Because it’s a farm

I heard today that our tenant farmer–he plants our 100 or so acres of tillage–thinks my wife and I are ripping off my mother-in-law because, well, there are goats eating grass in the front yard and chickens eating grass in the back. That’s not how things are supposed to be, you know, because now the farm looks like… a farm.

This kind of nonsense has been an ongoing part of my acclimatization into the world of someone trying to farm sustainably in a world filled with industrial workers whose job happens to be the planting and harvest of organic manufacturing components. Most of my fellow farmers have lost sight of the age old understanding borne of thousands of years of human agriculture, which wisdom states that the farmer feeds himself and his own first, the people around him next, and then sells whatever might be left to buy the things he cannot grow or make himself.

To our tenant farmer, the secret to farming is to borrow tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars to plant and harvest thousands of acres of crops that humans can no longer directly consume, to sell those crops for prices determined by speculators who never have his best interest in mind, and to dump his commodity into an industrial supply system whose product he has to pay for even though it could not exist without his tireless effort. And, if there’s a bad year, he could easily fold and have very little or nothing to show for it.

To me, the secret to farming is what I have already noted. First, plant and raise food–food people can eat straight from the plant or animal without the intermediary of industrial processing. Second, raise that food to feed me and mine first. Third, make sure the people around me are fed. Fourth, sell whatever is left to buy what I cannot grow or make myself. The thing is, even in the worst years, it is possible to eke out an existence following that method– if it weren’t, most of us would not be here today.

So, yeah, our farm looks like a farm, and that’s on purpose. We can eat what we’re doing here. How many farmers can say that?


Why do you have grass?

One of the arguments I hear often about why we have to continue modern industrial farming practices is because there just isn’t enough arable land to grow enough food for everyone. I almost always wonder what the latest person who said such a thing is doing with his or her yard.

Seriously, what are you doing with your yard? How much did you spend seeding it, weeding it, mowing it, and fertilizing it this year? For what? Because it looks pretty?

See, my farm has several dozen acres of grass: grass that cows eat right off the ground or that we mow and bale for hay. For me, grass is a foodstuff for animals and part of a system that promotes good soil health and fertility. Frankly, other than a patch of grass around the houses and other buildings that we mow to keep the critters and building destroying plants at bay, the rest of our grass is food for something or unmowed meadow.

What about you?

I’ll grant that, especially in cities, controlling the places that pest animals tend to congregate is an always pressing problem, but does the answer have to be grass? What about vegetable gardens? What about replacing grass with attractive–and edible–stands of wheat or oats or barley? What about fruit trees or creeping vines like squash, pumpkin, or watermelon?

Heck, you wouldn’t even have to do all that work yourself. I’m betting that, if you advertised your yard as available for planting, someone would be willing to do the work for you for rent or in return for part of the proceeds.

Imagine all the arable ground that would suddenly become available if yards became, essentially, micro farms. This isn’t a new idea either. In many other parts of the world, entire large, extended families feed themselves every year on a fraction of an acre.

Now, I know that people have all kinds of aversions to this kind of idea, most of which I do not understand. But, beyond the perceived images of degraded status and the irrational fear of one’s home looking like a farm, what is the real problem?

To me the idea of growing one’s own food under one’s own control represents the height of independence. If your yard is a garden, do you have to worry about the price of food or the gas needed to get it? If things go badly and you lose your job or the economy goes south, will you go hungry if your yard is full of food?

Of course, for what I am suggesting here to have any real meaning, all sorts of things would have to change. People would have to be willing to do the work. Cities would have to realize that small plot raising of fruits, vegetables, and grains will not diminish the property values in their borders any more than the bursting of unsustainable, speculative housing value bubbles might. Communities would have to believe that a fundamental level of self-sufficiency is  a far better way to ensure their continued existence than begging for grants from state and local governments might appear to be.

And once those changes occur, then even more radical practical ideas can move forward. Ask yourself what’s worse: the occasional cluck or crow of a chicken or the incessant barking of your neighbor’s yippy dog?