A piece of land is as useful as they who farm it make it, no matter the size.
A farmer is a polymath, often an autodidact. Farmer knowledge varies according to the crop. For example, to succeed in horticulture, plant farmers are asked to be familiar with biochemistry, microbiology, engine mechanics, landscaping, pruning, rotational planning, seed saving, specific plant knowledge, composting and annual budgeting. If the farm is a small one, it helps to be comfortable with marketing, self-promotion and the creation and maintenance of working business relationships. Farming is one of the few professions that could be said to make use of every subject you learnt in school.
To be a successful full-time farmer not only in horticulture but in animal husbandry, seed production, dairy, tillage and poultry, particularly organic, should be cheered and promoted.
To be a successful full-time horticulture farmer with only three acres is to be born into it or highly passionate, curious and driven.
As an incentive, the guru of “better, not bigger” is Jean-Martin Fortier, a Canadian who consistently grosses 100,000$ on a 1.5-acre market garden from a 200-strong Community Supported Agriculture box scheme. He has proven that size is not the key factor in farm profitability.
Another example of the “better, not bigger” farming philosophy is Black Locust farm near Portland, Oregon. The farm is young but ambitious. It is a two-year old organic market farm specialising in high-quality horticulture for restaurants and certain retail outlets. Daniel Sullivan and Jesse are the two who have undertaken this venture and together they bring to it thirty years experience of working with the land. The plot is Northern Oregon and is subject to hot summers and cold winters. There is a sense that they are stewards of the land. While the initial lease lasts for only 4 years, there is a desire to maintain or improve the fertility of the soil and the connecting environment. They are achieving this by practicing what is referred to as “Commercial Permaculture”.
During a farm visit, a discussion of techniques used reveals my current lack of familiarity with microbiology. They are using fertigation, at the same time irrigating the land and fertilising it with organic fertilisers using a drip-tape system to avoid wasting water. They are also exploring beneficial nematodes as part of an integrated pest management system. These are endoparasites which feed on the larvae of insects which are, in the context of the farm, seen as pests and are used in tandem with other kinds of pest management that accords with organic farming principles. From the abundance in the field to the positive feedback from the chefs, it is clear that the methods used are working.
Black Locust farm is also consciously growing varieties of plants that are best adapted to the bioregion. Inspiration has been drawn from Oregon State University Agriculture Department, a hotbed for plant biodiversity research which has greatly supported the works of the independent seed savers in the area including Wild Garden Seeds and many others. The work of researcher Lane Selman is another influencing factor in the farm’s decisions. She works to link up farmers, breeders and chefs through a Culinary Breeding Network which strengthens the on-ground incentive for farmers to work with more diverse, less familiar seeds, especially when paired with chefs who are eager to cook with such varieties. The pairing of Black Locust farm with some of the more dynamic Portland restaurants could be seen as one success story.
Black Locust farm is a farm designed using integrative thinking. Through conscious interaction between multiple areas of knowledge and collaboration between professions, the land can achieve a premium productivity level while maintaining or even improving its soils fertility, weed load and habitat for mycelium, micro-organisms and all the decomposers and rebuilders that are essential to soil health. Multiple knowledge pathways, integrative design and hard work can lead to strong soil which supports the health and taste of plants which in turn leads to successful partnerships with restaurants, retailers and co-consumers.
Small is not only an ethical choice but also a design choice, and when it comes to the futures of our farms, we need to choose wisely.