Henri Andersen is tall and soft-spoken, with a snow white ponytail pulled back under his Lee Valley sun-hat. I asked him whether the Valhalla herb farm was a hobby-farm or a full-time business? “It’s supplemental,” he said. “We’ve been doing this 19 years. But you can’t make a living farming.”
My heart sinks every time I hear this, and I hear it often from long-time farmers. Could it really be true? Why? Is there not another way? If you can’t make a living farming, what does the future of our food production and security look like? Does it depend on what “making a living” means? What does it mean?
From my perspective, very much on the outside, conventional farming looks like a futile, doomed endeavour. Huge tracts of land require large mortgages and massively expensive mechanized equipment. Farmers who bought into the Monsanto promise buy large quantities of seed, pesticide and herbicide, produce crops that sell for low prices, the soil is depleted, and one bout of bad weather and you’re back in the hole. Raising livestock often means selling the meat for less than the cost of raising and processing the animals. Some estimates I’ve read put the average farming profit at around $15,000 a year.
These are the farmers that are not surviving without large amounts of government help. The cycle is unsustainable on every level. But is there another way?
Shifting to organic, diversified farming makes more ecological sense. But that’s not necessarily easier or more economically viable. First, to become certified organic is a serious undertaking, and it can take years to do, especially if you are on land that has been farmed conventionally before. The regulations that we as consumers are so concerned about can be an obstacle for farmers looking to transition. Then there’s the problem of scale. Organic farming is more labour intensive and so usually makes sense on a much smaller scale than conventional farming. The land itself can be more productive, and the diversified crops can be more economically reliable during unpredictable weather and economic cycles, but your total production numbers may be significantly lower. I can see why this is much easier to start from scratch than to transition to from a large monocrop farm. There are some really interesting models around as farmers try to innovate, though—those that want to practice no-till farming, or even permaculture-influenced farming are coming up with some very promising techniques.
Certified organic, however, doesn’t always means sustainable. It means no pesticides or herbicides, no antibiotics or hormones. It does provide some humane regulations for livestock. Most organic farmers rotate crops, companion plant, use mechanical pest barriers, etc. But many also till, monocrop large sections, and use immigrant and other low-wage labour under questionable working conditions. They also may use organic substitutes for chemical fertilizers and pest control that most of us wouldn’t use in our home gardens. Many organic farms operating on a large scale are still big, conventional businesses that are not really sustainable. Are they making a living? I don’t know. It’s not the life I’m looking for. It is where most of our supermarket organic produce comes from: year-round availability, uniform quality, easily shipped and packaged varieties, and enough volume to supply large chains and populations. The demand from supermarket chains for organic produce that meets supermarket system requirements is apparently gaping, but the two systems (organic and supermarket) don’t easily fit together.
Market Gardening gets us out of both supermarket and scale issues. The SPIN folks—whom many farmers criticize for marketing, packaging, and selling common sense techniques to naïve new dreamers—offer useful concrete data on making a living from your land on a small scale. The Small Plot Intensive farming method is this: grow what sells at the farmer’s market for good prices (gourmet salad greens, for instance); use long narrow mono-crop rows and dripline irrigation. If you’ve got an acre, you can do some crop rotation, but if you’re smaller, they suggest you don’t grow high-demand crops like brassicas and potatoes that really need rotating. Stick to salad greens, etc. They don’t sugar-coat the farming life—long hours 7 days a week in all weather—but they do give some profit estimates. They suggest that 1000 square feet of growing area could net around $3000 over a season.
This is where things get complicated for me. In our half-acre, we have just under 1000 sq ft of food growing area—not including fruit production (apples, raspberries, currants, other berries, grapes, kiwis, rhubarb. We do pretty well!). If this year’s experience is anything to go by, that’s plenty to work with to feed ourselves much of the year. But to replace even one of our incomes in a minimal way, we’d have to boost that area by at least 10 times. That means 1/4 acre of pure growing land (ie—flat, no house, etc). It would be a full-time job for one of us, and would need the help of others during peak work. It’s also not full-time year-round, so that’s good, but it means a 7-day a week commitment for the season. It’s not out of the question.
The SPIN techniques, though, are still a classic example of altering the land for production in a major way. To be profitable and low-labour means super-efficiency, which means straight, tilled, weeded rows of similar crops for easy management. SPIN itself says that it’s borrowing from workflow approaches perfected by organizations like McDonald’s. And this may well be what’s necessary to make a living from the land.
My preferred approach to meeting our food needs from the land, though, would be using permaculture techniques. Permaculture is an approach to food (and other product) production that tries to imitate what nature does as much as possible. This means no tilling, polyculture planting (interplanting many crops all mixed together in the same bed), mulching, and careful water management. Permaculture tries to use as few external inputs as possible, which reduces cost and keeps the whole system more sustainable.
I love this idea, and I will be trying some polyculture beds next season. But my experience so far is that very few people are using permaculture for their income crops. The very practical issues of efficiency and labour that SPIN addresses are stumbling blocks for many with better intentions.
I wish I had some conclusions to offer from all of these thoughts, but we haven’t really come to any comfortable ones yet. It may be possible to do permaculture home gardening to meet the family’s food needs and then have a low-impact cash crop like honey, fruit, hops, or nuts to meet some income needs. Would that replace one full-time income? Amanda? Livestock a la Joel Salatin is clearly a possibility, though it’s not for me.
I’m also still struggling with what to me is a conflict of interests that I’ve shared before and I’m sure will come up again. The SPIN system is unabashedly trying to make its farmers money. This is good! But it does so by pricing its goods according to what the market will bear. There’s nothing inherently wrong with selling gourmet produce to the wealthy, nor is it wrong to do what most of us less-than-wealthy are doing: spending more of our income on good quality food, which is what Europeans do. But this is also where organic food gets the reputation for being elitist and is a barrier for many.
The conflict comes for me because I’m now growing this same food for what feels like next to nothing. But I guess this is just how business works: find a crop that doesn’t cost much to produce and sell it for as much as you can; take advantage of the work that others don’t want to or have time to do. It still feels like inequity to me.
Thoughts? Anyone got a system that’s working for them?