It’s All About Money, Even When It Isn’t



​If you follow this blogsite, you know I spend more time than I should predicting the glorious future of small, artisanal farms. I keep trying to define and describe this farm the way it will be when mankind it forced to come to its senses. But my sister pointed out to me the flaw in my thinking. “So let’s say you’re right,” she acknowledged, “and this kind of farming becomes the norm. How long do you think it will be before these model farms will start expanding eventually we are right back where we started.” The good old American way. But if these small farms spread over the entire world and become the norm, concentration will come again. All I can say in my defense is that monopolies will be quite a long while in becoming movers of that economy.

Thinking about this, I happened to be reading Wendell Berry and his detailed descriptions of a traditional tobacco farm. (His father was the man mainly responsible for the Tobacco Program and I have helped with tobacco harvest in his neighborhood.) I had one of those Eureka moments. The traditional tobacco farm might make a good model for the small, artisanal farm because it was by its very nature sort of expansion-proof. Not only was it limited by regulation in the number of tobacco acres one farmer could grow but by its very nature it did not encourage expansion. It was first of all a very artful kind of farming. The mechanics of the operation require great skill from planting to harvest if the crop is to command a good price from planting. It required cooperation and mutual help from neighbors. The artisans who know how to do it also know that it could not be practiced on larger amounts of the crop. It requires just too much handwork. To do it correctly, you can’t use new technology to lighten the load or increase the output per man hour. Nor were these farmers about to give up their allotments willingly. Raising really fine tobacco was a high art, tobacco farmers’ claim to fame, and their way to ensure that they could go on maintaining their independent, small farm way of life. That was the real allure about the money, not seeing how much of it they could pile up for paper investments. They embraced some of the cruelest physical work I have ever been part of. It was no different to them than getting pounded in practice for a professional football player.

Greed overtook the Tobacco Program of course. It tempts me to naughty thoughts. What if the tobacco raised today with high technology is even worse than the tobacco of the artisans? What if technology, in making it easier to grow more tobacco rather than less, encouraged heavier smoking habits? I’ve known quite a few smokers who were enjoying a pipeful in their nineties. Ever wonder about that?

But forget about tobacco. Let’s think food. As I read about the methods various growers of very high quality and high tasting food are using (John Kempf is my favorite at the moment) it is obvious that it can only be done with extremely high science but also high manual art. If John Kempf tried to grow 1000 acres of potatoes the way he does it, I daresay he’d fall flat on his nose. Good artisanal food has its own built-in defense against money monopoly. The key here, I guess, is the consumer’s conviction that good food is not cheap. And so far that many consumers agree. Artisanal foods are not cheap. I think of how some people worry that poorer people can’t afford them. But poorer people fill up the fast food restaurants every day and if they can afford that, they can food good food from small farms.


Dear Dancingchairwoman,

Very inspiring your words above! It sounded to me as a Poem. A beautiful Poem!

As a granddad I see clearly the importance to interact (real interaction) with young people. I wish the most to create a nice “ecosystem” were I can interact with them. The little ones, teenagers and young adults I have them all in my family.

Sounds like you have construed a nice foundation for an ecosystem like this. Inspiring!

Thanks for sharing.

Joe, I think you’re right.

I have a very small enterprise on less than an acre of land. We raise our own food in raised beds, chickens and every other year or so a few pigs.

My grandchildren who are now nearly fifteen and sixteen have been bringing their friends from the city out here every summer and holiday school break for the the last six years or more.

Every year more and more of these kids want to come here. We’ve had as many as twelve kids here at any given time throughout the summer. They stay anywhere between two weeks and the whole summer, that is as long as their parents will let them. Some come back more than once during the summer months.

We have a pretty good system. We work hard, we play hard. They are responsible for the gardens and the animals. They weed, water, feed, harvest, cook and enjoy the fruits of their labors. If they are around when it’s time to can and freeze they are in on that too.

They help with meal prep, make bread and often we go out and find blackberries to pick under the hot sun only to come home to a warm farmhouse with no air conditioning to make jelly.

When the work is done they hang out at the creek down the road, ride mini bikes, bicycles and sleep in “hay” forts they’ve built themselves. Depending on the time of year we spend evenings sitting around a fire sharing bits of ourselves and the days events. It’s a very old fashioned way of life, simple and they understand the more hands the lighter the load.

We all feel like we are getting the best of the deal. I hope they never forget the time they spent here when they get old enough for a summer job and go to full time employment and families of their own.

I’ll miss them when that time comes. And I know it’s coming soon. I’m getting slower as the years go by and have to admit having them around makes it easier for me to keep doing what I love. I do love to share what I know with them and find satisfaction in knowing I’m passing along an important way of life they might not have experienced otherwise.

Seems to me that most folks would be adverse to paying $500 bucks AND contributing many hours of manual labor, educational or not, regardless of food quality. Might be better off making it either strictly a cash deal or pure sharecropping; not both, since pay-to-work will likely never be a very popular scheme.

I agree James. Each year more young adults show up at the farm asking questions and wondering of tomorrow. Simply by being one who questions food in its planting, raising, and harvest places them as thinkers (and some are sure to become doers) of how to normalize accessible “good food” for all people.

It truly is all about money. I agree pretty much with Betty. Historically, the wealthier farmer you were born, the more money the government will hand you, and we also piss away a lot of our taxes on wars that benefit no one but corporations.

I think the food desert situation in inner cities isn’t about money so much as transportation. The same theory applies to factories that produce high paying jobs: they tend to be located in areas not serviced by public transportation, so poor people tend to be denied access to a better job with a future. When derelict housing is torn down in cities, often people begin to grow food for themselves, if allowed to, on the abandoned plots. Another demonstration of the importance of money is what is happening with Flint, Michigan’s drinking water: I don’t believe that will be happening in Auburn Hills, Michigan.

Get outside and enjoy a New Christmas Moon!! Besides feeding our bodies, farming allows us to feed our souls by merely being out in the soil.

Merry Christmas all!!

P.S. There will always be youth backing us.

I say, “Live, learn, and be creative,” regardless of your age and regardless of your politics. The giants among us (Gene, Wendall, YOU) use their minds, eyes, and hands to mold whatever “soil” is available. If we keep our focus on “tilling the soil” we will be amazed at the resulting product and the seeming exploitation around us will become trivial compared to the joy we have gained while being creative.

Be joyful and be glad.

diesel , the lack of it will limit the size of farms

Thanks for all the work you do on this blog. Merry Christmas to you and your family.

Thank you, I like your comment. I see microgreens taking off here, grown right in people’s garages and on porches, artisan chocolate and craft beers are doing really well, I do not see a reason ‘artisan’ vegetables cannot be sold for what they are really worth. It is a million little steps in education and complete change of perception, but it can be done.

Merry Christmas to everyone! And thanks to Mr. Logsdon for informative posts.

I do not think we should be so negative about the younger population. All you need to do is go to a sustainable agriculture (such as Ohio Ecological Food and Fiber Association) conference or event and see the excitement and optimism in the young people. We also need to be careful in that all of our attitudes will influence younger people. If we are negative about sustainable agriculture and the younger population, they will certainly live up (or down as the case may be) to those expectations.

I also think that in order for all of these small sustainable farms to stay truly small and sustainable we need to develop true communities. An Amish community will only allow the level of technology (thus limiting the amount of land they can farm) that they feel is best for the community as a whole. We need to begin to live as neighbors and a community and not just for the almighty dollar.

Yes sir, James M Thomas, and I want to respond with how diverting money from futile and dangerous military endeavors or from farm subsidies that prop up unsustainable agriculture are the way forward with brilliant arguments and examples, but that is beyond my level of intelligence or powers of persuasion. I just know that big ag doesn’t work either–not without all the government help and big business cheerleading (exploitation) it gets. But all I can do is what is right in front of me and what I feel in my bones I am meant to do. So I grow some food, try to keep my bees alive, delight in all the new kids romping around in my pastures, savor a flavorful egg for breakfast, spend my money at the neighbor’s farms for what I can’t provide for myself, and rail against the dying of the light while hoping for a new dawn.

Please let us not get so negative.

The scenario Gene describes is similar to what Joel Salatin pointed out in response to the question : “Can Organic Farming Feed the World?” (I’m going from memory now, so Salatin fans please cut me some slack) “Things are different now, for example we now have shredders that facilitate using more woody material for compost and bedding and mulch and we have portable bandsaw mills that allow us to make our own lumber for building so we can cut costs” and he goes on in this vein describing how we now have resources, including the internet, that make truly sustainable food production a much more realistically attainable goal.

I’m convinced Gene’s dream is indeed not a fantasy. In fact I’ve seen first hand some of the the young people with cell phones in their ear become quite animated when they see first- hand the difference in egg yolk color when I break open a farm egg next to a store egg. I’ve seen their faces light up in in epiphany when I show them the white roots and brown roots of perennial grass (white roots are new growth, brown roots are dead or dying growth) and I explain how this is an example of how nature renews itself to build true organic matter in the soil. Similarly, when they observe healthy nodules of Rhizobia bacteria on Clover roots going about their business of fixing Nitrogen from the air without the support of ammonium nitrate from a fertilizer factory one can see the brain wheels turning. Indeed many of these young people are becoming a new generation of small-scale, even urban, backyard farmers. Some, so I’m told, are even opening restaurants supplied with vegetables from their backyard gardens.

Perhaps, at long last, in this new information age, small-scale sustainable agriculture will possibly become the norm, or at the very least lead people to no longer regard practitioners of the agricultural arts as one step above the missing link. Keep on dreaming Gene. As the Bible says: ” where there is no vision the people perish.”

For one thing, the population and especially the younger ones don’t really want to do farm work or much work for that matter at all. Also, the skills that you have are not particularly widespread anymore.

Consider how motivating it will be to “younger ones” when farming will be required in order to have plenty to eat. That’s in addition to those who are already motivated. My next door neighbor has three sons in their twenties, two of whom are market farmers.

Once people are motivated, they will have to find someone who can show them how to improve the skills they have acquired by their voracious reading of everything they can find related to agriculture and horticulture. They will only be able to find truly experienced teachers and advisers on farms, which means they will need to move to the country.

I expect that once there is severe economic decline, large numbers of young people will migrate to the countryside. I certainly hope so, not only for their sake, but for the sake of my old bones. I bet a lot of older farmers would be willing to trade housing and instruction in return for the efforts of strong young farm help.

Folks don’t be so down on the younger generation. They are the partly the product of our own upbringing and the society we have created, but I also think they have some very creative and innovative folks amongst them who are prepared to take some quite radical actions to change society. Not all of them of course, whenever has a whole generation been behind an idea that has changed society?

Over the years we have lost so much knowledge on food, from storing, preparing and cooking it. The younger generations have a lot to learn but I do see some younger folks taking the initiatives and trying to do things differently and above all sharing that knowledge – not quite the capitalist way. I will be interested to see how the next few years pan out.

It is always about the money. My great grandfather was as close to being a subsistence farmer in the Thumb of Michigan on 40 acres as one could get (he died in 1961), but he still needed cash to pay his taxes, buy gas for his truck (he used horses for plowing), buy little chicks and delivered by the mailman, buy coffee and tobacco. Farming will always be a business and need to generate some positive cash flow.

Big farming will be around until it becomes unsustainable. After that time, it will probably never return (or not for a long time). What could cause this… The end of the petroleum age. an epidemic, nuclear war, a totally collapsed economy, weeds that must be pulled rather than poisoned, etc. These are things I do not wish for.

For one thing, the population and especially the younger ones don’t really want to do farm work or much work for that matter at all. Also, the skills that you have are not particularly widespread anymore. Most know how to post on Facebook, but plant and harvest a paying crop or raise animals – forget it. Let some ‘big’ farmer with trained staff do the job with lots of scale and machinery and cash and lawyers to fight the bureaucrats.

Even consuming fresh farm products is something the younger generation isn’t interested in doing. They prefer processed foods – they are more convenient and ‘taste’ better. You might disagree on the ‘taste’, but these processed foods have been engineered, tested and marketed to dazzle the eyes and taste good. In reality, say the chicken in the package in its native form is really the color gray, completely lifeless, with cardboard texture and taste. Add some engineered colors, add some engineered tastes, add some engineered odors, inject it with water, add some enzymes for texture, give it a nice name and colorful packaging and you got a winner.

People with little or no money, will spend 4 times as much on this stuff as they would on natural foods. Why? because they like it better. You’ll have a riot if it disappears.

Those who seek out a way to make a buck will always succeed.If the big corps cant make it by raising the food, they will find a way to skim the cream off of each food dollar the small farmer (and large) in other ways. If they cant raise it on a Marvin Grabacre style ,they will find a way to worm their way into the system . Either by owning all the land or most of it like in California then lease it to the small farmers who werent lucky enough to be able to buy some when the land started shifting away from the Marvin Grabacres. Or they will buy up other parts of the system. If they cant own the land they will own the water rights, or the marketplaces,like the city does when it leases out stalls at some farmers markets. Point being ,we will never get away from big money trying to siphon off as much money as they can from the farmers.We will have to be able to sell our farms offerings in the market place in a way that the consumer will want to pay us enough to survive.Raising limited amounts of an raw or finished product say grapes or wine, we will still have to pay rising property taxes and healthcare for ourselves and children . Not to mention unforseen costs and taxes that havn’t been invented yet. Like the income tax that was supposed to be a temporary thing, Plus our customers will also have to pay these same taxes and more. Will or how much disposable income will people give up to pay extra for artisnal food or farm products?I’m afraid the oversupply of small artisinal farms will drive the prices down to where it may not be worth there while to drive to our farms or us to the city to buy and sell our farms over produced bounty . Kind of like back in the day when farmers out west of the big city markets got gouged by the railroads to ship their grain or livestock to the eastern markets.,I remember reading how what ever the price of a bushel of wheat was worth, is what the Railroads charged the farmers to haul it.Sorry I got carried away. Marry Christmas everyone and have a Happy New Year! =)

Well said Gene . we all eat and most eat too much of the wrong foods. I offer a program where to have people plan ,help grow and preserve foods for winter, as well as offer winter greens at a very cheap price but can’t find local people willing to value it evough to join $500/year up frount(less than $10/week ) and commit to 3 hours/week of educational labor . My gardens keep getting smaller as I can’t market my food to my neighbors and I refuse to compete with larger growers at farmers markets and take the foods back home again . Years ago, a local magazine did a story on my diverse gardens called “The art of gardening ” and it is an ART . Sigh…. at least I eat well. The foods that come out of my gardens taste far better than any production foods I have bought and last longer too- organically produced or not… My salad greens look fresh after 2 weeks in the frig .

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