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Small Farms Can't Last

Updated: Mar 19

Small farms everywhere have a problem: they don't last.

The uncomfortable truth is that most small farms don't last. They start with a hot fire of enthusiasm and claw forward for a handful of years and then... they die. The ones that last a little bit longer are subsidized by a second income. But most die.

Many of them stick around just long enough that people assume things are working ok. Maybe 5 years. Maybe 7. Sometimes 10. But the reality is they are not working out--they're burning out. At some point they face the music and pivot to something that does work. If they're lucky, the former farmer finds a job in the same industry supporting other farms. Then they don't feel like they've abandoned their values and can even believe they are helping the movement. And they can feel proud they actually did the work for a good long time and actually farmed. But ultimately they quit and they know it.

But many more just move on to something different. Hopefully they are not full of bitterness. Hopefully they don't carry a ton of debt to repay.

It is easy to point fingers for this problem. After all, these are genuine people who are working very very hard. They are trying to do something good. They ARE doing something good. So why won't the world support them? Who's to blame?

If there was a single answer and a simple man like me could understand all the nuances of it then the problem would have been solved long ago. I am no genius.

But the assessments of success or failure are always directly linked to the initial goal. A good goal is always measurable. That way you can see if you are measuring up. If you deem your effort to be a failure, it is because you are not achieving the desired measurement IN THAT CATAGORY.

But that doesn't say anything about all the other categories. Maybe you didn't make a million dollars this month. Does that mean you were a failure? Only if making a million dollars was your goal! Perhaps you built amazing relationships and invented something incredible and encountered God and ended a war.

So the question of success is directly related to the measurement criteria of success.

What then are the farmers measuring? Why do they conclude for several years that it is working and then eventually conclude that it is not working? You would have to ask each individual farmer to find out the answer to that question. But it is pretty normal to value and prioritize different things as time passes and you grow older. Young people often want adventure. Older people think a lot more about retirement.

As a stubborn and idealistic small farmer I think a LOT about what makes a small farm successful. Our small farm is our only form of income. So it really matters that it work. I probably think about this issue too much.

Recently I have begun to think that perhaps small farming doesn't work when measured by certain standards, but does when measured by others. I think this is obvious. The real question is what are the standards by which it succeeds? And even more importantly, do they ultimately matter enough?

And the reverse question is also important: are there categories where it cannot succeed?And are those SO important that the overall project cannot stand on its own.

Are a small farm's strong points enough to justify its failings in other areas? Are there deal breakers?

These are personal questions. The answers depend on the value system of the asking party.

Which brings me to my next question: what kind of person do you have to be to conclude that your small farm is a success? Or to make it more personal: what kind of person do I need to be and what do I need to value to feel that my small farm is a success?

Obviously being obsessed with money will very likely make me feel like a failure since very few small farms make gobs of money.

If I love wearing fancy clothes and driving expensive sports cars I will also feel like a failure.

If I love working with animals and reading books by the fire I might be able to feel really good about my life assuming I can make enough money to buy firewood and books and keep the bills paid.

After years of farming I can see the gist of what a person must value in order to feel successful while farming. I can also see that set of values is largely in opposition to the values of our current popular culture.

If you're values are shaped by our current popular culture you will likely not feel successful as a small farmer. Actually that is not quite accurate. At the beginning of your small farming venture you will likely feel very successful. Because our current popular culture values ambitious and convicted and dramatic attempts to save the environment. As long as you are starting on an ambitious and moralistic journey to save the planet you will be encouraged and you will feel like you are an admirable citizen. The people who share your popular values will admire you. And since popularity is an important value in our culture your actions will be reinforced.

It is key that you secure funding for your attempt at small farming so that you can look and feel great. Kinda like when you take on debt to buy really trendy clothes. If you can hide and ignore the debt, everyone will admire you... as long as that outfit is trendy.

But what if you have to keep getting up day after day to do repeating work that no one sees? What if the results you are driving are generational and hardly show in the here and now? What if what you are doing is rarely picturesque? What if it looks more like poverty? What if it prevents you from traveling? What if the work is hard and complicated and uncontrollable and the pay is really low?

Much of farming does not fit in with our culture's popular values. It just doesn't. There is a way to spin it and portray it as if it is, but the reality of it is not. In order to KEEP farming for the long term you need to have a completely different set of values from what are needed to START a farm.

And having a different set of values then the rest of he culture is actually really hard. Its much harder then you might think. It is one thing to be a little bit different. And it is another thing to be different in ways that are admirable. But being different in ways that lower your status is almost unbearable for most people.

And sometimes it can feel downright foolish or irresponsible. Like getting well into the second half of life without a retirement fund. Is that foolish, or just "different values"? Or compromising your health and willingly taking on high stress. Is that foolish, or just "different values"?

Our popular culture does not value the qualities that are necessary to be a long term small scale farmer. That is why small scale farming has mostly disappeared from our countryside. Currently our culture admires the bold act of starting a sustainable farm. But it does not value what it takes to keep the small farm going. Our culture is not one made up of small farms scattered around the countryside because while our culture might value the idea of a farm, it does not value the qualities that keep a farm alive. To do the daily work of keeping a farm alive you need to value something completely different. You need to look foolish in the eyes of the world.

In order to continue as a small scale farmer in this day and age, you need to subscribe to a completely different set of values. And you need to be unphased by the pressures of the culture around you. And last but not least, you need to believe firmly in a different complete set of values. One value is not enough. A complete system is essential.

The question then is, what are those values? And are they good? Does organizing yourself under them lead to something healthy and whole? Does it lead to life more abundant?

And lastly, where to these values come from? Is it wise to adhere to your own ideas of what is good? Is it smart to develop your own hierarchy of values as if your ability to decide what is best and what is not is reliable. Is your own judgement so excellent that it can consistently draw better conclusions then the aggregate of all the cultural forces around you?

And if not, is there anywhere a set of values that can sustain a small farm and are reliable and wise and proven in their capacity to generate a life more abundant? Is there a set of nested values that are in harmony with the patterns and limitations of the natural and ecological world and the human needs within that? We'll explore that next.

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