This is the time of year when “farming on the side” roughly translates into “work like a crazy person.” On our farm I’m busy getting trees, berry bushes, and early garden crops in the ground, spreading mulch and organic fertilizers, tending seedlings and chickens, and so forth. Off the farm, I’m working a full-time job plus, more recently, a part-time job as the music director of our small rural parish (my joke is that I now work a third job in order to afford my second job, farming). It adds up to lots of work and little free time.
Aside from not wanting to sound like a whiner, it’s hard to complain about all this busyness, both because it’s all self-chosen and because I really like all of it. Far from detesting my “day jobs,” I actually find a lot of meaning, satisfaction, and community in them. Who could ask for more than that out of any employment? Even so, what on my good days I call multiple interests can, on my bad days, feel pretty overwhelming. Having other employment, however, also makes me wonder whether I can call myself a “real” farmer since I don’t farm full-time.
Enter Gene Logsdon and Pa Ingles. Gene Logsdon is an author and self-proclaimed “Contrary Farmer” in northern Ohio. He has long made the case that more of us should be what he calls “cottage farmers.” For him, cottage farming means owning some land, usually not too much, and actually farming it yourself (as opposed to renting it to neighboring “real farmers” to raise hay or row crops on it), while having some sort of additional means of income from an off-farm job or an on-farm cottage industry. This sort of “hobby farming” means that you can keep the farm properly capitalized and well-cared-for rather than cutting financial and ecological corners just to make ends meet, as is the constant temptation in full-time farming.
My other mentor in this regard has been Pa Ingles, of Laura Ingles Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie fame. Charles Ingles is a central character in all the Little House books, which I recently read, one by one, to our enraptured young twin daughters. Despite Laura’s obvious tendency to idolize her father and paint him with a golden brush, it is still very clear that Pa is a man to be reckoned with. He’s a tough, no-nonsense homesteader who puts himself and his family through a great number of trials and tribulations at the hands of nature and humanity.
Throughout the books, Pa raises various crops and livestock. And yet when the Ingles family finally settles in South Dakota, it struck me that Pa keeps the family afloat more by his carpentry and other off-farm labor than by his farming.
If Pa Ingles isn’t a real farmer, for all he and his family went through, who the heck is? Does “real” mean indebting oneself with a huge spread of land and an expensive fleet of machinery in order to raise wheat, corn, and soybeans on government crop subsidies? Does “real” mean investing massive amounts of fossil fuel energy in the form of diesel fuel and agricultural chemicals in order to erode topsoil and degrade ecosystem health?
I think not, and I hope not. To me, “real” farming is about intention and skill more than finances and scale. Real farming is farming done for love of the land, the people the land feeds, and the Creator of both. Real farming leaves a place better than it was and the farmer better than he or she was. Real farming is a vocation, not just a job or career, even if it that vocation has to share the stage with the other concurrent vocations of a well-lived life: family life, other work, civic involvement, and so forth.
I’ll show my agrarian colors here and say that I think this nation needs far more real farmers than it has, even if many of them won’t be able to make their living at it. Real farming is ultimately about the healing of a broken ecological and human landscape, about making a life more than making a living. For that crucial work to make any real progress, we need to have more and more people trying it: in cities and in the countryside, part-time or full-time, skilled or novice. If this is real enough for Pa Ingles, it’s real enough for me!