Monday, August 11, 2008

What makes a farm nowadays?

What makes a farm nowadays? The word farm has a split personality in our day and age between its “popular” and “modern” meanings. “Modern” farms produce a large amount of today’s output. Large scale operations which produce only a few crops, they are not what many think about when you say farm, but then again, today few of us have a direct connection to these operations. The “popular” notion of a farm invokes a diversified 160 acre farm with an old red barn, International H tractor, and a big old garden out of which grandma canned all the food for the family. My “modern” farm friends say that this is just an relic of the past…people have this nostalgic version of a farm stuck in their heads from the last century, but I say “not so fast.”
Sure, this popular vision of a working farm may be somewhat nostalgic, but we celebrate the diversified farm for good reason. One, these farms have NOT fully disappeared from the landscape. Many are still functioning over a century after they were begun and new ones are sprouting up daily like our own—take a look at the modern organic movement and the number of new growers who operate small farms across the country for proof. Two, there are real positive benefits which diversified farms bring to both the landscape and the local economy. Instead of simply pumping out one or two crops, a diversified farm balances animal husbandry with multiple crops, pastures, and gardens. This supplies not only cash crops for export outside the community and possibly overseas, but food for the family and the local community. The diversified farm is not only a big importer of outside inputs like fertilizer, herbicides, and seeds, but supplies its own fertilizer and compost by caring for animals as well as crops. Just having animals causes the grower to purchase local inputs in ways a number of large cash-grain farms simply don’t. You always need feed, supplies, and possibly vet services to keep a diversified farm going. I often think this is part of the reason many of those communities which relied on the agricultural economy just aren’t doing so well. These modern operations just don’t need what the community has to sell anymore; inputs are gotten in big quantities elsewhere, and modern farms just don’t need people when the only thing you’re caring for is one big tractor.