Underlying Soil

Many people think farmers are engaged in some sort of idealistically bucolic lifestyle, with the traditionally meager pay more than offset by the rewards of working outside in a pastoral setting. And, to be honest, I know a lot of farmers who hold this perspective as well: Farmers who are more than fulfilled by the agricultural life even though USDA data says that in most years most farm operations lose money, with family expenses covered by off-farm income.

I didn't get into farming because of these pastoral qualities--I happened to take a job on a vegetable farm during college, saw it to be a good fit for my interests, and found that I enjoy the work of running a farm business and the possibilities afforded by the enterprise. I have enjoyed the project of growing top-notch vegetables with responsible farming methods while providing a livelihood for myself by carefully expanding the business bit by bit. I can't imagine running this sort of farm, and then having to work a winter job just to make ends meet.

Small businesses like mine make up the the vast majority of American businesses; together, small businesses generate nearly half of US economic activity, and nearly one-fifth of employees work for a company with under 20 workers (that's me!). But these businesses aren't the ones we hear about in the newspaper. Instead, companies like Amazon, Facebook, and Boeing are making the headlines. And, even though these corporations have shown their business methods lead to incredible business success, the neighborhood small business probably isn't being run in the same way as these headline-generating firms that supposedly prove the American Dream a reality.

What if I DID act like a big corporation, and measure my success on corporate metrics? As far as I can tell, big business tends to seek profit above all else--except, perhaps, that fairy-tale of endless growth. So if I were trying to sell as many vegetables as possible to as many people as possible with regard for little else but the bottom line, what would I do? Would I secretly violate your trust assuming you won't find out? Would I cause environmental harm because there aren't regulations to stop me or, if there are, the chance of enforcement is low or penalties inconsequential? Would I maximize profit at the expense of everything else and somehow earn hundreds of times as much as my lowest-paid worker? Or, perhaps, would I marry my farming roots with American big business and act like Certified Organic agribusiness, pushing my growing methods right up to the letter of the law, and then getting a seat on the Organic standards board to try to change the regulations in my favor?

Even though I think of my farm as a business, that sort of approach isn't the least bit interesting to me, and the idea that the only success is endless growth, with dollars the only metric, isn't how I set my goals for the farm. Don't get me wrong; of course I am trying to sell you vegetables. One of my main goals with the CSA is to create something you will want to sign up for again next year--the farm provides my livelihood after all. I've worked to grow the business and expand the farm, but only to be able to do more of what I enjoy, and to do it in a way that sustains a long-term farm future. I feel like I'm almost (but not quite!) to the size of farm that can support a sensible workload, sustainable income, and stable farm crew--and someday work on daydreams like transitioning to solar power.

While Amazon's customers are mined for cash and Facebook users offer up endless data, that raw material of modern business, I choose to remove my farm from that extractive business environment – in just the same way as my farm's sustainable growing practices work with the natural environment rather than destructively extracting all that is there. In our sort of farming the soil is not simply a substrate from which to mine dollars; neither are the customers simply a source for cash. And just as it is the soil which allows the plants to develop, fostering their growth throughout the season to finally bear fruit, so too it is you all, the CSA folks, whose involvement with this project allows the farm to grow and bear fruit in its own way.