Real Farm

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.

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16 thoughts on “Real Farm

  1. Steve says:

    What a wonderful description of what you do. I especially like you definition of growing and raising food for your family and selling the excess as the “defining” characteristics of a farmer. I hope to be there in a year. Until then; we will go into my town yard to raise chickens for eggs and meat; grow fruits and vegetables for our family.

  2. Steve says:

    PS It’s sad that your neighboring farmer was put into a financial situation that seems to be dictating his view of “farming” and how he has to live instead of just producing food.

    • Though he was placed there by the financial issues between himself and his sibling, when his brother left the family business, he is largely stuck in a box of his own making. I think he is perhaps emblematic of many conventional farmers who are trapped by their financial situations. It is probably true that more intensive style farming, CSA type business model, would probably not pay his bills in the short term. But I agree, it’s too bad his viewpoint is so restricted.

  3. “all gone due to the financial reality of farming challenges in our area, like processing, transportation and distribution” You forgot regulation. Stopping now before I get myself into trouble.

    • Yup, regulation is definitely part of that list. In fact, I would family infighting, not being open to alternative methods of farming, and doing too much borrowing to the list. Maybe I should add marketing boards and quotas to the list, which are an issue here, though not where you are.

  4. Real farmers own iron. Well, real farmers work for bankers who own iron. Pigs are optional. Pigs don’t really fit in with farming nor with ranching (See Lonesome Dove). They are more of a resource utilization unit and fertility manufacturing plant…with a shovel attachment and a sense of humor.

    At any rate, farming has nothing to do with trees and flowers and meadows and soil health and it certainly has nothing to do with food! It has everything to do with diesel fuel and anhydrous ammonia and leaving fields barren for 7 months between monocrop commodity production windows. Huge machine sheds and workshops to repair $250,000 combines and $60,000 corn heads and another half million for tillage equipment, planters and you would look foolish without another $200,000 tractor to pull your equipment, not to mention a $100,000 tractor with a loader and maybe an extra to pull your baler. And don’t forget to buy a big diesel pickup truck. You are a poor excuse for a farmer with your gardens and animal manure and food. You are more like an overgrown gardener.

    Your friend,
    Another Overgrown Gardener

  5. Eumaeus says:

    Great post. Very well written.
    Congrats on no debt.
    The regulation bit is a tough tough issue. I’ll sound like a lot of people but most of the time the zoning and land-use planning things done by counties or municipalities just end up causing problems. Like creating a lot of 5 acre lots, very distributed and expensive to provide services to. But you can’t start telling people that have been planning things beyond their lifespan, like planting treees to harvest in 80 years, that they’ll be under some restriction in the future because the density has grown aroudn them and their now classified as an urban zone. And subdividing, don’t know how you can ever take that away unless it is a willing seller type arrangement. Anyway hope it turns out well for you all.
    As far as being a real farmer or just a plain farmer goes, I figure if someone wants to call themselves a farmer more power to them. I’m gonna call myself a farmer when my spending money comes by majority from farm receipts. I’m lucky if some body calls me anything at this point.

    • ALR is a two way street, you’re right about that. It does keep farmland from being broken up into unusable patches, and it does prevent urban development from springing up haphazardly. But if the land is a farmer’s retirement plan, he’s hooped. Because it won’t sell for what the land around him sells for, since it can’t be developed, and nothing but farm enterprises can be carried out. He cannot even build a second residence except in very particular circumstances. He might well have been planning and planting for future generations who chose not to stay. When he dies, and the estate is shared among his relatives, how do they get their shares? It has to be sold as one piece, and the value shared among them. In some ways it would make sense for property taxes to reflect whether a property is in ALR or not, but land owners don’t necessarily want that, because then the assessed value would be so low, they’d never make back what they bought the place for. It’s a conundrum, because of course the land won’t sell at the price for comparables outside the ALR – look at my guy above with his three parcels of 40 acres – he’s been trying to sell them for at least 4 years. And up North where there’s plenty of farm land sitting idle, farmers would love to have their land takent out of ALR by the government so that LNG companies could come in and buy it from them. I’m generally speaking in favour of ALR because I think it is perhaps our only way of keeping the long view on land use, but I recognize the negatives, for sure.

  6. Steve says:

    I sympathize with your feelings being hurt or some need for a cultural identity but you should be very careful what you wish for.
    The instant you sign on the dotted line and become a “real” farmer you life will start becoming a endless procession of industry levies, administration charges, codes of practice, accreditation’s, standards assessments, gazetted restrictions etc ,etc. Endless paperwork with endless fees and charges attached and endless ridiculous hoops for you to jump through to get anything done.
    If you would like to walk a mile in my shoes you are quite welcome, get up early every Monday and throw $3000 on the fire, that covers all those fees and charges, spend the rest of the day on the phone to the govt department of your choice, do paperwork till midnight, if you are really lucky the rest of the week is free to do some work outside.
    If you are under the radar and they can’t see you, count your blessings and stay there as long as you can! if you want to be fascinating at parties invent a new imaginary occupation like chicken wrangler and work on your small talk! The manure under your fingernails will still smell the same.
    merry Xmas

    • Thanks for your reply.

      I am not suffering from any sense of lack of identity, and I actually manage quite well with small talk in most situations, chickens being but a tiny part of my life.

      I think what you might be saying here is that my micro scale of farming gives me advantages over someone who farms at a production level that involves more regulatory oversight. It’s a case of pick your poison, isn’t it? I don’t have a lot of red tape, overhead etc, but I don’t sell as much product either. You have a lot of red tape, overhead etc and probably (hopefully) make more than $3K/week to cover those expenses plus enough to live on.

      I take your point that I would be wise to just keep my head down and do what I do. We essentially have a tiered regulatory system for farming in Canada, and while I may dislike this situation and want it to be different, I don’t have specific ideas on how this could be done, and so I’m relatively content to operate within the regulations for my production level – I’m not ready financially, nor probably ideologically, for the level of bureaucratic wrangling with which you apparently grapple on a weekly basis.

      Merry Christmas to you too!

  7. Bill says:

    This is an excellent post! Sorry I didn’t notice it till now.

    Much of what you have written really resonates with me. Around here there are large tobacco farms. They’re totally unlike the farm I grew up on. The labor is all seasonal from Mexico. The “farmers” do most of their work at a desk or from inside a pickup truck. The vast majority of them don’t even have a vegetable garden or any livestock. They buy their food in town like everybody else. We also have a few large industrial dairies. Those too are a far cry from the traditional farm family’s milking shed. As you say, farming used to be a way of life, not just a job. Farmers raised food for their families and sold their surplus (or their “cash crop”) to get the money to pay for the things they couldn’t grow or make for themselves.

    We consider ourselves homesteaders first, but we’re trying to keep our bills paid with the surplus. Some get it, but to most folks around here we aren’t “real farmers” either. Lots of times I’ve been asked, “What do you grow on your farm?” It’s always clear that they’re expecting me to respond with some single product–tobacco, corn, hay, watermelons, whatever. The answer I give now is “Food.”

    But without a million dollars worth of equipment (and the debt to prove it), and our very own Mexican labor force, we’re not “real farmers.”

    I’ll resist the temptation to go on at even greater length about the frustration that attitude has caused me. Suffice it to say, I know exactly what you mean!

    But like you we have no debt, we grow almost all of what we eat and we’re supplying a bunch of families with healthy delicious food from our surplus. If that’s not “real farming” then I’d rather just stay unreal.

    • Exactly! Homesteading is a kind of farming, just one of many. Though reading it after some time has passed shows me that it sound a little whiny and defensive (unfortunately), the main gist is still what I believe: that large scale farmers, big ag and the rest need to broaden their perspective on farming. To be less than huge, to have more than one way of doing things, to think creatively, to use resources wisely because they are valuable to you, that’s important stuff that large scale farming too often doesn’t even see. Like a business or bureaucracy that gets too big and cumbersome and becomes inflexible and bloated, they will eventually implode.

  8. farmerkhaiti says:

    If you are a farmer, you are one! and I can highly recommend getting a couple pigs!

    • Haha…I’m reading my way through your blog and the little orange thingy pops up, and you’re reading mine – too funny. Yes, I adored raising pigs last summer. Doing it again this year, for sure. It was probably the most profound thing I’ve done in this farming thing so far.

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