What do you grow on your farm?

The two questions I’m asked most frequently by folks when they learn we’re farmers are “how big is your farm” and “what do you grow on your farm.”

The questions betray what our society has come to understand about agriculture and farm life.

These days most people believe that a farm grows one thing. So there are corn farmers, cattle farmers, cotton farmers, tomato farmers, etc.  I usually respond to that question by saying we have a diversified farm.  Sometimes I answer by saying we grow food.

Our farm is an ecosystem.  It is part of a larger ecosystem of course, but we try to think of it as a unique organism as well.  Natural ecosystems are diverse.  Nature does not like monocultures. By raising lots of different things we not only better mimic nature, we also help assure that even if we have a crop failure or two, we still raise plenty of food.

People also tend to assume that the size of a farm and the amount used to grow food are the same. So when they ask “how big is your farm?” they mean “how big is the area you use to produce food?”  Our farm is 183 acres, but only about 5 acres of that is in veggies, maybe less, and that includes fields that are idle as part of our rotation plan.  Most of our farm is in pastures, woods and uncultivated fields.  We try to tend to it all, but often that requires minimal intervention from us. We aren’t trying to squeeze “production” out of every inch of it.  We’re happy to leave as much as we can for wildlife habitat, slow growth crops (like trees) and wild edibles (like blackberries–which we share with the wildlife). We produce a lot of food on the little bit of the farm that we tend intensively, and we could produce much more if we tended it even more intensively. But in the minds of many people these days, to be a farmer means to raise one or two thing on a very large scale.

That needs to change.  And I believe it will.

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23 comments on “What do you grow on your farm?

  1. The cult of the large. Bigger, fastest, highest, mostest, morest. These are an Americans first and favorite words. They live in luxury on our tongues. They are the lens through which we see.

    Biggest stay away from my door.

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    • Bill says:

      Small is beautiful.

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      • df says:

        Well said, Bill. “Small” is when we can do things for ourselves, within our means. We’ve completely lost sight of that. When you consider that we’ve been to the moon and beyond, it’s easy to see how we got here, but it doesn’t make it any less frustrating or bittersweet. Regaining it, at least in part, is the only real answer.

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  2. valbjerke says:

    We’ve ten acres – and produce all our own food groups excepting grains. Three of that ten acres is bush. Five is grazed on alternate days. We try to aim for the permaculture mindset – wasted hay goes in the potato patch, manure goes into the gardens, so called weeds go to the pigs and so on. When people ask what kinds of animals we have I tell them ‘we don’t have any llamas’ – it’s the simplest answer. 😊

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  3. I love it! We grow food. Can’t get much more basic or purposeful than that.

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  4. I get the same question quite frequently. Whatever response I provide sparks little interest, unless I mention pigs. For some reason, raising pigs seems like a proper farmlike activity to most people. I think you’re dead right about the mindset though – they’re asking with certain preconceptions in mind. Kind of like people’s conception of “organic”.

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    • Bill says:

      LOL. So true. But if they ask the follow-up question, “How many pigs do you have on your farm?” then once again we have the industrial-mentality disconnect.

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      • shoreacres says:

        Well, maybe. But to paraphrase the good Freud, sometimes a question is only a question.

        When I was teaching sailing, I handed a coil of line to a woman who’d never been on a boat, and asked her to put it on the dock. With absolute sincerity and no embarassment, she asked, “What’s a dock?” I swallowed my laughter, answered her question and learned something about teaching in the exchange.

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  5. Eumaeus says:

    “What do you grow on your farm?” I’ve given up answering this question until I have at least 2/3 kids out of diapers. So now when people ask, I just say “Kids, we’re growing kids on our farm.” Right now, that’s the best I can do.

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  6. Kibwezi, Kenya, area is subsistence. Once six years went by without adequate rains to complete a crop (maize, beans). Due to these hardships, the local people would answer “We grow (smart kids) brains” – the schools are known (in country) for their performance. Life is tough there. Not so on our suburban 1/3 acre (mostly hardwood and shade).

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    • Bill says:

      I had a professor from Kenya, one of the most impressive people I’ve ever known. Born in the bush, educated by missionaries. Now he has multiple graduate degrees including a Ph.D. in philosophy, and is fluent in several languages.

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  7. Bill, so true are your thoughts here in Nebraska. If you call your self a farmer here, then it truly your farm would be at least 1000 acres or more of single row crops. The soil has been drenched in chemicals over years until now it’s nothing more than a medium to hold up the growing crops. There’s no life in the soil. Some farmers alternate between soybeans and corn but others are straight corn growers every year. It’s really sad how this generation of farmers has been wooed into the GMO chemical era. Corporate farms are the new thing. Farms that are struggling to survive either are bought out by corporations or own the crops growing on the land. Corporations will provide the seed and chemicals for the lion share of the harvest. What really steams my broccoli, is the whole government subsidy program to supposedly keep the prices up.

    It’s really funny how we have different stereo types in our mind when thinking of farmers. Now for you Virginia farmer brings to my mind an old southern farmer standing in the middle of a tobacco field. Thanks for breaking me out of that box.

    Have a great farmer education day.

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    • don’t think I ever got this assessment in an annual review (performance evaluation) but I can honestly say all my grandparents were “out standing” in their field.

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    • Bill says:

      It is sad Dave. Kudos to your for devoting your time and energy to growing FOOD. Imagine how much better the world would be with many thousands of Terra Nova gardens.

      I’ve known many old southern farmers standing the middle of a tobacco field. I’ve stood in the middle of many of them myself. But these days those farmers likely don’t even have a garden or any livestock. They buy their food at Walmart like everyone else. And they farm from inside a truck or an office. Their kids don’t grow up working in the fields (as I did). All the labor is done by temporary workers from Mexico.

      Among people who claim farming as their occupation, very very very few are tending traditional diversified farms.

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  8. Tina Schell says:

    I give so much credit to to you and others like you who work so hard to do the right thing by the land as opposed to the commercial mega-farms. Wishing you the best success – would that there were more like you out there!

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