Redefining the Farm: It’s not Just Science, it’s Survival.

Abandoned Farm BuildingThe traditional definition of a farm, both formally and socially, is “a piece of land used for growing crops or raising animals.” Yet those of us who have vegetable gardens do not consider our residence a farm. Even urban spaces designed to grow crops for multiple families are often not called farms but instead community gardens or urban agriculture. The term “farm” has become synonymous in our culture with rural tracts of land. In fact, many refer to all rural land as farmland whether or not anything is harvested. Some “farms” include bodies of water, strip mines, forests and abandoned properties which are inappropriately labeled as a farm. Terms imply context and framework which is important, but they can also limit our thinking within the box.

Rural System proposes a new term for rural tracts of land, the “rural enterprise environment.” We can break free of the traditional framework of what can be done on a farm and begin to envision the diversity of profitable ventures possible in the new enterprise environment. The term is inherently holistic, encompassing both the soil below and the air above the ownership.

The future of rural business is not simply innovation within the existing industries but invention of entirely new profitable ventures on rural lands. In a word, diversification. The Five Benefits of Small-scale Farming discusses how small farmers practice diversification.

“Too much of any one thing is a bad thing.” “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.” Our culture has had the lesson of diversity hidden in idioms and proverbs for generations.  In our zeal for mass production and industrial success we somehow forgot these lessons and momentarily thought we were immune to the basic principles of nature.

As society gravitated away from personal farming, small farming was replaced with big agriculture and diversification with specialized mass production of just a few crops. While monocultures may allow a farm to capitalize on doing one thing to perfection, it also opens the industry to great costs like the loss of crops due to disease (pistachio fungus as a recent example) and increased pest control problems. After learning the downsides of monoculture and the biological importance of diversity farmers are beginning to gravitate back towards diverse crops or polycultures.

Many farmers are now taking diversification a step beyond crops and diversifying by adding non-agricultural ventures like craft making, retailing, catering, beer, cheeses, tourism and alternative livestock. This practice requires careful planning and consideration of the customer market but can free the farmer from the unpredictability of agriculture and in some cases, provides a more stable source of income throughout the year. Further, non-agricultural products are not dependent on the quality of the soil on the property. Some land is simply not as fertile as others or the topography isn’t suitable for agriculture and the cost-benefit ratio of trying to farm the land leaves the landowner in poverty. The adoption of diverse profitable operations on rural land, analogous to the diversity of businesses in urban areas, is the future of rural business.

Diverse non-agricultural businesses in the new enterprise environment do more than provide financial security for the landowner. They also generate diversity and security for rural communities. A prosperous community must be able to provide for all of the needs of its people. Supportive businesses like banking, personal hygiene, healthcare, tailoring, leatherworking, blacksmithing, furniture production, distribution, social establishments, and supply stores are critical. The coupled nature of profitable land management and community survival is intensified in rural areas. If there are not diverse job opportunities for young people and money to spend from profitable entrepreneurship then people will move away and the community will collapse. This scenario has been observed over and over in rural regions, not just in agricultural communities but any community focused on a singular industry. The video “From Coal Towns to Ghost Towns” by UNC Chapel Hill discusses the plight of mining communities throughout Appalachia. The economic status of West Virginia and Kentucky, two states which rely heavily on the coal industry, suggests the importance of diversification is applicable to the economics of entire states. These states are part of Central Appalachia, the poorest subregion in Appalachia having the highest unemployment rates and the lowest incomes according to this 2011 Appalachian Regional Commission Report.

What starts on one property can radiate through a community, a region, a state and ultimately the country. Redefining the “farm” and embracing the diverse opportunities of the new enterprise environment is vital to the future of our vast rural lands in the U.S. Diversity is not just science, it’s survival.

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About Risa Pesapane

Risa is the Project Director for Rural System, Inc. and is an experienced research biologist and wildlife ecologist.

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