Sometimes I find what we're doing hard to articulate. When I try to describe our operation and what we're working toward, depending on their background, some people think, "hobby farm," some think, "homestead," some think "farm." I want to make a case for what has been called the Farmstead and suggest that it's a needed category both for food producers and consumers. In making a case for Farmsteads, I am not making a case against any of the other options.
For people interested in food production, these simple categories can help clarify their goals, and most importantly, bring into focus the mindset needed for each approach.
*As with everything we write and teach, we are forever learners, so input in the comments or on Facebook is greatly appreciated.
Core Paradigm: Self-Reliance
Homesteaders are pioneers. They have within them a drive to produce anything and everything that an individual or family might need to thrive. They tend to have an emphasis on the family unit (though not to the exclusion of their community). The plot of land that they work is also where they live and just about every square inch is dedicated to the production of a diverse set of plants and animals, and creating places of beauty, play and community.
They are usually avid DIYer's, not generally fans of "the grid" and tend to be a pretty industrious bunch: making tools or clothes, building things and inventing things all with the goal of being as self-reliant as possible.
Some people mistakenly call this a hobby farm, which suggests that it's a nice little thing they do on the side just for funzies. Nothing could be further from the truth: they do it to survive and to thrive, not as a hobby.
Core Paradigm: Lifestyle Farming
Some people look at hobby farming with derision. I just think it's another viable reason people get into farm stuff. The lifestyle is appealing to hobby farmers, and they didn't typically grow up with the lifestyle (they are sometimes rudely awakened). Hobby farmers are different than homesteaders in that they do not have the same drive to be self-reliant. They are different than what we call farmers because they are not trying to make a living. They will often have very good off-farm jobs that fund their farming habit. Some people spend their disposable cash on golf, these will spend it on dwarf goats and beautiful greenhouses (and maybe golf too).
Hobby farmers are not particularly concerned with turning a profit or even covering their costs. It's not necessary for them, and they're just happy if they make a few bucks along the way or end up with some eggs. Nor are they driven to produce everything their family will need. They will focus on the plants and animals that make them happy and buy the rest off site.
As I said, there is nothing wrong with this approach if it gets people connected to the land, where their food comes from and what is, admittedly, a pretty amazing style of life.
Core Paradigm: Farming as homestead-based business
The Homesteader and Farmsteader have a lot in common: They both live at the location of their production; they both have an eye toward the needs of the family (which means an emphasis on diversity); they are both DIYers in a big way. The core difference is that a Farmsteader runs their homestead like a business.
Farmsteaders have to pay attention to what is marketable and scale-able as well as what they have particular expertise in, which means that they will be focused on a smaller number of products that can be produced with increased efficiency and scale. Those products can be diverse, but not nearly as diverse as everything a homestead would want to produce.
A Farmsteader will be paying much more attention to what works, what sells, reducing costs, increasing profit margins: all the things you need to focus on to have a successful business.
The reality is that a Farmsteader will likely have products that are homestead-scale, farmstead-scale and even a few that might just be hobbies.
As a brief case study still in development, we have both homestead and farmstead-scale products. Our eggs, for example, currently just cover the cost of having chickens and ducks. That's a pretty great outcome for us. We love having them around, and they are beneficial to the eco-system of the farm, but we are not banking on them. At some point they may change scale, especially as pasture systems grow, but they will probably never be a cornerstone of our viability.
Our primary farmstead-scale product at the moment is pork. In the longer term we will add orchard fruits to that. Pork as our farmstead flagship happened from raising pigs at a homestead-scale (all our customers were close friends the first go around) so we could get it figured out a bit. High quality pork is not easy to come by, and there is a growing demand for it and pasture-raised meets like it. Pork, if it's done somewhat efficiently has a good return and interspersing pasture-raised pork with fruit/nut-based food forest systems is a land regenerative approach that can be established relatively easily. Fruit and Nut trees take years to mature however, so we have to have workable and scale-able product in the short term if we are to reach economical viability.
I still have an off-farm Job, Allison's full time gig is the farm. Because I work, some may consider what we do a hobby, but that really misses it. We are planning for growth in the medium-term toward full time farming, weaning ourselves off the income my off-farm job provides. The only way to do that is to treat our homestead like a farmstead, and use the time we've been given to have a supportive income, as an opportunity to lay a solid foundation. We have more than doubled our revenue this year and will have small profits, but a few more pieces will have to be in place to reach economic sustainability.
We don't own a lot of land, so as we learn what works at a homestead-scale, we are translating that to local land partnerships. As we grow by partnering to steward land we don't own, and maybe by buying more eventually, what we do may move beyond the definition I've laid out here for Farmsteading.
My goal has not been to make rigid categories everybody definitely fits into. It has really been to lay out some trajectories that may be helpful for those, like us, that are newer to the world of agriculture and maybe to some that are still trying to figure out where they fit and what direction they should head.
I do, however, believe that we need more people functioning as Farmsteaders. In order to produce food that is reflective of good, ethical, stewardship and still make it affordable (within the framework I laid out here), we need a larger group of Homesteaders and Hobby Farmers thinking like Farmsteaders. Farming should be a viable career, and/or a solid source of supplemental income for many more people than it currently is. The network of producers and customers that held together rural communities in the past needs to be rekindled and redeveloped. Farming doesn't have to be for the few big guys. Us little ones have a role to play as well. If you believe the UN, maybe the most important role.
That leads to my final point. I have to make a plug for viewing yourself as a Farmer with a capital F. If you are providing food for others, even if that's just your family, you are cultivating the land. You are a farmer. You are taking on the weight of producing food for others and the scale at which your working doesn't effect that. Taking on that mindset means taking ownership of stewarding the land, plants and animals in your care and consistently learning how to do that better.
So, are you more focused on self-reliance, lifestyle farming or farming as a home-based business?
Let your answer to that question shape what and how you do what you do going forward.
*For a further resource on this topic check out this recent podcast on Permaculture Voices, where Curtis Stone and Diego dissect a piece that was recently written by somebody who said, essentially, that you can't make a living farming.