Few people live on farms anymore, but many people daydream about it. There's just something very gratifying about that type of hard work—and working with nature to create healthy, nourishing food. But the fact is, farm life isn't always how you may envision it, and chemical-based farming is robbing farmers of a decent living and making our country sick (especially the farmers). In her book Organic Manifesto, Rodale Inc. CEO Maria Rodale describes the trap many modern-day chemical farmers fall into, relying on expensive, genetically engineered seeds, chemical pesticides and fertilizers, financing expensive, gigantic farm equipment, and leasing more land than they can afford. "Being a farmer is hard these days. Commodity prices soar and fall along with the prices of gas and fertilizer and consumer confidence, and the ever-increasing amount of land needed to earn a living makes it hard to enjoy the job," she writes, adding, "It's always been hard to be a farmer. But a generation or two back, at least it was a family affair that brought with it a set of values and joys that made up for the long hours and backbreaking work."
The good news is, that sense of community and the importance of producing nourishing food seems to be returning, with the public's interest in sustainable organic farms back on the radar screen. There's been an explosion of interest in sustainable agriculture, and that's good news for families seeking healthy food, and for the farmers, too. A recent report from the United States Department of Agriculture found that organic farmers earn a better living than their chemical-oriented counterparts. Most likely because they don't buy into the chemical system that may seem to work at first, but winds up putting farmers in debt and puts them on a treadmill of needing more and more chemicals as their soil becomes less and less healthy.
If you want to experience the benefits of chemical-free farming yourself—besides buying and enjoying the food—there are several ways you can get a farm experience without quitting your day job or selling your house and heading to the countryside.
Don't own a farm? No problem. Here's how to farm without being a farmer:
# 1. Start or join a crop mob.In the last few years, the phenomenon of "crop mobs" has become more popular. During a crop mob, volunteers gather on a farm for a day to perform tasks that could take an individual farmer days or weeks to complete, such as erecting a hoophouse, mulching field beds, or painting a barn. Participants include other farmers as well as people who want to help out, meet local farmers, and get some exercise. To set up such a group in your area, query local, sustainable farmers in your county about projects they need help with (and when), ask how you can help, and then find like-minded helpers and schedule your own crop mob event. If you belong to a CSA (see below) or shop at a farmer's market, start the conversation with the farmers there.
# 2. Become a WWOOFer.The World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms program lists organic-farm host families from all over the world who allow people of all different backgrounds the opportunity to spend a week or even months on sustainable farms. Each host family lists the length of stay and expertise level required for volunteers, but many require a visit of just a week or two (perfect for a volunteer-vacation experience) and no immediate farming skills. The volunteers get room and board, and take home invaluable advice they can apply to their own garden—or who knows, maybe one day to a farm of their own. Experiences range from vegetable farms to organic dairy or shiitake-mushroom-growing operations.
# 3. Join a CSA. Community-supported agriculture involves buying a share of the season's harvest, and it's a great way to ensure a variety of healthy food during the growing season. Some CSA programs even offer meat, cheese, and eggs. But if you want a more hands-on experience, ask your CSA farmers if you can lend a hand. Some programs even let you pay a lower fee if you provide a weekend of volunteer time during the growing season, and some farmers may welcome your help on packing and distribution days. It's a great way to get your hands dirty and become friends with your local farmer. Find hundreds of CSA programs at LocalHarvest.org.
# 4. Grow a farm crop. Even if you only have a small patch of land, you can still grow a farm crop, and what could taste better than sweet corn grown in your own backyard? Contrary to what you're used to seeing on farms, you don't need to plant rows of the starchy vegetable. For growing sweet corn at home, opt for a square plot in lieu of rows, to maximize use of space. According to Organic Gardening magazine, you can use a Zuni Native American trick and plant the corn in hills in the square patch. For details on growing sweet corn, visit OrganicGardening.com. For other ideas, check out our story, Grow Your Own Farm on Less Than an Acre.
# 5. Invite chickens into your home. Chickens are easier to raise than you think. In fact, you can even make them part of the family and allow them to live indoors. (There are such things as chicken diapers.) For people with little yard space, Eglu chicken coops are popular choices, or, usually, you can hire a local sustainable farmer to build a coop that fits your needs. Once mature, chickens lay about an egg a day, so three chicks is usually a good number to provide a small family with fresh eggs (share extras with the neighbors). Just don't get a single hen—they get lonely! Read Raising Chickens: Do You Have What it Takes? for more info on raising chickens.