What’s in a Name?

As I follow the stories of others as excited as I am about growing food, I’ve often wondered if we qualify as a movement yet.  Actually, I’ve been wondering this for a few years, and the media coverage of a “growing movement” of folks rediscovering the joys and value of growing food at home has definitely increased in the last year.  But I’ve been wondering lately if the reason that this movement remains so grassroots (or feels like it to me, anyway) is that like many upswells in the environmental movement, it doesn’t have a name.

Or rather, everyone who comes to this place in their lives seems to be giving what they do their own name!  Over the last year or two, I’ve seen and heard folks describe what they are doing as gardening, victory gardening, yardening, backyard farming, urban homesteading (although apparently that name is now trademarked and I shouldn’t use it without permission!), homesteading, self-sufficient gardening, backyard homesteading, mini-farming, micro-farming, sub-acre agriculture… and that’s not even including the different variations on the names for the methods chosen: organic, beyond organic, biodynamic, biointensive, permaculture, food forestry, synergistic gardening, … what have I left out?!

In my own journey, I started by just wanting to grow some food and to have a garden at all.  For whatever reason, I’ve never been an urban gardener.  Even when I knew that I desperately wanted to do this, I couldn’t bring myself to do containers on the patio or take advantage of the rooftop raised beds in our last condo.  I equated gardening with–literally–roots.  And until I felt emotionally settled–rooted myself–I couldn’t plant anything.

When we were househunting, it became clear that I wasn’t looking for a garden.  I was looking for a GARDEN.  I didn’t want to just enjoy growing a few tomatoes or some fresh salad greens.  I wanted to grow everything we ate.  I knew I probably wouldn’t be able to do that in my first year (especially given some pretty limited experience!), but I would have argued with you if you had tried to convince me I couldn’t!  Go big or go home, apparently, is my personality (this will not be a surprise for anyone who has known me for any length of time).

I wanted to garden for self-sufficiency.  And I wanted to do it in the most ecologically harmonious way possible.  Along the way, I began to feel uncomfortable with the idea of vegetables and fruit as commodities at all.  I felt drawn and connected to my homesteading ancestors, and got interested in heirloom vegetables and heritage breeds of livestock.  More importantly, I felt drawn to the way a homestead was once an ecological system, with complex, four-dimensional (time being very much a factor) integrated relationships between every aspect: plants, pasture, livestock, water, humans (women, men, children, teenagers), weather, labour…

But I realized over this past winter that the problem with the homestead model, for me, is that it feels isolated.  I’ve been through this cycle before, feeling independent and wanting to go off and do my own thing apart from everyone else, and then realizing that there is no way to do anything apart from everyone else!  The homestead model existed only when the first wave of pioneers/colonial settlers in North America headed out to impose their ancestral farming knowledge on “new” lands. They did this, in many cases, with almost no supporting infrastructure, and many, many failed because it was so difficult.  But those who succeeded are icons of North American culture, and the model of the independent, hard-working, resilient individual who relied only on themselves for their success has been held up by our Protestant civilization for generations.

But now I’m on another stage in this journey, and the independent homesteader name with all the individualism it connotes just isn’t working for me.  And in fact, it’s another model that’s taken hold of my dreams: the small farm.

Now the definition of “small” has changed a lot, too, over these generations.  The traditional small family farm was still comprised of tens of acres, if not hundreds, and it was a synergistic fit with other aspects of the culture of its time: the large family and the tight-knit community.  In our industrial culture, we idealize those days and romanticize those who keep them alive, like the Amish and the Mennonites.

As I’ve dreamed about making my own property along these traditional lines, though, I’ve run into all kinds of problems because that synergy just isn’t in my current variables.  We are two people with no children who have other full-time jobs (much as we’re willing to downsize those!).  Our small property has no pasture (no lawn!) and few flat spaces.  Our garden beds (apart from the raised beds we just built) are not flat, laid out in any kind of grid or even in the ground (!), so many of the tools that are designed to help with production on a small farm are not viable here.   And according to some calculations, there’s no way we would ever produce enough income from the land size we have to make our labour at it worthwhile (except as a hobby).

At the same time, it’s become clear to me that I have an unbridled passion that longs to be let loose as farming.  I cannot relate to those who putter and grow a few things for fun.  I want to provide food and relationships for my community, not just for my husband and me.  I had an epiphany a few weeks ago when I realized that other people, even those invested in food security issues etc, do not necessarily want to talk for hours about planting peas (shocking, but true!).  I have finally clued in that I have the heart of a (small) farmer and it’s time to embrace my secret passion.

Now I’ve struggled this year with this compulsion taking hold.  I knew that I wanted to name myself a farmer and my property a farm.  But so much seemed to stand in the way!  The word “farm” is a significant one, with many implications–social, historical, commercial, legal.  And a farmer is someone who gets up before dawn, milks cows, works insane hours physically, barely makes a living, is in mountains of debt, and is too busy with farming to do anything else.  Right?

Well I hope not.  Because I don’t want to move house, I don’t like to get up before daylight, and I have no upper body strength.  But I still want to farm.  And the amazing thing is, once I stopped fighting how impossible it was for me to farm here and started thinking about how I might be able to make it work, the possibilities seemed to open up dramatically.  So stay tuned… Backyard Feast is becoming something old and something new all at once.  And I have a name already picked out.  I’m just not quite ready to share it yet.

9 thoughts on “What’s in a Name?

  1. I love your blunt honesty here. Your goals are very similar to ours and with a lot of the same obstacles, meaning, we, too, still have careers to pay for the life we are trying to obtain. We do lack community to a certain point and our lifestyle is not akin to what our neighbors are used to. Actually, the sad fact is, even though we are within voice distance of other houses, my husband and I joke that if we both fell down dead, it would be weeks before anyone noticed! Now, how sad is that!

    I can’t wait to see the name you have choosen. I am enjoying reading your back posts, too!

  2. WOW Toni, what a killer cliffhanger!

    I can totally relate to your compulsion. When I had to share half the garden space with the landlords at our former residence, and seeing how they merely dabbled in gardening (seldom watering, never weeding, most of their produce went unharvested and therefore to seed) while I could have had made much better use of that space. I also think about food production a lot and I have to admit that it is simply not going to happen where I live: our climate is way too harsh to grow food.

    I think too that it is interesting transformation you have made of yourself, of your space, of your life. What does the Skipper say? I hope we can chat really soon…

  3. Thanks to you both! Yarnsalad, you’ll remember when we moved that I could feel this was the beginning of a new adventure. I’m starting to get a clearer idea of what I’m headed toward… but I’m not ready to go fully public quite yet. We can talk though! 🙂

  4. Hi Toni, You seem to be struggling mightily with this hobby farming thing (’cause that’s what it is right, anything under 10 acres?) , but it seems to met at you’ve pretty much figured it out, even if you don’t realise it yet. It has always been that no one farm grew everything – everyone just exchanged whatever they had in excess for someone else’s. OR perhaps they would exchange talents: sewing for piano lessons, tool repair for a share in a bumper crop of fruit… the perfect cashless society.
    No (hu)man is an island, as the saying goes.
    Best of luck with your hobby farming, D.

    1. Deb, you’re so right that no one person has ever been able to be completely self-sufficient. We always need community. But what I’m struggling with is that I don’t want farming to be a hobby! 🙂 When I’m ready, I’ll do a post on what the difference is to me–even what “farming” is, cause that’s controversial in some circles too!

  5. Okay, now you’ve struck on something that’s always frosted my butt… “Hobby farming” is always a term that’s been used in such a disparaging manner – as if a smaller piece of land makes it any less a farm. NOT TRUE I say! I mean how much (cleared) land did the original settlers actually use? They only took down acres and acres of trees because it was part of the deal for getting title, right? It’s not that they actually needed that much acreage to survive; at least once the land became fully arable, that is. .

    There, now I feel better! Thanks for the opportunity to vent. ; )

  6. I am in the same space you are in. We are putting an offer on 5 acres and may leave the city if it goes through and sister, I have high hopes for farming that 5 acres. Not so much produce, although I may do a small CSA but I really want to raise heritage birds and rabbits (and a few pigs for us) and dairy goats.

    The community piece is tough for me but I will work out a model with other families where they come and help for discounted pricing on a freezer full of meat. I’m a little fuzzy on the details but I would rather have the company and help than make as much profit. I will also feel good about helping others get food that you cannot buy (like heritage birds not fed corn or soy) or that costs more than they can normally afford. I’ll be watching how this unfolds for you!

    1. Annette, how exciting! I was so disappointed to read that your original plan for a larger piece of land and community farm had not worked out. I’ll keep my fingers crossed for you. I think 5 acres is a perfect size. We waffle on our options around here; even parcels that size are hard to come by in our budget (unless there is a barely liveable house on it!). But there are always trade-offs and compromises, aren’t there!

  7. I was too – I had high hopes for that land as well but it would have been a totally different style of farming since it was a sunny blank slate. I had envisioned many private food forests all customized by family. This piece is heavily wooded so we would concentrate on raising animals. In all honesty I think I would rather live amongst trees than with a wide open view of everything!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s