The business of back-to-the-land

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by Brian Devore | April 3, 2009 • While editing a recent LSP podcast featuring farmer Joel Salatin, I was reminded of a New York Times feature on young urbanites “returning to the land” to raise food. Taken together, the podcast and the article offer further evidence that the current excitement over sustainable agriculture, local foods and stewardship farming is not a short-term fad fated to being the subject of a PBS documentary in 20 years. This movement is here to stay. And that makes it, for lack of a better word, sustainable.

Loon Commons is a blog of the Land Stewardship Project. Contact Loon Commons at bdevore@landstewardshipproject.org

The Times article made the point that this isn’t the first time city folk have answered the call of the land in droves—idealistic “back-to-the-landers” brought hippie culture to many a rural community during the 60s and 70s. But many found open spaces, organic food and being in harmony with nature alone weren’t enough to sustain their rural lifestyle, and eventually returned to the cities and suburbs of America for gigs that payed better.

But this current land rush comes with a difference: the burgeoning local foods movement is helping make living on the land an economically viable option long into the future. Several grads of LSP’s Farm Beginnings program fit the profile of the back-to-the-lander who has no previous farming experience. A willingness to learn, make mistakes and work hard, combined with the confidence that comes with having a network of established farmers as mentors, has helped many of these folks overcome their inexperience and create successful enterprises from scratch.

In fact, I have a theory that many times having no life experience (or college degree) related to agriculture can be an advantage when it comes to starting an innovative, sustainable farming venture. I know many “farm kids” who, when they tried to launch their own agricultural enterprise, were too constrained by how their parents had worked the home place, or how their ag college professor told them to run an agribusiness, to try something new.

As someone who grew up on a farm and has an ag degree from a land grant university, that’s hard to admit. But over the years I’ve interviewed a broad spectrum of Farm Beginnings grads, and it’s hard to ignore the obvious: sometimes ignorance is more than bliss—it’s actually a competitive advantage.

Some of the most exciting new farms out there are the ones that have combined an idealistic passion for returning to the land with a practical bent for making this venture sustainable financially and emotionally. Sometimes that balance exists in the same person.

At other times it has to be shared. For example, just this week I was on the western Wisconsin farm of Mike and Jody Lenz. Jody grew up on a dairy farm and went on to get a degree and teach. A few years ago, she caught the bug to return to the land. “I just felt I needed to farm. I had this undying need to farm,” she told me while we sat at the kitchen table.

Mike, on the other hand, had a somewhat, ahem, more nuanced view of the agrarian life. “I wanted nothing to do with it,” he said emphatically. He had grown up in a rural area and seen how hard farmers worked, often for little financial reward. “I went to school to be an engineer.”

But somehow Jody talked Mike into signing up for Farm Beginnings—perhaps half-hoping the class would cure her of land fever once and for all. During the first class, a farm-presenter talked about good business planning/goal setting, and how farming can be a financially viable enterprise that provides a good quality of life. Here was a farmer who was making a good living on the land and seemed to be enjoying it. “I was sold within an hour,” said Mike.

Mike and Jody are now in their second year as CSA farmers, and the back-to-the-land passion seems to have melded into the how-to-make-a-living-at-it practicality view of life. It’s hard to tell where one stops, and the other one begins. Some days you need that passion to get you through a bout of weeding and harvesting; other days a good dose of practicality helps.

As Salatin told a crowd of sustainable farmers (and wannabe farmers) in Northfield several weeks ago: “We need to understand that our farms are more than businesses, yes. But at the end of the day you can’t flop your chicken down on the IRS table and say, ‘Here are my taxes.’ And we have to have businesses that actually generate a profit and a cash stream that will attract and romance the next generation into it.”

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