By Tom Henry, SmallFarm Canada
Published November 2011

Money is but one part of the definition

In retrospect, I should have stood up to the fellow at the recent farm show in Ontario. He had marched up to the Small Farm Canada booth, stabbed a greasy finger at me, and barked, “What is a small farmer anyway?”
“By one definition, any farm that grosses up to $100,000,” I said, about to add that there were other definitions. But he had no time for details. “That’s not a farm, that’s a joke. A farm should be making half a million.” And off he stomped toward the big combines.

I get a lot of such comments — both as a small farmer and as editor of this publication. Small farms — as defined by acreage, or income, or, amazingly, by whether what the farm produces is edible or not (“Daffodils ain’t a crop!”) — seem to be on the etymological endangered list, like the traditional meaning of the words viral, or gay.

What I should have said, and what I’ve said in heated moments in the past, is something like this: “Oh, you mean subsidy farms, because small farmers don’t qualify for government handouts like the large operations.” That’s always good for fireworks. But I was tired and there were a lot of families at the show. Not the right time for a set-to.

Still, it really rankles me that farming is defined by any fiscal definition — no matter how small the threshold. I mean, a family grows their own food, raises livestock, tends a garden and orchard, and that is not considered farming? Yet a guy with an operation grossing a half million dollars, wallowing in a Greece-sized debt, essentially indentured to a multinational inputs company, and who survives on gas station sandwiches is a farmer?

Sorry, I can’t go for that.

I am willing to go along with an elasticized definition of farmer (something like easy-fit jeans) to accommodate both the urban producer furiously cycling from lot to lot, and the agri-business guy slouched in an office all day swapping futures on a zillion bushels, but I can not see money, or size, being the sole determinate of farming.

What really counts is something that can’t be quantified on a spreadsheet: affinity for land and plants and animals. By definition, affinity means a deep natural liking, or sympathy, for someone or something. I think of it as a kind of caring respect.

By this definition, a farmer is someone who, regardless of the size of the operation, respects the land, and cares for the health of the soil; who holds their livestock in regard as creatures that need tending and deserve decent treatment. It doesn’t mean that they ignore the business side of farming, but it does mean money is but one factor in many.

If this definition means that someone with one alpaca and a yard full of dahlias gets to call themselves a farmer, so be it.

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