Hobby farming

If part-time farmers want to be taken seriously, they have to take themselves seriously. It starts with a word.

1.

When my father was a boy in the 1950s, his grandmother kept chickens in her backyard and tended a large garden. The hens laid eggs until they became an “old cluck” — my great-grandmother’s term for a hen that no longer wanted to give up her eggs to the child whose job it was to collect them — and then filled the soup pot for Sunday dinner. Each fall, my great-grandfather bought a hog from a local farmer and helped him butcher it, putting up meat to feed the family for the year. This was no rural homestead; they lived on an acre, at most, in the Pennsylvania Dutch village of Maxatawny. Today I’d probably call Maxatawny a suburb; I say “village” not to evoke nostalgia but simply to be accurate: it was, literally, a crossroads village on the road from Reading to Allentown. My great-grandfather was a successful contractor who built houses for a living: they didn’t especially need income from agriculture. They could have purchased their food from a store or from neighbors. Yet their agricultural work, though it was small in scale and generated no cash income, was serious work. It made an important contribution to the family economy. They didn’t do it because they were desperate or even poor; they did it because that was simply what one did in their culture.

Small-scale agriculture, from gardening to backyard livestock to part-time farming, was long a vital part of the American economy and of American culture. Residents of eighteenth-century towns and cities commonly kept livestock — chickens for both meat and eggs, dairy cows, and even hogs — and villagers with steady incomes from crafts or professions often farmed on the side as a way to feed their families and pick up some extra income. Part-time agriculture remained a way of life well into the twentieth century in small midwestern towns, southern mill villages, and rural and semi-rural places across the United States. To regret the passing of such an era is no mere nostalgia trip; urban gardeners and part-time farmers have played a critical role in the improvement of agriculture. When organic farming methods were first introduced into this country in the 1940s, they were picked up not by large-scale professional farmers but by gardeners and part-timers — people who, not relying on agriculture for their livelihood, could afford to take risks. J.I. Rodale, the publisher of Organic Gardening magazine, tried in various ways to appeal to farmers in the 1950s and 1960s and repeatedly failed, returning again and again to his original small-scale audience. It was through the efforts of gardeners and small, part-time farmers that organic methods were improved and disseminated; it would be nearly a half-century before large-scale commercial farms began farming organically.

Today, if municipal ordinances and homeowners’ associations didn’t shut them down, these part-time agricultural enterprises would be called “hobby farming,” a term I have always detested. I suspect the term has its origins among economists of the early and middle twentieth century who believed that bigger was bettter and wanted to denigrate small-scale agriculture as silly and unproductive. There are many reasons why few Americans now raise backyard chickens or butcher their own hogs; most obviously, food is so cheap that (if one is not too concerned about quality) it makes less economic sense to do so than formerly. But we have also devalued agricultural work such that it no longer seems an appropriate activity for modern, urbane people.

This term hobby farming, I think, is part of the problem. It is a term commonly used to include a vast range of agricultural activities. It includes, on the one hand, Martha Stewart’s fancy chickens and a retiree’s backyard orchard, and on the other, thousands of professional farmers who can afford to farm only part-time. Canada’s agriculture census defines a hobby farm as one on which “the main operator reported 190 days or more of off-farm work and whose farm did not employ any year round paid labour.” (1) Dan Glickman, the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture under Bill Clinton, defined hobby farmers as “men and women who farm on the side while earning their living doing something else.” Lest such part-timers be thought legitimate or professional, Glickman added that relying on them was dangerous: “I don’t think it’s a good idea to let farming become stamp collecting,” (2)

I don’t want to see farming become stamp collecting either, but there is a big difference between a stamp collecting and part-time agricultural production. A hobby — stamp collecting is an excellent example — is something one does in one’s spare time, for amusement. If it is at all productive, productivity must always take a back seat to pleasure. At worst the term implies dilettantism, the tendency to dabble in this and that without effort, knowledge, or gain. To call small-scale agriculture “hobby farming” makes it nearly impossible to take that activity seriously. (There is a magazine of that name to which I refuse to subscribe because I don’t feel that it takes me seriously enough.) It implies that any agricultural activity short of full-time professional farming is performed merely for fun and pleasure, not for profit or production, and that any economic benefits are purely incidental. This is absurd. It ignores people who still practice backyard agriculture in the tradition of my great-grandparents, working seriously to supplement (or reduce their need for) their cash income. It ignores professional farmers who wisely hedge against debt by keeping their “day job” while working to make their farms more profitable. And it ignores the great historical contributions to agriculture made by people who farmed on the side.

I have argued elsewhere that we still need these small-scale, part-time farms and farmers for cultural reasons and that their cultural value is greater than their economic value, and such an argument could seem at face value to define a hobby. But “hobby” is a dismissive term in the context of agriculture, meant to imply that farmers of such small scale are irrelevant to the mainstream of agriculture and indeed to anyone but themselves. I believe, on the contrary, that small-scale agriculture is absolutely vital to a thriving rural community and a thriving rural culture, and that its cultural value matters. I want to demonstrate that small-scale agriculture, thoughtfully and sensibly undertaken, is not a hobby but is a serious — not to say solemn or unenjoyable — matter.

2.

Before we can address this term “hobby farming,” we need to define a hobby meaningfully but precisely. One person’s hobby, it seems, is another’s productive work. So what is the distinction between a hobby and productive work? Is it the product, or is it something (ultimately unknowable) in the mind of the producer? A strict economic definition might state that a hobby costs money while productive work earns money — profit versus loss. But what about productive work that loses money — as many large-scale professional farms do, year after year? And does only cash income count? I could make more money if I took a job that was less enjoyable and less satisfying than my present job, and so, accounting for the opportunity cost, my present job could be said to entail an economic loss; but does that make it a hobby? (I don’t like my job that much.)

Good economists always account for the economic value of personal satisfaction. But accounting for personal satisfaction is problematic. How does one assign it a monetary value? The usual method is to imagine the most financially lucrative alternative to one’s present activity and take the difference in income as the opportunity cost of one’s choice — and therefore, if one is behaving “rationally,” the value of the satisfaction one gets from one’s chosen occupation or activity. “Rationally” is of course the difficult part; this accounting assumes that one is aware of one’s options and has thought through the financial implications of one’s choices. In reality, as any fool knows but most economists choose to ignore, human beings are not so rational. Someone who could make twenty dollars an hour working overtime would probably not pay forty dollars to watch a two-hour movie, but that is what she would lose by choosing to watch the movie and so is, in pure economic terms, the true cost of taking the time to watch it. (Plus admission and popcorn, of course.)

The usual economic methods of accounting for labor — that is, for time — equate time with money and, more particularly, time spent with money spent. Time is equivalent to earning potential. Time not spent productively is wasted. That equivalency, like the assumption of human rationality, is an artifact of the Enlightenment and the industrial age that followed, when the essential rationality of the universe was first posited and then enforced. (It also has origins in early Protestantism, but let’s set that aside for the moment.) If personal satisfaction is taken into proper account, however, time spent can be considered an asset rather than a debit, if not a financial one. But because we are real human beings and not entirely rational, not “economic man,” we may suppose that money is not all that matters. In fact, we may ask what will happen if we invert the industrial equivalency of time and money, not break it or ignore it but turn it inside out: money is time. What if we declare that money is valuable only in as much as it buys us time?

In this new money-time equivalency, personal satisfaction is the goal, not an irritating byproduct of human irrationality to be accounted for by uncomfortably imprecise means. It declares that happiness and achievement are not pleasant byproducts of production; rather economic production is necessary so that we may achieve and be happy. In an industrial or capitalist society, what money is time means is that one must work to support oneself so that one can afford leisure time. That is closer to the way most people really think about work than time is money. But it still assumes a capitalist or industrial context in which financial gain and personal satisfaction are separate. I want to take this a step further.
Suppose now that we no longer assume a division between economic production and personal satisfaction. What if we assumed, instead, that economic production and personal satisfaction should be — not are, obviously, but should be — equal and integral parts of one’s work? That is, to assume that the process as well as the product ought to provide satisfaction, and that even when it does not, the product will provide satisfaction beyond its mere ability to be traded for other products?

Gene Logsdon calls this “pastoral economics.” To succeed at small-scale “family farming,” he argues, requires (and has always required) a different set of values than those demanded by a capitalist economy, against which people count success not by how much money they have but by their real, day-to-day satisfaction with their lives. In contrast to an economy of big-box stores and factories, he describes “a very practical vision of a post-modern pastoral economy where real goods count for a lot more than money ” (emphasis added) and in which people’s labor can be thought of as an asset rather than a cost. (3) I prefer the term “agrarian economics”; “pastoral” sounds too much like a dream, too far removed from reality. Logsdon raises sheep, so he means the term literally, but for most of us “agrarian” is more hard-nosed and implies (I think) that such an economic system is really possible. But the idea is essentially the same.

3.

So what does all this have to do with hobbies?

To invert the standard time-money equivalency draws into question the whole idea of a hobby. If personal satisfaction is the goal, not the byproduct, of economic production, then what looks like a hobby might simply be productive work performed under a different (non-industrial, non-capitalist, non-academic, agrarian) model of economics.

And yet the term “hobby” must mean something . It must describe, for example, painting-by-numbers, a particularly noxious activity on which I will comment no further. It must also describe (to consider less intellectually liqeufying pastimes) birdwatching or Civil War re-enacting, activities whose benefits to the hobbyist are assumed to be purely personal

I will propose, therefore, the following criteria for a hobby:

  1. A hobby produces personal satisfaction.
  2. The personal satisfaction afforded by a hobby is its only (not merely its primary) economic value. That is, one of three cases apply:
    1. the hobby has no tangible product (e.g. birdwatching);
    2. the product has no value to others (e.g. building ships in bottles); or
    3. the product’s value on the open market is irrelevant to the producer.

This definition clearly distinguishes a hobby from productive work, except in the last case, in which the activity is economically productive but in which the economic value of that product is of no consequence to the hobbyist. Such as case might be the gourmet cook who prepares elaborate meals that would command high prices if offered in a restaurant; the cooking itself and the sharing of the meal with friends is the only reward desired. A more difficult example is a woman who knits or does embroidery or cross-stitch: she could probably sell her work, but not at a price that would justify parting with her creation or compensate her for her time. Her activities are productive, certainly, but the product’s value stems in large part from knowledge of the effort required to produce it. Even though she might take her work quite seriously, someone who did not do similar work would be unable to value the product as highly as she did — she cannot reasonably expect others to take her work as seriously as she does. Because her product’s value is not fully transferrable to others, its value to others is irrelevant to her decision to produce it, and the activity, however serious and worthwhile, remains a hobby.

This definintion also carefully distinguishes a hobby from productive work that the worker enjoys, so long as the enjoyment is not the only reason for performing the work. That distinction may, of course, be difficult to make in real life. To take an example close to home, consider my woodworking. The investment I have made in tools is patently not justified by the economic value of the furniture I have produced. The furniture I build does have economic value, of course: I could sell it (and have done so, on occasion), and if I keep it, I save money by not having to buy an equivalent piece of furniture from someone else. Yet clearly I am putting more money into my woodworking than I am getting out of it — so far, anyway. I may, in the future, make enough money by selling furniture, or avoid buying enough furniture, or be able to put enough “sweat equity” into a house in the form of finish carpentry, to make back my investment. But I did not buy my tools with the expectation of one day turning a profit. I did, however, buy my tools with the expectation of producing something useful, and if I were not producing something useful, I would (I know myself well enough to say) quickly lose interest in the activity. I don’t, therefore, think of my woodworking a hobby, because it is productive, and if it weren’t productive, I wouldn’t do it.

Of course, someone else doing exactly the same work might think of it differently — might, for example, enjoy woodworking merely as relaxation, with no concern for the utility of the product. By contrast, I find woodworking relaxing precisely to the extent that it does produce something of practical value; the useful product reminds me that, despite the demands of my paying job, I am not entirely useless myself. And I admit that there it does begin to sound like a hobby; one could argue that the ultimate value of the activity is personal. So a hobby, it seems, is still in the eye of the beholder. The knitter or cross-stitcher may fall into that broad gray area, and there are activities that leave even more room for interpretation. What about an Olympic athlete who is in constant training? Or even a parent, for that matter; parenthood would technically fit my definition of a hobby. Yet to call parenthood a hobby is simply laughable; it is far too important for such a casual term. So I will add a third criteria:

  1. A hobby is not so important an activity that it becomes a part of a person’s identity.

This eliminates parenthood as a hobby: one can collect stamps without thinking of oneself primarily as a stamp collector, but those of us who raise children cannot but think of ourselves as parents. We may be other things as well, but parenthood is a critical part of our identity. The same is true for the Olympic athlete; one cannot train so hard and so long without being, in one’s mind, an athlete . Although the training is extrinsically unproductive, it is far too important intrinsically to the athlete to be thought merely a hobby.

4.

Applied to agriculture, this three-part definition of a hobby ought nearly to eliminate the term hobby farming from our vocabulary. Whatever gray area remains is but sparsely populated by farmers. Consider some examples of people whom agricultural economists would call hobby farmers:

  1. A couple who have full-time profitable farming as a long-term goal but presently need an off-farm income. He teaches school ten months a year and works the farm evenings, weekends, and summers; she works full-time in an office but helps him in her spare time. Since the “primary operator” has a full-time job and employs no outside help, economists would classify this as a hobby farm. Yet it is not really a hobby: if they intend eventually to have a full-time income from the farm, then profitability — not just productivity — is the central goal of the operation. This is true no matter how slowly they progress towards that goal, or indeed whether or not they ever achieve it.
  2. A woman who maintains a market garden part-time while raising her children. She sells her produce one day a week at a local farmers market. Her husband works full-time and has no real interest in agriculture, but helps her with the “heavy lifting” on the weekends. The income from her garden supplements his off-farm income and lets them afford Christmas presents, an annual vacation, and other “luxuries.” By the standards of most economists, the small income from her agricultural work would qualify it as hobby farming, but the fact that it generates an income at all puts it outside any reasonable definition of a hobby.
  3. A breeder of rare sheep who makes no profit from her husbandry, and has no real expectation of ever doing so. Her goal is simply to maintain a breed she adores and to help maintain the genetic diversity of American livestock. She takes her work seriously, however, networking with other breeders, working with a nonprofit rare breeds conservancy, and attending a national conference once a year to learn how she can improve her breeding and expand the breed’s utility. Since she expects no profit, this too would be classified as a hobby farm. Yet certainly she intends her work to be productive: she is conserving a breed that may prove important to the future of American agriculture. So even though she may refer to her work as a hobby, it falls outside our definition of the term. (Whether the pleasure she takes in working with the animals is greater than the pleasure she takes in her more tangible accomplishments is anybody’s guess and nobody’s business.)
  4. Part-time homesteaders who raise chickens for eggs and meat and maintain a half-acre garden to feed their family. They sell none of what they grow and have no desire to do so in the future; they are happier producing for themselves. Since it produces no cash income at all, in economic terms this is a hobby farm; but it does, in fact, generate income — in the form of food — that saves the family money on groceries. The products of their work have cash values, but since that cash never changes hands nor is reported on a tax return, agricultural economists and the Census Bureau aren’t interested.

Whom does this leave as hobby farmers? People who produce little, don’t rely on the food or income they produce, and would not be devastated if they could no longer farm. People who talk about farming as “living the good life,” who enjoy digging in the dirt or sitting on a tractor but don’t take their work particularly seriously (or, indeed, work all that much in the first place). An urban lawyer who buys too much land and commutes to it on the weekends to play at farming but doesn’t put enough of himself into it to succeed (such as the “farmer” whose experiences my local newspaper once ran as a short-lived column). People with pet chickens whose eggs they rarely bother to collect or livestock they simply enjoy watching in the field. Weekend gardeners, perhaps. All of these could be called hobby farmers. Certainly there’s nothing wrong with what they do, but one senses that if they could no longer garden or raise chickens, they’d happily find some other activity to pursue. Their agricultural activities just aren’t serious enough to be more than a hobby. That’s fine, of course; they’re free to do what they like in their spare time. But they shouldn’t be confused with people who think of agriculture as work, in the best sense of that word, and who take their work seriously, and who want others to take their work seriously. And agrarians who do see their activity as serious, productive work shouldn’t be confused with hobbyists.

5.

So if serious, part-time agricultural work is not a hobby, what is it? Some part-time farming is simply that: part-time farming. I see no reason why we can’t use that term to describe my first two examples above. Those who produce only for themselves we might call homesteaders, but that word connotes such nostalgia that it, too, is often hard to take seriously. It implies someone living out on the frontier of civilization, possiby even “off the grid,” who only barely participates in the modern world. There is a positive side to the word, too, of course, but its strong suggestion of a particular lifestyle may hide the serious agricultural work that homesteaders do. I have heard enthusiast used to describe someone like the breeder of rare sheep, but that makes me think of someone with wild eyes and a one-track mind who corners me at a party and talks to me about the object of her enthusiasm until I would gnaw my own leg off to escape. The couple who currently make no money at farming but intend to in the future would in the context of a different business be called interns — unpaid workers whose compensation is the opportunity to “learn on the job” — but that implies work done for someone else and doesn’t really apply to their situation.

The term I would propose for serious farmers who receive no cash income for their work is amateur farmers. I admit that amateur has, in some contexts, a negative connotation: sloppy work, work based on too little knowledge or understanding, “amateur hour.” But an amateur is, literally, one who loves, and that is the word’s original meaning. An amateur loves his work and, by implication, strives to perform it to the best of his abilities. A professional, by contrast, may be “only in it for the money.” One arena in which the word amateur has retained its original meaning is sports. An amateur athlete — think again of the Olympics — is someone who rises before dawn, trains for hours every day while attending school or working to pay her bills, simply for the sheer joy of competition and for a chance to be the best: someone who deeply loves what she does. Professional athletes are overpaid, lazy, don’t appreciate what they have, don’t give back to the community; their desire to preserve their hefty incomes has made them cynical. Both stereotypes are, of course, unfair to many athletes, but they hold a good deal of truth, and they color the way we think about the words amateur and professional.

All of this matters because amateur farmers not only take themselves and their work seriously; they want and need others to take their work seriously as well. A stamp collector might be quite serious about his stamp collecting, but he cannot reasonably expect anyone else to take it as seriously as he does. It’s a hobby. If he can’t get his stamps, he’ll live until next week. But someone who raises chickens for eggs, however few, needs her local feed-and-grain to stock chicken feed consistently. Her chickens, unlike the stamp collector, may not live until next week. The manager of her local feed-and-grain won’t be strongly inclined to meet her needs — won’t take her work seriously — if he thinks of her as a hobbyist. Amateur farmers and part-time farmers cannot get by without the support of agricultural businesses. Our work creates a tangible product; we take our work seriously. We need to talk about our work in a manner that tells other people to take it seriously, and that begins by dropping the term “hobby farmer” from our vocabluaries.

I allow that no isolated change in terminology will make economists or anyone else take part-time farmers seriously. To take productive, thoughtful, and intelligent work seriously apart from the money it generates (apart from its “contribution to the economy”) will require a far broader change in the way we think about ourselves, about our lives and their meaning, about work and money. But large-scale cultural change must start somewhere. We can certainly change the way we think by referring to ourselves by a different name, and if that alone will not change the way other people think, it is certainly a prerequisite for broader change. So stand proud, amateur and part-time farmers! We know that the work we do is valuable. It’s time we started communicating that value to others.

Notes

  1. Stephen Boyd, “Hobby Farming: For Pleasure or Profit?” Statistics Canada, March 1998. Available online (PDF format). [return]
  2. Remarks by Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman on the State of American Agriculture Delivered at the 75th Annual Agricultural Outlook Forum, Arlington,Virginia, February 22, 1999. Available online. [return]
  3. Gene Logsdon, The Contrary Farmer (White River Junction, Vt.: Chelsea Green, 1994), 30. [return]
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