Some Scattered Thoughts on Gardening and Farming

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February 27, 2009 at 1:30 pm

Brad Moldofsky

My window-garden spinach leaves have matured from rod-shaped to oval. The mesclun has burst into a variety of reds, yellows and greens and the container smells of a damp earthiness that seems outdoorsy if I close my eyes.

It’s not quite spring, and I’m not quite a backyard farmer yet. But as I’m growing something just on the other side of the window from my backyard, maybe I’m more of a bedroom farmer. No, that seems like a crass double entendre, although I’m not sure how.

A Chicago Tribune article in mid-February about a Marengo woman growing salad fixings in a spare bedroom caught my eye. Judy Leach grows vegetables all year round, pollinating flowers with her electric toothbrush. Between the growing lights, the electric toothbrush and other power consumption, she paid at least one $600 electric bill. That’s some hardcore locavorism. And some pricey tomatoes. Coincidentally, another recent story says local dairy farmers are suffering from low milk prices and selling or slaughtering cows at a loss just to cut down on feed and care expenses.

Recently a friend and I agreed that–and I know this is an oversimplification–farmers garden for money and gardeners farm for pleasure. So what would you call someone who goes into debt in order to grow vegetables?

The answer, of course, is a typical American farmer.

From Benjamin Franklin

There seem to be but three ways for a nation to acquire wealth. The first is by war, as the Romans did, in plundering their conquered neighbors. This is robbery. The second by commerce, which is generally cheating. The third by agriculture, the only honest way, wherein man receives a real increase of the seed thrown into the ground, in a kind of continual miracle…as a reward for his innocent life and his virtuous industry.

Franklin had planned to retire to 300 acres in New Jersey and farm them the rest of his days. But one thing led to another, and before you knew it, he was back in Philadelphia plotting to overthrow the government. Nonetheless, the bi-focaled city boy maintained a fond respect for farming and advocated for those who grew cotton, hemp, tobacco and food for the colonies.

Others have commented on the irony that founding fathers who owned plantations or were pro-agriculture spawned an industrialized nation in which farming is often seen at best as an anachronism and at worst as a dangerous, unrewarding venture best suited for migrant workers. While there are exceptions, those who grow our food don’t earn a lot of money, get a lot of respect, enjoy a sense of security or a relaxing work week. One might argue that our founding fathers had such profitable plantations because their labor was free. I would add that modern farms manage to feed our nation economically in large part because farm wages are so low.

As a member of Angelic Organic’s farmer training initiative (CRAFT), I receive notices about land for sale, internships and careers at farms in northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin, and a variety of resources available to small farmers.

Months ago, I had seriously considered going into the field (figuratively and literally) and did a lot of research; reading books, blogs and websites, talking with farmers at Sunday morning markets and visiting farms. The clearest conclusion I reached was that unless you own your land free and clear, farming is nearly financially untenable. Paying rent or a mortgage threatens the thin profit margins a farm can offer you. And those profit margins depend on really knowing exactly what you’re doing, working your buns off and finding hardworking labor willing to work cheap at just the right time. (Nobody can take their vacation during harvest season). Nobody gets into farming for the love of money.

To take up this vocation, you’ve got to enjoy living in a rural area or the smell of hay or chatting with customers at farmers markets. Farmers aren’t getting rich, though many are going broke. The average age of farmers continues to increase (meaning that their kids are not staying on the farm) and each year, our corn-and-cow-based agro-economy becomes more precarious due to our country’s shabby energy policy.

As I watch my container garden grow, I consider the labor and capital it would take to raise enough greens to feed my family for a year. Then, what would it take to grow enough for ourselves and to sell enough to afford our health insurance, utilities, taxes, car expenses, vacations, college and retirement savings and all the other items modern life provides. I reel at the notion of farming for a living and take heart that I’m not growing my garden to earn a bunch of dough. I just want a little lettuce.

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2 Comments

  1. cogresha says:

    The stimulus package really should have some cash for local, small farmers.

  2. Brad Moldofsky says:

    Obama seems to be in favor of reducing farm subsidies to the mega-farms. Although that’s not the same as funding small, local startups, it helps level the playing field a bit. It remains to be seen if the president can stand up to the entrenched lobbyists who want to maintain the status quo.

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