The Internet Won’t Feed You, and Neither Will We

by Caleb Stegall on March 18, 2009 · 31 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Short

Rod Dreher posts a letter from a young ‘un asking about law school and farming.  Similarly, a commenter here last week asked:

I have only ever been acquainted, through my extended family, with operations of the middling lar ge (though still solely family run) variety. As a result, I have been in the habit of simply lamenting that fate did not see fit to place me, as it did my kin, in line to inherit a family farm. After all, I thought, the equipment alone required to run such an operation is worth millions of dollars, not to speak of the land, buildings, etc. How could someone of strictly limited financial means, such as I, ever hope to break in to that field from the outside? Lately, I have been entertaining thoughts of one day running a much smaller farm of the sort you’ve discussed in your post. The problem is that I still don’t have the first clue how to begin! I am willing to overcome the steep learning curve with some nose-to-the-grindstone studying about agricultural methods and practice; the primary problem, for someone in my situation, is still financial. You hint at this in your post: most of the small farmers you write about are just “families who can get their hands on some land (very hard to do up here; most of these guys have family connections)”; this is not, I suspect, a problem limited to the lovely Midwest. It is probably the single greatest obstacle facing most people in my situation. With all that in mind, I propose that you and/or other interested parties on this sit e post a sort of primer on starting a small, self-sustaining family farming operation. How glorious for all of us arm-chair farmers (most of us on this site, I suspect, have done no real farming to speak of). This short-course would be an eminently practical supplement to this (happily) theory-laden web log.

I love that ”break into the field” jargon used entirely without irony!  The problem is mental more than anything else, and that euphemism about “fields” of labor just about sums up the problem perfectly.

I do hope that FPR is not a bastion of theory only, and I don’t think it is or will be.  That’s partly why I posted a simple farm story today.  What people need isn’t a “clue”–it’s a simple example.  The only financial problem most people have in this still amazingly prosperous land is stupidity, a complete inability to delay gratification, and absurd expectations about their standard of living.  I blame the universities. 

So for my part at least, the idea of a “primer” here is blackly hillarious (see title above).  On the other hand, a daily reminder and example of others living in love with the frailty and limits of their own existence, suffering the places, customs, rites, joys, and sorrows of the people who are in close relation to them by family, friendship, and community–all in service of the truth, goodness, and beauty that is best experienced directly–could help. 

To suffer one’s place and one’s people in the particularity of its and their needs is the only true basis for finding love, friendship, and an authentic, meaningful life.  As the Poet said: “It ain’t me Babe, it ain’t me your looking for, Babe.”

{ 31 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Son of Okies March 20, 2009 at 5:51 pm

Go to Hell, Caleb. Count your blessings that you still live in a locale with some semblance of Place and keep to yourself your patronizing disdain for those of us who recognize our need to learn how to scratch out a living among the ruined lands that the flood of Progress has already passed over.

My forebears are well-acquainted with your self-congratulation. They and their fellow sharecroppers were similarly condemned by the inheritors of land for the laziness and lack of virtue that their landlessness supposedly demonstrated.

avatar Max March 20, 2009 at 7:33 pm

You use a lot of words, dripping with disdain, to say nothing…you are either on your way to becoming a liberal or you already think you are the junior senator from Kansas.

avatar Caleb Stegall March 21, 2009 at 7:46 am

While I understand my correspondents’ anger, I’m not very sympathetic. The sooner we are collectively disabused of the notion that all we need is more book (or ‘net) larnin’, the sooner we’ll be off our cushion and out the door. You want to farm. Great, so farm. Start small. What you lack isn’t knowledge, but skill. Go talk to some locals. I recommend the feed store as a near infinite source of local knowledge and wisdom (which, by the way, is exactly where the old timers told me what I’m telling you now). Financially, stay out of debt, don’t buy stuff you don’t need, and learn how to work hard.

I have no patience for those who blame the world or the age we live in or the flood of Progress for their failure to have the life they supposedly want. This victim mentality is even uglier in conservative nostalgics (and I say that as one who is intimately familiar with the emotion). It needs to be ruthlessly dealt with. The worst thing that can happen to gatherings like FPR is that they have a tendency to become a place for parlor dress-up mind games for spoiled misfits each nursing their own grievances. A kind of virtual second life for conservatives who get to imagine the world they want without engaging in any of the real work, sacrifice, pain, and suffering that is required to attain the real thing. If preventing that hurts a few feelings, so be it.

You have bootstraps. So use ‘em.

avatar Jim March 21, 2009 at 8:26 am

Oh come. You can’t tell me that we’ve collectively learned nothing about agriculture over the past 10,000 years and that much of this knowledge can’t be found in books. Really we’ve learned more about farming in the last 300 years than we knew in the 9,700 prior to that. Look up the A&M in all the A&M schools out there — the middlin’ to large farms that we idealize train their children at these schools, small ones do too. Go ask a farmer and I bet many of them will tell you to take some classes. Or, better, go to work on his farm….ha…

At the same time, if you really want to do something, you find a way to do it. It might just start with a garden you use to grow your vegetables and looking for ways to cut money and expenses.

I’m aware of the obvious response about commercial farming and higher ed. complicity in the way it strips our land, has us grow toxic crops, etc. I’m also aware that some farmers are looking for alternatives.

I live in a very rural area that has more farmland than city land. Been a suburb dweller all my life, though. Even in the suburbs of LA my father grew tomatoes, lemons, peaches, plums, apples, oranges, roses, nectarines, etc. It was great. I think the oranges, nectarines, and lemons were the best.

avatar Tim March 21, 2009 at 8:34 am

Caleb, this is great. 99% of blogs I read devote their time to railing against the villains out there somewhere. I’m not familiar with your work, but you seem willing to challenge yourself and your readers. It is appreciated.

avatar Caleb Stegall March 21, 2009 at 9:12 am

Jim, I don’t recall saying that. In fact, you make my point for me: the real hurdles are in our wills and our hearts, not our minds–not in a lack of information.

Tim, thanks.

avatar Jim March 21, 2009 at 9:23 am

Yes, I agree with that part of your point, Caleb. I would agree our real hurdles are first of all mental, and secondly living with the consequences of past decisions (usually in the form of high debt — you can start today making the best decisions in the world on a daily basis and still need years to work out of debt).

I was responding to your black humor regarding the idea of a “primer” or of reading books about farming — you seemed to reject that idea. My father successfully grew the things he did by reading books, first, and then by trial and error, because books can’t teach about every possible combination of soil and weather. Took a few seasons but then he grew great tomatoes bigger than your hand.

My wife’s been interested in this for some time. She’s a natural farmer, I think. It’s been getting warmer and now she wants dirt under her nails. And she’s been talking to local farmers, looking up small farm websites, we’ll probably join a co-op run by Catholic nuns in which we pay some cash and donate some labor for a share in their crop. But the guys most interested in organic farming rely upon pretty sophisticated computer programs for crop rotation, when to let their chickens feed around the crop and when not, etc.

avatar Jeff Culbreath March 21, 2009 at 5:11 pm

“You want to farm. Great, so farm.”

That’s funny, Mr. Stegall. Very, very funny.

avatar E.D. Kain March 21, 2009 at 5:53 pm

I would suggest maybe going and working on a farm for a while before starting your own. Go grow things. Start a garden. Join a community garden. Go talk to old people who remember what growing things requires.

avatar Josh Cooney March 21, 2009 at 7:55 pm

I like Mr. Stegall’s advice and attitude, though I don’t think the question of where and how to begin deserves ridicule. I’m just finishing my 4th wasted year of college and set to begin a farm apprenticeship this summer. There is plenty of farm work to be done on small, sustainable farms. Here is a webstite where one can begin to look over the opportunities. There is also the WWOOF program and some positions listed on the website for Rural Heritage magazine. One could just google “farm intern, “farm apprentice,” or “farm volunteer” as well. CSA’s often take in volunteers who would like to exchange a few hours of sweat for some learning and a handful of fresh tomatoes. There are full year, seasonal, and 2-3 week opportunities at a myriad of places. So, yes, start farming folks! I suggest that you apply some selectivity to some of these listings. I found a real weirdo last summer but there are mostly good folks eager to teach others how to farm.

http://attra.ncat.org/attra-pub/internships/

avatar JT March 22, 2009 at 1:50 am

I don’t think it is the farming part this is troubling for people. Once you grow it, where and to whom do you sell your product? Is it your local dept of ag that helps out here?

If we grow something, and someone gets sick if someone points the finger at the farmer should we have liability insurance?

avatar Jim March 22, 2009 at 8:51 am

Egad. Keep away from the dept. of agriculture. They exist to support the interests of corporate farms and will attempt to regulate you out of existence. You can sell your product at farmer’s markets, on the side of the road, at your home — post signs in your front yard, advertise on the internet, etc.

Your question about insurance is another thing altogether and a good one. I don’t have the answer to that question.

avatar JT March 22, 2009 at 10:02 am

Of course about the federal dept of ag. Plus I meant state ag, and it was just an example. Are there any orgs that can help a fledgling farmer price and market their product (produce, poultry, eggs, cheese, milk)? Farmer’s Markets, you pick, Veg Stands, supply chain to local restaurants and grocery.

Also, there are state ag outlets that are good sources of information. Never throw the baby out with the bath water. It might have a rainfall chart or a soil composition chart. Something useful.

a pig poops in your spinach. Now what?

avatar Freddie March 22, 2009 at 11:33 am

Hillarious, indeed.

avatar D.W. Sabin March 22, 2009 at 12:57 pm

Joel Salatin’s books provide a highly readable how-to in both marketing and growing and my favorite stories from his books are those where he describes the small farmers who lament that they have followed all the recommendations of the Department of Agriculture and still went broke. His stories are practical distillations from an awful lot of trial and error.

As to “spoiled misfits, each nursing their own grudges”…I take umbrage sir! My parents were strict disciplinarians that produced a fine child but sadly, a lousy adult so to impugn a person’s effulgent misfittery by characterizations of being “spoiled”, well……I never.

I, sir, am a soiled misfit.

avatar Son of Okies March 23, 2009 at 11:08 am

“The worst thing that can happen to gatherings like FPR is that they have a tendency to become a place for parlor dress-up mind games for spoiled misfits each nursing their own grievances.”

No, the worst thing that can happen is that the rockers on the porch are filled with nasty sons-of-bitches who have nothing but insults for those happening by on the sidewalk. Both, though, describe well your previous internet venture. Don’t let it happen here.

avatar Son of Okies March 23, 2009 at 11:09 am

I don’t have disagreement with your advice, by the way. Just your manner. You’re like a priest who mocks a penitent because he doesn’t understand yet what metanoia is truly going to demand of him.

avatar Caleb Stegall March 23, 2009 at 11:40 am

More calls for niceness from those who agree with me. This is part and parcel of the decline of standards I have already reflected upon.

If there is an unexplored criticism of crunchy “front porch” politics it is that too many of us are ninnies. So you ought to welcome all the FPR SOBs now rocking on the porch (of course I only speak for myself–and Kauffman and Peters, ’cause I know they’re real SOBs too).

avatar Mark Thompson March 23, 2009 at 11:48 am

Why must one be able to sell one’s product to farm? One cannot go into any business, much less do something that they find personally rewarding, and expect to just immediately be successful enough at it to make a living doing it exclusively. If what one really wants to do is to farm, then it doesn’t take much to grow one’s own food. Even in an urban apartment building, one can usually find the wherewithal to grow a handful of vegetables or, at the very least, some herbs.

If you enjoy writing, then write for yourself. If you’re lucky, you’ll be able to attract the attention of a publisher, and make a few bucks on the side, and maybe even eventually make a living doing it. But just because relatively few people are able to make a living doing it doesn’t mean you can’t do it for yourself. I can’t see why the same logic wouldn’t apply to farming. We all, or almost all, have the right and the ability to do things we find rewarding; but we don’t all have the right and the ability to make a living doing those things.

avatar Son of Okies March 23, 2009 at 11:58 am

Who’s calling for niceness? I’m challenging you to goodness.

Let history teach you a lesson. TNP was an exercise in futility and died a slow cancerous death. Whatever you had to say there that was valid (and there was a lot of this) was, like this piece, ultimately counter-productive because it was so deeply and gratuitously self-indulgent. You want to make the world better? Great. Be a christian and sacrifice your ego for the healing of your brother.

avatar Jim March 23, 2009 at 1:39 pm

Ha…not sure where that non-sequitur came from. tNP was never taken to be anything more than it wound up being: a short-term web project. Don’t see what this has to do with the virtues or vices of Caleb’s post here. I take issue with the practicality of his suggestion too. But out of honesty I still have to wonder how much of that is just laziness on my part, unwillingness to substantially change, sheer inertia and flat complicity with the way things have always been. I can see myself as being guilty of all this. It makes me uncomfortable for Caleb to remind me. I still appreciate the reminder.

avatar D.W. Sabin March 23, 2009 at 1:41 pm

“Wit is Cultured Insolence”….Aristotle

Insolence, in reaction to this day and age is a sign of compassion for certain truths that seem no longer important and as far as wit goes, the dour but reflexively supportive Puritans never had a Borscht Belt worth a drachma. In other words, if’n ye don’t likem feisty, seek ye elsewhere and do it with the full support and fine tidings of the management. Or, just be good and be mighty glad that there are curmudgeons around to provide the contrast required for the desired classification.

Still though, this Stegall fellow is obviously a maleducato cavone who puts buckets on the head of swine.

avatar Patrick F. March 24, 2009 at 10:21 am

Mr. Stegall,

As the one responsible for the quote that generated this post of yours, I think perhaps some clarification is in order. What I certainly was not asking for was a “primer” on the day-to-day practices of growing crops and raising stock. My reference to “nose-to-the-grindstone studying about agricultural methods and practice” should not have been interpreted to mean merely “book-larnin’”; having at my disposal a goodly number of family members who have made a life of farming (in fact there is only farming on either side of my family as far back as one can see), I entertain no delusions that would lead me to believe that this sort of practical advice is best found by trolling the internet or even reading a book. So your bracingly delivered admonition to just get out and give it a try is well-received (if, as some other commentators have observed, a bit lacking in substance).

My primary question, which perhaps I did not make clear enough, regards the financial problems facing me and others in similar situations. I am not talking about buying a little home on an acre of land and growing a sizable garden; I fancy I could figure that out on my own.

What I am thinking of is a bit larger in scale, though still very small in relative terms. Still, not everyone lives in Kansas, where land remains relatively plentiful and cheap–Jeremy made reference to this problem in his original post. And, to make matters more complicated, my mobility/flexibility is strictly limited by the fact that my wife and I have, in good Front Porch fashion, made it our first priority to put down roots around extended family, to make a community of our family, if you will (incidentally, the family of which I speak is hers, not mine, and hers is not a farming family).

Finally, let it be clear that my wife and I do not come close to fitting the profile of those whose main financial problem is “stupidity, a complete inability to delay gratification, and absurd expectations about their standard of living.” I come from, and am faithful to, a long line of folks whose thriftiness borders on stinginess (though, like most in that line, we are still strictly observant of our financial duties as Christians).

In sum: like it or not, farming operations, even small-scale ones, require a fair amount of capital and some potentially risky investments. The “primer” I envisioned was really just some practical advice from some folks who had successfully navigated the early stages of such an enterprise. Perhaps this was the wrong place to seek that kind of advice; you, who are probably the best positioned to give it, clearly declined to do so, opting instead to give a pep speech about stick-to-it-iveness and elbow grease.

Despite your implicit assertion that it really isn’t so hard, I really don’t think it was too much of a stretch to suggest that an undertaking such as this is particularly difficult for one who 1) has no family or friends from whom to inherit or borrow land, 2) is supporting one’s family off a small income (and only expects that family to continue growing and the income to remain low). There are many people out there, including a fair number of small farmers (and including my own farming family) who would simply say it was impossible, or too difficult and risky, for a person in my situation to consider. I like to think that isn’t the case, but I don’t really have practical answers–which is precisely what I am trying to find.

As for the tone of your writing, I appreciate your willingness to call it as you see it. Still, there is something to be said for the ability to distinguish friend from foe–not in order to be hard on one and light on the other, which is no virtue, but in order to avoid wrongly attributing to friends the shortcomings of foes. (One might also mention charity, which encourages the tendency to err on the side of assuming the best about others, rather than the worst, when facts are scarce–but we’ll keep theology out of it for now.)

Keep up the good work.

avatar Caleb Stegall March 24, 2009 at 10:46 am

Patrick, an excellent and bracing response. Good! It seems you are well on your way to avoiding and/or getting past the derailments that plague most of us.

You ask questions that do deserve some thoughtful response. There aren’t enough specifics here, nor do I have the necessary local knowledge to speak to your place even if I had the specifics. But I can follow my own advice and speak of my experience.

First, a correction—I didn’t say it was easy. In fact, I said it was very very hard. I also do not believe that the kind of life we are discussing is ever free from risk and a strong likelihood of failure. One thing I have learned from the study of the prairie and my own experience is that failure is the farmer’s (and the freeman’s, regardless of vocation) constant companion. Best to make it your friend.

But there are different kinds of risk. Stay away from the kinds that make you another’s bondsman (i.e., borrowing large sums). Accept and embrace the kinds that may lead you to destitution, death, loneliness, back-breaking labor, humiliation, etc.,—you can shoulder all of these as a freeman, which, in my view, ought to be the goal. At the least, you can achieve the rare success of a first-rate and fully self-sufficient failure—then write a great memoir! (see, e.g., Victor Davis Hanson)

As for start-up capital, if you have avoided the typical American financial pitfalls, take a second job and keep saving. Be patient. Remember Jacob, working for seven years (and then another seven!). I imagine any thrifty hard-worker ought to be able to buy a small stead after seven years of saving.

As for my example, I did go to law school, which, by the way, despite my shots at lawyers, I think is a damn fine profession and in fact, is the last truly liberal education available in America, if you want to treat it that way. Just go to a small state school and incur as little debt as possible. The law remains an excellent supplemental vocation to farming, both from an income perspective and, more importantly, from a communal perspective. Go read some Berry on Wheeler Catlett.

And if you’re ever in the neighborhood, drop by to see what a real lawyer failing at farming looks like.

avatar Caleb Stegall March 24, 2009 at 11:01 am

I’m not certain, but I may be confusing you, Patrick, with the letter writer on Dreher’s blog who was asking about law school. Your queries were substantially similar, as I recall, with the law school twist in one.

avatar Patrick F. March 24, 2009 at 4:22 pm

Mr. Stegall,

Thank you for your considered response.

After re-reading my comment (and before you wrote your response), I realized that you were certain to call me out on the charge that you had said the life was “easy.” I considered posting an addendum to clarify my meaning, then decided against it for the sake of time. To be sure, your defense is entirely correct.

I am not averse to taking risks myself, but when one has a family to think about, every risk is magnified hundredfold; by making these tentative initial explorations, I hope to have a better picture of what the risks are and how I might go about navigating them.

Of course you’re right that every local situation is unique, but your advice is still helpful. You have pointed out that having another flexible source of income is immensely helpful. I have always thought it would be nice to have a small country law practice, though I didn’t go in that direction, and probably will not do so now. But who knows? You’ve got me thinking.

Thanks for the invitation to the Stegall stead. I have family in Olathe, so I’m occasionally in your neck of the woods (or swath of prairie?). Perhaps I’ll drop you a line before my next visit.

Thanks again.

avatar John March 25, 2009 at 1:12 pm

I’m pretty sure that this is going to get blocked, but this is where my mind went when I read this post and the comments.

“Kirby Hill” by Hayseed Dixie
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KRwlbmp21qs

Also, you don’t have to grow everything. Provide something interesting that you like and the community might want. I’d really like to get into the home brewing of beer movement, and once I save up enough money I will. Beer is one way to make friends and influence people to teach you and trade you for some seeds or whathaveyou.

avatar JT March 25, 2009 at 5:39 pm

Beer is a real good point. The best beer I ever had was home brew that was stored in soda syrup container. Iced, tapped and served. I’d GLADLY trade 4 rounds of cheese, and a gallon of wine for a container of home brew like that.

avatar Rimshot March 26, 2009 at 9:58 am

Patrick F.,

Caleb has suggested law practice, a good profession. Nursing is another good profession. Nursing has great potential, serves as an opppertunity for growth in Christian charity and love for the needy, and is a very common “second career” (the average graduate of an RN program is 31 years old). In two to four years one can obtain an RN, and a few years after that become a CNP (Nurse Practitioner) CCNS (Clinical Nurse Specialist), if one wishes to go that route.

The RN program at my local community college is so cheap I’m able to pay as I go, and most health care institutions offer college tuition reimbursement; some even offer loan forgiveness.

And after that, the land.

Well that’s my plan, anyway.

avatar Extollager March 31, 2009 at 10:09 pm

“The worst thing that can happen to gatherings like FPR is that they have a tendency to become a place for parlor dress-up mind games for spoiled misfits each nursing their own grievances. A kind of virtual second life for conservatives who get to imagine the world they want without engaging in any of the real work, sacrifice, pain, and suffering that is required to attain the real thing.”

Preach it, brother. I needed that.

avatar J'espere May 3, 2009 at 4:32 pm

I left nursing because the nurse:patient ratio was so ridiculous there was precious little time to do more than pass pills and hang IVs. The government’s interference in doctors’/nurses’ decisions and treatment was just the icing on the cake. If you like paper more than patients, though, go for it.

As for the farming (and this has been said, IIRC): Decide what you want to/can grow, then find out all you can about growing it where you live. Some places have longer growing seasons than others. Buy a tomato plant! They do wonderfully well in a whiskey barrel, and after your first season of fresh tomatoes, you will be encouraged to carry on.

You can make baby greenhouses: Start your seeds indoors (ideally in one of those little “six-pack” pots), then put a stick of some sort into the dirt. Spritz the seeds…then drape/tuck a large baggy over all. The Styrofoam trays meat is packed are great plantling trays, and they will fit on a windowsill.

I have had people help me out (on the ‘net and in person), and am grateful. So I hope this little bit was helpful to you.

PS: Get a chicken or too. Good manure; good eggs. Mind you: They like to ferret around in freshly-dug dirt, so put up a lightweight fence just to keep the feathered ones out of your growing area.

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