Why I Farm
Linda Illsley, local chef and owner of Linda’s Local Cafe (formerly Cocina Linda), once asked me why I farm. I couldn’t come up with a simple answer. There are a million ethical reasons to farm a small plot with high plant diversity. Most of the food at the grocery store is laden with chemicals, the land it is grown on is abused, the watershed is poisoned, the farm workers are not fairly treated, and the money I spend there disappears from the local economy.
Unfortunately, there are no practical reasons to try to make a living intensively farming over 40 crop species on a single acre. The hours are long, the work is backbreaking, the money is pocket change and you are tied to the land every singe day. We’ve invented machines to do these things, right? So why aren’t I using them? Do I have some sort of masochistic pre-combustion engine nostalgia? I don’t think so. There are very good reasons why some organic farmers keep things small and diverse, but they are complex. Machinery is specialized, requiring farmers to grow one crop in order to make back their capital investment. Often only one crop cultivar can then be grown, for characteristics such as uniform ripening and the ability to withstand mechanical harvest and shipping (i.e. tough skin and tastes horrible). To put it simply, you have to grow in large monocultures to grow enough to make back the cost of production. Large monocultures require chemical inputs to withstand disease, insect and weed pressure. Plain and simple, it just doesn’t work to be organic while growing a single variety of a single crop.
Sadly, the USDA organic standards allow for monoculture organic farming by allowing “naturally occurring” but toxic pesticides and insecticides such as copper, sulfur, neem, pyrethrum, Bt and many more. In my opinion, an organic farm should be required to be highly diverse because farm diversity reduces disease and pest pressure mitigating the need for chemical inputs. Diverse farms act more like naturally occurring ecosystems. If pests or diseases were to escalate naturally, the loss of a few crops or cultivars in a given season would not cause the farmer to resort to chemicals to make ends meet. In my mind, organic farming, diversity, and small must go together.
Still, these environmental and ethical reasons do not answer Linda’s question: why do I farm? I guess the best answer is that it is just in me. This is what I was born to do. Hard as farming is, I’m not happy doing anything else. I just can’t help myself!