I Live In A FarmUNtopia



A great article in the May, 2015 Smithsonian magazine, “Welcome To Farmtopia” by Franz Lidz, gives yet another example of the legitimacy of the local food, backyard farm movement. I should be overjoyed since this sort of thing is what I’ve preached and predicted for 50 years. Farmtopia in this article features Serenbe, Georgia, one of the new homesite developments in the U.S. clustered around a farm instead of a golf course. The people who live in the houses volunteer to help with the farm work in return for sharing the food produced. So far, so good and I wish the project and others like it well. But I am not overwhelmed with optimism by this kind of farmtopia because I have lived too long and seen too many similar attempts fail. They mostly do not endure because they start with what I call “farming from on high.” Someone, usually rich and with great good intentions, sort of imposes or provides his or her idea of farming on a group of people. Projects like this tend to confuse someone’s idealism about farming with its realism. Developers of farmtopias first of all want to make money selling real estate. If they can do it by appealing to the latest trends, why not? But how often in my life have I watched publicly-inspired gardens laid out and planted with great fanfare in the spring turn into a jungle of weeds by fall.

If the new notion of local farming and food production is to endure, it must start with determined individuals willing to go through the hellfire of unpleasant physical work and low financial returns. The successful farmers and market gardeners I know would not believe they could afford to live in Serenbe, let alone want to farm there. Daron “Farmer D” Joffe, who calls himself an entremanure, was the first farm manager at Serenbe but has gone on to other things, as they say. He says in the article what I think: “A farmer wants to have equity and something to call his own.” Garden farming at best is not too profitable. You hang in there for other reasons. You are out there enduring low income and heat and bugs and bad weather because you want to have your own place in this crazy world and not have to be forced to listen to someone’s else’s music.

I prefer the realism of the farmUNtopia where I live to the idealism of farmtopia. My county, Wyandot in Ohio, is quite rural. The population hasn’t changed much since 1885. I came back here to live at great financial risk because I grew up here and like it, at least most of the time. Instead of villages clustering around a farm, we have farms clustered around villages. Historically, town and country have always been tied together economically and socially although we hate to admit it. The earliest inhabitants of the village were retired farmers or town workers trying to save up enough money to buy a farm. As farms centralized into bigger and bigger acreages, smaller farmers kept their land by working in town and bigger farmers hired help from town. Today, we have construction workers, house builders, bankers, lawyers, shopkeepers, mechanics, realtors, even a doctor or two who are part time farmers. We have our share of roadside markets, a growing farmers’ market, hundreds of backyard gardeners, a few small, artisan farms, and even a winery. A winery in this land of lumbering dinosaur tractors is almost as unlikely as an oil well in New York’s Central Park. One of our very largest farmers at one time or another ran a blacksmith shop, a bit of a trucking business, a restaurant, a stone quarry, and a motel. He and I have had our differences but I consider him a friend. What amuses me so much about this cultivator of some 9000 acres is that he has taken a lively interest in backyard chicken coops. I wonder if he’s thinking about manufacturing them. One of our smallest farmers is the head chef at the Worthington Inn, the most highly regarded restaurant in Columbus, Ohio. He and his wife are working their butts off raising vegetables on their little farm that he serves to his restaurant clientele forty five minutes away. How much more superutopian can you get than that?

All this is happening because the people involved worked it out themselves. They have been willing to take on hell and highwater (and we have had a lot of the latter lately) to do it, use outside help when it works for them, know both the dark side of farming as well as the gaudy side, and do it not because some power on high has delivered their farming to their door. One of the advantages of such a rural society is that we can see firsthand all sides in the controversies that arise between big farms and little ones, between using chemicals and not using them, between good management and bad, between the real article and the faker and work out compromises. I hope.

I also hope that all kinds of farmtopias succeed, but I think the new local food movement will last a lot longer in the real world of un-utopia if driven by people who know farming is a constant confrontation with a natural world that doesn’t give a hoot whether we live or die.


Gene, you may be dead but you are still the best.

Thanks for the tip. We just don’t have the time or energy to spare for a lawsuit right now, but it’s really tempting!

Farm romance is best suited to a magazine, a cup of tea, and a shaded, comfy chair. It melts quickly in the summer sun.

The thing about romance is that it lacks a key component of farming or gardening – persistent, consistent action.

Anyone can have a nice home garden if they take a week in the spring to install it, then spend an one hour EVERY day tending it – persistently, continuously. BUT it gets hot, or rainy, or the relatives show up, or the mosquitos are too thick, or there is a game one. … The weeds and irrigation needs don’t care about any of that; consistent action is the only remedy

Joanna, great response. I have to remind myself constantly of the wisdom you are expressing. Capitalism isn’t perfect. No system is perfect. Wise leadership counts for more. Gene

That is a really good point Bob. We all need community and although it is great to be able to say, “I did it myself” we still need the doctors and nurses, the electricians and water engineers to keep the mains supplies going as well as sundry other jobs. We personally have benefitted from spare barn capacity at our neighbours farm to store our hay – without it we would need three or four times the number of bales and end up throwing a lot away in the process. Our neighbour therefore is an essential component to our farm. Somehow we have to redefine what we mean by community and how we fit into that. Somehow we have to work out our place within it and what we are willing to contribute to keep our taxes low and our neighbours (far and near) fed. I have lived in Latvia for the last seven years now and do research in Latvia and Estonia, both previous Soviet countries, and the experience of collective farming varied more often than not on the leadership of the individual farms, some were actually quite successful and cultivated a good social scene, some did not. So often these enterprises therefore are not just about the idea, but the leadership and then more importantly about how that is passed onto the next generation. Well I have waffled on enough, so I shall stop 🙂 but I just wanted to highlight that individualism isn’t perfect, neither was the Soviet system (but that wasn’t as imperfect as we would like to think at times – although I wouldn’t want to return to it), neither is capitalism perfect, so what next?

Great post Gene.

Brian L, you hit the nail on the head. For farming to work, really work, a man (or woman) must roll up his sleeves. When your heart is in it, that helps a lot, when your sweat and blood is in it, that helps more, but when both things come together, that is the key!

I farm with draft horses, I bust my butt and I LOVE every minute of it. I found my place in the universe and by the grace of God I will keep it.

I agree digging in your own dirt is much easier than working for someone else, but I also think that educating city folks, as to where our food comes from, is good for our whole farming community.

I agree with Gene. Overplanning is underperforming while informal systems find ways to survive. Think ecology, where genetic entities thrive together without anyone telling them how to do it.

Yes, Gary, and over 90 degrees in a bee suit that covers another set of clothes will separate the boys and girls from the men and women. I get more and more requests to mentor new beekeepers but have learned that most of the time that means “doing it for them.” As jaded as I am, I get so thrilled when someone comes around who is willing to get dirty and sweaty! Happened a couple of times this season and I was happy to go the extra mile to help them succeed!

You might call your county Bar Association or Legal Aid (Public Law Center) to see if you’d qualify for a lawyer pro bono. The firms need to take such cases, including the biggest firms in the book. It can’t hurt to ask.

I call it the 90 degree rule,once it gets to be over 90 degrees all the help evaporates(LOL)

I suppose in some ways places like Farmtopia appeal to the latest back to the earth trend, albeit in an upscale and (I risk saying this but) superficial manner. What troubles me is, in many ways, it’s trying to fabricate a “community” rather than having one evolve naturally. And this, I believe, brings with it a whole host of problems.

There are many people who romanticize the idea of farming into a sort of idyllic past time. We once had someone visiting our farm ask if my wife and I string hammocks from the trees so we can spend our weekends reading books in the shade. They seemed disappointed when we told them the realities of real farm life. Mind you, we love it and it’s the best life we could hope for. But mucking stalls probably isn’t a great pitch for a lifestyle magazine.

Not to name names, but I think there’s a valid reason farming “lifestyle” magazines like “Modern Farmer” ran into troubles their first year while others like David Kline’s “Farming” (or Rural Heritage or Small Farmer’s Journal) continue plowing merrily away for years. Farm life isn’t glossy. It’s a well worn patina.

I know this sounds cynical but in this country if the town folk could “like” the farmer or tweet about the crops or text how good the vegetables taste and that is all they had to do then it would work. Of course the farmer would not get much done since he had to respond to the social media and most everyone would go back to buying everything at the grocery store but hey that is America for you!

I have done a lot of Master Gardening work and only a few really want to put in the effort when it is hot, dirty, buggy, or as we are experiencing now, muddy! It is so much easier to turn that $5.00 bill into a box of Twinkies than to grow, weed, fertilize, pick, preserve and then cook your own food.

Our only hope is that people will realize the value of nutrient dense home grown foods as it relates to our health and well being.

Maybe the farming villages of Europe worked because the villagers had some other link to each other such as family or religious affiliation. People now are so transient that bonds are loose at best, and most folks don’t even know their neighbors. Collective farms with that sort of people are doomed to fail, kind of like the old Soviet system. They would have all starved had it not been for the small individual plots the peasants were allowed to garden.
I agree with Gary that it’s better to be your own boss and take personal responsibility for your crops and animals.

I like the UN-topia. It has been 100 degrees, the a/c has failed on most everything we own, i trying to finish my hay, and I’m so stinking tired…Not really complaining, just saying…
On the other hand, I am really glad I am not outside hoeing peas or picking green beens or standing at a farmer’s market listening to the sort-of-city folk say, “is it GMO?”
(My comment seems a bit random as they usually are, but I was trying to stay in context)

Collective or group farming and gardening never works for many reasons but mainly because people have different operational ideas and people have different ideas about work in general.
I do things for myself and my animals I’d never do if I were just working a job for someone else that’s for sure.Much better to have individuals owning their farming operation and they themselves doing the work and getting the rewards.no matter whether its on 1 acre or many acres.Although the new idea you write about just might be a warning as people usually head
to agricultural pursuits in time of financial and other crisis and the people at large are usually the ones to sense it first that a storm is on the horizon.

What a wonderful thing if that development succeeds. I wish them all the best.

I certainly appreciate the point of Gene’s article and the comments it inspired. I do not disagree, but looking at the photograph, it reminded me of many villages I hunted near, in southern Germany: a functional village, surrounded by well tended fields, owned by local farmers, (who tended to live in the village), surrounded by a forest that was intensively managed for sustainable, multiple use, (timber, firewood, berries, mushrooms, bee keeping, and hunting). I guess it was the density of the housing that looked most, “village like”.

Like you, I have my doubts if the American, “suburban model”, could be viable, in the long term. However, the German model, that these Georgia folks apparently mimic, has been building strong, sustainable, communities for hundreds of years. Just sayin’.

I worry about the young farmers starting out here in Maine. part of the local food movement (I am a backyard gardener myself) Unless they have money to back them up, or realize that most farmers are either huge or work partly outside the farm, they are very vulnerable, to accident, aging, and the needs of children.
We need a social system that gives then health care, extended education and training for their children, retirement, and long term care, to keep them safe. (Perhaps we all need that.)

Perfect timing. We are basically subsistence farming on 45 acres of leased land in CA, attempting to make a living and raise our three kids and get a business going all at once. It’s killer. Our landlord is taking forever to get our water set up, so we truck water out to our cows and sheep twice a day in this 100+ weather. Our last employer, a dairy owner, ripped us off for 9k of overtime pay he had promised us, but we don’t have time or energy to sue him for it, even though that makes it 9k harder to get our business started up. We are all skinny and sun burnt and exhausted, and wonder every day why in the hell we ever wanted to do this. But, I know we’ll feel better come the rainy season. And I know there are other people out there scratching and scraping and working like dogs to make farming happen just like we are, sans a trust fund, sugar daddy or inherited farm. But it’s always good to get a reminder. Thanks 🙂

Yes, Gene, I certainly see your point and am living it on my own UNtopia. This year, rabbits ate most of my peas and beans (several plantings) before I got them fenced out, a weasel halved my hen population before I lined my coop with hardware cloth, reinforced cracks with metal flashing, and then threw another batch of eggs in the incubator. Last but not least of this year’s travails, my honeybees have forgotten how to store honey. They just sit home, high on Roundup, and eat what they stored before the spraying began around here. A new study suggests that the Roundup has given them dementia!

I would not pay to live in that housing development and then have to work this hard! I’m only willing to do this much work for the independence it affords me in addition to eating well.

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