Monday, April 11, 2011

Pot Pies and Egg Money Premise #3: Challenge the "get big or get out" myth

I was asked recently if it's possible to actually make any money raising poultry. My somewhat facetious response was that we'd find out after my book about heritage poultry is published.

Seriously, though, the query did get me thinking at a deeper level about what it is that we're doing here. Are we trying to make a living or make a life? Be more self-sufficient or more involved in our community? Indulge a hobby or create a lifestyle that reflects our values, our spirituality, our world view, even our politics? I am quickly coming to the intriguing conclusion that to one degree or another, it's all of these things.

Those of you who know me are aware of my love for the "what if" questions. Here's one to consider: What if the "get big or get out" idea of farming is simply wrong?

"Small" farmers, you know what I'm talking about. Supposedly wiser minds than ours want us to believe that short of buying up more and more acreage to raise the same crop (read "commodity") year after year, it's just not possible to make a living in today's farming world; hence, "get big or get out". Never mind the costs: the depletion of soil elements critical to its long-term health; the need for more and more chemicals over time; the financial stress of increasing debt and uncertainty. Funny thing, the marketing gurus behind such ideas don't mention the costs; perhaps they aren't aware of them, or maybe they just don't care. After all, they're in marketing, not farming.

Here's another question: Should we believe that "get big or get out" are really the only choices? To me, this mantra implies that at the end of the day, what's important is the profit margin. In other words, the bottom line is business. I think it's time to consider the possibility that growing or producing something to sell is actually not the only way to define sustainable farming. Granted, by definition, farming can't be "sustainable" if the farm habitually loses money. But there's more than one way to "make" money. For example, suppose that instead of earning more money by selling more crops, we save more money by growing more of our own food?

My mother once said to me that there is a unique sense of empowerment in providing even a small proportion of your own food. It seems to me that the trend of "eating local", coinciding as it has with our national economic downturn, is a perfect opportunity (and should be the motivation) for us all to do just that. It doesn't get much more local than growing your own. Also, considering that most of our food is transported quite some distance to get to us (see "Pot Pies and Egg Money Premise #2"), it's clear that saving significantly on our food costs is a real possibility. And of course, we benefit from the freshness, great taste and nutrition of food grown seasonally in our gardens.

I guess what I'm suggesting is that we all take a thoughtful look at our lifestyles, the things that we value, our true priorities. Suppose we pass on to our children the joy and deep satisfaction of planting a seed, then nurturing and harvesting a crop? Suppose we re-define our financial lives by choosing to live debt-free? Suppose we start thinking in terms of the legacy of our choices, instead of just today's bottom line? Small farmers, backyard gardeners and city dwellers, take heart: Saving money and providing for yourself and your family are not just possible, they're great choices.

Think small; simplify. Buy local, sell local, grow your own. How's that for a legacy?

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