these things, after all. If you thought of a conventional farmer as of someone who destroys the environment for profit and produces toxic food that is killing you - you probably would not want to know one (or subsidize one, or glorify their profession or…). Alternatively, if the word farmer was associated with someone who contributes to the health of the planet, as well as your own - you may feel enticed to go out and find such a person, maybe even purchase some real food from them.