September 15, 2011

My 'Home Farming Movement' that isn't.

It seems everyone has joined the Home Farming movement lately. Everything from keeping bees, to backyard chicken coops to raised beds of heirloom vegetables. But I ask...is it truly farming? I am sure that for many of us, it is, but I am also sure that for some of us, it isn't - it's just simply "keeping bees", or "having a few chickens for fresh eggs" or " raised beds for some fresh , organic veggies". For us, it's a matter of scale and reality, a 'farm' is a completely different thing all together. I am not farming, I am raising vegetables for a family, in a family garden. I know that my six raised beds are not a victory garden, either - for I am not saving money, and I am not living off of my garden, not even for a few weeks. A few buckets of string beans can only go so far.

 Don’t get me wrong, I completely support the current trend for home vegetable gardening. It is essential for children to learn about where thier food comes from, it helps teach the wonder of nature and of course, the obvious health benefits of home-grown produce needn't be mentioned. My issue comes with the label - "Home Farming". Why not call it what it is: Home vegetable gardening. Mrs. Obama's family garden is an excellent example in scale, for a home vegetable garden can be most any size, most experienced growers know that a managable bed should be around 500 sq. feet. Anyone who has tried to plant, tend and maintain a home plot of veggies alone or with children knows what I am talking about. Anything larger is great, but calling four raised beds a home farm, might be pushing the fantasy a bit.

Nursery owners and commercial plant growers know the truth - most people are in love with the 'idea' of farming, but few will ever go and plant 100 foot long rows of peas and a quarter acre of corn to feed their family. Most grow an average of 8 - 10 tomato plants, can a case or two up for the winter, and pick some strawberries at a pick-you-own farm with their kids on a Saturday morning. Most mom's today are in love with the idea of farming, not the hard labor involved in the sort of plots our parents or grandparents tended. Others are growing to make a political statement, the world is ending or "We grow our own heirloom garlic" statements.

Go for it, but don't lose track of why you are doing this. Crops Tuscan Black Cabbage and Arugula are fine for you, but don't forget the magic, and the experience for your childred. I can't help but remember this 4 year old boy crying at our local garden center this past spring. His dad was picking out seed at a seedrack, and his son kept picking out a packet of Pumpkins, which his father kept putting back saying " No. We are NOT growing those. You can buy one at Halloween. I'm looking for heirloom tomatoes". Really? What kid doesn't want to grow a pumpkin?

Maybe it’s because I was raised in a family where we maintained a rather large vegetable garden, but one which we all knew was rather small. At half an acre, it did supply our family with about 25% of our vegetable needs year round, and that was when I was a kid, in the 1960's and 70's. When my older bro's managed it, they grew more, in the 1950's, and when my parents bought the house from my Grandparents in the 1940's, they grew even more, with some typed lists of canned good adding up to nearly a thousand jars. Even then, we were hardly 'self sufficient'. A half-acre vegetable garden of beans, tomatoes, peppers and cabbage, was far from home-farming, it was just a vegetable garden.

That said, it was hard work. Tended to by hand, a home garden consumes lots of time and labor. That means hoes, rakes, shovels, blisters, bee stings and lots of sweat and sore backs. It's always worth it. but it is far from easy. Also, "Home Farming" requires more than a strong back, it demands dedication,  and experience or knowledge goes a long way. Often growing skills were handed down generation to generation. My earliest memories are mostly in the garden. Planting onion seed in flats, transplanting tiny seedlings, tending to tidy long rows of lettuce, learning how to carefully dig potatoes in the autumn so that they all don't end up stabbed by a pitchfork.

My childhood summers were rarely spent riding bikes or playing sports. Sure, I had my share of fun – lake swimming, fishing for ‘kivers’ ( sunfish) and Catfish ( hornpout), but mostly, I weeded. I weeded, and weeded, and picked beans then weeded.  So by the time I went off to college, the last thing I wanted to do was to garden. A half-acre garden requires almost 9 hours of labor, a day to maintain properly, and our garden was far from perfect (that honor went to Mr. Pockovicious’ garden across the woods. He rarely had a single weed, we would joke that he must sweep the aisles between his sweet peas.).
Still, we should all grow something to eat, or, as much as our time and physical condition can handle. No store bought tomato will taste as good as a home-grown one, and no vegetable stand or farmers market will have string beans as snappy and those that you grow. If you want odd vegetables, a home vegetable garden may be the only place where you can grow hard-to-find varieties like giant Kohlrabi, Salsify, Purple Peas, Butter Beans, Okra and a sweet corn variety with a real name, not 'Sugar and Butter.

Every child should know the joy of pulling out a carot in the fall and eating it with a little dirt on it,, the scent of parsley in autumn will implant in their brain, and they should experience the horrors of squashing Tomato Horn Worms,( or carefull raise them into hawk moths), and everyone should celebrate the giant zucchini. My point is, grow what you love, what you can manage and don't worry about the purpose, raising some food to eat should be natural, not forced, not a statement. It's not about politics, or Monsanto, or about what your neighbors think - it's about that first tomato and that last pumpkin. Be sure to let your child grow a pumpkin.

Today, I can only handle raised beds due to work and life, time is my evil. Eventually it will be health or age, or both, but right now, it is time. Oh yeah, and lazyness, but I do try to remain realisitic. I am not home farming, I keep a few raised beds and grow some fresh vegetables to augment our summer diet. I know they are fresher, I put a few jars ‘up’ in the autumn, and that’s’, that. Someday, I will grow all the food I need, at least, that’s what I keep telling myself. That is, only when I am on sebatical and living in a cabin in Maine for a year ( I wish).

The main reason I grow many items is for nostalgia’s sake, and a close second would be for taste. We who grow veggies at any scale, know the real reasons. I don’t like that my pancake batter might have non GMO corn gluten added, but there is little I can do about it, except avoid it as much as I can. (Hell, I still like Fois Gras).

Regardless, we grow for very selfish or personal reasons. It might be for taste, rarity, experience or nostagia. Nothing tastes like a fresh pickling cucumber warm from the sun, crispy and bitter, prickly and snappy. Take a salt shaker out to the garden, and have lunch. I am instantly a king when I  bite into a warm heirloom French tomato with the juice running down my arms, and the earthy scent of a freshly dug potato smells like the radiators in the house, when they are first turned on in November. Those are the reasons why I garden. It makes me feel good.


  1. Anonymous3:30 PM

    Thank you for a really refreshing perspective on this. Great to read a piece that celebrates home vegetable gardening without the pretension that too often surrounds the topic.

  2. Love this post! I also spent my childhood summers weeding, harvesting, and selling berries & asparagus. It's no small miracle that I ever wanted to garden again, but small-scale gardening keeps me humble & appreciative of the farmers that truly keep us fed.

  3. Anonymous8:43 PM

    Well said.

  4. Beautiful pictures, beets and squash!You are so correct! Having fun with some garden veggies and supporting yourself are two horses of differing colours. I agonize knowing I must earn a living and the best I can do on the weekends is a small garden.

  5. Your point is well taken. I personally know people who run 'real' farms, and can testify to the difference. That said, I have a flock of chickens: layers and broilers. I butcher my own and hardly ever buy meat anymore. I raise meat rabbits and butcher them as well. I have multiple raised beds and have been able to halve our 'bought' vegetables. I had goats last year and sold them; looking forward to some new goats this fall. I may use different techniques than a large farm; my goal is not to feed others, but to feed myself. You may not call me a farmer; but I think there is enough room in the term to at least call myself a mini-farmer. Maybe I'm wrong, but maybe I'm right.


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