For our first two years of “hardcore” homesteading, here at the reLuxe Ranch, I resisted calling myself a farmer. In my mind, farmers drove combines and raised monocrops. They used pesticides and herbicides and focused on NPK.  Farmers sold bulk crops by the truck loads to massive conglomerates and were paid according to prices set by commodity futures trading.

By contrast, I worked by hand, with limited fossil fuel use, encouraging plant and animal diversity, and placed an emphasis on building biological soil and minimizing our carbon footprint. I also spent some of my time making products for personal use like goat cheese, chili paste, lard soap, etc. using our own farm crops and resources.  The stuff we sell is mostly the extra that we can’t eat ourselves, though I do raise small flocks of ducks for meat and eggs specifically to sell to others. In my view, I was a homesteader, not a farmer.

When I started selling at the farmers market last year, and met other small producers who referred to themselves as farmers, I began to reassess my definition of farmer. And when I did, I felt somewhat mystified as to why my idea of what qualified someone as a farmer had become so narrow in my own mind.  After all, my grandmother was a farmer… and not the combine-driving kind. She had forty acres in Southeastern Missouri that she worked manually or using animals. Her farm had a large stand of walnut trees used for food and wood, a small area for field crops, livestock, and a kitchen garden. From the stories my mom tells, my grandma was doing many of the same things we are…only more of it since she had seven kids to feed and buying food at the grocery store wasn’t an option.

Honestly, I don’t know why my definition of farmer had strayed so far from my own family history. But I suspect it had something to do with my relationship to money. At some point in my adult life, I became convinced that titles only counted when you made your living from them. The more I thought about it, though, the sillier that idea seemed.

My grandmother didn’t need someone to tell her she was a farmer. Her back told her at the end of the day. Her blood told her as it pumped vigorously from the exertion of farm chores. Her belly told her when it was filled with the food she grew. And she knew it in her soul when she laid down in exhaustion to the deep sleep of hard, but meaningful work. As for money, my grandmother barely made any at all. Most of what she grew fed her family. The little bit she sold didn’t even cover her cash needs. Seasonally, she had to work on larger farms picking cotton or other crops to make extra money.

Begrudgingly, in respect for my grandmothers legacy, I decided to call myself a farmer.  I even put it on my tax return. Yet I still had lingering doubts as to whether I deserved the title until this week.  My change of heart started when I came across the following passage in a copy of Foxfire 11:

Along with appreciation of home comes a sense of responsibility, of hard work, dedication, and self-sufficiency. Self-sufficiency is the ability to support or maintain oneself without aid or cooperation from others. In the Appalachian mountains, farming is, and has always been, a means of self-sufficiency. When one has a farm, it has to be carefully and diligently worked and harvested to ensure proper growth and use of the crops. Farmers couldn’t sleep in or take the day off. They had to get up every day and milk the cows, clean out the barn, feed the animals, mend a fence, plant or harvest a crop, and cut hay. This just didn’t happen every Tuesday or once a month; it happened every day of their lives, and if they didn’t do it, life was at stake – an animal’s, someone else’s, or their own.

My definition of self-sufficiency is a little different in that part of our ethos, or “mission”, is to rekindle some kinds of inter-dependencies within our local community. In the past, people knew their community members’ strengths, weaknesses, and resources and used this information to establish bartering networks, divvy up work, and equipment share. And labor intensive activities like haying, hog killing, cider pressing, barn raising have always been community-supported even for self-sufficient farmers.

What really struck me about the passage, though, was that last line “…and if they didn’t do it, life was at stake”.  Sometimes when you read something, you just know it’s important, even if you don’t immediately know why. Those words seemed important. It only took me a second to calculate how applicable they were to my grandmother, the farmer, but it took me a little longer to figure out if they applied to me. In fact, it took some serendipitous events over the next few days to really resolve the questions that turn of phrase raised.

Just a few hours after I came across that passage, we went town to listen to Matt’s dad, Tim, give a talk on a photo essay he composed related to our farm adventures. His photo essay was wonderful, but when he was creating it, Matt and I both felt uncomfortable when he used the term “sustainable farmers” in reference to us.  We had suggested to Tim that he call us “homesteaders”, but he held fast to the title of farmers feeling strongly that it best encompassed our activities from his perspective.

Tim’s talk was really informative and listening to him describe all the research he had done, and the eye opening experiences he had while taking the photos, cast new light on how he perceived our work.  After his talk, several of the attendees shared some of their experiences related to farming. It all sounded distinctly like what we were doing.  And it surprised me to hear the personal chord that our kind of farming struck with almost everyone in the room.

Whether they had farmed or not, they related farming – not to big agribusiness type farming – but specifically to small-scale, homestead-style farming. Absolutely no one questioned whether we were really farmers. There was certainly a tone of nostalgia for the good old days in some of the conversation, but there was also a sense of urgency and relevance to our predicaments today. Two retired teachers even recommended that we try share our story and knowledge with local schools because they felt it was important that children know how food is raised and grown and rekindle their connections to small farms.

Around this same time, a friend of mine asked if she could bring some out of town guests to our place for a tour.  She said she wanted to show them a “real farm”.  This made me laugh because, my friend raises a few heads of cattle, over 40 meat goats, has more laying chickens than we do, and she does some gardening. By sheer volume of production, her farm seems a whole lot more “real” than ours. Yet to her, because we grow, raise, and process most of our products from start to finish on our property our farm is more real than her own.

And now for the clincher, the day after those first three events, I got an email that had a link to an article from Scientific American on “3 Big Myths about Modern Agriculture”. This article basically debunks the ideas that large farms feed the world, are more efficient, or that conventional methods are more productive than integrated organic practices.  This information wasn’t new to me, but seeing it laid out so simply in a reputable publication, coming on the heels of the previous day’s contemplations of what it means to be a farmer, seemed like a kind of call to arms.

Those words “and if they didn’t do it – life was at stake” are perhaps more true now than even in my grandmother’s time. I don’t mean just mine and Matt’s lives. Unlike my grandmother, we can run to the grocery store if we need something. We likely won’t starve if our crops fail. But we – as in all of us around the planet – are in the middle of the most environmentally and socially tumultuous times in human history.

I may not depend so entirely on our farm products as my grandmother did. But I absolutely believe that small, locally-based, whole-systems, resilient farms are absolutely necessary to our human survival. Big agribusiness practices (including organic farms not focused on building environmentally sound ecosystems) perform some of the most destructive human activities today. Considering that agribusiness only provides 25% of the worlds food, to only the most wealthy populations in the world, it seems exceptionally unjust that they do most of the polluting and ecological harm.

Every day, there is some discovery of just how detrimental “conventional” farming is. For example, a new study just revealed that the children of employees working at hog farms in North Carolina are carriers of  antibiotic resistant bacteria.  Additionally, conventional farmers endure  increased health risks  and have some of the most demanding, lowest paid jobs available.

For those of us who do not belong to the wealthy elite, we tend to spend a lot of time to earn a little money.  Stretching our dollars and saving time by one-stop shopping or fast-food have become necessary survival skills.  And yet, by supporting cheap, convenient, conventionally farmed foods, we are putting lives at stake.

Our own.

Today at the farmer’s market, a young boy stopped at my stand to admire my herbs. Since he knew the names of most of the herbs, I asked him if he was a gardener.  He said, “No, I’m a farmer.”  He went on to explain that he was growing a few vegetables and herbs.  It was clear from his description that he had a small-garden plot and was new to growing food.  A week ago I might have secretly snickered at his self-proclaimed assessment of himself as a farmer.  But today, Earth Day, I whole-heartedly agree.

This boy, and other farmers like him, don’t just grow food, they help grow a better world and a safer future.