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Ana Hotaling
April 18, 2018

A recent conversation—if you can call it that—I had on Twitter left me amused but also stunned about the public perception of farming. A politician had Tweeted about farmers in America, generating a vast number of comments and replies. I scanned them with a cynical eye, and one remark caught my attention: “All farmers are ignorant and uneducated.”

Well, that sucked me in. I launched into a discourse about land-grant universities and how there is so much more to farming than planting seeds and collecting eggs. This in turn generated a flurry of responses but, to my surprise, none was about agriculture and higher education. Instead, the Tweets focused on me.

A Twitter user I’ll call Crissy L., for instance, zeroed in on my location, noting that living in the Midwest doesn’t make me a “real” farmer. Tyler J. jumped on my comment about my across-the-street neighbor, Pam—not about Pam’s miniature donkey and pygmy goat farm but about my use of the word “street.” “Real” farmers apparently don’t use the word “street,” therefore I was not a “real” farmer. Boy C. also centered his attention on this comment, claiming that “real” farmers don’t have neighbors—they have only miles and miles of farmland. The most astonishing response, however, came from Reagan T., who saw the link to my Hobby Farms columns in my bio and declared that the original discussion was about “real” farms, not hobby farms.

Wow.

I got the distinct feeling that most of these Twitter users base their concept of farming on storybook idealism. “Real” farmers wear plaid shirts and denim overalls, spend the day riding John Deere tractors through their 300 acres of farmland, and store their tractors at the end of the day in picturesque but dilapidated red barns. To be sure, there’s nothing wrong with people who do that. However, the reality of farming has evolved beyond the kiddie picture book.

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Location, Location, Location

I am far from the Midwest farmer’s daughter that the Beach Boys sing about in “California Girls.” I’m actually a Wall Street executive’s daughter. However, I am the granddaughter of farmers, and I spent several years living with my grandparents as well as one summer on a dairy farm in France. That lovely little farm featured the freshest, creamiest milk I’ve ever had, rich with the flavor of the tiny Alpine strawberries the cows loved to munch.

hobby farmers real milking cow
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That farm was perched on a mountainside just outside Héry, France. My grandparents’ farm was in the Peruvian Andes. My farm is in rural Michigan. It’s true that my location doesn’t automatically make me a farmer, just as Crissy remarked in her Tweet. I’m a Midwest farmer by choice. That French couple chose to own a dairy farm rather than, say, a ski resort. My grandparents chose to be farmers rather than Andean adventure outfitters. Barring any local ordinances restricting agricultural activity, a person can farm anywhere, from the rooftops of Chicago to the frontier lands of of Alaska.

hobby farmers real
Ana Hotaling

All Walks of Life Unite

Nicky is an internet technician. Todd is an optometrist. Katy is a U.S. Army veteran. And I’m a journalist and fitness instructor. If you think we have nothing in common, guess again: We are all poultry farmers. Our work experiences differ, as do our educations and upbringings. We might not have grown up in agriculture—or anywhere near it—but we are farmers now. We all haul feed, fill waterers, collect eggs and watch our chickens’ crazy antics. If you’ve dreamed of owning a flock of your own but have qualms because you’re in accounting, engineering or retail sales, kick your hesitation to the curb. If we can do it, so can you. After all, we were all novices at one time, and not a day goes by that we don’t learn something new.

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Size Matters Not

Not all farms are situated on extensive fields: what you farm has a direct influence on how much land is needed. My neighbor Pam doesn’t require a lot of land for her pint-sized donkeys and goats. Nigel, whose honey farm is just north of us, keeps his beehives on less than a quarter acre. Emily grows heirloom vegetables in a hoophouse in her side yard. Louis tends to his compact hop farm just south of us. We all live along the same street (or road, or rural route—call it what you will) of our township, separated by acres or at most, a couple of miles. Does the size of our farm make any of us any less of a farmer? Absolutely not.

Across America, increasing numbers of people are turning to agriculture, raising crops and livestock on smaller, more easily sustained plots of land. Sometimes land isn’t even involved. Chicago’s Uncommon Ground is a national leader in rooftop farming. Aquaponics, hydroponics and vertical gardening are popular with urban and suburban farmers, while bee- and chicken-keeping are becoming increasingly commonplace. None of these activities requires extensive acreage, yet all of them are bona fide farming.

hobby farmers real vertical gardening
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Sorry, Boy C., but I for one can’t imagine having 50 acres—or more—filled with chickens. My handful of acres keeps me busy enough. Likewise, I’m certain that Rona, who keeps a backyard flock in nearby Chelsea, has her hands full with her hens and would shudder at the work involved in keeping my flocks. Does Rona’s backyard flock qualify her as a farmer? You better believe it does.

hobby farmers real chickens
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A Hard-Working Hobby

I vividly recall how hard that French couple worked on their dairy farm. They were up before dawn, first to hand-milk their cows, then to lead them to their pastureland. The couple spent a great deal of time separating the cream from the milk, bottling both for sale, and hand-churning butter. They had only six cows, but they were busy from dawn to dusk. Were they wealthy? Not at all. Madame confided to me once that their earnings barely covered the cost of the bottles and caps, the veterinary fees and the winter feed. For them, keeping cows and producing dairy items for their handful of clients made them happy. That’s all that mattered.

That’s what’s at the heart of hobby farming. Legally, a hobby farm is a not-for-profit agricultural entity. Those of us who own hobby farms aren’t in it for the money. We are motivated by factors we consider more important. My friend David simply adores his chickens and peacocks; they bring great joy to his life. My friend Paris loves developing breeding projects and watching them come to fruition in her flocks. Doug delights in growing organic vegetables for his wife and select customers. And me? I get a kick out of watching my birds’ interactions, with each other and with us. They’re a great source of inspiration, amusement, education and awe.

But don’t think for a minute, like Reagan T. did, that hobby farming isn’t “real” farming. Like that French couple, we devote endless hours to tending our flocks, herds, hives and crops. We are often up to our ears in feed, fertilizer, water, weeding, medical care, breeding and more. We spend hours collecting, cleaning, preparing, packaging, marketing and selling our farm’s products. A lot of time is spent cleaning and sanitizing our tools, equipment, machinery and shelters. Hobby farming isn’t like stamp collecting or needlepoint, pastimes that we can simply set aside and get back to when we’re not busy. It’s an avocation and a vocation, a labor but also a labor of love.

Are you a hobby farmer? Then you’re as real as you can get, even if you don’t own a single plaid shirt or set of denim overalls. I might own them, but I don’t need them to define me.

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