From time to time, someone newly met finds out that I live in a rural area. “It’s so beautiful there, do you have any land?” Oh, yes, about 14 acres. “Wow, so like an actual farm?” Yeah, pretty much – we do both have other jobs, so it’s not as active as some farms, you know. “Really? Like, what do you grow?” Well, we have a laying flock for eggs, we raise broiler chickens every summer, we grow and sell hay…”oh, yeah…sounds nice”. And they move on, disappointment slightly evident in their body language and voice.
But this year when I added “…and pigs” to the list of animals, suddenly everyone’s interest was piqued. “Pigs? Cool! So it’s a real farm”.
Why do pigs add the cool factor? Why was it not a “real” farm before that? What if what I grew was vegetables? Do carrots have a cool factor? If you’re a veggie producer modestly saying “Oh, I’m a farmer” when engaging in small talk at your spouse’s office party, do you get the “oh, that’s interesting” comment as they slip sideways to find the wine bar? Or do they say “wow, carrots, how fascinating!”?
What if my farm consisted of 2 blue sheds with computerized climate control to keep a couple of thousand broilers comfortable, a different batch every few months? Would I be called a “real” farmer by new acquaintances? Is the place down the road a “real” farm, that sea of glass and plastic greenhouses, with automated venting and lighting 24/7, used for growing both veggies and flowers? What about the couple hundred acres of daffodils planted around my area, on land leased by a “real” farmer? Would I be a “real” farmer if I kept a riding stable, had 20 paddocks with horses and an indoor riding arena?
Farming is defined by the Oxford Dictionary Online as: the activity or business of growing crops and raising livestock. Livestock is defined as: farm animals regarded as an asset. Actually, that’s kind of interesting, and I’m tempted to pursue asset and see where it takes us, but let’s not for now.
So does that equestrian centre have a breeding programme? It’s a farm. Greenhouse operation - farm; blue chicken sheds – farm. Carrots? Farm.
Many, many people homestead, or practice self sufficiency, or run some kind of monoculture operation – all of which produce crops or raise livestock. Whether they make money or not is not what defines them as “real” farms. Contrary to nostalgic wishes, farms are not just bucolic landscapes with cows, sheep, chickens and pigs dotted around the green meadows. I have my own ideas of what constitutes good farming practices, and other people have ideas on that topic which differ from mine. I lean toward the bucolic image style of farming, but that’s just me. There are other ways of doing it. That’s fine. The fact that I do not earn my whole livelihood from it in no way lessens my reality as a farmer. I grow food, sell some of it – people eat all of it. How does that make me less of a farmer than buddy down the road with 240 acres instead of 14?
It’s bad enough that non-farming people are unaware of the huge range of models, styles and methods of farming around these days, but it’s even worse when that lack of knowledge is apparent from a farmer.
A local “real” farmer (self-described) read out a letter he had sent to the Agricultural department of our provincial government the other night at a meeting attended by many farmers and like minded folk from our community on the topic of farmland protection. The gist of his letter was a request to consider that protecting farmland was not in the best interest of ”real” farmers – it merely preserved land for pretty landscapes via people with hobby farms or who grew hay – not “real” farming. What is desperately needed, he was saying, was some latitude for “real” farmers (his term) to be able to use creativity and his resources to make a decent living. If that means selling a portion of his land that is not suitable for farming, even though it is under farmland protection, he should be allowed to do it. Compensation packages might be an option to consider to help “real” farmers have more viable businesses. He made reference in the letter to the fact than only a few “real” farmers were left on the peninsula – dairy, beef, vegetable growers, orchardists – all gone due to the financial reality of farming challenges in our area, like processing, transportation and distribution. One had to wonder who he thought he was reading the letter out to, if not a bunch of people who farm with the same restrictions he faces?
I respect this particular farmer for his persistence in the face of considerable adversity. He does indeed raise crops (Oxford Dictionary Online: cultivated plant grown on a large scale commercially, especially a cereal, fruit or vegetable), selling them at several local grocery stores. He is under tremendous financial pressure to pay a substantial amount of the value of the total farmland he owns to his estranged brother (who left the family business some years ago), something that has been hanging over their family for more than a decade. Schemes to bring a chunk of land out of protection to become medium density housing (about a mile from the nearest service area) failed, as they didn’t meet with the official community plan. Commercial composting was promising but eventually shut down due to neighbourhood complaints about smell and noise. A major warehouse fire. A freak winter storm that destroyed a number of greenhouses. His attempts to sell separate parcels of land, 3 that I know of each around 40 acres, each with an asking price of $1 million or more – no buildings, no services – and because they are within the farmland protection area, very restricted land use. They’re not selling like hotcakes, needless to say. This guy is definitely in a hard place. But to consider himself a “real” farmer because of the scale of his operations, and all others who grow crops or raise livestock on a smaller scale as less “real”, well, that gets my goat (livestock).
Time was that farmers were people who grew crops and raised livestock, and sold the surplus beyond what they needed for their family. Some of them planned a pretty big surplus, mind you, but still their primary goal was to feed their family first. That’s where our mind’s eye picture of “farm” comes from, that historical farming model. Farms were, by necessity, very diverse. As specialization came in, the amount of surplus for sale grew, the amount raised for family use shrank, and was instead purchased with profit from that aforementioned “planned surplus”. Eventually of course, we got to large scale farming as we know it today, which is very efficient at providing food in sufficient quantity for processing and grocery stores. I’m guessing that many large scale farmers now buy most of their food from a grocery store.
I grow hay. That’s a crop. I keep a flock of laying hens which provide me year round with eggs, which I sell as well as use for home consumption, making them not just an asset but an investment, probably with better returns than whatever my remaining financial investments might be doing – which is to say they are most definitely livestock. Broiler chickens? Yup, livestock. Let’s not forget those pigs. Livestock plus a freezer full of ham and sausage.
And just in case there is any doubt, I do these things not just because I love the lifestyle (I do), but also for profit. I make money at it. I have no debt. That might just mean that I have more net worth than the “real” farmer who thinks someone like me is not “real”. I’d rather be an unreal farmer with money to show for my efforts and a freezer full of sausage than a real farmer whose bank owns most of what he touches and whose greenhouses are full of flower bulbs, which may indeed be a crop, but are not good eating.
Bottom line: I have a real farm, with or without pigs. And though it irks me that a farmer in my community considers me to be less real than him, in the end, it doesn’t matter. I know that bigger isn’t always better, and I know just how real I am.