Friday, December 19, 2014

The Hard Questions

I love talking to the neighbors.

You generally learn something new about farming or the neighborhood. You see things from a new perspective. Or at the very least, you hear something amusing.  If you’re lucky and talk with the right neighbors, you get all three in one conversation!

Some time ago, we were talking to the hay guy (and the missus).  They nearly always come as a duo, and generally have two conversations going at once; she will interrupt her own story to correct his (and vice versa).  They are a wealth of local knowledge and truly amusing to boot.  Honestly, I could talk to them all day.  …and sometimes, that nearly happens.

We were discussing farming and history and how things are done. “Waaalll, I don’t do that one no more...” was uttered more than once.  Until the hay guy grinned a little sheepishly and said “Waaalll, it don’t sound like I really do much at all, now does it?” and he chuckled at himself.

He’s been farming a long time. His family has farmed here for many generations.  He’s seen trends come and go.  He’s tried things and knows what does (and does NOT) work for him.  He’s asked and answered all the hard questions about life and farming. …and he’s okay with the fact that he’s getting “up there” in years and has to conserve his time, his energy and his resources if he wants to keep on farming until he’s called to his reward. I’m certain he knows what exactly he needs to do to keep his farm and farming efforts sustainable.

With all the talk of sustainability today, I don’t know if the folks tossing the word about have ever thought about what the word really means and how it plays out on the family farm.

Sustainability is “the ability to continue a defined behavior indefinitely.” A simple, elegant (somewhat flawed) definition. Indefinitely? Is it possible for anything to continue indefinitely?

While it would be every farmer’s desire to “continue indefinitely”, circumstances often dictate change of one kind or another (in order to continue farming) which may seem to run counter to the definition. Over time, a farm evolves, taking into consideration weather changes, public demand, unexpected life events and even health issues.  These lead to the introduction of new crops, different methods, labor-saving devices (and practices) and possible diversification. As the farming population ages, work-arounds to accommodate health and safety concerns become issues as well. And, when the next generation takes over, things really change although the farm itself remains a sustainable entity.

At the end of every season, it’s time to take stock and ask ourselves the hard questions as we prepare for the next year.  Is this really worth it?  Are we being good stewards? Does this method actually work?  Is there demand? Can we continue this method/crop for the long-haul? Are we still satisfied and happy? Do we have the strength (physical/mental/emotional) to keep on keeping on?  Could we be better? (that would be better stewards, better workers, more organized, better marketers...the list goes on and on) These are just some of the questions we have to ask ourselves, rather than simply hoping we can be “sustainable”.

Sustainability is the ability to continue.

It doesn’t mean no inputs, no matter what you might read on-line.  Fertilization and pest control are essential to continued growth and food production. The methods used for both are reviewed (often) and changed, particularly when there are options that are less toxic and/or more effective. It also does not mean clinging blindly to the “old ways” or just the things our grandparents would have remembered.

…and there’s always that little matter of profitability… I know there is a growing trend to think that food should somehow be produced for free…but, if farmers aren’t able to pay production costs, there is no way the operation can be sustainable.

These are hard questions.  Tough considerations.  Sometimes changes must be made and those don't come easy.

We aren’t the only farmers reviewing these subjects.  Over the years I have been greatly impressed with the great amounts of hard-earned knowledge possessed by those in the “humble profession”. 

And, I am not exaggerating when I say hard-earned…any success is only possible by the (very literal) “sweat of your brow”  in the farming world. A lot of thought and soul-searching goes into farm decisions.

When new methods are introduced, they are often met with skepticism and question. And in today’s world, protest and horror stories on the internet. Let me say… It would truly help matters if everyone would look at things objectively. (and get ALL the facts)

Years and years ago, when lots of young folks headed out to “the big city” it first began to become difficult to find farm help. So, many farmers switched to round bales when making hay.  This was a big deal. New and different equipment meant the face of farming changed forever. The small squares had become the norm and many still use them.  (although, you must remember that even baling was “new technology” at one point--- before that hay was just stacked loose) But, far more acreage can be cut and baled using a round bale system in a timely fashion, and doesn’t require near the man (or woman) power. And, cows really don’t show a preference for the shape of their meals. The change allowed farmers to “continue on indefinitely”, although hay season began to look far different. 

Our own desire to “continue on indefinitely” meant that there have been times when we had to stop, re-think and change directions.

While I truly loved my cows, when it came to profitability, it just wasn’t happening.  Raw milk sales are illegal in our state. (and raw milk consumption is a topic for another discussion) With a couple of cows on a small acreage, becoming a licensed dairy wasn’t an option. Bootlegging is not appealing and jumping through the hoops or circumventing the law was either too expensive or time-consuming to keep what were essentially gigantic pets.  Making milk soap was fun and even though we sold a fair amount, it wasn’t enough to justify the added work and expense.

Jersey Cow Milk soap for sale 2008

So, we moved on. The farm remained a working entity…just without cows. (we've made a lot of other changes over the years)

Wintertime is our time for review and revision. Those cold, gloomy days are perfect for assessing the past and planning for the future.  (and keeps us from falling asleep next to the warmth of the woodstove) There are numerous crops, some methods and more than a few ventures that we have discarded over the years.  And, there are always new things to consider.

So, whether it’s looking at earnings figures…(I do love my Quickbooks), discussing the failures and frustrations, or taking note of the successes… we have to be willing to ask the hard questions and perhaps even say “Waallll, I don’t do that one no more...” on occasion in order to “continue on indefinitely”.

Let’s hear it for asking (and answering) the hard questions and the quest for farming sustainability!

the dawn of a new day brings all sorts of possibilities

The definition of sustainability can be found here:


  1. Great post Barbara! (As usual) :)

  2. Interesting post as usual Barbara, and one which makes us think. As we are in farming too I agree with you - we have to be constantly assessing the situation and making sure things aremoving in the right direction - and you have to be willing to change direction if necessary. We went out of milking (we had foot and mouth on our farm and our herd was culled) but after the initial shock we turned it to our advantage and moved in other directions, just as youhave with your marvellous farmers' market.

    1. Thanks, Pat.
      I remember reading about the issues surrounding foot and mouth and wondering how the farmers dealt with the devastating aftermath. (I cannot begin to imagine facing total loss) I am glad that you all were able to use it to your advantage and move on. It's all about being adaptable, I guess.