New Age Farming Is Not About “Going Back” To the Land



One of the prejudices about artisanal, small-scale food farmers is that they are “going back” to the land. The truth is, they are going forward to the land. For several generations now the older people in our preponderantly urban population have handed down to their children an image of farming based on experiences that date back to the early 1900s. The hard life they described of lonely, boring days without electricity, running water, television, radio, central heating furnaces, and fathers who overworked their children in a vain effort to keep up with mounting industrial farming costs, got imbedded in the subconscious minds of urbanites even though they know it isn’t true anymore. These old images have left a prejudicial residue on urban minds that scents the mental air with the notion that farmers are somewhat backward and less intellectually aware of what is going on today. When we were trying to get a new doctor or two into our rural county as late as the 1970s, some prospects, or more often their wives, did not want to come here because they figured rural communities were intellectually narrow-minded and uninformed and our schools not good enough for their precious children. People infected with this kind of bias unconsciously think that going into farming today are “going back” to the clodhopper days of the past.

​It has been left to my generation that stayed in rural areas and whose lives have spanned the years from the old farm culture to the new, to try to convince urbanites that there are no clods to hop anymore. We know what it was like to live without electricity, to farm with horses, to amuse ourselves without radio or television, to wash clothes with wringer type machines or even on scrub boards, to keep our feet warm in bed with a hot sadiron, to brave cold weather to go outside to the outhouse. We also know that those days were not as bad as they sound, nor did it mean we grew up ignorant of other worlds. Many of us read voraciously and, together with all the skills we had to learn to keep a farm running, we were surely as well educated and informed as most people in town. My parents brought home from the library in the car a back seat overflowing with books every two weeks. Mom saw the movie “Gone With The Wind” in 1937 and re-told the whole story to us as we walked along through a corn field alongside a wagon pulled by horses picking up corn the binder had knocked off the stalks.

​My generation also knows the present situation on the farm which is essentially no different than living in town. Or more precisely, it is just like living in town as far as creature comforts and technical progress are concerned but without many of the hassles of city life. This new age farming is far from being cut off from the world— can’t be even for those of us who would prefer that. The electronic age has brought the universe to our barnyards. Even more accurately than that, many new age farmers aren’t moving anywhere but simply use their backyards and empty lots, even in cities, —especially in cities— for an advanced kind of agronomy that can produce more food on one acre than the olden farms could on three. These new farms, in town or out, have a much hotter market close at hand for high quality vegetables, fruits, grains and meats than in olden times. Even more to the point, the back forty itself is taking on new dwellers so that what was once the “lonely” farmland of the early to mid twentieth century is now dotted with gracious ex-urbanite homes of people who have been reversing the migration to the cities for the last 30 years.

​Most importantly of all, these farms have all kinds of new tools and techniques that take the grind out of the physical labor involved. New age farmers have only a few days a year when they have to work overly long hours to get the work done. In general they suffer from no more physical drudgery and discomfort than sport teams demand of their players. All that a contented life requires on these farms is the ability and knowledge to enjoy life without having a lot of money to spend. And as our economy lurches along, that looks like what is coming for most of us no matter where we live.


A young fellow from Toronto moved into our area here in Lanark a couple of years back. He’s going to be a farmer is moving along in that direction diligently and happily. We were sitting around chewing the fat one day and he told me he had recently returned home to visit family. His Grandmother asked him what he was up to these past couple of years and he told her he was getting into farming. Much to his surprise she was horrified that someone would actually want to farm. All those ancient prejudices and beliefs you mentioned came poring out. He laughed and said it’s not like it was. But she wouldn’t buy it. Anyway, he’s still doing what he wants to do, and I think he’s going to make out okay and be happy at it. He certainly has no illusions of grandeur and he seems pretty darn content with his direction in life. Seems like a good thing to me.

That’s odd, the link works for me. Glad you know what’s going on anyway, it is encouraging that common sense still does exist, even if it is not that common 😀

Thank you, Joanna. That is encouraging and precedent setting. I like it. We just talked here recently how they just passed a law in IL that starting July 1st raw milk sale will be illegal, unless the farm has the inspection/license, which to most small homesteaders is just not viable to obtain. The law is worded the way that it does not only affect the ‘sale’ but anything that would involve barter, or even consumption of raw milk by someone who technically is not a resident on the farm, e.g. a visitor, or a student child of the homesteader who is visiting out of state. It blows my mind. But it also blows my mind that we do not question whether these laws are anti-constitutional. This is the most insane case of ‘guilty until proven innocent’. What does one have to do to prove safety of real food? Go study microbiology and write numerous thesis like sister Noella did to prove safety of her raw cheese?
Maine example gives me hope that yes communities can do something.

Mr. Gene, – great thought provoking article!

I was interviewed once by a PHD candidate social anthropologist on the subject of what the “Back to the Land” movement meant and where is it now? She had done her research locally and was guided to me for the 40 + years I’ve been involved in small ag and real alternative approaches to addressing human needs and of course because I was seen as one of the original “back to the landers”. My response was that the entire name phrase was a misnomer because it implied these folks were returning to somewhere they had been before, which in reality was not true. Most of these folks had never been on the land before and were more “urban refugees” than farmers going back to where they once were. They were rejecting and escaping the values and lifestyles of their urban and suburban parents and really were rebels without enough cultural clues. They were at serious cultural disadvantage and most of the folks that migrated into rural America as “back to the landers” and are no longer here. There was one period of time when my livestock inventory was increased by repeated calls from “back to the landers” that were becoming back to the their urban and parental family opportunities. When they made those moves they would give me their animals and there are all sorts of good stories about that, including chickens, guineas, ducks, geese, peacocks, pigs, cows, sheep, horses and donkeys. This was a long time before the term “rescue” was applied and was a process that had no strings attached.

Generally the current movement of small ag is a positive fledgling segment of the ag community that is the best indicator of the potential of decentralized sourcing of human needs of food, shelter and income. It is a very encouraging development, as a different version of production in contrast to traditional historic agriculture and rural life. I still enjoy sharing the culture of our more traditional approach of animal powered agriculture, tillage, grassland management and restorative forestry. I remain convinced that some of the traditional approaches are proven sustainable in that they are the techniques that brought us to the oil age. These heritage based cultural practices are a valid yet labor intensive instrument that should remain in the human tool box for the future.

Gene, the new age farming is pretty old in the Valley. There are more people growing for market than I can keep track of. The town to my east is world headquarters of a major sustainable ag organization (25 years young) and the birthplace of the “Buy Fresh-Buy Local” campaign. That little borough has had a revitalization bouyed by businesses that cater to those that look for a local ag connection. Brew pub with a chef who moved in from New York City, coffee shop/cafe, art gallery, etc. The mayor has complained at Regional Planning Commission meetings about the lack of parking at night. Problems like that many rural communities can only dream about. There is a malting operation in my little village that has contracted for some sixty acres of local specialty barley this year.

Pennsylvania is fairly good as far as regulations go. There are some issues, but the Dept. of Ag recognizes the importance of small ag operations and is a raw milk friendly State. All in all I am optimistic that we are on the right track in my neighborhood

Ate the last of the Brussells Sprouts the other night. Damn, eight months or so until we eat them again.

Check out the Wyoming Food Freedom Act, also. That’s been a big boon to small farmers in this state

Thanks, Joanna, but the link doesn’t work. But I’ve been following the goings-on in Maine for a few years now. Makes me want to move there. 😎

That’s how I feel about the expression too, Z-Cat.

Look up images of Danny Johns Blue Sky Farms. He has the show farm in my area. I worked for him for two years. Follow him around and you will be the one huffing and puffing, I know I did but he was 5 years younger than me and 3 inches taller.

If you listen to the doom and gloomers farmers are going to be forced back to following mules and clod hopping.

Here’s one place that is bucking the trend towards licensing for this that and the other

I used to weight lift in my late twenties. I learned to eat more for that. Then started driving a truck and hurt my back on the job. So now i can walk about 75 feet before I have to sit down. Unfortuneatly driving long hours even with interesting scenery can be extremely boring. So you snack. A lot ! It also keeps you awake. But Gene is right. We are moving forward. If i had had the computer decades ago and access to all this info, it would have been like a kid at christmas! Haying was a huge pain because of finding labor. I might get a baler to do a small amount of baling for convenience and to measure yields but on my small acreage a buck rake and a homemade hoop barn,maybe with a hay drier, will be more modern and certainly more laborsaving. Not to mention rotational grazing can cut lots of hard labor.When my planter and drill finally wear out or if it jst becomes feasible , a Rodale crimper and two row no till planter and a 7′ no till drill will replace them.With all of this and hoop buildings,and improvements in organic bug repellents,equipment and info gathering techniques farming is going to be more fun in the future. Just sad that i am not younger and healthier to enjoy it. Like the song says, “The futures so bright I got to wear shades.”

The grossly fat farmers you see in the local cafe got that way because culturally they still eat like their fathers and grandfathers did, with huge breakfasts and suppers, but they burn much less calories sitting in their combines and tractors. Biscuits and gravy, fried potatoes, 3 eggs and a big slice of ham is what they grew up watching Dad and Grandpa eating. It is very tough to change that sort of imprinting.

People can grow all the food they want anywhere they want, but the bigger problem is how to go about sharing/selling it. It’s almost to the point where we need a license to share homegrown veggies with our neighbors on an over-the-fence basis. And forget selling it to a local health food store without registering the mother seed and the father seed and you hafta name the baby seeds so that the next generation of things grown from those baby seeds can be named – – you see where I’m going. It’s getting plumb ridiculous.

I’ve gotten chary about even donating fresh things to the local mission/homeless shelter. We need a license and registration to do almost everything now. And, the way bigchem companies have poisoned the soil and the water, etc., it makes one wonder what we are actually eating anyway.

Well, not quite. I know people who have “accidentally” found themselves retiring, from office jobs and professions, who are happily farming small acreage – or should that be “ache-rage”? – plots with chickens or bigger beasts, and planting berry bushes and feeling better for it.
These new/old agers are getting their hands dirty, and providing local outlets with eggs or fruit, or vegetables. Admittedly, we still need the ” cowboy hatted farmers” in their 4x4s and combine harvesters to provide grain, but as one of our locals here on Vancouver Island, Carolyn Herriott, suggests, we need to look at the “Zero Mile Diet”.

I never thought of the expression “back to the land” meant going backward. To me it means going back home, where your heart is, where your roots are. Not the opposite of forward!

“they suffer from no more physical drudgery and discomfort than sport teams demand of their players”

Just walk into any café in farming country and see all the pot-bellied, cowboy-hatted farmers, puffing and wheezing to get out of their seats and into their air-conditioned 4×4 trucks. Then they go sit in an air-conditioned combine for twelve hours.

The conventional farmers I’ve seen have all gone soft. The young’uns that actually get their hands in the soil are a different lot entirely… if you can find them…

“In general they suffer from no more physical drudgery and discomfort than sport teams demand of their players. ”

I don’t know, the never-ending fencing happening on our 23 acres seems worse than football practice ever did.
We keep telling ourselves “Just this last part….”, and come up with 3 more things to do.

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