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What IS Farming, Anyway?

Updated: Jul 1, 2021

Recently, I realized my own biases about what constitutes farming. As a point of reference, and likely surprising to some, I absolutely do not consider myself a farmer despite living on a farm, working on a farm, tending animals and growing things for market. I'm not sure what I consider myself, but I am not a self-proclaimed farmer, nor do I say that I "Farm." I do jokingly call myself "Farmtress Flossy" from time to time, however!

Once, a few years back, one of our neighbors told me, "Bill is one of the last real farmers left in the area." I found that an interesting idea and wondered how that person defined farming to include Bill as one of the last few? He fits all the categories of farming:

1) He owns land and has a farm site with barn and other outbuildings

2) He grows commodity crops (more than just corn and soybeans)

3) He doesn't have any other source of income - no off-farm job

4) He raises animals (more than one kind)

5) He grows feed (both grain and hay) for his animals and for others with animals

6) He uses tractors and machinery to farm

7) He submits farm/crop maps and info with the USDA Farm Services Agency every year

100 years ago in the US, farming meant a very different thing. Back in 1921, we still had a large portion of the population sharecropping, many Americans lived on family farms, and there were subsistence farmers (Dirt Farmers as I like to be called) who lived off a small parcel of land and farmed it by hand to provide only what their family needed to survive. Certainly, there were farms of 160 acres or more working much like William, but lots of folks were farmers on plots of land no bigger than an acre or two.

Zoom forward 100 years, and we are actually seeing a resurgence of small-scale farming, but it's taking on a new shape and vernacular. There are increasing numbers of vegetable farmers intensively growing on one or two acres, homesteaders may have up to twenty acres and not only plant vegetables, but raise animals like chickens, goats, sheep or even have a cow or two, and farming has expanded to include fibre, flowers, fish and other things! Products that are raised, grown, tended and meant for market are expanding, and so too, is the definition of farming. Yet, large-scale industrial farms of hundreds or thousands of acres growing corn, soybeans or wheat are the modern-day standard of farming.

Here is where I tend to have some sort of old-fashioned, and I am sure, white culturally constrained idea about what constitutes farming. For some reason, I thought farmers couldn't be farmers if they also hold off-farm jobs. I'd consider them hobby farmers or "Gentlemen Farmers." However, the reality is that farmers today typically hold a full-time job while also running hundreds (if not thousands) of acres. In the past, I was stumped when someone in a suburban cul de sac told me they farm, but I've learned farmers don't always live on traditional farms with a big red barn. When I was teaching in St.Paul, lots of my students came from agrarian countries where their parents subsistence farmed. But when a refugee student had a garden and chickens in their backyard in the city, I didn't see that as farming.

I see now how important it is that the concept of farming expands as people want to expand economic opportunity and reconnect with the land and a healthier way of life. There is something magical about planting seeds that grow into delicious food, watching chicks grow to hens who begin to lay eggs, and extreme freedom in working for oneself. We are from this earth and perhaps need the dirt beneath our feet to be fully grounded in our reason to be. I wonder if we wouldn't be a much healthier society if every family had an acre. I've never been convinced that "high density" living is the way to go.

So, I don't say, "I farm," but I sure do a lot of work related to farming! I guess I'd consider myself a subsistence farmer in the sense that I grow a couple of massive gardens, I put food by for winter, I tend a flock of chickens, I market our products at the farm store, and new to the world of agriculture, I host tourists who want to visit one of the last vestiges of "real" farming (agritourism).

After all this, perhaps this issue is only about semantics. I cannot say "I am a farmer" as that connotes to me much of the list above. But, if we include an adjective to describe what kind, then there is space for lots of us to be farmers. This make sense, because after all, farming should not be a homogenous concept.

Vegetable Farmer

Flower Farmer

Fibre Farmer

Small-Scale Farmer

Organic Farmer

Urban Farmer


Fish Farmer

Hobby Farmer

Recreational Farmer

Industrial Farmer

Conventional Farmer

Chicken Farmer

Goat Farmer

Sheep Farmer

Tea Farmer

LIke in yoga...a practicing farmer...maybe that's what I am?

It is true, there are very few folks in the US who are farming like William: organic, small family farm, large variety of crops, many animals, and most importantly, able to survive economically on farming alone. He's a dying breed. I for one, would like to see that change. I'd love to see folks from the city who want to get out and back to the land have that chance. That'll be another topic for another date.


A million things are in the store! The greenhouse is bursting at the seams with basil, kale, beets, cucumbers, carrots, etc. Expect to see these items making a show in the fridge: beet dip, Chimichurri Sauce with Thai Basil, Genovese and Carrot Tops, Roasted Beet Dressing for the PINK Goddess in all of us, and a ton of other delicious goodies! The BLUEBERRY PICKERS are about to arrive at our neighbor's farm, Rush River Produce, and I am ready this year with a fully stocked store.

I hope you consider making a trip to the farm. I'd love to see you. I'll be out and about to help with questions or to jabber as we are about to get busy up on the hill!

Sending LOTS of love from the farm,

Your farmer, (ha!)

Sarah Brenner

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