A Farmer Who Actually Farms


Life is so much a matter of contrasts. Last week I wrote about a large scale farmer of several thousand acres who drives his computer 9 hours a day while his brother and hired help to the actual farming. In stark contrast, shortly after I talked to him, an old friend stopped by to tell me that, after nearly forty years, he was retiring from small scale dairying. He tried to be upbeat about it but I could tell that he was sad too. He will keep on farming his 200 acres and maybe raise a few steers. Old dairymen never die, they just quit milking cows.

I’ve bragged in my writing over the years about Steve and Pat Gamby way more than they wish I would. Against all economic expertise, they have made a success of small-scale commercial farming and of life. They are very devoted to each other. They’ve raised three children anyone would be proud of. One of them, Rebecca, just finishing up college, happens to be an outstanding athlete also. She was playing last week with the USA national women’s softball team that would be our USA Olympic team if women’s softball was still in the Olympics. She played with and against the best softball players in the U.S. (actually in the world) and did all right for herself.

Her father did all right for himself in sports too, having played professional baseball in the minor leagues before he decided he’d rather stay home and milk cows. That’s how I got to know him. When I found out there was a former minor league ballplayer in our neighborhood, I courted him shamelessly for our softball team. He decided to play, against his better judgment, I think, because softball tournaments can play hob with a milking schedule. Oh, those were the days and I could tell you stories.

If there were an Olympic team for dairy farming, I’m fairly sure Steve and Pat would be on it. They have just done everything right by my idealistic standards— and they did not start out with inherited money either. As soon as the organic farming wave of interest started washing up on commercial agriculture’s shores, they were surfing it. That has meant, in addition to all the environmental advantages of good organic farming, that they have been getting considerably more for their organic milk than regular dairies get. While industrial farming boasts of corn prices in the $6 range and soybeans in the $14 range, organic corn and soybeans have been selling for almost twice that amount and Steve has some to sell now that he won’t be feeding a dairy herd. Oh, by the way, he seldom looks at computers. (He makes Pat do that.) He has rarely milked more about 40 cows, maybe 50 on occasion, but usually around 35. The experts at Ohio State, studying their computers, say that a herd that small is not profitable.

Now that Steve’s dairying is winding down, Pat’s lifetime interest is coming to the fore. She is a talented artist and has always been able to sell paintings of farm life when she could find time to paint them. Now she and Steve are building an attractive artist’s shop right there on the farm where she plans to devote more or less full time to her painting (when not going to Rebecca’s ballgames or baby-sitting grandchildren just across the fields). The fact that a farm can be the locus for many other small businesses and hobbies along with farming has always been one of its unsung but important advantages.

Actually, there are still lots of successful small dairy families and I just can’t believe that they will vanish before this latest wave of landed oligarchy and plutocracy run by computers. Plutocracy (feudalism is a better word for where big time farming is headed, as readers here have pointed out) always collapses and small enterprises continue to start up, right? Please tell me I am right.


I checked out your mission statement.
Truer sarcasm has never been spoken.
Your tongue has to suffer some occasional cramping from being permanently stuck in your cheek..

Your chapter on softball in your autobiographical “You Can Go Home Again” is a favorite of mind and I remember Steve being a central character. His life would seem to embody what many of us aspire to – wealth measured by quality of relationships and satisfying, meaningful work. To your great line about old dairyman never dieing i would also add they just chase cows in their dreams. I dairied full time for only 10 years of my life and have now been a full time teacher for 20 years. My frustration dreams are still 95+% cow vs classroom related.

Leonard Cohen’s great line in one of his songs:”There’s a crack in everything – that’s how the light gets in” is applicable. There will always be cracks in the prevailing system that will serve as entry ways for the determined. I think you are ultimately right Gene. Unbridled accumulation is a form of greed and greed is like cancer – it eventually kills its host if left unchecked.

“Please tell me I am right.”

It’s all about timing, isn’t it?

While economics was dominated by cheap energy, things got steadily more competitive and complex. At first, a thousand acres of GMO corn or soy doesn’t seem nearly as complex as the mixed ecosystem that preceded farming, but hidden behind that deceptively simple monoculture lies a global transportation, finance, and information system that is tremendously complex.

In low-energy systems, collaboration and simplicity dominate. An arctic or alpine ecosystem has a small fraction of the diversity of a tropical ecosystem, for example.

The good news is, cheap energy is going away. That means the farmer who spends nine hours a day, “farming via computer,” is going to have a tougher time of it as civilizations most complex systems start to fail from energy starvation. (Witness the global financial crisis that’s been going on since 2008.)

Declining energy availability also means that a guy can make a decent living milking 35 grass-fed organic cows, as food necessarily becomes more localized. In fact, the family doing ten cows by hand may even have an edge over 35 machine-milked cows, if spare parts and electricity become dear.

At least that’s what our ten Nubian goats tell me, when I sing to them while hand-milking.

Gene, what you have described is a holistic rural family. An extended (from the sounds of it) unit who have grown up always earning their daily bread, assisting the local community wherever possible and obviously hoping to leave this earth, when they depart it, in a much better state than when they arrived. When I grew up this was the norm and it saddens me to see what has now become the standard (with the exceptions of a good few of your correspondents of course). The horrible term ‘lowest common denominator’ comes to mind and unfortunately the bar seems to be getting set lower and lower.

I am sure that the talents and skills of all the family members you mentioned has come from not only their innate, natural ability but also the solid grounding they have had due to their supportive background and their work ethics and habits. I saddens me greatly that as a 63 year old I am out performing and out thinking 19 and 20 year olds in the agricultural enterprise I am currently in and I hope that does not sound as a brag or boast but is simply the truth.

The monolithic giants such as Monsanto and the massive farmer corporations around today have no such culture other than to get more money as efficiently, quickly and cheaply as possible. At some stage some sense of humanity must come into the equation and that is why it is so heartening to hear of these families you describe who, to be honest, just make me (and I suspect many of your readers) not feel quite so alone and on the verge of extinction.

Cheers and best wishes to you and Carol.

You’re right Gene, you’re absolutely right!!

karl francis kohler June 27, 2012 at 11:55 am

The reality is that food is a business – which means get the most outta the land while spending the least amont of money on soil, seeds, fertilizer etc. in order to sell the poorest grade of food for the most money. We have to remove food production from the “business model” and start thinking – what do we want as food for ourselves and our children…

My only complaint about your post is CORN – stop it – it uses huge resourses, and gives nothing back but filler for food, “biodeisel” – and its not good feed for chickens, and it just adds fat to cows – what they call “finishing”, which is suffing cows full of fatty cow corn…

I am out on the west coast of Canada and looking for 10 acres – Ill prolly only work one or two if I can get help. There are a lot of enthusiastic young people out there – want to farm and grow old… hopefully
Me, a few cows chickens in the yard, my bees, and a garden, lots of flowers,and a shack near the greenhouses…
Im 60 – so there isnt a lot of time left – I worked on dairy farms, and a beef ranch when I was much younger – now I want to “retire” to a small farm… :O)

I do hope you are right Gene and I plan to spend the next three years on a PhD to research that very topic here in Latvia and hopefully beyond – just need to find some funding first. Oh well! I am not young but I do believe we need to make it possible for the younger generation to get into farming and make a reasonable living on it and that is what I want to commit to.

Interestingly enough I watched Farmageddon in the time between these two posts. No surprise but I think the corporate entity has the upper hand for now. I do believe some small farmers will survive when they can fill a niche market or have a good balance of products to support their community. The rest may well become corporate employees or land renters.

I do believe these things are cyclic and this could be the large up cycle for the corporate monitization of farming. With the benefits of reducing risk by farming large land tracts in multiple regions of the country (world?) and subsidies like crop insurance it is a win-win situation (think corporate welfare). (“I am pleased that over the course of our two day hearing we heard from commodity groups, economists, and insurance agents that we must preserve crop insurance and other farm safety mechanisms that allow producers to feed America and the world” http://agriculture.house.gov/press/PRArticle.aspx?NewsID=1588)

It will be interesting to see if foreign corporations (think China) will be allowed to participate in this process especially as the world population continues to grow and at somepoint becomes unsustainable.

My point is that the small farmer doesn’t have the money to compete head on with corporations and they need to find a grass roots way (pun intended) to use their (and their customers) political power. Many laws and regulations are built for the large producer and need to be ‘right sized’ to allow the little farmer to compete on a fair basis.

P.S. Gene, I will quibble over your word usage as well, Steve and Pat are Farmers and last weeks “Farmer”, with 9 hours on the computer, is a “Daytrader”.

Computers are a double-edged sword. They have been a huge help to us as beginning farmers with no idea what we were getting into. The internet gave us a multitude of free resources for learning about farming. It connected us to farmers all over the world. And now it helps connect us to friends, family, and future customers. There’s pros and cons to technology, I’ll agree with that, but computers rapidly accelerated our transition out of the city and onto the farm and for that I’m thankful.

Computers also provide an avenue for the small farmer to direct market more effectively (more cheaply and broadly), which is a critical component in being able to compete with larger, corporate farms. We use computers for direct marketing and sharing our story, not buying (or selling) grain futures.

In response to your previous article, barring any unforeseen disruption, in 40 years there will most likely be both large and small farms. The larger will be larger and the smaller will be more numerous. Population growth will dictate that. I hope you’re right though. Thanks for the thought-provoking stories.

Sounds like a slice of the American Dream–realized, or more accurately, still being realized.

You are right, Gene. There are way too many of us entrepreneurs out here to just vanish into thin air. And we’ll have the advantage as the superstructure of energy consumption starts to crumble, so the pendulum will swing in our favor, I think.

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