8 years ago when I decided to quit my job and buy a farm, we approached the bank for a pre-arranged mortgage. We were clear that we were looking to buy a farm. They approved us for a certain amount, and the hunt began.
After almost a year and a half of searching, we found what we figured was the right place for us. It had 30 beautiful mixed acres (only 1/2 of my original want, but all usable land), 2 barns, a garage, and a house that was way bigger than we’d hoped for (and in need of a lot of work), but the farm property was the piece that mattered. We went back to the bank with our listing. “Oh”, the mortgage agent said, with a look of consternation, “you meant a REAL farm.”
A real farm. I was confused. Is there any other kind of farm?
I soon discovered that the world of farming, like every other world, has plenty of divisions. Divisions between old school and new school, divisions between those who support marketing boards and those who don’t, divisions between those who hold quotas and those who want them, divisions between monoculture or singularly-focused producers and those who pursue a variety of commodities, divisions between conventional producers and organic producers, and divisions between those who perceive themselves as “real” farmers and the people they would consider to be “hobby” farmers.
“Hobby” is defined as an activity that is pursued for relaxation or pleasure. If you are trying to make a living from something, it is no longer a hobby, and believe me, running a small farm is an unbelievable amount of work. It may be pleasurable in many respects but it most certainly is not relaxing! There is wide perception that if you measure your land in acres instead of hectares, if your monthly tractor payments don’t exceed your mortgage, and if your animals have names instead of numbers, you are a hobby farmer. But this is how farming has happened for thousands of years. Grain cultivation can be dated to 23,000 years ago. Industrial farming processes such as mechanization, synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, and selective breeding, all designed to increase output and decrease the hands-on nature of farming, have only come to play in the past century. Are those methods better? It depends on your end goal. If your only concern is to produce the most food possible in the shortest amount of time and at the lowest price, then yes, those methods are probablt “better” … until something bad happens on an even bigger scale.
Small farms have struggled to maintain respect. If you don’t have fancy new barns and a cohort of foreign workers, you’re probably just in it for fun, right? That’s certainly an impression we’ve seen. It doesn’t help that some of the things we do to contribute to that livelihood are not strictly “farming”, but rather value-added offshoots from farm products. I have never been one to put all my eggs in one basket. When people think of my business they see soaps and body products… but not so much the herd of goats that I feed and care for, the poop I shovel, the hooves I trim, the hay I make to feed them. The other most visible part of my business is making and selling prepared meals such as burritos… hardly something you’d connect to farming, but again, it’s a value-added farm-to-fork product, utilizing produce that comes from our field. What I do in the kitchen starts with seeding, transplanting, weeding, bug picking and harvesting in the field. A lot of my customers have no idea that I also run a spray-free produce CSA for 20 weeks a year – it’s the less visible, but certainly not the less important part of my business model.
People argue that small farms like mine can’t be economically sustainable, can’t be the way going forward. Everything takes more work, nothing is automated, and it’s true, on an acre-by-acre basis we feed far fewer people than one of the larger mechanized operations. If the number of mouths that eat your food or the size of your bank account are the indicators of farming success, then we are dismal failures. That said, small farms like mine are poised to shine right now, in a time of crisis. If nothing else good comes from this Covid-19 pandemic, at least people are starting to realize the importance of local suppliers and personal service. Next month I will start delivering fresh produce weekly to my customers. No matter what happens with global production and shipping, my CSA customers will have guaranteed quality produce at a fixed price. My soap and body product sales have almost doubled through local delivery, delivery by WFM2Go and mail orders, even though I’ve lost my actual market sales. I have lost my burrito income at the moment, and that was a very important part of my revenue, but because I’m small enough to be flexible, I’ve been able to take on a few extra CSA customers instead. On a small scale you can roll with the punches. It’s easier to change focus as needed when you don’t have leased equipment, million dollar designated facilities and a large workforce who rely on you. It’s easier to cover crops for protection when the frost hits. It’s easier to sacrifice a bed that isn’t growing well and replant with something more suited to the conditions.
The further we go into this Covid chasm, the more important small farms are going to become. We may never completely replace the bigger farms; the globalized marketplace isn’t going anywhere and the world population isn’t shrinking. That said, small farms have the ability to keep on keeping on when those global forces throw some serious monkey wrenches into bigger operations. There are hundreds of small farmers in this province and although we may be easy to write off as “hobbyists”, collectively we are making a difference to the food security and economy of Nova Scotia and our communities. My tractors are older than I am, my buildings are more “charming” than efficient, and I grow 50 crops on one acre rather than 50 acres of one crop. I will never become rich from farming, but rest assured, this is no hobby. I am making a living, I am feeding people and making products that they need, and I’m damn proud of what I do. You can take that to the bank.