Editor’s Note: “Burning Questions” takes an in-depth look at the hot-button issues facing today’s farmers. The ideas expressed here are not the opinions of Hobby Farms, but of individual farmers and food advocates rooted in the local-food movement. If you have thoughts or opinions about what is expressed here, please contribute them in the comments below. We want to hear from you, too!
It was perhaps the most beautiful farm I’d ever seen. Everything was mulched and weedless. There were ponds and terraces and straw-bale structures. Picture your ideal permaculture farm and know this is where I was standing. But the farmer herself would tell you this was a subsistence farm. It produced what was necessary and little more. You could tell this left her feeling a little bewildered about her future. As a farmer in her 30s, running a farm with no inputs or machinery that simply maintained itself was fine, but but now that she was approaching 50, she felt the need for a more secure future. This farm, beautiful though it was, was not providing that.
For me, this was a sad wake up call. I love permaculture farming and natural systems. I love Henry David Thoreau and living off the land. Indeed, my wife and I live very simply in an off-grid cabin on our own farm, but to make this life realistic, it still has to be viable. That is what I came to realize that day—the farm has to take care of the farmer, too.
So how do you accomplish that without sacrificing your own ideals? I guess there’s no easy answer: make sacrifices or get creative.
I think of our permaculture farmer friend and wonder about agritourism on her property. I have no doubt people would pay to see her farm, to stay there, to help her work and eat good, fresh food. I mean, I would pay! She could invest a little in housing or host a couple natural-building workshops to construct some simple cabins for guests. I also think of her doing farm tours, writing a book or doing consultations. These, of course, would fall under the “getting creative” category.
The “making sacrifices” answer is a little more complicated. On our farm, for example, we have done without machinery for a long time, but have recently been considering investing in a BCS walking tractor. This is because it would save my back a lot of trouble in the future, increase our gardens’ productivity, and help us build soil—all of which are within our ideals and holistic goals. However, what is not in our ideals is investing in machinery.
In our efforts to live and farm sustainably, we don’t want to depend on yet another petroleum-driven machine. Our dream is using draft animals who use grass as fuel and to create soil, but when we look around our property, we realize how unrealistic that is at the moment. We don’t have the pasture or infrastructure to handle draft animals. A BCS, by comparison, can turn on and off at our whim and be stored along with the rest of our tools. Plus, it will enable us to grow more food, feed more people, and make enough money to set aside some for retirement, some land, draft animals or a college fund for our son.
Making this decision between profitability and sustainability isn’t easy for us, but as of right now, it might be the direction we head. Perhaps there’s good reason the USDA does not have an official definition for the term “sustainable,” because sustainability is something the farmer must define for themselves. And that is not an easy thing to do.
Tell us where you’d draw the line between sustainability and profit on our Facebook page.