Quit calling me a “Hobby Farmer,” and I’ll quit calling you a shill for Big Ag

I got my dander up yesterday when I read a short piece quoting SDSU Rural Sociologist Trevor Brooks about South Dakota’s small, or “hobby” farms:

“I can figure out that along the I-29 corridor—especially the commuting counties—those are probably our hobby farms, where we’re seeing a lot of people kind of having an interest in farming,” Brooks says. “They’re not really our major farmers. They have a full-time job, but they sell produce every once in a while. So that’s probably where the gain is.”[Anderson, Ken. “Hobby farms on the rise in South Dakota.” Brownfield Network. 6 April 2009.]

Of course I wrote a note to said publication, and the author of the above-quoted piece responded very pleasantly, sending me the publication he got Mr. Brooks’ quote from. What gets me irked is this continually-reiterated idea that small farms are not considered “major” or even “real.”

According to the 2007 Census of Agriculture (pdf alert!), only 45% of principle operators said farming was their primary occupation.  So, are 55% of the farmers in this country not real farmers?  Keep in mind, too, that this figure doesn’t take into account secondary and tertiary operators, where the figures for off-farm employment are likely much, much higher.

Mr. Brooks’ remark may well reflect the reasons why, in the same census, South Dakota ranked dead last (pdf alert!) in market value of vegetables, melons, potatoes, and sweet potatoes–in South Dakota you’re not considered a “real farmer” (or as Mr. Brooks says, a “major farmer”) unless you’ve got hundreds, if not thousands, of acres and you’re in cattle, corn, or soy.  Wheat–well, maybe.

Until we get the respect and recognition we small diversified producers deserve (and it’s coming–albeit slowly–through grants for farmers markets and producers), we’ll have a lot harder time adding to those total production value numbers that look so pretty on the State’s website and the USDA Census.

My operation is a tiny one compared to what Mr. Brooks would likely call “major,” and I do get the bulk of my income off-farm (as many “major” producers do), but I resent and reject being typified as a “hobby farmer.”  A “hobby” does not provide the bulk of a person’s food for the year (through sales and direct consumption), nor does it generally take up a significant portion of their waking and thinking life (then there’s the occasional bindweed nightmare).

By that standard (which I recognize as a USDA definition), many people’s second jobs–the ones that put food on the table and gas in the truck–are simply “hobbies.”  Heck, even a full-time job at Wal-Mart might fit that definition.

I’m beyond tired of this standard imposed by Big Ag and their cronies in the USDA (and at our land grant universities) that says small farms–efficient, diversified, sustainable farms–aren’t “real” farms.  We are REAL farmers, and we work on REAL farms, and we contribute to the REAL economy.



9 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Claire on April 7, 2009 at 9:04 pm

    I don’t know how many acres you have going on with your farm, but I believe the technical definition of a “hobby farm” is 50 acres or less. As for SDSU sociology, they haven’t even updated their website in a few years and no one even knows they offer a PhD. Maybe he’s just bitter about his full-time job 🙂

    (I only know about their program cuz I’m a sociology major who really doesn’t want to leave SD for grad school, but I’m surely not going there!)

  2. Posted by flyingtomato on April 8, 2009 at 7:10 am

    Yes, that is the technical definition, and I reject it. Many small, diversified farms are less than 50 acres, and many farms of less than fifty acres provide a full-time income from those acres. The definition, in my view, is simply a way to marginalize small farmers by refusing to take them seriously.

  3. Posted by Heidi on April 8, 2009 at 1:22 pm

    I take it you’ve also seen this article? The term “boutique farms” was one I hadn’t heard before!

    The article was nice to highlight some DRA members and work, but the term hobby/”boutique” really minimizes the importance of these farms.


  4. Posted by Ted on April 9, 2009 at 7:47 pm

    I don’t know what books you people been reading, but the government Pub. I read doesn’t mention acreage. It states money, period. No matter what arceage you work if it doesn’t make more than $250.000.00 a year the government says you’re small. That’s all, small, which means you can’t deduct very much (if anything)on your tax statement.
    My neighbor has over 400 acres and works cattle. And, up until last year he worked for the school maintenance system, and he was considered a “hobby farmer”. Not because he didn’t have a lot of land, but because the land didn’t make more than $250.000.00. Now a days land and equipment is so expensive a young man/woman can’t afford to get into farming/ranching full time. Many farms are being sold because the offspring don’t want to do it., and the owner can at least leave something to them besides debts. One more little tibit, America loses over 1,000,000 (that”s right one million) acres a year to development. I tell people wait till you start trying to chew on asphalt and concrete, maybe then they’ll wake up.
    Oh, if you’re wondering, I work and live on my 5 acres. I tried to buy the two five acre parcels next to me (plus more – 20 & 40 acre parcels), but the woman who owns the one next to me wants $65,000.00 for it. Now how in the hell is a person suppose to pay for that farming/ranching it. Not in my life time. By the way, my wife and I are retired.
    Thanks for letting me air it out.

  5. Posted by Vines & Cattle on April 10, 2009 at 7:00 am

    There is this belief that “production agriculture” involves lots of land and machinery, and razor thin margins. (Trust me I’m an expert)

    What could be more productive than producing a living off of relatively few acres?

  6. Posted by beeinthecity on April 12, 2009 at 1:51 pm

    This kind of thing really aggravates me. My immigrant ancestors were some of the first homesteaders to settle their region of SD (the NE section of the state), and under the USDA’s own definitions of today, they would be considered “hobby farmers”!

    Meanwhile, in the county where my mother grew up, agricultural subsidies to the huge operations are now the largest percentage of income in the entire county.

    The entire system – rewarding the agribusinesses and dismissing small farms, etc. – is so deeply flawed I wouldn’t even know where to begin.

  7. […] at flying tomato farms with the un-holiest marriage and Quit calling me a “Hobby Farmer…” GirlGriot at If you want kin… with Will This Make My Mom an Immigrant and Ceremonies in Dark Old […]

  8. […] flyingtomato at flying tomato farms with the un-holiest marriage and Quit calling me a “Hobby Farmer…” […]

  9. In SW Washington (state, that is), people making profit on land under 20 acres are considered ‘small acreage farmers’. The WSU extension has a full program in support of small acreage farms, farmers markets, etc. It’s great. My family farm doesn’t fall into that category cuz we don’t make any profit off our land – I really truly am a ‘hobby farmer’.

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