The first thing you need to know about my farm is that it is huge. I mean enormous – by world standards. The vast majority of the world’s farms – more than 80%, are very small farms, of less than 2 hectares (about 5 acres), and they produce the majority of the world’s staple crops and calories.
I suspect most folks in most of the Global North will find that a little surprising. The term “farm” in the US tends be applied most often to very large farms. We have a strong internal sense that small scale agriculture is particularly unsuited to growing staples. Most small farms in the US concentrate on smaller or specialty markets – the fact that the majority of the world’s rice, for example, is grown on farms of less than five acres is probably startling to most people.
If you take out my 19 acres of woodland, the proportions get closer, but that 19 acres represents an indescribable wealth for the nearly 1 billion small producers who live in areas that are seriously deforested, and who struggle to get firewood, building materials and other forest products readily available to me. Moreover, although we preserve and protect our woodlands and wetlands, we also derive both household and economic benefit from them – from wood we burn to mushrooms we harvest to food we forage and the wetland plants I specialize in. So we should start with the reality that not only am I, like most Americans, quite rich by global standards, but by global agricultural standards, this is a vast spread
In US terms, of course, I have a very small farm. Very small farms in the US are defined as less than 50 acres, and I’d need another 973 acres to make it to large (not going to happen). In the US, very small farms have been growing, but small to mid-sized American farms are disappearing as the trend towards larger and larger scale farm production increases. While there are more farms like mine – under 50 acres – we are still producing on the tiniest fraction of the food consumed in the US. Moreover, in some ways the growth of very small farms has concealed, as the above link shows, the continuing consolidation of agriculture, the elimination of the once-vast agricultural middle that mostly fed the nation until very recently.
There is a tendency to dismiss very small scale agriculture in the US as not serious. And if “serious” is defined as producing primary calorie crops – those staple grains and roots that are the basis of our diets, there’s a case to be made. Most very small farms deal in small markets and high value, labor intensive crops where small production and a lot of attention can make their products stand out. And most very small farmers find that it is simply not viable economically to produce staple crops – we found that during the period we ran our CSA. We can and did grow grinding corn, potatoes and sweet potatoes, as well as smaller quantities of other staples. But we also realized pretty quickly that a population accustomed to paying $6 a lb for organic tomatoes won’t pay that for potatoes or cornmeal.
So like most small farms, we found ourselves pushed towards high value crops. We were also shaped by our choice of farm – by amount of land and kind of land. If we take serious to mean “feeds the most people and livestock the most grain” very small farms in the US are not very serious. On the other hand, if we talk about the value of crops produced there per acre, and about what crops are not generally produced on a large scale, on large farms – or aren’t produced as well there because of realities of centralization and shipping, then smaller farms become very important indeed. Moreover, the world example should point out to us that it is not necessarily the case that small farms will never have a substantive role in producing our primary calories.
When we looked at land we considered several farms, including a couple of 80ish acre river bottomland or river plateau pieces, in areas much better suited to field production than our current place. But we wanted something that would operate mostly on a human powered scale – at the time, we wanted neither draft labor nor a tractor.
While our goal was to reduce fossil fueled inputs, we didn’t reject the tractor primarily for that reason – I consider agricultural production to be one of the better uses of oil, and wouldn’t have had any problem using one. But what kept me from getting one was my observation of other farmers – barring those who could afford the best equipment most spent many long days tinkering with their tractors. Most of them liked the work, but I don’t, and neither does Eric. We had doubts about our ability to do good maintenence, and about our ability to deal with the frustration. We also realized that we could hire a good bit of tractor power for short stretches for the cost of one tractor, or even a walk-behind.
We considered draft animals more seriously – I am not a horsey person, but I do love draft horses, their calm, quiet size appeals to me deeply, and I have fond childhood memories of holding reins behind a family member. I like oxen too, and have friends who would have taught me the tricks of using either. But at the time I had a nursing 15 month old and was pregnant with my second son.
Almost thirty years ago, Judith Brown wrote a short essay “Notes on the Division of Labor by Sex” that pointed out what should have been blindingly obvious, had not historians and anthropologists largely ignored women’s work – that whether or not communities or households can rely upon women to do the work of providing depends “on the compatibility of this pursuit with the demands of child care.” Since pregnancy and the nursing period could easily last four year per child in most societies (the worldwide average age of weaning is four even now), the work women do must be compatible with the realities of children.
That is, it must be safe to take babies with you and do it while carrying one on your back or front, they are easily interruptable to meet children’s needs, they do not place mobile children in danger, and they do not require your whole attention. Working with draft horses or oxen meets none of these requirements. So to make good use of the horses must have been Eric’s business, and Eric does not love draft animals as I do.
Because I am the primary farmer on our farm, and we were facing at least three more years of pregnancy and my nursing (it turned out to be six more, actually) we chose a smaller farm. My being the chief of agricultural operations here (to put it pretentiously) puts me largely in sync with most of the world – the majority of the farmer’s in the world are women.
This is one of the reason the world’s farms, despite enormous effort to expand, consolidate and mechanize them, are mostly small, and probably always will be. Because the vast majority of agrarian women in the world, just like me, must do their farmwork with their babies on their heels and their children or grandchildren interrupting them to ask questions. To get bigger, a farm must be able to support two farmers – one to do the local work – to manage those animals kept close to the house, to tend those fields that can be handled with a hoe or a digging stick, to tend the household garden, and one to do the work with draft animals or tractors and other dangerous tools, further away from the home, while the home-farmer guards and watches the children.
But just as my family cannot live entirely on its agricultural income, most farm families in the US and in the world, do not live entirely on their farm income any longer. Indeed, as Peter Rosset writes in _Food is Different_ the whole world effectively benefits from the fact that even when it isn’t economically remunerative, farmers essentially subsidize their own agricultural production with off-farm labor. And this is one common ground that ties me to much larger farms, as well as the substantially smaller ones – all of us have trouble making ends meet without non-farm labor. Whether big or small, the majority of the world’s farmers rely on either additional outside work by the farmers themselves, or by family members.
Farmers drive trucks and substitute teach in the winter, or one partner in a farming household works full time off farm for things like health insurance and a stable income. In the Global South, it is common to send daughters to the factories in some countries, or sons to the US to work construction or do other labor and send back money to keep the family farm afloat. Rosset documents that farming truly is a way of life, rather than simply a job, because even when the off-farm work is more remunerative than the farm work *and* the opportunity exists for the farmers to give up farming altogether, they often don’t, but persist in agricultural pursuits, while working longer and harder outside in order to support the practice of feeding others.
For a long time in American history, it was possible for a small-to-mid-sized farm to support two adults working full time on the land at agricultural pursuits, broadly and not always accurately divided into “housewifery and husbandry” – that is, to divide agricultural production into field-scale agriculture done with draft animals, usually by a man (although women certainly worked in the fields more often than they are credited with), and home scale agriculture – dairying, poultry keeping, gardening, small field crop tending – along with childcare, usually done by a woman.
This fact of history means that we have developed the underlying assumption that a farmer is a man, and his adjunct is “the farmer’s wife.” And in a society, if such a society could ever exist, that gave full credit to women and housewifery, this tragedy of labelling might be less unfortunate. But the difficulty of the “farmer’s wife” assumption is that it erases women from agriculture – millions and millions of them. Indeed, we can see this erasure particularly in Africa, where for more than half a century development dollars in agriculture have overwhelmingly gone to men who may own the land – but don’t farm it. More than 80% of African farmers are women, and it is only in the last two decades that efforts to address agricultural difficulties in many African countries have even fully recognized who was doing the farming.
More directly, in my life, the farmer’s wife syndrome erases me – even though I’m the primary farmer. Don’t get me wrong – on a farm, everyone farms in some measure, and Eric and I are full partners – but the reality is that the farm is driven by me. And yet, almost monthly someone comes to the farm to make a delivery, to make a purchase, or for whatever purpose and immediately assumes that Eric is the person to talk to. Eric is extremely good at fending this off – I remember how appreciative I felt when our real estate agent, taking us around to view these farms, immediately assumed that I would be more interested in the house, and Eric would take charge of viewing the barn. Instead, Eric very calmly observed that he was going to take Eli to look at the house, leaving me to evaluate the barn, as I was better qualified than he. The agent looked stunned, but gamely turned back to me. Some variation on this scene gets played out regularly here.
The other way that we are rather more than less like the world norm is in the quality of our farmland. Frankly, ours is dreadful, and I say that fondly – I love my terrible soil. Indeed, most of the places we could afford that wouldn’t have involved a 45 minute or longer commute for Eric were pretty awful in some way – either the house was a wreck, or the barns were, or the soil was – or occasionally all of the above.
This too is typical of the world scene. The trend towards agricultural consolidation has not just shaped America – all over the world, much of the best land has been shifted to export crops and larger farms, where more and more of the 2.5 billion pastoralists, very small farmers, fisherpeople and the remaining hunter-gatherers have been pushed onto ever more marginal land and water.
In our case, we weren’t pushed – we wanted our land – it was the best of an imperfect lot of choices. We knew that we’d be dependent on Eric’s faculty job, and didn’t want to substitute small inputs on the farm for large ones spent in gas. We knew of people to carpool with in this area. Moreover, I didn’t really want to devote myself full time to making the house habitable, or trying to prop up a collapsing barn. This place had a decent house, although one that needed work, and several functionalish outbuildings. It had a size and scale within my capacities and our reality.
Its vast disadvantage was that the topsoil had been strip mined – quite literally, the place was a sod farm for decades and most of the never-deep topsoil was cut up and removed and sent to people who couldn’t wait for grass to grow – it still grew grass fairly well. It had ample water, and soil for vegetables, I reasoned, could be built.
And we did build it – it was deeply labor intensive and a long process, but we managed to run, with almost no fossil fuel inputs, using only hand labor. The vast majority of it was done by a woman laboring under the constraints of traditional women’s work – toddlers, babies, pregnancies and all. In the end we accomplished a CSA that eventually rose to have 22 members and provided a huge basket of vegetables to each household for 20 weeks a year.
It took us a while to figure out that what we needed most was more livestock. As David Montgomery, author of the superb _Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations_ observes, land is rapidly exhausted of topsoil if organic material is not replaced. It is hard to produce such organic material entirely using vegetable means. We were enthusiastic replacers with all we had – but we raised only poultry for the first 5 years of the farm.
We raised a lot of pastured poultry – turkeys, chickens and ducks – but the pasturing meant that half the manure was going back to our grasslands – good for them, but not available to the garden. The remaining half, their night droppings, mixed with bedding, were not enough. We got manures from neighbors – from the alpaca farmers, the horse people and a nearby dairy farm, but we needed more, and more directly.
In both our predecessors’ stripping of soils and our own failure to immediately remediate as powerfully as needed, we were following an American tradition, if an appalling one. Disregard of soil, the idea that you can always move on to better land – this was reported by many agricultural observers who deplored the way that American farmers misused and depleted their ground, and were astonished by the fact that Americans, particularly southern farmers, did not manure their fields.
George Washington wrote to Alexander Hamilton “It must be obvious to every man, who considers the agriculture of this country how miserably defective we are in the management of our lands…A few more years of increased sterility will drive the Inhabitants of the Atlantic States westward for support; whereas if they were taught how to improve the old, instead of going in pursuit of new and productive soils, they would make these acres which now scarcely yild them any thing, turn out beneficial to themselves.” He was prescient, Washington. But some of us stayed – my ancestors among them, staying in place in the cold rocky northeast, and I think some of that remains in my blood, the desire to take the imperfect land and claim it and make it all it can be.
We did not move fast enough initially in soil restoration, but we have improved since, adding more livestock to our land. We have taken up the project, partly from necessity, since we cannot afford the best land, but also partly from desire to restore marginal land to productivity. We have shuttered our CSA, I think for good – I loved doing it, but I know that the river bottomland below us will always produce better, faster vegetables than we will, with less cost to the soil. We will always be 10 days later to market with our tomatoes and our sweet corn. So it is enough to me that we begin from our subsistence, and produce those things only for our family, some friends and the food pantry.
And in that too, there is a real resemblance to the world’s average farm. The average farmer and small agricultural producer feeds themselves first, and then sells extra produce, or high value items for cash. This model of prioritizing subsistence production over maximum cash production was the norm even in the Global North for most of human history, before it was replaced here by the idea that even farmers should produce food only for cash, and then purchase their meals at the same supermarkets everyone else shops at.
We, like everyone, have our cash crops – but they are for the most part, overages – and they follow on top of our prioritizing our getting our own food from our own land. We are not doctinaire about this – I have grown small grains, but don’t grow much of them. Instead, we grow lots of potatoes and sweet potatoes and substitute these for some of our grains, while buying our other staples sustainably from small producers in bulk. There are some crops I don’t grow – because I save seed, I grow only one crop of sweet corn, and we happily devour the stuff from the farmstand in the valley. I eat their tomatoes for a couple of weeks before mine are ripe. I get peaches from a farmer down the hill in a warmer place than mine. We are hardly perfectly consistent.
And yet we produce all the milk we drink, except during the goats’ dry spell (and next year we’ll have staggered breeding and won’t have one) and many of our other dairy products (we still buy ice cream occasionally and butter locally) and all the eggs. We raise the vast majority of our meat, the vast majority of our vegetables, about half our fruit and about 1/3 of our staple foods. We do this not only during the growing season, but by preserving our food for winter and using season extension, also through winter.
Meanwhile, the crops we specialize in are ones that our land does best, or that we can do better than others. Pastured poultry, goat, lamb and eggs. Healthy livestock, raised for small scale production. Herbs and salad greens for the off season. Seeds we save. Native wetland plants for land restoration. Garden plants for other people’s gardens. Medicinal plants and dried herbs, produced in small batches with high quality. We are able to also experiment with other crops – with tree crops for winter feed, and with unusual fruits for making jams, juices and syrups, and new fiber crops. We can experiment with fertility improvement and soil building. We can do whatever we want within the real constraints of the land we have, the people and time we have, the tools we are willing to use, the money we have and the realities of agriculture. As my son Simon once wrote on a homemade pencil sign for our farm “Glenings (sp..actually Gleanings) Farm: Flora, Fauna and Food. That’s pretty much it.
I put myself in place here not to make any grand point – it is not that my farm magically duplicates the realities of small farms in the Global South – it doesn’t. It isn’t that my farm is just like the big farms only smaller – it isn’t. And yet, I like to think it is not only pretense that ties me both to larger and smaller farmers – because they too are bound by the realities that bind me – that the land and the life shape and control things in ways hard to explain to someone who has never done it. I do not think I fully realized, when I began to farm, how much the farm would decide about the shape of my life, or how much, in picking a place, a piece of land, I had determined my own future, the kind of farmer I would be, and the kind of person that farming would make me into.