2015 Smithsonian magazine, “Welcome To Farmtopia” by Franz Lidz, gives yet another example of the legitimacy of the local food, backyard farm movement. I should be overjoyed since this sort of thing is what I’ve preached and predicted for 50 years. Farmtopia in this article features Serenbe, Georgia, one of the new homesite developments in the U.S. clustered around a farm instead of a golf course. The people who live in the houses volunteer to help with the farm work in return for sharing the food produced. So far, so good and I wish the project and others like it well. But I am not overwhelmed with optimism by this kind of farmtopia because I have lived too long and seen too many similar attempts fail. They mostly do not endure because they start with what I call “farming from on high.” Someone, usually rich and with great good intentions, sort of imposes or provides his or her idea of farming on a group of people. Projects like this tend to confuse someone’s idealism about farming with its realism. Developers of farmtopias first of all want to make money selling real estate. If they can do it by appealing to the latest trends, why not? But how often in my life have I watched publicly-inspired gardens laid out and planted with great fanfare in the spring turn into a jungle of weeds by fall.
If the new notion of local farming and food production is to endure, it must start with determined individuals willing to go through the hellfire of unpleasant physical work and low financial returns. The successful farmers and market gardeners I know would not believe they could afford to live in Serenbe, let alone want to farm there. Daron “Farmer D” Joffe, who calls himself an entremanure, was the first farm manager at Serenbe but has gone on to other things, as they say. He says in the article what I think: “A farmer wants to have equity and something to call his own.” Garden farming at best is not too profitable. You hang in there for other reasons. You are out there enduring low income and heat and bugs and bad weather because you want to have your own place in this crazy world and not have to be forced to listen to someone’s else’s music.
I prefer the realism of the farmUNtopia where I live to the idealism of farmtopia. My county, Wyandot in Ohio, is quite rural. The population hasn’t changed much since 1885. I came back here to live at great financial risk because I grew up here and like it, at least most of the time. Instead of villages clustering around a farm, we have farms clustered around villages. Historically, town and country have always been tied together economically and socially although we hate to admit it. The earliest inhabitants of the village were retired farmers or town workers trying to save up enough money to buy a farm. As farms centralized into bigger and bigger acreages, smaller farmers kept their land by working in town and bigger farmers hired help from town. Today, we have construction workers, house builders, bankers, lawyers, shopkeepers, mechanics, realtors, even a doctor or two who are part time farmers. We have our share of roadside markets, a growing farmers’ market, hundreds of backyard gardeners, a few small, artisan farms, and even a winery. A winery in this land of lumbering dinosaur tractors is almost as unlikely as an oil well in New York’s Central Park. One of our very largest farmers at one time or another ran a blacksmith shop, a bit of a trucking business, a restaurant, a stone quarry, and a motel. He and I have had our differences but I consider him a friend. What amuses me so much about this cultivator of some 9000 acres is that he has taken a lively interest in backyard chicken coops. I wonder if he’s thinking about manufacturing them. One of our smallest farmers is the head chef at the Worthington Inn, the most highly regarded restaurant in Columbus, Ohio. He and his wife are working their butts off raising vegetables on their little farm that he serves to his restaurant clientele forty five minutes away. How much more superutopian can you get than that?
All this is happening because the people involved worked it out themselves. They have been willing to take on hell and highwater (and we have had a lot of the latter lately) to do it, use outside help when it works for them, know both the dark side of farming as well as the gaudy side, and do it not because some power on high has delivered their farming to their door. One of the advantages of such a rural society is that we can see firsthand all sides in the controversies that arise between big farms and little ones, between using chemicals and not using them, between good management and bad, between the real article and the faker and work out compromises. I hope.
I also hope that all kinds of farmtopias succeed, but I think the new local food movement will last a lot longer in the real world of un-utopia if driven by people who know farming is a constant confrontation with a natural world that doesn’t give a hoot whether we live or die.