What’s in a Farm?

Naming is a powerful thing. I’m an English prof, so I pay a lot of attention to language and semantics, for better and for worse. As this year’s gone by, and as I’ve found myself struggling with an internal compulsion that seemed to be driving me to farm, I have continued to ask myself what this word means.

I wrote in my last post that it has become clear to me that I don’t want to garden, or to “yarden”, or to homestead. I want to farm. But I also know that I am the last person on earth who should be driving tractors, getting up before dawn to tend to herds of livestock, and all the other stereotypical images that usually come up when urbanites think of farmers.

Farming, in this era of social movements, anxiety about food security, and rapid innovation, is actually a rather contentious word. It’s an identity (farmer), a job, a career, a calling. We use the same word to describe a thousand acres of Round-up Ready canola or a hellish hog production facility as we do a small, family-run operation that sells in the local market square. To distinguish between all these vastly different types of farming, we add adjectives: conventional, industrial, small, organic, permaculture, market, family, corporate, industrial-organic, hobby, etc.

So what, despite all their differences, makes all of these farms?

There are many folks more experienced than me coming up with answers to these questions, but after lots of reflection this year, this is what I’ve come up with: farming–in my definition–means that a crop is developed to sell.

Here are some of the other distinctions that I’ve come up with; let me know what you think.

Gardening: growing for pleasure, ornamental and food
Yardening: Rob at OneStraw defines his terms…

Victory Gardening: growing a substantial amount of one’s own produce

Homesteading (Urban or otherwise): producing as many of the products (beyond just produce, and potentially beyond just food) consumed by the residents as possible.

Hobby Farming: small-scale farming in terms of the diversity of the activities performed: livestock, produce, etc, but the production is intended for fun, interest, passion, and/or sustenance. Some income may be produced, but is not the goal.  In these parts, hobby farmers usually have 2 full-time professional incomes, and the farm produces enough money to potentially gain “farm status” (which means a large reduction in property taxes), to maintain the agricultural status of the property (BC has Agricultural Land Reserve zoning that can make this important), and/or to break even with the costs of the farm (feed, etc).

Market Gardening: small-scale commercial production of produce for market

And, finally, what farming means in my world, and to me as I intend to approach it, means that I will have an integrated system of livestock, plant, and other food production designed to meet our own needs, but also designed as a income-producing venture. In other words, I don’t want to hobby farm not because of size or scale, but because I want to eventually make a living from farming as a commercial enterprise.

Now, I don’t expect to be able to make a living for some years yet, and perhaps we’ll farm on such a small-scale that we will never be able to replace one full-time income. But that’s the long-term goal.  I’ve realized that my compulsion is not just to grow to sustain my family, but to contribute food to the community.

This is a big leap, obviously, and there are a million details to work out.  And I will post another day about the actual vision that I’m working on.  But taking on the word farming to describe my vision, for me, brings a responsibility to my shoulders.  A responsibility to take my labour and costs seriously and to think about what sustainability in agriculture really means–and not just in my own backyard.

4 thoughts on “What’s in a Farm?

  1. Wow! That’s great! I’d love to have a farm that allowed for full self-sufficiency plus enough surplus to generate revenue. I don’t imagine I could ever make a full living this way, but if I could even get the self-sufficiency part largely taken care of it would drastically reduce income requirements. I guess I’m striving for a zero debt + self sufficiency model. Of course, I know some income will be required but I want to keep that requirement low to have as much flexibility as possible.

  2. Thanks Sandy! It sounds like you and your family have worked really hard to get to the debt-free part that enables the self-sufficiency to keep your living costs really low. I’ll have to read through your archives for tips!

    It was a big eye-opener for me last summer when we did grow (or catch) pretty much everything we ate (and pretty much anything we would be able to produce ourselves, except maybe cheese), and yet it didn’t make as big a dent in our income needs as I was hoping! The darn mortgage and affiliated insurance, commuting, garden infrastructure, etc. costs ended up being a bigger piece of the pie. I felt better about going back to work after that! But we’re a long way from being mortgage-free, so now the discussion is more about how to earn our living from our passions. Fingers crossed it can be done!

  3. I love that you’ve sat down and defined this so carefully. I’ve been thinking through similar ideas as well, and trying to define what different terms mean and where I fit into them. The closest I’ve come is homestead or victory garden (or a combination of the two), although of late I also find myself leaning a bit more towards the idea of putting food back into the community, like you mention. For now, though, I’m happy to start by working on making the place that I’m at right now more sustainable.

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