'Bumpkins' Grow Their Own Bliss

By Barbara Damrosch
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, March 22, 2007

There's an old joke about the guy who left farming with a small fortune -- having entered it with a large one. Farming is, theoretically, a moneymaking enterprise. That is what distinguishes it from gardening. But in reality it is half business and half demonic possession.

In a formerly agricultural nation such as ours, the urge to farm lurks in the depths of even the most urban soul, though most people keep that urge well suppressed or channeled into safe outlets such as lawns and flowering shrubbery. A large vegetable garden, on the other hand, edges you dangerously close to serious production.

If you're not careful, one bumper crop can put you in Carhartt overalls for life. Not just the usual zucchini overflow, but some choice surplus such as raspberries or heirloom tomatoes. Your kids set out a card table in front of the house with a homemade sign and do a brisk business, so next year you plant more. Soon there are strawberries as well, and hot peppers strung in ristras or garlic hung in braids. The whole back yard is a field of melons or Halloween pumpkins. The card table is now a farm stand with two dozen crops on display. What you don't sell there goes to a local food co-op or specialty grocery.

If you're a couple, one person is apt to succumb first while the other works at a real job and regards the farmer spouse with genial indulgence. After all, the spouse is having fun and has lost a bit of weight. It might even turn into a nice little tax shelter. But eventually both are sucked in, and what was once a hobby gone amok is now a life. You are a farm family.

Such a scenario seems impossible if you believe in the death of the small farm. "Get big or get out," Earl Butz famously said when, as President Richard Nixon's secretary of agriculture in the early '70s, he promoted large-farm subsidies. But a significant number of farmers are now getting back in by remaining small -- even tiny. In his book "MetroFarm," radio host Michael Olson details the growing phenomenon of cities ringed with mini-farms, sustained by the proximity of specialty markets. It's an industry made up of many small niches, in which anything that sets a product apart from the uniformity of big-store fare is sought after and fetches a higher price. Your corner of the market might be an ethnic specialty such as Asian greens. It might be crops that chefs love, such as celeriac and mache. It might be artisanal cheese or fresh eggs with bright-orange, stand-up yolks. It might be cold-weather crops, seasonally grown. Or it might just be the freshness and flavor of food grown closer to home and with more care. The experience of shopping is often part of the product, too. A family or community atmosphere adds value to what's for sale.

Recently I've met a lot of young farmers-to-be, and I ask them why they took this particular exit off the highway of industrial progress. Being self-sufficient, being your own boss, being surrounded by great food, feeling connected to the natural world, belonging to a farming community, doing something as a family, having no distinction between work and your non-work life -- these are the motives I often hear.

Others learned food-gardening from their parents, or chose it because it's the last thing their parents would ever do. Increasingly, these are educated kids, applying their intelligence to an occupation once linked with the words "yokel" and "bumpkin." While few mention making money, many of them actually will.

Each year they will know more about growing better food, and each year's crop promises to yield better than the one before. It's a thing that takes hold of you. And don't say I didn't warn you.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company