GENE LOGSDON: It’s All About Money, Even When It Isn’t



The Contrary Farmer

​If you follow this blogsite, you know I spend more time than I should predicting the glorious future of small, artisanal farms. I keep trying to define and describe this farm the way it will be when mankind it forced to come to its senses. But my sister pointed out to me the flaw in my thinking. “So let’s say you’re right,” she acknowledged, “and this kind of farming becomes the norm. How long do you think it will be before these model farms will start expanding eventually we are right back where we started.” The good old American way. But if these small farms spread over the entire world and become the norm, concentration will come again. All I can say in my defense is that monopolies will be quite a long while in becoming movers of that economy.

​Thinking about this, I happened to be reading Wendell Berry and his detailed descriptions of a traditional tobacco farm. (His father was the man mainly responsible for the Tobacco Program and I have helped with tobacco harvest in his neighborhood.) I had one of those Eureka moments. The traditional tobacco farm might make a good model for the small, artisanal farm because it was by its very nature sort of expansion-proof. Not only was it limited by regulation in the number of tobacco acres one farmer could grow but by its very nature it did not encourage expansion. It was first of all a very artful kind of farming. The mechanics of the operation require great skill from planting to harvest if the crop is to command a good price from planting. It required cooperation and mutual help from neighbors. The artisans who know how to do it also know that it could not be practiced on larger amounts of the crop. It requires just too much handwork. To do it correctly, you can’t use new technology to lighten the load or increase the output per man hour. Nor were these farmers about to give up their allotments willingly. Raising really fine tobacco was a high art, tobacco farmers’ claim to fame, and their way to ensure that they could go on maintaining their independent, small farm way of life. That was the real allure about the money, not seeing how much of it they could pile up for paper investments. They embraced some of the cruelest physical work I have ever been part of. It was no different to them than getting pounded in practice for a professional football player.

​Greed overtook the Tobacco Program of course. It tempts me to naughty thoughts. What if the tobacco raised today with high technology is even worse than the tobacco of the artisans? What if technology, in making it easier to grow more tobacco rather than less, encouraged heavier smoking habits? I’ve known quite a few smokers who were enjoying a pipeful in their nineties. Ever wonder about that?

But forget about tobacco. Let’s think food. As I read about the methods various growers of very high quality and high tasting food are using (John Kempf is my favorite at the moment) it is obvious that it can only be done with extremely high science but also high manual art. If John Kempf tried to grow 1000 acres of potatoes the way he does it, I daresay he’d fall flat on his nose. Good artisanal food has its own built-in defense against money monopoly. The key here, I guess, is the consumer’s conviction that good food is not cheap. And so far that many consumers agree. Artisanal foods are not cheap. I think of how some people worry that poorer people can’t afford them. But poorer people fill up the fast food restaurants every day and if they can afford that, they can food good food from small farms.