Apocalypse Deferred

cover crop view of farm“What’s your ‘Plan B’?” a radio reporter asked business school students the other day. One young woman’s answer caught my ear.

“If things get bad enough,” she said, “my friends and I are thinking of getting a farm together.”

I’m not going to argue. I graduated in ‘81 with a degree in Philosophy and I’ve been “down on the farm” ever since. Society didn’t need youngsters lecturing on Nietzsche and Schopenhauer back then any more than it needs more business majors now. Now I’m fifty. I farm 60 acres of organic vegetables and I live at the end of a road with olive and lemon trees in my yard, plenty of firewood at hand, an array of pole-mounted solar panels in the pasture, two wells, a gun, and a diversified portfolio of stocks that range from goats, sheep and cattle to a single, colossal Gloucestershire Old Spot pig. If worse comes to worse I’m as ready as most people are. Have I learned all there is to know about farming? No, but my education in philosophy gives me the skills to act like I do, and my experience in the field has taught me lessons I won’t forget. So, going out to the young woman in the radio interview who almost has an MBA, and to all her friends, here are my ten cents about going back to the land.
First of all, don’t buy a farm. Snarled lines of credit are at the heart of this whole economic crisis, so getting a loan is difficult. Also, at least here in California, land prices are preposterous. It’s almost impossible to pay a land mortgage off with a farm’s earnings unless you grow marijuana. And trust me; you don’t want to start your farming career by growing weed. Yes, Cannabis was created by the same loving god that created apples, wheat, fish and cattle, but strictly speaking, pot is not a food group. If worse does come to worse and food is scarce you’ll feel stupid sitting in a barn full of drugs that stimulate your appetite. If it turns out that apocalypse is deferred, you can always sell drugs but that will spoil vegetable cultivation for you. One thing I’ve learned about economics from farming is that the more consumers need something, the less they’ll pay for it. I know growers that got started in the ‘70s growing marijuana who were never able to make their organic vegetable farms amount to more than money losing fronts for their drug sales. The development of their farming skills were stunted by their eventual dependence on easy money. The feeling of well-being and pride that comes from growing your own food will make you want to get better at it every year. Self-described experts disagree about marijuana, but I can tell you for sure that farming is addictive.

culinary favas for spring harvestSecondly, and more importantly, buying a farm is not a good idea if you can rent one, especially for a first-time farmer. Mother Nature is the inscrutable, silent partner in every farming venture. She’s not like an exotic dancer down at the Bada Bing who’ll strip to the short hairs before Mustang Sally finishes blaring from the speakers. A piece of land reveals itself slowly. Even after years of working the same soil you’ll discover new possibilities and limitations. If you rent land you have the option to move on should it turn out that the soil, climate, or water don’t meet your needs. I met one couple, intent on raising grapes for their own winery, who spent seven figures on acreage before they discovered the ground they’d bought was plagued with soil pathogens that made organic grape production impossible. Now they rent their land to a vegetable grower and the capital they need to expand their winery business is tied up in real estate.

When you go to look for land to rent don’t allow the beauty or tranquility of a piece of rural property to sway your better judgment. Plants need good soil, plenty of light and adequate water to thrive, not beauty or isolation. The enchanting redwood forest that surrounds the sylvan meadow may stir the heart, but it probably hides swarms of hungry deer that eat your crops come nightfall. The isolated, ridge-top field with the mind expanding view may feed the soul, but when you need to get a flat tire repaired, buy diesel, or get your crops to market it will take you too much time. Matthew said of salvation; “For many are called but few are chosen.” When I think back to people I knew who dreamed of being organic farmers, besides the ones lured off the garden path by Mary Jane, the largest number failed because they tried to farm a piece of ground that they’d fallen in love with. A vision of Pomona seduced them and led them on, but they were never able to support themselves because the land they had a relationship with had too many “issues.” Mother Nature takes many alluring forms but she doesn’t have much pity for suckers.

Once you’ve found an affordable piece of ground to rent with good soil, water, and access, pay attention to kinds of farm equipment that your neighbors have. Being a peasant looks great on paper, but it’s a drag in real life to bend over when your back is blown out. As soon as you can, you’re going to want to buy equipment to ease your labors. Seriously consider buying the same kind of equipment as your neighbors have, or at least the same brand. The big farm down the road isn’t your competitor the way that Net Flicks is to a neighborhood video store. There aren’t many farms left, and the farmers in your area, both conventional and organic, make up your new peer group. You’ll need to turn to them for help and you’ll want to help them when they ask for it. Your tractor will break down, and when it does you’ll need to borrow or rent another one until it’s running again. Parts for an off-brand tractor can be expensive, hard to find, or difficult to get quickly, but if you have a common brand you can often scavenge in a neighbor’s bone yard for the thing you need. Then there are the tractor’s axels to think about.

next years winter squash ground under cover cropI know a fellow who learned his farming up in the Sacramento area where fields are typically bedded up in sixty-inch beds after the fashion of the processor tomato industry. He moved down here to the coast where row crops are usually planted out on forty or eighty-inch beds but he never adapted his farming practices to our area. When his tractor broke down he couldn’t borrow his neighbors’ equipment because their tractors’ wheels wouldn’t fit his beds, nor could he rent a tractor, since all the dealers in the area have their rental units configured on forties or eighties and didn’t want to mess around with adjusting the axels. He went bankrupt, mostly because he drank too much, put his trust in the wrong people, and wouldn’t listen to his workers, but everything counts in farming and there’s no point in making your life any harder than it needs to be. My friend had the pride of standing out from the crowd, but he lost thousands of dollars and he couldn’t fall back on the generosity of his neighbors and borrow a tractor when he needed one. When it came time for him to sell his equipment nobody local wanted it.

When you’re not looking for good land or a used John Deere tractor, read about the crops you want to grow. Having a “green thumb” is not a talent or an instinct, it’s about paying attention. Plants want to grow. Discover under what ecological regimen the crop you’re interested in evolved under and try to create those conditions on your farm. Beware of hybrid varieties that have “evolved” recently under “laboratory” conditions. These crops may not be capable of yield under organic “field” conditions unless they receive the high nitrogen inputs and chemical crutches of their test tube “ancestors.” Beware, too, of the old-fashioned “heirloom” crops that were popular when your grandparents were infants. There may be good reasons these varieties passed from general use. Heirloom crops may not be very resistant to diseases in your growing region, they may take too long to mature under your day length conditions, or they may be pretty but yield poorly. In short, beware, as in “be aware.” Plant varieties that work well for your neighbors but experiment on a small scale with new or different crops, in case your neighbors are fools or are too stuck in their ways to change when new opportunities beckon.

Once you have a farm, don’t plant out the whole place at once. Managing a farm is a bit like making music. Take Trois Gymnopedies, by Eric Satie, for example. It’s a musical composition which contains thousands of notes. Every single note sounds beautiful, but the overall effect is easiest to appreciate if the pianist doesn’t play them all at once. Timing is everything, in the concert hall and in the beet field. On the farm you’ll want to keep some open ground to plant into if your initial sowings fail. You’ll want open ground for sequential sowings so that your harvests don’t come all at once. And you’ll want to keep some ground fallow to rest and recuperate for future crops. It’s true that nature marks the time for the passage of the seasons, but for finding the appropriate rhythm of your farm your abandoned MBA may come in useful; long term success in farming has as much to do with creating a steady, year-round cash flow as with getting close to nature. Spread out the planting, the harvesting, and the sales so you can do a good job and you’re not overwhelmed. “Less” is often “more.” One rule I keep is to never sow anything new until I’ve taken care of the crops I’ve already planted. Why throw good money after bad?

Once you start harvesting some crops will inevitably spoil before you can pick or sell them. When this happens, don’t feel guilty because “food is being wasted.” You’re a producer now, not a consumer. You haven’t “wasted” food until you’ve spent time or money to pick it, wash it, pack it, deliver it, and then thrown it away! The earth is like a bank account; vegetables that go unpicked stay with the earth– no withdrawal is made. Is oil “wasted” because it hasn’t been pumped yet? A crop taken from the ground is a loan from the soil that needs to be repaid with fertilizer that put nutrients back into the earth. If unpicked, unwashed, unpacked, unsold “food” bothers you, buy a goat, a pig, a sheep or a rabbit and feed them your overproduction. Then eat your animals in the winter when they’re fat from the excess vegetables you grew and you’re skinny from overwork.

Is there more? Of course there is. The harvest is the most important event in the world that happens every year, and I’m glad young MBAs are thinking about it. If I was a young business school senior, I’d start an apiary. Bee keepers don’t need to rent land because farmers like me want to share their land with bees and we may even pay the bee keeper for the pleasure. All you need to build bee hives is a hammer, some nails, and a saw. If you’re busted flat you can start your first colony by capturing bees when they swarm. Honey sells well in local markets because it has unique, therapeutic, anti-allergenic properties qualities. Honey keeps well, travels well, and you can even make it into mead. There’s always money in alcohol. How’s that for a “Plan B?” Happy trails, business majors. Fear not. We were made for the earth and she for us.

Copyright 2009 Andy Griffin

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7 Responses to “Apocalypse Deferred”

  1. 1 denise

    i’m no farmer, but i do believe renting versus buying is the way to go…at least for me. we just rented a home in point reyes for a year and took up vegetable gardening. we LOVED the good times, but there were bad times too and we couldn’t have known about them before moving in. we were able to deal with challenges lightly and not become overly stressed out because we hadn’t invested our life savings in the property. sadly, the economy is causing us to move back to our little studio apartment in san francisco and we will have to give up growing vegetables…at least for now. i am trying to figure out a way to grow carrots (love the scarlet nantes and new kuroda) in my bay window, but i’m not sure if that is actually plausible. maybe we’ll give farming a go one day, and we will rent! thanks for the article and for all of your writing. i’m a fan. happy farming : )

  2. 2 rochelle

    AN IDEA!
    For those who are captured bye the fantasy of renting a farm, to farm, I’d like to suggest living on one first.
    Not realizing how incredibly different life on the farm is compared to life in the suburban jungle, scout around on Craigslist for little bungalows ‘for rent’.
    I have one to try out. Rent is incredibly affordable, and you can try out for yourself if schlupping around in the mud when it rains to reach your car, goes over well when you walk into your 9-5 job/office. They may ask you to leave your shoes at the door ;-)
    It’s all about new adventures.

  3. 3 gwen

    Andy - that’s one of the most sensible articles I’ve read in a long time. Thanks for telling it like it is!

  4. 4 Angeline

    I’m a CSA subscriber, pianist, and aspiring backyard gardener in Cupertino. LOVE the Satie reference - it made my day, and it makes perfect sense!

  5. 5 Robin

    As always, your articles are educational as well as entertaining. Thanks they are a joy to read!

  6. 6 John

    Great post. I would also recommend being an intern on a farm. I did this for a summer and it was invaluable. While I did not myself continue on to farm the amount of experience I received in that one year was amazing! Plus if you can find a farmer that is willing to give some extra responsibilities it can really kick it up a notch. One other tid-bit would be to read and listen and attend Eco-farm! There is also a new organic farming resource out there as of late, check it out at http://extension.org/organic%20production

  7. 7 Don Mutchler

    Funny. This reminds me of all the folks I’ve met when I was a cook/chef. “Oh, I’ve always wanted to own a restaurant! It must be so fun and glamorous.” Maybe, assuming 80+ hours/week, no insurance (or expensive insurance), and extreme temperatures constitutes your idea of glamor.

    I’ll stick to gardening and philosophy. Will try some orach this year (that’s what led me to this site). Will see if it does well in the deep South’s heat and humidity. Maybe it will be like okra and thrive in it. Maybe I’ll plant it under my okra…

    Great writing. Thanks.

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