Some days I just get a bug up my butt about back-to-the-landers, homesteaders, hobbiests, activists, and ideologues yammering about agriculture. Today is one of those days, so I’m going to rant here because it is bugging me and I don’t have time to deal with every individual I come across. This way I can point everyone here and they can comment or not and I can move on with getting stuff done (or not). The irony is that I myself used to be an activist hobbiest ideologue but now that I have two years in the trenches I can see what a jackass I was, so I’m going to share my perspective so other newbies can get a better feel for what it is like in this business of farming. I’ve had to eat a lot of crow over the last 18 months.
I also have to say that I am barely qualified to talk on this subject. I have 3 years of market garden production under my belt, of which two were part time. I have one season of keyline planning and holistic management to my credit. I have one season of restoration and regrarian agriculture practice at the one acre size WITHOUT livestock on my resume. I am the well read equivalent of a total newbie apprentice farmer. In Gladwellian terms I have about 2,500 of the 10,000 hours I need to be ‘good’ at farming. Even with that scant bit of experience I have had to radically alter my perspective on how I thought farming ‘should be done’.
One of my beefs is when people, regardless of experience level, in farming get up and start pointing at successful members of the farming community and success bash. They can pretend it is being critical, or avoiding hero worship, or any other sort of reasoning but to me it all boils down to snipping at someone who’s doing well. There really isn’t anything I can say to someone in this sort of mind set and attitude, because they believe what they believe and everything else is false. It is petty and trite, and sadly a hallmark of the human species.There is something far more bothersome to me though and that comes from people who have an extremely false idea on what farming is, was, and can be in the future. They have this unreasonable idea that farms should be stand-alone operations if they are to have credibility. That if you buy piglets instead of farrowing yourself you are open to harsh critique and are ‘not farming properly’. Or if you don’t breed your own hens, or if you don’t save your own seed, or if you aren’t an ubermensch farming business doing all things.That’s just plain unrealistic, unhistorical, and nonsensical.
First off why would you shackle yourself to farm in isolation?
Part of farming as a production system is being part of a community, no farm is an island. Some farmers love farrowing pigs but hate doing marketing and direct sales. Others like growing them out, processing, and marketing. It only makes sense for them to work together rather than everyone trying to be some mythical ubre-farm operation. This is how farming always worked, it is only until industrial farming that farmers carved off into stand-alone islands (pretend ones once you add in the supply chain).
Joel Salatin and the Salatin family tend to get the most pot shots in this regard since they are some of the most high profile farmers in the world, so I’m going to use them as an example. Plus Joel is an eloquent and prolific speaker and writer (he was a journalist after all), and quite bombastic a personality. Really though this applies to any farm and farming community.
Polyface is clearing two million plus a year in sales under their brand not because they do everything, but because they work with dozens of other producers to get local product to customers through one point of purchase path. There is absolutely no way Polyface could provide the breadth and depth of products and services they do if they had to solo the entire project; it would destroy them. Instead they work with others and leverage their excellent skills in marketing and education to drive high quality product into the hands of hungry consumers. They are damned good at it, and it works because they are community focused and understand they can’t (and shouldn’t) do it all.
People who sit around griping about Polyface not farrowing their own hogs or hatching their own chickens, then using that as some sort of leverage to say they are not meeting the standards of ‘good farmers’ or ‘ethical farmers’, are just being silly or willfully ignorant. They aren’t perfect, they never have claimed to be (quite the opposite in fact), but they are doing a phenomenal job in an extremely difficult market and industry environment. I am very sure that the people they buy their piglets from are quite happy that Polyface has come to them and bought their production. Could Polyface farrow themselves, probably, but they don’t want to and there is no need to because there are local farmers who do a decent job already. Why try to steal everyone’s cake just to get some sort of pointless one-site-source status?
As to market size, they have said that their family farm operations are maxed out. They may expand umbrella branded products still, but their own farming operation is about as big as they want or can get. They are letting other side enterprises share their land to increase over all production and biodiversity. They are now spinning off people and customers to other local producers and helping build out critical slaughter and processing infrastructure to get young farmers up and running. This is them rebuilding the farming community and business ecosystem that industrial farming has destroyed. What is there to criticize in this? This is exactly what we need to happen in every farming community in the developed world.
The last bug up my butt right now is ideologues talking down to farmers who sell into or participate with the industrial food system.Anyone who criticizes a farmer for selling livestock to a feed lot when prices are insanely high (like cattle right right now ) is being unrealistic. Cattle prices are so high right now that it is really HARD (almost business metrics insane) not to sell off part of your herd into the main system because the money you make can keep your farm afloat for two years. This is margin tight business, with high labour costs, and I for one will never again fault a farmer for making that decision. If it fits within their long term holistic goals and management aims then who am I to play judge on them for trying to stay alive in a tough business.
Right now the majority of our revenue is from market gardening, and if the price of lettuce mix shot through the roof to $20/lb and I had a viable channel to get my lettuce into Sysco or GFS trucks I would be sorely tempted to do so. One customer to transact with, high price point, high volume. That is everything a business person in a margin tight industry dreams about. I would be tempted to sell them lettuce all day long until I had none left because it makes a certain business sense. It also makes an ethical business sense because my product is ethically grown, sustainably produced, and local. So if Sysco or GFS are getting that onto the plates of people in a restaurant then I’ve made the food system a better place even though I’ve participated in the ‘evil industrial food system’. As long as I’m not hamstringing my long-term holistic goal there is no reason not to do so.
Beyond just business metrics there is a total disconnect in some idealists minds on how farming works. For example some of the best graziers in the world do cow-calf or stockers and sell to feed lots, they are managing thousands of acres effectively with regenerative practices and rebuilding devastated ecosystems. These are specialists at grazing, and they do not always want or feel the need to be tied to direct marketing their beef. Their animals are going into the industrial system, yes, but they had a pretty nice life up until the time they left the pasture. While that isn’t what I’d call perfect, it is business savvy and it does keep the land in good shape (and that is what is most important after all). In the eyes of some idealists and activists these men and women are unethical or failing to meet up to certain ethical standards.
This year, our first full time market gardening, we had 40% crop loss. We lost production (and more importantly time) on huge portions of our spring crops. We also had an early frost in August that pushed crops back pretty hard in places. We also had an early September snowfall destroy crops, and then ravenous deer knock down fencing and routinely eat our product to the ground. We lost over a thousand dollars of product in one night, after a snow and frost. We had to go to our customers and tell them we had failed them this season, and were ending our CSA 2 weeks early after starting our CSA 1 week late. That was hard, emotionally and financially. We are lucky that we have amazing customers. We are also blessed with off farm income that allows us to weather that sort of storm in our bank account; if we had to add in the financial hardship that can come from a bad season in your first year I think we would have given up or been forced to by finances.
I think until you are faced with losing your business (and lifestyle) you really should just keep quiet about the ethics of the matter. You can’t continue to manage a land and farm if you are bankrupt. That is a choice a lot of farmers and ranchers regularly face, that is the hard reality of being in business for yourself. Two years ago I was still on a high horse about this stuff, about ethics and financial planning in a business, about making provisions and being strong enough to weather the storm. Then frost and deer screwed up my harvest and I learned a hard lesson about the grey area between my business surviving and my ideal ethics.
We can’t get too our holistic goal in one day, it’s going to take a lifetime to get there and we have to adapt to change as it comes. Sometimes that means we have to make a less than ideal choice, and when someone outside of our circumstance tries to cuss us out for it that is wrong, ignorant, and childish. When I did that to others in the past I was dead wrong, and I owe them all an apology. Nobody, and I mean NOBODY, has the right to get up in the face of a farmer who makes a hard business decision to stay afloat. Nobody has the right to question their commitment to farming, their ethics, or their business direction. They don’t get to do that because they aren’t the ones with everything on the line.
It is a good thing we have a saying at our place: ‘good enough is perfect’. The other half to that is ‘because perfect doesn’t exist this side of Heaven’.