Thursday, June 07, 2012

Hobby farm daydreaming

My mom gets a couple of magazines I don't get, and when I was up visiting my parents I spent some time reading the back issues.

One of them is "Grit." Yes, Grit still publishes, they're just not in that newspaper format any more. (I remember even when I was a kid, they still advertised in the back of comic books: the idea was, I guess, that kids sold Grit door to door. I hated selling anything and I was smart enough to know that a farming magazine would be met with bewilderment or disdain in the bedroom community where we lived).

Grit is a very practical magazine. They talk about how to build stuff or repair stuff or how to can food or grow food....they have features on different livestock breeds. And they do have some fun stories on people's reminiscences about growing up on the farm. It's a nice magazine, I feel like I can learn stuff from it.

I admit it: I still hold some dreams of someday owning something like a hobby farm. I know I couldn't do it now, not as a college professor, because some days I can barely manage to feed MYSELF, let alone find time to feed chickens or goats or something. But it's an appealing idea.

Oh, I know, in reality, that farming is really hard work and it's probably not feasible for a single person to try to run even a small farm all on their lonesome - too much work, too many chances for stuff to go wrong. And the whole economic-insecurity thing would be scary: I like having a regular paycheck I can depend on.

But there's also something attractive about it. The immediacy - the fact that you can see what effect your work is having as you do it (whether it's weeding or canning or something like that). I like the idea of growing at least some of my own food. (I have a tiny garden and grew beets and green beans this spring, and I have tomato plants but they've not made fruit yet. And I keep thinking someday I'll try growing sweet potatoes). If I had more space in my back yard, I'd put in raspberry canes or grapes, even if I'd have to remember to cover them as they were setting fruit to keep the birds out.

I also like the idea of earning my bread by MAKING something...something tangible, something people could hold in their hands, whether that something is soap or tomatoes or lavender or whatever. Don't get me wrong: I still love teaching, it's just some days it really does feel like I'm just pushing invisible imaginary things around and there's nothing that feels very "real" about it.

I think I may also (rightly or wrongly) think that success in having a hobby farm is, to a greater degree, the result of one's own hard work. In teaching, if you get a difficult class, or you wind up with an administrator who has problems with your discipline, or if the school's budget gets can see your job go from "wonderful" to "awful" in a short time. (Of course, with farming, drought, insects, natural disasters....all of those are beyond your control).

The other magazine is called "Mary Jane's Farm." This magazine has some good stories and good information, do I put it? Sometimes it gets a bit precious for my tastes. There's a lot of talk about organic gardening/organic produce and while some of the reasons and justifications are true, others of them border on "woo." For example: I choose organic salad greens because I figure there's enough pesticide residue (at least, based on what I've read) possible on the conventional ones that it's worth it to ME to spend a bit more and seek out the organic ones. And I tend to think the "cage free chicken" eggs taste better...but I'm not going to say that everyone has to do this. And sometimes the "organic lifestyle" folks get a little evangelical about it, like "if everyone did this one thing, IT WOULD SAVE THE WORLD" and of course things are more complicated than that.

(Also, I wonder: is the state of the art of organic farming such that it's even possible to produce all food using standard organic methods? I mean, I might occasionally buy a box of cookies made from organic flour...but I wonder if all the flour used in the world or even the U.S. could be produced using small-scale methods? I kind of think that small-scale farming, like what my great-grandparents did, kind of wouldn't be capable of producing enough to meet demand. But I could be wrong; I haven't tried to calculate it out).

All the "woo" and evangelism aside, though, one idea in both magazines I like is this: that there are a lot of people out there (apparently) who ARE doing small-scale specialty farming, and they're providing a product to people who want it. (And in some cases, the product is considerably better than the conventionally produced kind). I've said before that I enjoy shopping at farmer's markets and small businesses and u-pick farms and places like's more fun than going to a giant brightly-lit supermarket for food. (Though I admit I can do without the "oh, aren't we so much better than the hoi polloi" I see from some farmer's market/natural-foods-store attendees.)

So, I don't know. If I had a hobby farm, what would I raise? What would I raise for market, what would I raise just for myself? I think if I had enough land and space I'd want to raise chickens for the eggs. (This provided I had a good way of protecting them from predators, and also sealing up the feed so I didn't get problem with some "city chickens' is that the feed can attract rodents). I might have goats, though it would be for milk rather than meat. (Then again: there's apparently a growing market for goat meat, and while I might not be up to slaughtering and butchering my own...the animals could be sold). No, I've never had goat's milk and of course I'd have to try to to see if I liked it. (This is all in the realm of daydream for me right now).

In terms of crops....where I live, a lot of the things I like don't do so well. It's mostly too hot and too dry (unless you have a good well) for berries. And often tomatoes are a disappointment: it gets so hot the plants won't set fruit.

But herbs seem to do well. If I had a decent market for herbs, either as culinary herbs (I know in some areas, fancy restaurants buy their herbs from small farmers) or something like lavender that is used in scent. I admit I like the idea of running a lavender farm, as impossibly unprofitable that might be in real life.

Or maybe I'd learn how to keep bees. (Or do that in addition to having the herb farm...then I could sell lavender honey and stuff like that; in some specialty markets you can get really good prices for "fancy" honeys).

Again, I think a lot of this falls into the realm of "If I weren't teaching, I'd want a career where I felt like I was 'making' something." And at any rate, as I said: it's probably not realistic. I don't live near enough a really wealthy area that doesn't already have a market saturated with specialty food sales or such.

But it's nice to daydream about.

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