Driving down a back country road, headed home from my grandparent’s farm, my nine year old son excitedly pronounced “Mom! I got to meet Charlie today!” I chuckled, because he thought this was such a big deal to meet one of his great granddad’s farming friends on one of their weekly adventures. He visited his farm, and sat in his house while the two old friends chatted for awhile. It was the highlight of the day (well, second to the junk yard trip where they found treasures).
While my son continued to talk about his day with granddad, my mind wandered to a time when I was his age and I, too, knew Charlie. A not so old, Charlie. He’s well into his nineties now—a well known dairy farmer here in Virginia. One of the few that are left.
Earlier this year I documented the closing of a family dairy farm—friends of ours—located right beside my grandfather’s farm. The heartbreak of watching this family farm shut down because of the changing industry was absolutely awful. But it’s happening all across the country.
Just like Charlie and my grandfather, the average farmer in the United States isn’t a young fella anymore—in fact, he’s in his late sixties, and more so in his seventies. And there’s absolutely no one there to take his place.
It could be because the industry is so hard to get into now days. It could be that the work is too hard for some. Or, maybe it’s that family farming doesn’t make a six-figure income for folks . . . unless you’re in a contract with a large manufacturer that’s putting many family farms out of business. And even then, it’s rare.
While we’re losing interest in our younger generations because they aren’t interested in learning trade skills, there’s another issue at hand here. The dilemma over the last few years hasn’t just been trying to find people to take over, though. The dilemma has been watching the face of our food system change from home grown family farms, to commercially owned plots of land with perfectly grown produce and product that tastes mediocre to home grown products from the farm. And somehow, we’re ok with that as a society.
Because of this, there’s lack of support for small-scale farmers that continue to feed our nation and communities. And the commercial companies only want to work with farms large enough to provide a product quickly, with an even quicker turn around, no matter what the cost of quality.
That’s the real reason why American family farms are going out of business every hour of the day. The consumer simply doesn’t care anymore. And because of this, neither do the companies growing and purchasing America’s food.
So how do we fix it? Can we fix it? It’s too late for a lot of farmers, but there is still hope in a new generation and movement that’s rising up within our country.
Who are those people, you ask?
Homesteaders. That’s who.
Dotted across the landscape from coast to coast, you’ll find homesteaders on ¼-acre plots and 100+ acre plots, taking control of their food, dairy, and healthcare. They’re the misfits who got tired of being a blind following consumer, and instead became a doer . . . a grower. And they aren’t just growing food for themselves anymore.
For many homesteaders, once the homesteading bug hits, they realize that there’s a great need in their community for a better food source. They realize that they have the skills to provide to their community a quality product or service, and so begins the journey of growing, preserving, and selling the food that our ancestors once prided themselves in. The original “organic”.
The tomatoes aren’t perfect with a shiny skin. Instead, they are meaty, juicy, with some cosmetic imperfections, but a beauty and taste that is incomparable to the ones grown in Mexico and then shipped on top of bananas to the United States, still halfway green.
The dairy isn’t overly processed, and in some states it’s not even pasteurized. The thick cream that sits atop the glass jar gets turned into butter and cheese that is as smooth as…well…butter. A richness that generations have never had before and are experiencing for the very first time (or again) since their great grandparents were alive.
The canned goods don’t come in metal that leaches toxins. They come in good old-fashioned mason jars that you can reuse for years to come.
And more than anything, you know where your food comes from. Where it was grown, how it was grown, and why it was grown. And it was grown on a family farm, a homestead or farmstead, with love and intent to help supply the needs of a local community that is once again seeking real food, real skills, and real life.
And, if they can’t grow it for you, they’ll teach you how to grow it.
But it’s not just that. Each and everyday, new families and individuals are waking up, starting their homesteads, sharing their experiences and bounty, and taking back the food system one acre at a time. What they grow in abundance spills over into their community. It inspires their community to grow their own, and to be aware of what type of consumer they are or have become.
Homesteaders are taking back the American farm. We are the American farm—the original. And while farmers across America are filing for bankruptcies more than they did during the Great Recession, a tribe is rising up to fix it all, without even knowing they’re doing so during the process.
We’re feeding our families and friends. Our families and friends are feeding our neighbors. Our neighbors start growing a garden and getting chickens and suddenly, an entire community food movement begins. We’re feeding the masses, even if it’s just the masses in our own backyard at a farm to table dinner.
Don’t give up on the American farm just yet. I have a feeling that in the not so distant future, if we can adapt to the way the American farm used to be, we’ll see the American farm rise up again . . . bigger and better. And yet, not bigger at all. In fact, the key to success in saving the American farm might just be keeping it simple, keeping it local, and loving the process of it all.
I encourage you to become more aware of your food sources, what you buy, and where you buy it. Because every action has a reaction. If you can’t grow it, find a friend that does. Barter for goods and services. And if you’re brave enough, plant your own garden this year . . . even if it’s in a 5-gallon bucket on your back deck.
We’re all in this together—and if the American farm dies, it’s not a corporation’s fault, it’s our fault.
Amy Fewell is the Founder of Homesteaders of America, and is an author, photographer, blogger, wife, herbalist, and homesteading mama. Find her most recent books, The Homesteader’s Herbal Companion and The Homesteader’s Natural Chicken Keeping Handbook online, and visit her blog at The Fewell Homestead.
Hello we have been living this way for the last 5 yrs,my wife and i started growing for us and selling extras at the market.We are in a area of oklahoma zone 7 and it gets hot.Its all about your health and how your body responses to chemicals.We dont use any and it makes a big difference on how you feel.
Amy, an amazing piece. Thank you. If you would ever like to tackle urban homesteading, it would be appreciated. Our motivations for health and wellness match those of truw homesteaders, but diffeeent challenges.
Soithwind Station Urban Garden
There are days when I feel I’m losing my mind. I don’t know why I care about what’s going on around me. Doesn’t anyone else?! You gave me such hope. My husband and I are getting up there. I’m 64. We still do all of these projects around our bitty farm. And I wonder for what? It’s only the two of us now. It’s a lot of work. We grow vegetables, fruits, butcher chickens, eggs, bees and make maple syrup. As you said , the neighbors come and the food is spread over the tri-State region. And now some are growing food and raising animals.
Just this week I was trying to organize a seminar on growing organic, raising bees and conservation of our local woods. West VIRGINIA is going through a lot right now because of fracking. I was ask what reason and need do I have for doing this. I can’t say to them that I have this hard pressing feeling that I need to. They would think I’m nuts. I’m not rich nor educated. I just feel people need to start growing food , feed their children better and take care of this land sooner than later. I was going to back out of having the seminar but then I just read your article on a Facebook post. I have to keep spreading the word.
Nicely put. We got a cow to provide milk for us and our extended family. We soon found out, or rather, forgot how much a jersey produces. ( I grew up on a small dairy and it seems As a teenager then, I didn’t know as much as I thought)
We had to learn how to balance a ration, but the right equipment ( my hands aren’t what they were!) and, well pattern our life around milking and processing. Very soon we realized we were going to be filling neighbors fridges, and when our first cow’s heifer came in to milk….. we were a sure enough micro dairy, serving between 36-54 families! Milk sort of took over our lives. While we were in that learning curve we jumped into pastured pork where extra milk was a way to turn grass into pork! We’ve developed some great relationships and have been promoting buying from your local farmer. Thanks for your sentiments. I think you are right on.
There are PLENTY of young wannabe homesteading families who are willing to move in and take over someones dairy farm but may not financially be able. Rather than closing some other remedy can be found. Personally I would love to be involved in helping bring retiring farmers together with homesteading families.