I remember a trip to Yunnan Province, China, when I took some time to work, to really dig in, alongside local farmers. It had been a good day of walking and doing farm assessments in the tea lands, and I took a break from the certification work to clear weeds with some of the farmers. We stood on a steep hillside, tilling with a large steel hoe. I noted that both the steel and the wood handle of the tool were fabricated in the nearby village. The people working beside me are a group of hired laborers. They all have gardens for their own food and for small market crops. Like me, they are farmers at home who are hired for outside work as well.
As we weed, I throw my body into the work just as I do in Montana or anywhere, and my translator is busy gesticulating and hurriedly explaining that I know how to do this, that I'm like them: a farmer. They get it, after the inital surprise, and for a short time we fall into a working routine. It feels good, and days like this, farming feels right, natural and I feel like I belong. It's not always that clear.
When we tell our friends and family that we are farmers, we sometimes get puzzled reactions. On a good day, we tell them that this is the best decision we've made. Building soil and growing food and community feels like the best thing we can be doing. The other days are more complicated. There are a lot of reasons small farms everywhere - not just here in the US - are in danger. As we continue to work toward making farming a larger part of our livelihood, we're thinking carefully about what, exactly, is needed--not just by us, but by farmers in general. Here's our current list:
1. Access to land. Although not all farmers own the property they farm, the bottom line is that you can't grow food without soil. If that soil is not owned by the farmer, the acess to the land needs to be clear and secured for long enough that investments of time, energy and inputs can take shape and pay off over time. In our own land search, we've found that it gets even more complicated when you want to live on that land. It's not too hard to rent a field or pasture somewhere, and in theory a farmer can commute to their crops. But for us, being close to it all to tend animals a few times a day and generally keep an eye on things seems the only logical way to farm. That land also needs some water - in our warming climate, getting water to our crops is more important than ever.
2. Mentors. Farming is a continual learning process, and farmers need good mentors--people we can call on for advice on how to put up a fence, whether to harvest or cover when a frost is coming, how to build a router table or treat an ailing animal. It can take a lot of mentors, with different areas of expertise.
3. Infrastructure. A farm is more than bare soil. Though the level of infrastructure varies with the style and scale of farming, there are needs: for shelters, fences, irrigation equipment, animal transport, tillage and harvesting equipment, and ways to gather organic inputs and transport animals. As we learn to build more and more of our own equipment, we find we find we need more space for the tools and projects to take shape.
4. Community. A farm can't persist, or at least can't provide a livelihood, without the help of other people. That community includes neighbors, supporters, and friends; for us, bringing people onto to the farm to gather in community is an important part of the process. Some are nearby, like the neighbors who stop by to drop off a sample of their favorite beans and a promise to save some good seeds if we like them too. Others read, advise, or support us from afar. And the community, of course, includes markets: in order to make a living, even part of a living, at this, we need people who are willing to pay for what the farm produces.
5. Raw guts. In order to find the right blend of the above, it takes a lot of courage. Whether it's building your own garden carts, chicken coops, and fences, or reaching out for help and neighboring, putting the ingredients together for a sucessfull farm takes a lot of work.
It's a difficult game; being a farmer these days takes a lot of balance. My friend Ron Goddard, a cowboy who has traveled all over the American West, first cowboying and now being a mentor to beginning ranchers, says that 'Farmers and ranchers need to make as much as someone in Silicon Valley. They need to be able to afford health insurance and afford to travel.' We are learning, bit by bit, what it might take to do that, knowing we need so many peices, but hopeful that we can fit them together. Not to make as much as someone in Silicon Valley, but at least to support ourselves and contribute to our community.