A Farm Is a Large Garden (or A Garden Is a Small Farm)

From Gene Logsdon (1985)
With Addendum June 2008
Garden Farm Skills

Homeowners who seriously seek to provide some of their own food, and perhaps some of their clothing, tools, and shelter too, must first learn to view their enterprises within the proper economic framework, or perhaps I should say the proper noneconomic framework. They must understand that expanding their gardening to include some animal husbandry, forestry-orcharding, and home manufacturing is an extension of their gardening, not something new or different.

What they propose to do might rightfully be called garden farming as opposed to factory farming, which is different from gardening. If they make the error of proceeding into small farming or a cottage industry of any kind using the expertise of factory economics, then what they will have is mostly an expensive hobby.

The differences between garden farming and factory farming are at least these eight, although characteristics tend to overlap:

1. Garden farming is craft work; factory farming is assembly-line production.
2. Garden farming is extremely diversified in production; factory farming tends toward specialization.
3. Garden farming is essentially noncommercial, that is, free to operate outside the structures and strictures that bind factory farming to definite criteria of profitability.
4. Garden farming is primarily an avocation; factory farming is primarily a job.
5. Garden farming is low-volume, low-cost production; factory farming is high-volume, high-cost production.
6. Garden farming arises out of the activity of willing individuals in social groups, usually the family; the work environment is therefore usually happy and positive. Factory farming sets up a dichotomy of boss-worker relationships, and work therefore proceeds in an environment of latent hostility.
7. Garden farming is the search for quality; factory farming seeks quantity.
8. In garden farming, time spent is part of the profit; in factory farming, time is money.

Garden Farming versus Factory Farming
To show in practice what those differences really mean, I will use as an example a comparison of two fields of corn. The first field is my ½-acre one, probably the smallest field of corn in the corn belt. The second will be an acre from a 1000-acre factory farm in this area.

My ½ acre makes no sense at all on its own. I can only talk about it by mentioning in the same breath that it is but a part of a small farm system that includes mostly hay and pasture, but also a small field of oats and wheat, an orchard, a planting of berries, a vegetable field and several “fields” of trees for nuts and wood.

There is an interior diversity in the small cornfield, too. Small as it is, it includes several species and varieties of corn: enough sweet corn for fresh and frozen table use, a bit of popcorn, and two rows of cane sorghum, which is a corn-related plant. Within the tiny section that is in field corn, there is still some diversity during some years—rows of hybrid corn alternating with twin rows of open-pollinated varieties. Also, there are melons growing in the early sweet corn, pumpkins at one end of the field and sunflowers at the other, and along one side, pole beans snaking up the cornstalks. Planting, weeding, and harvesting this field is mostly hand work, an hour here or an hour there in late afternoon, early morning, or evening—never becoming hard oppressive work, but, at least for me, generally pleasant unless the deer-flies or mosquitoes are worse than usual.

I plow the clover sod for the corn planting in November. In the following spring I disk and harrow it. Even with a small ancient tractor, a small old disc, a plow, and harrow, the cultivation takes only 2 hours. For a planter I use my $30 Precision garden seeder. If I did all the planting at once, it would take the better part of the afternoon. I spread manure on the plot, too. I used to do that by hand, a 3 to 4-hour job done over a weekend, but now, bowing to age I guess, I use the manure spreader. The corn is hoed two or three times, with various members of the family helping me out. This goes on continuously through May and June, a row or two or three in the evening, relaxing work for me away from the typewriter. By the first week in July, cultivation is over.

Harvest begins in August with the sweet corn. As quickly as we use it up or it becomes too old for us, I cut it, green stalks and all, for the cows and sheep whose pasture is beginning to fail in the dry spells we experience most Augusts. (Cutting this corn allows more sunshine in to the rapidly growing melons, too.) As quickly as the field corn dents in September, I begin to husk out the ears a few at a time and feed the still-green stalks to the cows. I will also cut stalks from a few rows, bind them into bundles, and make shocks to be husked out later (in November), feeding the fodder to the animals. My goal is to have half of the little field harvested by September 25, when the wheat planting season begins. This half then gets planted to wheat. This field also contains the popcorn and the cane sorghum, so these crops must also be harvested in September. The sorghum leaves are stripped from the stalks—my sister and her husband help in exchange for a portion of the molasses we later make, so the job scarcely takes an hour. We feed the leaves to the cows. I cut off the heads of the sorghum and dry them for chicken feed. We haul the stalks to the Amish sorghum press for processing.

In October I harvest the field corn from the other half of the field, jerking the ears from the stalks and tossing them on the truck, pleasant work when I do it a few rows at a time. I put the corn in the crib to finish drying. Then I shred the stalks that are still standing with the rotary mower, and the harvest is finished.

For the sake of simplicity of comparison, let us assume that the whole ½ acre is planted to field corn only, my yield being what it generally is, about 95 bushels per acre (small potatoes in this area) and corn selling at $3 a bushel. My gross income from the corn would be $285 per acre. I’ve used about $7 worth of gas, oil, and fuel, including spreading the manure on my ½ acre, which works out to $14 per acre. Three or four sacks of wood ashes go on each load of manure for lime and potash, but these are free. The manure itself is free, as is the nitrogen from the plowed down clover sod. My hoe, the only herbicide I use, is for all practical purposes free, too—I paid 50¢ for it at a farm sale twenty-three years ago. I save the open-pollinated seed from the preceding year’s crop. So my variable out-of-pocket costs per acre are $14—let’s say $15 if I include the bit of hybrid seed I sometimes use.

Now let us look at the variable costs a factory farmer must pay, using figures for 1984 as budgeted by the agricultural economists at Ohio State University for a 150-bushel yield. With corn at $3 a bushel, the factory farmer will gross $450 per acre, but after deducting variable costs, will have only $239. My 95-bushel-per-acre crop will have grossed $285, minus $15 in variable costs, to equal $270. And what if the factory farmer did not hit his 150-bushel goal, which is entirely more possible than my not hitting my 95? In last year’s bad drought, I still got 95 bushels, while the 150-bushel factory farmers were also getting 95, and some, just 2 miles away, were getting only 40 bushels.

But of course that’s not all the factory farmer’s costs. Fixed costs are also figured by the university.

If the price of corn averages $2.50 a bushel during 1984 (the university, in fact, projects only a $2.40 price), the factory farmer will have lost $32.00 per acre.

I don’t have any fixed costs to speak of. On a farm of my size it is ludicrous to figure a land charge—no farmer is going to want to rent my ½ acre by itself. What’s more, that land is paid for out of my regular job and would be there for me to enjoy whether I farmed it or not. Nor can I rightfully figure in a labor or management charge, as these are my pleasures, not costs. As for a machinery charge, my ancient equipment was either given to me for next to nothing, or, in the case of the tractor, is so old it is probably gaining value as an antique now, rather than costing me anything.

Nor does that tell the whole story. My corn is not marketed as such but is fed through animals at a “cost” of only my labor and thus the “profit” is increased several times. Then the food produced is consumed at home, not sold at wholesale, and so we can figure its value at the retail prices we’d have to pay if we bought rather than produced it ourselves.

Now you know why small and medium-size farms trying to operate the agribusiness way are going out of business, and why small farms like those of the Amish, where farmers are trying to do what I do but on a larger scale, are making very good money indeed.

The practice of garden farming, moreover, is not limited to rural areas of relatively large homesteads, either. It can be practiced in the suburbs and in the city. In fact, the inner city is especially ripe for it because there is plenty of human labor there to substitute for the expensive machinery and chemicals of factory farms. There are also tons (literally) of deteriorating buildings that could be recycled into barns and all sorts of wooden tools, furniture, and shelters. Those acres of crumbling buildings and rubbled ghetto lots could all blossom with tiny garden farms.
Addedum June 2008:

Corn is selling for over $7.00 a bushel (the recent floods pushed it over $8.00), something no one would have predicted even two years ago. Yet the costs involved have also doubled and tripled for the commercial farmer while the costs for the garden farmer, saving his own corn seed and not using chemical fertilizers and little if any of herbicides and insecticides, have not gone up much at all, especially since he is not renting or buying more land but owns his small acreage or backyard as part of his homestead—as part of his HOME—not as an investment to make money in cash grain.

Therefore his out of pocket costs have not gone up hardly at all except for the small amount of gasoline or diesel he uses as fuel. For the factory farmer, $7.00 a bushel corn is not a great boon but only means that all his costs have gone sky high too. For the garden farmer, however, seven dollar corn represents a real increase in the worth of his labor since he does not have the costs involved in growing seven dollar corn commercially.

This is the secret of the success of Amish farmers. They benefit from the rises in farm prices without a concomitant rise in their cost of production. They can sell on the inflated 21st century market while continuing to farm with horses and other low cost methods from the 19th and 20th centuries. That is why commercial farmers secretly despise the Amish, and no doubt now, the garden farmer. And the higher prices climb with shortages of chemical fertilizers, fuel, and land, the more advantageous it will be for the garden farmer.

The bottom line is that those of us who have been championing a different approach to food production than that of factory farming are about to be vindicated.
See also Gene’s The Lovely, Life-Saving Virtue of Laziness
Gene and Carol Logsdon have a small-scale experimental farm in Wyandot County, Ohio.
Gene is author of
The Mother of All Arts: Agrarianism and the Creative Impulse (Culture of the Land),
The Last of the Husbandmen: A Novel of Farming Life, and All Flesh Is Grass: Pleasures & Promises Of Pasture Farming
Excerpted from Gene Logsdon’s Practical Skills: A Revival of Forgotten Crafts, Techniques, and Traditions
© 1985 Gene Logsdon and Rodale Press, Inc.
Image Credit: Carol Logsdon
OrganicToBe.org | OrganicToGo.com
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To aaron: The fact that farmers are heavily subsidized seems to me an admission by one and all that factory farming is not very profitable. (I don’t think any kind of farming is very profitable to tell the truth.) A new manure lagoon being built in our state on a factory dairy farm gets an EQIP subsidy of $230,000, just for the lagoon. One of my best friends, who grows more than a thousand acres of corn and soybeans tells me that those who think seven dollar corn means a big profit next fall are mistaken. Costs have also gone sky high, including land rental. Like you say, if you don’t get a crop or get only half a crop because of the terrible adverse weather we are having, you are really cooked because this is the costliest crop ever to be put in the ground. Or what if the corn is better than expected and the price is not seven dollars a bushel this fall, but $3.00 a bushel. Grain traders know this is entirely possible. Another acquaintance of mine who farms 4000 acres, had to replant about half of it. Farmers get rich because the price of their land keeps going up, not because of production farming. Gene Logsdon

$7 corn most certainly is a boon for those able to get a crop. If factory farming is such a money looser why do there seem to be so many wealthy farmers around with new pick ups and houses.
on fertilizer: while it’s likely gone in a flood, it will still be there next year after a drought.
I still enjoyed the column. Keep it up.

Thanks Gene 🙂
Think Ill talk to my husband & see if we can get some in.

We had planned to harvest it by hand & then turn sheep & cows in to clean it up.

Granny Miller, I just planted (June 17) some short season sweet corn and it’s up already. Sweet corn makes mighty good animal feed as well as many dishes for people and if you have moisture, an 80 day corn should make it even planted this late. If not feed it as silage to the animals. Gene Logsdon

We were going to plant an acre or two of corn this year to offset our feed cost.

But we never got to it because of weather & family commitments.

Am I ever sorry we didn’t 😦

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