Farming: A Not-For-Profit Enterprise?

June 4, 2015

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I am just musing now, as in a-muse, not advocating and criticizing. What if the economics of money profit and loss, under capitalism, or socialism, or a monarchy or any other system, don’t really work for farming. Maybe growing food is supposed to be a not-for-profit enterprise, a part of our personal duty, like bathing and brushing our teeth. Or a sport like amateur golf done for fun not for money.

The usual reaction among farmers when I bring up this notion is a chorus of snickers and joking agreement that the best to be said for farming is that you die rich so the kids have something to fight over. And there’s more than a little truth in that. So why am I considered supremely naive to just come right out and say that maybe owning land is a good investment and is the only way farming is profitable financially. Even when farms are huge and seemingly sure-fire moneymakers at least some years, they continue to rely heavily on subsidies to make ends meet.

Not-for-profit farming would be based on a different economic model for farmland. “Profit” would come from the satisfaction and enjoyment and recreational value of possessing or owning land, not squeezing it to death for money profit. Then the land and the farmer’s life on it would not be subject to money manipulation and would not need the highest yields or the biggest machinery to survive. It would just need more not-for-profit food producers.

The major goal for successful farming would not be to reap the highest amount of money from the land but to reap the most pleasure and satisfaction that a farm can provide. For example, the not-for-profit farmer would be content to derive as much enjoyment out of fishing, ice skating, boating, swimming, and bird-watching on his pond that others derive from taking vacation trips to far off lands. Rather than seeing the farm primarily as a place to make money, the non-profit farmer would see it as a refuge from strife. They would then have to make only enough money to pay taxes and cover living costs, the latter being minimal since the farm, correctly managed, can provide many of those costs without cash outlay. The financial reward would come from the rise in the value of the land both as property and as increasingly fertile soil. The earthworms would get so big they could be used for hamburger instead of beef.

My thinking is that few people look at life in this way because the world of money champions a philosophy of consumption using extremely clever advertising to convince us that striving for more money to buy more stuff is the only way to happiness. Our cultural attitude helps by suggesting that living in the cheap lane is a mark of sloth, almost immoral. Some religious sects have taught outright that wealth is a sign of God’s blessings. Add to that the ignorance of those who think of farming as dirty, lowly, physically distasteful work. What emerges is a farmer whose goal is money enough to buy big farm machines that eliminate physical work so that he has the time and money to sweat profusely on an exercise machine.

When highest possible profit rules farming, the possession of the land inevitably flows into the hands of the richer people and more and more poor people are dispossessed— forced off or lured off the land. It has happened so regularly in history that it has become almost a commonplace theme of literature. Oliver Goldsmith’s poem, “The Deserted Village,” which is a commentary and condemnation of England’s Enclosure Acts, says it so well. I think I have quoted it here before. Worth doing so again.

“…A time there was, ere England’s griefs began

When every rood of ground maintained its man;

For him, light labor spread her wholesome store,

Just gave what life required but gave no more;

His best companions were innocence and health

And his best riches, ignorance of wealth…”

Today, people thinking about becoming farmers are not poor like the serfs or peasants or sharecroppers of past history who fled to the cities to escape dire poverty and brutal unrewarded work. Today’s new farmers and quite a few of the old ones are well informed and know how to enjoy life without clamoring for highest profits. They have all manner of gadgets to relieve hard labor. They have electricity at the flick of a switch, even their own home-generated power in some cases. They have all the art and entertainment treasures of civilization at the flick of another switch. They know how to enjoy a full life at lower middle class affordability. There is a good chance that they are fathering and mothering a new kind of decentralized, non-industrial agriculture. Actually, as the wave of interest in local farms and artisanal food rises higher and higher, I think maybe this new age has already begun.

Gene Logsdon

Gene and Carol Logsdon have a small-scale experimental farm in Wyandot County, Ohio. Gene is the author of numerous books and magazine articles on farm-related issues, and believes sustainable pastoral farming is the solution for our stressed agricultural system.

Tags: building resilient food systems, small-scale farming