Yo! Farmer Dude!

Then there is Will Allen’s work at his organization Growing Power, where paid staff and volunteers are indeed farming real plots of land in inner city Milwaukee and Chicago, with a rural 40-acre plot in Wisconsin connected to a youth camp, plus several community gardens. I have never visited his sites but like what I read about them. Nevertheless, while this group is doing real farm work, Growing Power is more of a training/social justice program than a group of farms, as we would traditionally define the word, for the simple reason that its farms are not remotely self-sustainable financially. Mr. Allen’s nonprofit organization employs hundreds of people and trains many more, on limited amounts of ground, and to do so it must depend on grants to fill out its budget. (One of his growing sites is studying the financial viability of urban farming, and I will be interested to see what he finds.)

Other “urban farming” projects are more strictly community gardening efforts with a similarly strong splash of social services. As another small farm advocate I know says, while that is good work, it is not her work, and it is not farming, either.

I wish such efforts well—I wish victory to all victory gardeners. But in a country in which farmers are a tiny minority, and in which so few people actually want to farm, however much some might believe they have the heart of a farmer, we shouldn’t allow a perfectly good word to be hollowed out.

Calling our gardening hobby a “farm” and ourselves “farmers” is a way for us to fool ourselves that we are doing something more socially significant than we are—that we are part of a movement towards national self-sufficiency and greener living. But four tomatoes will not improve your global footprint very much, and a few square feet of vegetables will hardly feed one person even in July. You who grow a large garden are probably not feeding more than your own family, and if that garden requires real work and earns your neighbors’ respect (and mine), it is still not a farm. Calling it one encourages us to imagine that we aren’t terribly short of farmers after all–when we are, and when we should be doing something about it.

Urban farming also implies the idea—unproven and unlikely—that we can feed ourselves in the city from city ground, and don’t need to worry about our rural neighbors’ employment, small towns with dead economies, and leaching topsoil. But a country of 309 million souls and counting still needs its rural farmland, if its millions want to eat food that hasn’t been shipped across a sea.

I hate to say this, because I sound like the Vogue editor I heard on the radio in 2008, who like our former president believed we had a moral obligation to shop our way out of recession, but–you will do more for American farming by patronizing your local farmers’ market regularly than by any personal effort at “urban farming.” My comfort is that many patio tomato growers know this perfectly well.

Still, this iffy use of language and all the little backyard “farmer” flags on a website map of America are distractions from the real holes in our national patchwork quilt of farms—the real farms we need to produce appreciable amounts of food, so that we are truly more self-sufficient as a country, and less dependent on international commerce in order to eat.  No snack cracker’s marketing department is going to fill those holes.

Photo by Tristan Ferne

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33 comments on this post.
  1. D.W. Sabin:

    The wag who snarked at your farmer friend who added Real Estate sales to his oeuvre should be forgiven because not many folks these days know that their revered Founders were largely multi-employed. In fact, their role in self-government was obliged but frequently resented.

    Adams was a lawyer-farmer. Jefferson was a Philosophe and Architect-farmer. Washington was a soldier-farmer. Multiple means of engagement, as opposed to the daft “multi-tasking” was once the norm.

    Aside from putting capital at risk, when gardening goes from entertainment to survival, it becomes farming. Not that entertainment aint vital

  2. Laura:

    Excellent. I was having this very discussion with my farmer friend the other day about a group in Portland who call themselves urban farmers who are really edible garden designer/consultants. A clever move from a marketing standpoint but a misuse of the term. I will pass this on to her.

  3. Barry A. McCain:

    Enjoyed the piece; thanks for writing it.

    Also, I’m not sure if you’ve heard of this family from Pasadena who take urban farming to remarkable level (http://urbanhomestead.org/).

  4. Katherine Dalton:

    Mr. McCain: I hadn’t, though I see they are well known on the web; that much produce and meat out of a small city lot is quite remarkable. They certainly have earned the title urban homesteaders, though I am a bit sorry they have trademarked the term. (Ah, California.) Good luck to them.

    Yes, Laura, marketing drives the erosion, and then the erosion drives us. I have added a link to the Portland farmer.

    Mr. Sabin: Of course so many farmers are bivocational still–they have to be. But you know how a neighbor loves a joke at your expense, and most jokes have a sting in the tail. If I know “Dan,” he gave as good as he got.

  5. Janice:

    I grew up on my grandparent’s farm and I understand how important farms are. Though I am an avid gardener, I am not a farmer. Though I will go out of way to get my produce directly from a farmer. Part of that is I want to support them and honestly, after picking fruit right from the tree as a kid I can’t stand most of the produce in the grocery stores.
    My uncle and aunt (brother and sister) who stayed on the farm also had outside jobs during the winter months to help finances. They survived and when my grandparents died and left the farm to their 8 children, those two got the main farmhouse and were able to buy another farm in a neighboring county. He passed away last fall and my aunt still has that farm. When she was 89 we found her up a ladder picking peaches. After a stroke, she has let her nephew grow crops in the fields. Yesterday when I went to visit her, she was all concerned about the blackberries and made me go out and check on them. They were still green but there were some black raspberries for her. I appreciate farmers who have sacrificed much to keep their farms going and while I am glad there are more people growing gardens, it is not farming.

  6. Tom:

    This is the dumbest essay ever posted on FPR. Apparently if I mortgage my grandchildren up to their heads I can start “farming” hundreds of acres of the same two crops every year, operating factory-like machines that will be obsolete just as soon as gas hits $6 per gallon. Then I can be a farmer. Of course, when gas does hit $6 per gallon, I won’t be “farming” for long.

    What about that rich history of small family farms that operated more for self-sufficiency than for the marketplace? Were they farmers? I guess since they were not being patronized at the farmer’s market they don’t count. Especially since many of them did a whole variety of work in addition to working their farms, they just don’t deserve the title. Who did they think they are, calling themselves farmers, when they sometimes picked up jobs for extra income? How many days per week were they getting dirty? That’s what I want to know!

    In any event, yes, let us discourage people from becoming increasingly self-sufficient. Because, as everyone knows, if you can’t transition yourself into full-fledged farming overnight then you shouldn’t bother. Just buy the stuff at the store, stupid, for that is the patriotic way.

    Good grief…

    This country is going to need a lot more farmers in the future. Current agricultural practices exercised by mainstream “farmers” are untenable. To even bother trying to distinguish between what counts as “true farming” is a tragic distraction from the core issue: we need more people working in agriculture, period.

    Next time instead of writing this crap just go outside and plant something. Call yourself whatever the hell you want. You won’t hear two peeps out of me.

  7. James:

    I feed my family from my land. Vegetables, meat, fruit. I preserve to sustain us through the winter. I grow as much surplus as I can, and sell it for extra income. I spend more hours behind a hoe than “farmers” do behind the wheel of their air conditioned, 60 row seeders. To earn the title of farmer from the likes of you is laughable. As laughable as it is to want to earn that title from factory farmers. Keep it.
    I for one, am happy to feed my family and neighbors, to know what the words “earth”, “land”, “soil”, and “crop”, among many others, really means, and to bear the awful burden of knowing that in your eyes I am not a farmer.
    I agree with Tom. Go outside and plant something, instead of writing rubbish like this.

  8. Betty:

    Well said, Tom!

  9. CG:

    yeah Tom. And Ms. Dalton, appreciable amounts of food can be grown (and indeed, must be grown) by those who consume it in small gardens.

  10. Ellen:

    Thank you, Tom. You speak for me as well.

    I was raised in New Jersey in a small New York City suburb subdivision and my father always maintained a vegetable garden in the back yard and fed his family of five. He did this during WWII and also had chickens. I have carried on this practice and have planted fruit trees in the yard of every house I have ever moved into. I and my family eat the food produced by these small efforts I make in “farming.” I also often had plenty to share with neighbors and co-workers. I applaud the efforts I have recently seen of people who are moving to farming in any way possible.

    I also think farmers are nicer than portrayed in this blog.

  11. Don:

    I agree with Tom.

    I’ve known plenty of farmers who had other jobs and worked small farms part time. They produced a lot of food for themselves and friends. Just because they didn’t borrow themselves into slavery to have 5000 acres of wheat, corn and soybeans doesn’t mean they aren’t farming. Most of the farmers in this world actually work only a few acres of land trying to support their family. They live in what we call third world nations and they are farmers also. The idea that someone must earn the title farmer by working an unspecified amount of land and have an unspecified amount of equipment is just a lot of B.S.

  12. Rosann:

    Bravo Tom I agree with you. Calling someone who shows disregard for the land by raising a monoculture of a commodity crop is a slap on the title anyway you put it. The real issue is taking care of the land, building the soil and becoming more self sustaining. You can’t do that with chemicals and mono-cultures. Take note in what is happening to the bees…..

  13. Extollager:

    Tom wrote, “let us discourage people from becoming increasingly self-sufficient. Because, as everyone knows, if you can’t transition yourself into full-fledged farming overnight then you shouldn’t bother. ”

    The essay doesn’t discourage people from becoming increasingly self-sufficient. It’s a good essay.

  14. dave:

    @Extollager, well said. @ Tom, I live in a small town and there are plenty who’ll put up tomatoes and beans, and have deer meat in the freezer and so on, but they’ll tell you they are gardening, not farming. Though some of them farm.
    I think this essay addresses something that’s not talked about frequently enough – this is often a very theoretical site. High principals. But there comes a time when you do something, and one of the things we do all the time is buy stuff. And that’s a big decision, that’s a time when we can either follow up all our talk or not.
    And when we buy food, we are either supporting a farmer or a corporation. So I don’t hear the question of self-sufficiency being raised, I hear who or what are we supporting with our money? Put another way, if it’s true we’re known by our fruits, then we ought to pay attention to what we’re watering.

    Of course, maybe I read it wrong. Won’t the first time.

  15. Tom:

    “but–you will do more for American farming by patronizing your local farmers’ market regularly than by any personal effort at ‘urban farming.’”

    This is pretty unambiguous to me.

    The point of the essay seems to be that there is a difference between farming and gardening, and unless you’re actually farming you shouldn’t call yourself a farmer. Of course, Dalton doesn’t provide us with any working definitions to distinguish between the two, so I guess we’re just left with some undefined line to argue about.

    We live on about 250 acres, most of which is hayed by a neighbor farmer/gardener. We raise chickens for eggs and meat, we have a garden that’s roughly 20,000 sq. feet, we cut wood to heat our house, and we have four fruit trees. I’m also a lawyer with a full-time job. Am I a farmer or a gardener? I don’t know, and I don’t care.

    So she’s shocked – shocked I say! – to discover that big business has been trying to profit by associating their products with the nostalgic “American farm”. I was wondering what all those picturesque labels in the grocery with red barns and cows were about.

    Tell me: what makes a farmer? Even if you were to waste your time defining it as opposed to other activities, what’s the point? To protect the meaning of the word? Okay. Then you’ll need to at least start by telling us what your definition is, besides, “well, you get dirty and it’s more than four tomatoe plants and if you have a different job you’re probably not a farmer.” Such musings are to a good essay as cnn.com is to news.

  16. Dan:

    Thank you, Tom. Thanks for being a voice of reason and sense here. I like hearing people talk in practical terms. If anything, farming could use some redefining. I know the woman from Portland that is mentioned in the article. She’s not the only one in Portland who has done something similar. There are a number of others. Yes there are many urban farmers here who are “real” farmers. The best thing is that Portland is the place where you will see this happen again and again. There are many people coming up through the ranks, starting with very small operations, cutting their teeth, hoping to end making a significant portion of their living from growing real food for people and selling it directly to them. These people fit my definition of farming.

    Some of the arguments in the article are a bit thin and not well researched. There are many examples around the world and within our own history of urban areas feeding themselves a significant portion of all of the vegetables consumed in that area. I don’t think anyone is deluding themselves to the point that they think some urban area is just going to cut itself off from the rest of the world because, well, they just have enough food and don’t need the rest of you, thank you. It’s about producing more or the maximum amount a local food system can produce. This benefits the local economy, creates local jobs and benefits the community in many other ways. It keeps money from bleeding from the local economy into the hands of multinational corporations. (Read some Wendell Berry.) It just depends on the will and the needs of a community. Sounds like the author would like all of the potential farmers out there to just go back to sipping lattes at the coffee shop and let corporate farming continue to produce all of our food…because they’ve done such a good job so far.

    The simple fact is that farmers are getting older and no one is replacing them. Anything that gets people interested in farming is good in my book. Anyone who discourages someone else from becoming a farmer is foolish and short sighted and has some kind of personal hang up. Just because this idea ruffles the feathers of some rural people who maybe at one time had some connection to farming and feeding people real food, doesn’t mean they really know about farming either. Change is good. Redefining farming…it’s time.

  17. Jason Peters:

    Apparently FPR is going to have to open a remedial reading support group.

    Can no one besides “Extollager” make sense of this pefectly sensible essay? Ms. Dalton makes at least two very important points: one, that “semantics are important,” and, two, that calling a garden a farm “encourages us to imagine that we aren’t terribly short of farmers after all–when we are, and when we should be doing something about it.”

    Where in this fine essay does the author aver that those who raise large monocultures are real farmers? Her point is that we have a shortage of real farmers. To acknowledge that gim fact isn’t to denegrate gardeners; it is only to admit that gardeners are gardeners, not farmers.

    No wonder there’s a horde of thimblewits all across this country retaking English 101.

  18. dave:

    Appreciate the clarification, Professor. But I don’t think that acknowledgement is the goal anymore.
    Understanding there are too few farms won’t save them, or increase their number. Patronizing them will. I suppose we could all start farming, but chances are most of us won’t. Not this week, anyway. The one thing we will all do this week is eat, and where that food comes from is the point. Or so I thought.

    You can call me a thimblewit. I suppose it fits. I’m hoping “we should be doing something about it” isn’t written in vain. You, leery of thimblewits. Me, leery of academics.

  19. Tom (Thimblewit):

    Thimblewit… I like it. From now on I will post under the name Thimblewit. Although, we thimblewits aren’t retaking English 101 for the reason the eminent professor wishes. It turns out we’re even stupider than that, for we retake the blasted class only because it’s required of us, not because we value anything the eminent professor says. And the eminent professor knows this, so what does that make him? I’m too dimwitted to know any words applicable to such a person, so let us return to the topic at hand…

    “Ms. Dalton makes at least two very important points: one, that ‘semantics are important,’ and, two, that calling a garden a farm ‘encourages us to imagine that we aren’t terribly short of farmers after all–when we are, and when we should be doing something about it.’”

    Even a thimblewit can see that while Ms. Dalton affirms that semantics are important, she in no way shows us a line of demarcation for the case at hand. Rather, there is only bare assertion. So gardeners aren’t farmers, eh? You don’t say.

    And since we are all so terribly short of being real farmers, what should we do about it, according to the author. Stop kidding yourself and buy more food at the farmer’s market. Now, if you’re going to buy food instead of raise it, the farmer’s market is the preferable place to shop. But I don’t think thimblewitted non-farming gardeners must be consigned to buying as their only means of attaining produce. If they promise not to call themselves farmers can they garden to raise produce solely for their families without engaging the marketplace?

    “Where in this fine essay does the author aver that those who raise large monocultures are real farmers?” Where in this essay does the author aver what a farmer is, other than that a farmer is apparently not a gardener? And while I think you can glean from the essay that Ms. Dalton does not consider those who raise large monocultures to be farmers, either, still she seems to believe that you must produce for the marketplace to be a farmer.

    My problem with this essay is that telling people they aren’t farmers is a distraction from the graver issue facing our society: we need a lot more good farmers employing good farming practices. If this were an essay about how real farmers employ practices that protect the land for future generations, that respect the limits of scope and size, or any number of other substantive characteristics of a “good farm,” that would be a worthy endeavor. Instead, this was an essay about who gets to call themselves farmers, primarily aimed at telling gardeners that they are not farmers. Again, as cnn.com is to news.

  20. JD Salyer:

    Gardening and farming are two words for a reason: They are not the same thing. Why anyone would find this point offensive baffles me, until I reflect that inclusivity is the de facto religion of America.

    “I guess we’re just left with some undefined line to argue about.”

    That the line may be difficult to draw in some cases is no excuse for denying the line’s existence. Wherever the line may be, certain things are clearly well to the one side or other of it.

    Obviously the point isn’t irrelevant either. A great many seem unable to recognize it, otherwise they wouldn’t trivialize either vocation by conflating them with one another.

    What, after all, is so demeaning about being called a gardener?

  21. Bit of Earth Farm:

    I couldn’t stop thinking about this post. I was raised, one generation off the farm, by a mother who never admitted she married into a farming family. Those who “got off the farm” literally tried passing as regular suburban folk. No dirt under my nails, no sirree.

    Reclaiming the term “farmer” has much more to do with trends. It’s an integral part of our identity as people connected to the land that feeds us, as people reclaiming a path back to self-reliance, and as people taking the right to define ourselves as we choose.

    I couldn’t help myself. I wrote a post in response.
    http://bitofearthfarm.wordpress.com/2011/07/05/who-should-be-called-a-%E2%80%9Cfarmer%E2%80%9D/

  22. Thimblewit:

    “That the line may be difficult to draw in some cases is no excuse for denying the line’s existence.” Nor is it an excuse for babbling about gardeners not being farmers to no good purpose. While the author suggests there is some connection between the “iffy use of language” and “the real holes in our national patchwork quilt of farms,” that connection is not at all the subject of the essay. Rather, the essay is about telling people they aren’t farmers. Such a purpose is childish.

    And there’s nothing demeaning about being dubbed a gardener. I guess when you read my comment, “Am I a farmer or a gardener? I don’t know, and I don’t care,” you forgot all your lessons from the Eminent Professor’s remedial reading class. I agree there is a difference, and I don’t think one is better than the other (though, apparently the author does. “Rural people don’t appreciate the pretentions* of those who want to wear the mantle of Berrylike back-to-the-landedness without sweating for it—physically and financially.” The use of the word pretensions gives this away). Now, what is demeaning is to tell people, in the spirit of self-defensive insecurity employed in the protection of the “farming” club, that what they are doing is not socially significant. “Calling our gardening hobby a ‘farm’ and ourselves ‘farmers’ is a way for us to fool ourselves that we are doing something more socially significant than we are—that we are part of a movement towards national self-sufficiency and greener living.” I don’t care what you call me, but telling me that my efforts – regardless of whether they rise to the holy level of “farming” – are insignificant, and that I’m a fool to think that those efforts have any connection with self-sufficiency or greener living… that is not only demeaning, it’s stupid. To conflate such efforts with the marketing campaign of a cracker corporation is also demeaning.

    Again, I agree there is such a thing as a “farmer,” and such a thing as a “gardener,” and that those two things are not the same. I’m even willing to go so far as to say the conflation of the two might have something to do with the sad state of contemporary American farming. If the author wanted to write a piece describing the difference between “farming” and “gardening,” and then go on to show how the conflation of those two terms is detrimental to one or both of those two vocations, that would have been a worthy undertaking. But that’s not what this essay is. This essay is nothing more than a tripe. “You’re not a farmer because you don’t get dirty enough and don’t put enough equity at risk and sell your produce at the farmers’ market.” Come on!!!

    *While I was tempted to make some crack about the Eminent Professor’s remedial reading class, thimblewits, and English 101, I note that in addition to being too dimwitted to read, I misspelled “tomatoe,” and will therefore refrain.

  23. JD Salyer:

    “she in no way shows us a line of demarcation for the case at hand.”
    ——————————————————————————————————
    “As small farm advocate Mary Berry Smith likes to emphasize, farming must mean [...] putting equity at risk.”

  24. JD Salyer:

    “If the author wanted to[...] show how the conflation of those two terms is detrimental to one or both of those two vocations, that would have been a worthy undertaking.”
    ———————————————————————–
    “Calling it [a farm] encourages us to imagine that we aren’t terribly short of farmers after all–when we are, and when we should be doing something about it.”

    “Urban farming also implies the idea—unproven and unlikely—that we can feed ourselves in the city from city ground, and don’t need to worry about our rural neighbors’ employment, small towns with dead economies, and leaching topsoil.”

  25. Thimblewit:

    “she in no way shows us a line of demarcation for the case at hand.”
    ——————————————————————————————————
    “As small farm advocate Mary Berry Smith likes to emphasize, farming must mean [...] putting equity at risk.”

    As some of my non-farming gardening friends would say, “that dog won’t hunt.” This is particularly the case here because in the same essay the author decries all those $64 tomatoes plaguing the county. Presumable gardeners are putting equity at risk, just not as much as the author would like to see. In any event, I can perhaps be excused for my surprise that the sentence didn’t read something like: “farming must mean… raising a crop in the ground or livestock.” I hope I’m not the only one who’d be confused if asked, “how much equity must a gardener put at risk to become a farmer?” I hope that’s not on my remedial reading class final…

  26. Anymouse:

    The same definition for gardener should be used as the definition for obscenity: I know it when I see it.

    Note: I was a gardener. I would define a farmer as: someone who produces enough calories to feed at least his own household.
    Someone who only produces a small amount of necessary calories would be a gardener or vegetable farmer.

  27. Katherine Dalton:

    Readers are reminded that while they are well within their rights to criticize, insults and language such as “hell” said in anger cross the line. Stay polite, please, restrain your language to things you would say to my face, if I could see you and knew your last name, and perhaps take a walk before posting. Even a blogger merits the Golden Rule. Thank you.

  28. Eric:

    As to what a real farm is, two sometimes neglected components I see are productive soil and photosynthesis. I feel similarly to the author of this blog when I hear the word farm used to describe the simple raising of chickens, for example, when the chicken might as well be in a skyscraper in New York City. If enough feed is purchased that the chickens could just as well be raised without any soil or photosynthesis, then farming is equal to buying dog food at Walmart, the only difference being the dog isn’t eaten. To whatever degree the actual management of soils and photosynthesis are outsourced, I say we’re not dealing with real farms any more. So while I agree with this author’s overall message, I think the suggestion that I “will do more for American farming by patronizing [my] local farmers’ market regularly than by any personal effort at ‘urban farming’” is quite oversimplified, particularly when it comes to animal products. Our local food markets (i.e. farmers’ markets and other direct-market sources) are presently far to underdeveloped to offer any kind of full solutions, even for the dedicated few.

    A big part of this problem in our definition of farming is leaving grain farming out of the equation. If I go to even the farmers’ markets with the broadest selections, besides not finding eggs or pork that were significantly “farmed” (in the above sense) by the vendor, I’m not likely to find any grain products for my own direct consumption at all. There’s no one at the farmers’ markets selling breakfast cereal he farmed, no flour, no bread from flour the vendor “farmed,” no grits from corn the vendor “farmed,” no beer from barley the vendor “farmed,” no rice, no pasta, etc., etc. (not to mention oilseeds and dry beans, etc.) In fact, if you look at the diet of a highly dedicated farmers’ market patron and divide it into direct-market calories and commodity market calories (counting the eggs with the commodity market calories because the hens were raised on commodity grain), you’d surely find that that highly dedicated farmers’ market patron would be better off trying to survive without those direct-market calories than with them alone. That’s a sorry state. And our definition of farms is correspondingly poor.

  29. D.W. Sabin:

    Alright now, somebody insulted Ms. Dalton and they are accordingly invited to show up on my nancy boy doorstep for a nice punch in the gull durned nose with my cigar butt hand right after I plant these Hydrangea and Fairy Roses.

    D.W. Sabin
    Gardener

  30. Katherine Dalton:

    I have puzzled over some of the negative reaction to this piece, since it comes from a quarter I would not have expected. So I want to address some of that criticism here.
    Some of you have misread me, or extrapolated conclusions I have not drawn—such as that I support giant monoculture farming. Good luck finding that in my work. But perhaps some confusion arose because I am discussing two terms: “urban farming,” which has what I would call a real meaning and a marketing department/romantic meaning, and then the word “farming” itself. Even if it is offensive to some, I think it is useful to distinguish between “doing farm work” (including vegetable gardening) and “farming” in the sense of running a business that brings in appreciable family income, and feeds others besides the family. I don’t really care what anybody calls himself, but I do care how we think, and when we so sorely need more of the latter type of farmers, the blurring of the term “farming” matters to me. Especially if we are talking about little gardens, or three chickens. Love the work. Dislike the misuse of the word.
    I am all for personal self-sufficiency, to any degree, urban and otherwise. But if this country is interested in national self-sufficiency, we need farmers in the narrower sense. And though I may seem to have implied otherwise, that includes hobby farmers. Many farmers’ markets are enriched by the part-time labor of hobbyists, and some full-time farmers began as part-time farmers. We still need more full-time farmers, though, and that was and remains my essential point.
    Finally, telling a story about a pointed joke does not indicate—goodness knows–that I think all farmers are mean. You’ll find all sorts in all places, but every farmer I know is indebted to certain neighbors for essential advice and work, freely given. The joke I cited shows that aggressive humor is found in farming communities as in many other places, but also that farmers have their own professional pride in their title. So many people think that anybody with a strong back can run a successful farm. I only wish.

  31. Thimblewit:

    I love it when a person says something, is confronted with opposition significant enough to require a response, and the response is: “you misunderstood me.” President Obama would be proud, for he too believes that everyone who disagrees with him simply needs to retake English 101. It’s a sad day when such liberal smuggery makes it appearance on FPR.

    Nothing in your clarification changes my initial thoughts about this piece. I’m not confused, thank you, about whether you explicitly support large monoculture operations; I’m confident that you do not. The point of my hyperbole was that your focus on appreciable amounts of food raised for the marketplace by persons who have put equity at risk (all things you did explicitly say) tends to that result. Which is why I asked (a question neither you nor anyone else has bothered to respond to):

    “What about that rich history of small family farms that operated more for self-sufficiency than for the marketplace? Were they farmers?”

    Now, you may have ignored this question because I violated the Golden Rule. Which I confess that I did, and ask your forgiveness (while it’s no excuse, there was definitely an acute case of disinhibition going on there). Nevertheless, the point of my question was that if we’re going to go about the business of defining farming, then I don’t like what I can glean of your definition one bit.

    As to your support of efforts at self-sufficiency, you did discourage such efforts:
    “You who grow a large garden are probably not feeding more than your own family, and if that garden requires real work and earns your neighbors’ respect (and mine), it is still not a farm. Calling it one encourages us to imagine that we aren’t terribly short of farmers after all–when we are, and when we should be doing something about it.”

    What should we be doing about it???

    “I hate to say this, because I sound like the Vogue editor I heard on the radio in 2008, who like our former president believed we had a moral obligation to shop our way out of recession, but–you will do more for American farming by patronizing your local farmers’ market regularly than by any personal effort at ‘urban farming.’”

    Now, you may not have intended this to be understood as discouraging efforts at self-sufficiency, but that’s a fair reading. Aside from discouraging efforts at self-sufficiency, these statements again betray an allegiance to a particular notion of farming with which I take issue… your farmers putting equity at risk to raise appreciable amounts of food for the marketplace. Not that I have anything against farmers who do this (as long as they do it well, with a farmer’s heart instead of a modern industrialists’); what I take issue with is defining farming solely along such lines, because I think such a definition urges farmers into the the current mode of agriculture which, I’m sure you’d agree, is so problematic. Which, again, is why I asked the question no one has answered.

    I note that we both seem to agree that we’re going to need more “farmers” in the future (our disagreement about what is going to count as “farming” not withstanding). My biggest problem with your piece is that it contained silly jabs (e.g., those people aren’t dirty enough to be farmers) in an effort to have the backs of “real farmers,” all of which “is a tragic distraction from the core issue: we need more people working in agriculture, period.” Other examples of such silliness are laid out above. These strike as instances of bare cliquishness, akin to “you’re not real county folk ’cause you come from the city.” Although you may, at your option, chalk this up to my dizzy confusion, I stand by this objection.

  32. JonF:

    I am sitting here enjoying the first of my cucumbers, celery and eggplant– and I live in the heart of Baltimore. I don’t call myself an “urban farmer”, although my landlord jokingly called me one and wondered if he could get a tax break on the propoerty for it. But I am someone for whom a summer garden is a very old family tradition, and one I will not do without until they shut my coffin lid. The point isn’t to acheive some grand “Help the Earth” goal, or preen in one’s virtues. The point is simply to enjoy fresh and tasty things right off the plant, and bask in the beauty of things green and growing.

  33. Joshua Alexander:

    “Still you’ll never get it right
    Cause when you’re laying in bed at night
    Watching roaches climb the wall
    If you called your dad he could stop it all.”
    from Pulp’s “Common People”

    There is something suspect about the “farmer” who isn’t driven by a degree of necessity. If late blight hits, do you rush out to the field, rip out the plants, and put something else in their place in hopes of recouping some of the losses (be they to your larder or your coffer)? Or do you weep histrionically over your tomatoes and then lunch on Insalata Caprese at the Co-op?

    I do not believe that gardeners would presume (or even prefer) to call themselves farmers. A gardener takes joy in the profligacy and superfluity of his work—soil turned not from his necessity to eat but from his love of what may or may not exist.

    So the problem is not that we have people calling themselves farmers who have carefully tended their large garden year after year. The problem is that we have twenty-something WWOOFers who helped start an urban “farm” last year calling themselves farmers.

    There is a parallel between the construct that has become “farm” today and the construct that became “wilderness” well over a century ago. Thanks to John Muir, wilderness came to be viewed as the real world, the fount of the spirit. It was swiftly cured of its native people and cordoned off for the edification of city folk. See, the hand of man tenders only destruction “Have you been to Pittsburgh?” But the place where he cannot touch—the wilderness—that is the real world. We—the city dwellers with the means—escape to the wilderness for brief periods, leaving no trace, in order to fortify ourselves. When we get back to the city we will inevitably wreak havoc, but that’s only natural in the realm of man—the world of artifice.

    In the farmer we do, in fact, have a model of life that is more sane than the wilderness/city dichotomy. It is a model that acknowledges that both city and wilderness–all the world–is artifice. Our task is to live responsibly where we are. We, as humans, have a place in the real world–which is the entire world, not just one fenced off part–and our every action has an effect on that world, whether for good or ill. To live as a farmer is to partner with the natural world.

    The construct of “farm” means all of this and more for the hybrid-driving, worm-bin-composting, tomato-growing CSA member. But “farm” is in danger of being sanitized of necessity. Farmers need their crop to succeed. And around that sign post of necessity a clutch of disciplines springs up: early rising. Tidy rows. Orderly barns. Maintaining one’s implements. Spending the wee hours canning the tomatoes or processing the just-butchered hog. To call just anyone a farmer is another step toward losing these disciplines.

    The twenty-somethings have good intentions. We are earnest and want to dedicate our lives to something that matters, something that will make a difference. But we can be downright naïve, believing that by our own good will alone we can be equal with anyone. We can become the down and out and disposed even while eating out of our parents’ fridge in the suburbs. We can become the farmer even while eating most of our food from the Whole Foods, bought with money not earned from growing food. We may even play at the discipline of the farmer, but until we’ve drunk deep on necessity, we’re just slummers.

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