Whatever Happened to Self-Sufficiency?
by Curt Cable of Glouster, OH
Market gardening is becoming more and more popular as an enterprise for the small farm these days as the demand for fresh locally grown food continues to grow. Here at our farm we’ve dabbled in it as our search for the perfect homestead livelihood continues and it always seems to create conflicting interest and values for us.
In days gone by, the small commercial farm was also a subsistence homestead, but in our cash based society of today, doing both is becoming more and more difficult. As the pressure to produce money grows, the time, energy, and resources for the small projects necessary on a subsistence homestead fall by the wayside, not to mention the deeper values that are likely what attracted you to farming in the first place.
Like it or not, the question is before me. Am I running a subsistence homestead or a for-profit farm? What makes the question so difficult is that there are a lot of good things to be said about market gardening. You can work at home. It’s work most of us love to do. It’s environmentally sound and if you market at farmer’s markets, the camaraderie there feels like and actually is a community between both the growers and the buyers.
These are just a few of the pluses and then there are the cons. As Gene Logsdon writes in his book, The Contrary Farmer’s Invitation to Gardening, the gardener’s urge to start his own business and share his bounty can either work or become a huge mistake. Suddenly you are in business. A business with not only the obvious stresses and strains of pest, weather, marketing problems, and strenuous work, but here is where we can go deeper and raise the less obvious concerns of the enterprise. I became a farmer because I loved the way of life. Being my own boss, free and independent of the pace of the world around me. As market gardening became more serious to me, these things began to slip away as the pressures of making money edge in. Three markets a week, planting, tending, picking, and packing doesn’t leave much time for morning walks and time at the ole fishing hole. I was in the rat race I had wanted to avoid.
I became a farmer because I valued self-sufficiency: growing my own food, cutting my own firewood, cooking good meals. A lot of the growers that I met probably never thought of self-sufficiency, but certainly lacked the time to pursue it even if desire had been there. Working until two or three in the morning and being back up by five or six o’clock on the day of market was not uncommon in the lives of these growers. While producing hundreds of pounds of good food, most lacked the time to enjoy any of it. One grower’s comment was, “The spring peas are the only thing we really take first, everything else we sell and then eat what’s left.” Another was, “My tomatoes (certified organic) are in such demand this year that I won’t have any to can. I guess I’ll have to buy from the store.” Lynn Miller, founder and editor of this fine publication once wrote, “Grandpa was his own best customer.” Obviously we’ve come a long way from this line of thinking, but I find a lot of the older generation thinking this way. My own parents, now in their seventies and eighties, practice this philosophy and it seems to have rubbed off on me.
As a few seasons pass here on our farm, I find myself asking more and more, “Whatever happened to self-sufficiency? Is there another way to enjoy the farm experience, raise a family and enjoy life? Is farming for-profit uncompromisable with a peaceful orderly life? At least some of the answers to these questions I believe lie in simplicity, self sufficiency, and going against the grain of modern society. Maybe it’s time to build a root cellar and fill it to the brim in the fall of the year and rethinking the economics of canning your own fruits and vegetables. The time spent planning and implementing a year round food system for your family might be the most valuable time you’ve spent for a while. As organic egg and meat prices creep slowly up, maybe it’s time to keep a few hens and fryer chickens. A few plastic tunnels or a small greenhouse can supply fresh greens all winter long. It’s the purest, freshest, healthiest food in the world. You can’t put a price tag on that. Neither can I put a price tag on my morning walks with my infant son hanging over my shoulder in his sling, or the hours spent in the garden just for pure enjoyment. There’s a tremendous satisfaction in living close to the land and relying on it to supply your basic needs.
As for the cash flow problem, I’m finding that it’s a very individualistic journey. What works for one farm won’t necessarily work on another. Smaller micro-enterprises seem to be the answer for our farm as we struggle to balance family values and personal interest with the desire to farm. Also, handcrafts such as broom-making and treenware are being experimented with. The two combinations combined seem to have the potential for providing the sort of livelihood that we are searching for.
Life and farming is ever a balance. Maybe this season will be the one where I can look back with satisfaction and say, “This is it, I’ve arrived, mostly self-sufficient and making an independent living at the same time. I’ll keep trying, I’ll keep dreaming. I’ll keep on farming.”