My Spring rat race is as old as farming, but there is today a more disturbing kind of agrarian rat race. I have seen many small farmers desperately try to break into commercial production to "make the farm pay". They channel enormous amount of energy into livestock or produce that they can sell, and forget to provide well for themselves and their household.
This trend is visible in both traditional commercial agriculture and the newer "sustainable models". On the traditional commercial side, I have neighbors whom I dearly love that are milking hundred of cows but buying their milk, eggs and most vegetables from the store. I have also known farmers who tried various sustainable or organic approaches and literally burned out financially or emotionally. One good man I know went broke following a "sustainable" grass based beef production model as he was trying to get the right cattle genetics and buying expensive New Zealand and Dutch grass seed.
The modern mindset is capable of infecting and destroying any noble effort, even the attempt to live a simpler, pre-modern life. Farming can be just as soul-deadening as arbitrage banking, and for the people who grow most of the food we eat it has become just that.
It happens when farming is viewed not as a way of supplying one’s own needs but as a vehicle for generating cash. It is quite possible to farm in such a way as to generate cash—but then you are just one more business, subject to the competitive forces that rage in the modern economy, faced with the temptation to increase volume and decrease quality so that the small margin of profit you skim from what passes through your hands can be maximized. You begin mining the land.
But as Andrew Lytle once said, “A farm is not a place to grow wealthy, it is a place to grow corn.” And Lytle also told of an old Southerner who insisted to him “as soon as a farmer begins to keep books, he’ll go broke shore as h—.” Cash cropping has been a most effective tool for destroying the family economy, as I’ve written here and here.
I know this from reading and observation, but the Midland Agrarian knows it from direct experience.
I tried going down this road in my youth. My ambition was to clear most of the woods of the back of the farm and develop a big dairy beef grazing and feeding operation.
We also tried direct marketing vegetables and raspberries. On the former, I lost a pile of money when beef prices collapsed. On the former my wife and I just burned out, especially her, as she was also baking to add to the lure of our produce. My big goal was to break free from off-farm work and make a full time living on the farm.
I was saved from this treadmill by a bit of luck, as I watched a much better capitalized farm go under.
And both of us have found a powerful and effective anecdote in one particular writer’s work.
I was also greatly influenced by the writing of Gene Logsdon, who advocates the "garden farm" or "cottage farm approach much more akin to my grandparents farming style. You can read Gene’s Blog here. I also recommend all of his books. He tends to have more practical how-to advice than his more famous friend Wendell Berry, and he is more irreverent, earning him the epithet of "the contrary farmer".
I enthusiastically second this recommendation. Probably no writer has done more than Gene Logsdon to develop in us a relaxed, incremental, unambitious mindset towards the otherwise daunting and perilous journey towards homesteaderhood. Other writers tend to present a fully realized, end-of-the-journey picture of the agrarian life, a standard that can seem impossibly distant. Logsdon is very good at persuading the reader that any progress toward that goal, however partial, however hesitant, will be a not only an improvement but a victory worth celebrating.
Please read the whole post from the Midland Agrarian. It covers a lot of important ground more economically than I’ve done here.