Faking It

June 17, 2011 § 31 Comments

Not so long ago, I was at the home of a real farmer. I know he was a real farmer, because he told me so. The implication, I believe (though I can’t be sure) was that I am not a real farmer, because I do not earn all or even the majority of my living from a farming enterprise. For what it’s worth, this is not the first person I’ve heard articulate such a belief. Or even the third.

Leaving aside the question of why it even matters who is and who is not a real farmer, and why anyone would feel compelled to claim such a title for him or herself, I couldn’t help but ponder what factors must be present to make a farmer real.

I’m pretty sure our neighbor’s definition is income-based. That is, if you make your living “farming,” then you are a “real farmer.” Fair enough, I suppose. But I know this person’s enterprise pretty well; I know that his family purchases the vast majority of their food at a retail outlet. I know that they don’t keep a garden, or process any of the milk they produce into butter or cheese or yogurt. They don’t raise their own meat. What they do, basically, is specialize in the production of a single food (milk), which they primarily sell in bulk. This arrangement provides them with the money necessary to purchase the essentials they do not produce for themselves. This is, in his mind at least, real farming.

Last year I was at a book talk, and someone asked me how much of my income is derived from our farm. “Oh, not much,” I answered, because it’s not. Most years, it’s not much more than 15%.

“But did you include the food you grow for your family in that figure?” He asked.

Well, no, actually. I hadn’t.

Which is where this conversation gets interesting, because my family raises upwards of 80% of the food we consume. I’m not really sure how to put a dollar value on the food we raise for ourselves, because I know that in many cases, we could purchase our nourishment for much less than it costs to produce it, particularly if one is inclined to believe the lie that time is money and therefore, the time spent in pursuit of our food production could be more profitably applied elsewhere. In other cases, we couldn’t buy the food we produce for any price, because it’s simply not available on the open market.

In any case, I am struck by the irony that we seem to have arrived at a definition of “real farmer” that is rooted in money, rather than food. Frankly, it’s fine with me: I have no need nor desire to lay claim to the term “real farmer.” I am happy to cede it to those whose agricultural pursuits are based in the exchange of product for money.

What does that make me? Hell, I don’t know. And I’m not going to spend much time trying to figure it out: I’m too busy growing food.

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§ 31 Responses to Faking It

  • Elizabeth says:

    You’re the kind of farmer I want to be. I can’t seem to make my mother understand that, however. I say “I want a farm” and she hears “I want to start a commercial dairy and plant 20 acres of some grain crop.” I’m not sure why the disconnect exists, but it’s real. It took me forever to figure out why she was so opposed to the idea of my having a farm. I was thinking more along the lines of “mega-garden” as opposed to “commercial farming operation”. Maybe I should just call it that?

    • I’ve seen this same disconnect a lot as well – I sometimes tell people that I want a farm and instantly they’re thinking hundreds of acres, large tractors, and vast herds. I suppose this is also way they seem to show so much disbelief when it comes up in conversation. What I really want, though, is a few acres, a fairly small number of animals, a huge garden, and some pretty basic subsistence living. If I can get people to see it this way their concerns usually seem to wane a bit, but it usually takes some effort to get them there.

    • Bri says:

      I’ve encountered the same disconnect as well when I tell people I want to farm, so now I tell them I want to homestead, and they seem to grasp that a lot better and a lot quicker! I also like “mega-garden!”

  • Jenna says:

    Wonderful, this!!

  • My family lives on a farm, but we are “real” builders, teachers, engineers… Our “real” income comes from these other jobs. But the value of what the farm adds to our lives is immeasurable.

    • Used to be that farming was more about living than working. Isn’t it interesting that doing something as straight forward as “bringing home the bacon”, “putting bread on the table”, or “buying the farm” specifically excludes the literal acts themselves?

      I’ve lost count of the number of people confused by me saying something like “we’re planning on buying the farm…” Not a single person out here in world real understood that I meant exactly what I said, no metaphorical translation required.

      After agribusiness and the general public have worked so hard to herd farming into such a narrow definition maybe we really aren’t farmers any more. After all. farming requires large scale mono cultured specialization, massive capitalization, loads of debt, vast tracts of land, and frequent trips to the grocery store. Are we steaders? Homesteading as America spread westward required a self sufficiency and resilience most of us “modern” Americans can only aspire to mimic. Pick the label you want but I don’t think “Farmer” fits the bill anymore.

      I feel like a FarmLifer. My life supports my farm, my farm supports my life and in that implication of a closed loop system lives all the things that make me (and perhaps you) different from what people insist a farmer is.

      • I think you are on to something Mr L.
        I do not remember a single day (except Sundays and other church events) that I did not see my grandfather in overalls. He would be called a vegetable gardener I suppose. He and my grandmother lived on Whidbey Island before it became trendy. His home was “in town” on just a couple of acres of rich black island soil (what a shame that it is covered with condos and parking lots) where he grew food for the root-cellar and freezer. There was a small apple orchard (one of the first of dwarf trees) that grew a succession of apples from July for summer pie to late fall for the cellar and sauce. Long rows of Logan and strawberries, potatoes, dahlias, corn and I don’t know what else. The only animals I remember was my aunt’s horse and a house dog.

        He had what was left of the family homestead on another part of the island with two more large gardens, a hay field and “woods” that apparently were no good for farming, which is why he still had that portion.

        One thing I remember is that “town” was a post office and the “store” where they had a meat locker which is sort of a rented freezer for pork and beef. They did not raise either pork or beef. They did not have chickens. Instead they “sold” berries (or maybe jam), flowers, apples and I don’t know what else to the store in exchange for milk and eggs from other local farmers. No rugged individuals who just took care of themselves. They were not dependent on others, just exchanged goods for goods. My grandma drove a school bus on the island for extra income to buy dresses and the things that made life easier. From the time I was aware of my surroundings to the day my grandfather died, I do not remember a single stick of new furniture, they drove the same pickup truck, pulled the same blinds closed, sharpened the same blade on the same lawn mower. A night out was to the old homestead after a day of fishing for salmon in the waters of the island, sharing a meal with families who put their salad and dessert on the long table and when the sun set the accordions came out and we danced the polka under the stars.

        It makes a good story but who doesn’t enjoy killing time shopping and going out to lunch these days? That cannot be done on subsistence living. Wal-Mart exists to fill our home with imported stuff. No one wants to remember a birthday with just a favorite meal and cake, we want to give stuff in bright paper, invite the neighbor kids to go to the latest kid place, and sugar up. Cartels exist because hard work has no honor with our sons. Most have no desire to go back to such a life. But there are the rare few of us who remember the secrets of the seasons. Thanks for both the original post and this response from Mr. L.

  • Annie says:

    I guess homesteader works (my name actually is “Steadman” so I like that a lot) Gene Logsdon would call it a “cottage farmer”

    The majority of farmers in America (65%) do not support themselves with farming. It requires a second job to pay the bills.


    Your neighbor sounds a little insecure. You’re just as much a farmer as he, maybe more so. America needs more small farms, not more agribusiness.

  • Nicole says:

    I have to agree that the title isn’t so important as what you are actually doing. I too wish for a farm, but like Elizabeth said its more an idea of a mega-garden and maybe 12 chickens that I call it a farm. Does that make me a farmer? Maybe. I don’t really care one way or the other. It makes me feel independent of this crazy food system. I have used the term homesteader more often because I feel it encompasses more of what I am doing than just tending some some veggies in the garden. Its a way of living that respects the land and strives to live in harmony with nature. It’s someone who has their eyes open and isn’t ready to swallow the crap that our society is trying to feed us. There are so many titles for that kind of thing…but I never had much use for titles. I am happy to mind my own business doing what I love in the place that I love. Thanks for such a thought provoking post!

  • Sheila Z says:

    Real farming… the kind of farm where you buy everything you need at retail prices and then sell what you produce at wholesale prices. Real dumb farming is what I call it. I am free to say this because I was once one of those farmers (milked 50 cows 2 twice a day) until I finally figured out how dumb that was.

  • Tara Ford says:

    Hello Ben,
    Here in England the name for a large productive garden with a few animals, enough to support a family with maybe a little left over to trade is a smallholding.
    However, the same inverted snobbery applies here too with ‘real farmers’ calling smallholders ‘hobby farmers’. I quite like the term actually but it is clearly spat as a form of derision.
    Still, as you say, I’m far too busy growing food and raising hens to care.

    • cmald says:

      Tara – I love the term ‘smallholder’, because in truth it generally is a relatively small concern ‘area-wise’ only, but, makes me think of all the things that are important, like sustainability, organic gardening and families concerned with raising their children with nature. I can see the smoke coming from the chimney and smell the fresh baked bread when I hear the term. It also makes me think of tough individualism, in the same way the term ‘crofter’ does. ‘Hobby farmer’ I’m not so keen on. It infers tinkering, a lack of commitment and maybe the ownership of one or two model trains :)

  • Jenn says:

    Yes, yes, YES! I have trouble getting people to understand what it is that I am working towards too. I always get the skeptical looks and the comment about it not being a real job. Thank you for articulating this so well!

  • thetinfoilhatsociety says:

    Well, Ghandi said it best: “First they ignore you, then they mock you, then they fight you, then…you win.” It’s a battle, don’t make the mistake it’s not, for a particular cultural meaning to the word. Frankly, I think that what you (and I, and many others I know) are is farmers – in the traditional sense – and what your neighbor is, is an agribusinessman. Or agribusiness – indentured servant. Not a farmer in any time honored sense of the word.

    Agribusiness farmers aren’t stupid, they are just boxed in, metaphorically and literally. They are in a spot they can’t stand, they know in their bones it’s not sustainable as a business or food producing model, but they can’t break out and do anything else. One can only hope that the fates will be kind to them and theirs.

    • Elizabeth says:

      I absolutely agree with your terminology: “Agribusinessman” (or “agribusiness-indentured servant”) is a much more accurate term for the humongous tracts of monoculture that go by the term “farm” today. But it has to be said not condescendingly or with derision, because of what you point out in your second paragraph.

    • cindi says:

      True words.

      I’ve been very much enjoying the replies to the (terrific) original post. I suppose “smallholders”, rather than “homesteaders”, is what my husband and I are….I think I like that term. :)

  • Ben Hewitt says:

    Wow, thanks for all the comments. My head’s full of thoughts connected to this post and your replies, but it’s been a full day of farming… er, growing food. So it’ll have to wait. Again, thank you, all.

  • Suzanne says:

    Gee and I was going around singing “I am a farmer” today just for putting the straw down around my 5×5 plot of 2ft high corn after hoeing around the stalks (among the rest of my garden). Great article!

  • “particularly if one is inclined to believe the lie that time is money and therefore, the time spent in pursuit of our food production could be more profitably applied elsewhere.”

    Yes, but how in the world do you quantify the joy derived from the time spent gardening? I am less depressed, healtheir (physically and mentally), and more prone to joy during spring to fall when I am outside pulling weeds, planting seeds, and harvesting. Therefore, the time spent in pursuit of my food is not a “job” as far as the description of doing something monotonous or non-exciting in return for money in order to make it worthwhile. My time spent is worthwhile without any monetary reward at all.

    (And I understand what you are saying and I’m not arguing with you. I’m agreeing with you! :)

  • Jennifer Fisk says:

    I saw the disconnect between farming and raising your own food as long ago as the 1950’s and 60’s I think it came from those who had survived the Depression. Being able to buy food at the grocery store was a sign you had money and those people who still gardened were poor if my memory serves me correctly. Now, we are seeing the swing back to producing your own because the system has been shown to be faulty in almost all respects.

  • [...] vegetable garden AND we are not urban. Take a look at Ben’s post for the full context at  http://benhewitt.net/2011/06/17/faking-it/ While day-tripping on the Island one day, Ray stopped across the street from my grandparents Oak [...]

  • Anna Johnson says:

    Wow, in my family we always have said we were farmers. We are farmers who also have : practiced law, served the military(every war that the U.S. has had! and peace time as well), worked in factories, on the Rail Road, for the Indiana DNR, self employed, were teachers, housewives and daycare workers, homeschoolers,college professors,nurses, voluteer firemen, fishermen, hunters, woodworkers, auctioneers, antique dealers, tax preparers, carpenters, roofers, tile specialists, brick masons, researchers, started and operated the underground railroad…. but ALWAYS we have called ourselves farmers as an identifying quality. It is what has been in our hearts since all the German, Irish, Scottish, English ancestors stepped foot on this wonderful land and dug into start a life that led up to me. I have been inspired by MY family’s stories of preserverance through all sorts of calamities. The ones who were best able to cope were those who were very multifacited. Long live us part time “faking it ” farmers!

    • Anna your post makes me wonder if the name is not so much about a title, an occupation, as it is about a fellowship. Who understands me? Who has walked the path I am on? Who do I admire and want to identify with? We are not our titles but we do seem to find the place in life where we “fit” by the titles we choose and how we interpret the meaning of the title (be that by how we live or what we buy to accessorize).

      My husband and I used to belong to a jeep club. Members had to have a Willies or American Motors Jeep. For a few years it could be a Chrysler Jeep because Mr. Iacocca kept his hands off the popular CJ serious of Jeeps while developing the Cherokee. We had one of each; an AMC CJ5 and a Chrysler Cherokee. Our Cherokee could do anything the CJ did except wear a bikini top. But when people saw us in our Cherokee they would say, the label doesn’t make it a real jeep. We could out drive everyone who made such a silly comment on any trail. People who knew us, people who had gone off road with us judged us by our skill and respect for the wilderness, but there was always some loudmouth in the parking lot who intended to step on our shoulder to lift himself (and his Bud) above us. The truth was, we did not care what they said, we just enjoyed the back country. Even a CJ with all the aftermarket trimmings can still be a pavement queen. You have to get dirty, not loud, to prove yourself.

      I did not call myself a farmer when I had property in a mountain valley and subsistence lived off the land (my husband worked, I did what I had to do to stay home, raise and home school my sons). I do not call myself an urban homesteader though I raise chickens and produce in town. I have more experience raising food than those who fight about who is and who is not an urban homesteader. I am not looking for someone to put me on their list, I’m not looking for the next magazine that wants to write about me. But I am comfortable in my own skin at my own table eating my own food. As long as you say it nicely, you can call me just about anything you want.

      BTW this is a fun post Mr. Hewitt

  • Matt says:

    Well, it’s nice to know that title snobbery is everywhere, even farming! *LOL*

    I think one should use whatever title makes sense to you, regardless of the perspectives of others. I wouldn’t call myself a farmer, but I aspire to be a market gardener – growing enough for my own use, with a bit of surplus to sell to support my gardening habit ;)

  • Ben Hewitt says:

    So many great comments… this might deserve a follow-up post.

    Thanks to all who’ve stopped by.

    Once the barn’s full of hay, maybe I’ll tackle this subject again.

    Thanks again,

  • I struggled with this when I laid claim to the idea that I was an Artist, even though I certainly don’t make enough money to support my family of five on the money I make from my art. Interestingly enough, I didn’t struggle with claiming my title as farmer. Even though my farm is entirely for the sake of my family. I sell eggs, but they really only offset the cost of my feed for my chickens, and in peak season, feed for the goats as well. However, if I were to go out and pay for what I’m raising, (pasture raised, humanely treated, chemical free…milk, meat, eggs, garden…) I would not be able to afford their equals at the store. There are just so many factors that pay into what it means to me to “earn” my right to call myself a farmer. Every one of those factors is entirely REAL, and so I AM a real farmer. :)

  • [...] about a day-and-a-half; ya’ll come back now, hear?) by posting a teaser of my little missive Faking It. And I thank her for [...]

  • [...] blueberry bushes. At the time, I was no farmer; hell, I didn’t even know enough to fake it. But our neighbor knew plenty. “You need to get some animals on that land,” he told us. [...]

  • David says:

    You grow 80% of your food? Who cares about dollars and cents. You’re a farmer, brother.

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