The Privilege of Farming

We recently watched the feel-good, inspirational film The Biggest Little Farm. Our friend told us about a free screening of the movie. And coincidentally, days before the screening, I shared with a remote work colleague I had just then met by phone and email, that we have a coffee farm. She asked if I had heard about the film and said it’s her favorite film ever. Wow. I was even more excited to see it.

It’s an engrossing, well-told story, full of emotion and personal drama. Sadly, the farm in Moorpark, CA, is yet again, today, at risk of wildfires, though they don’t have to evacuate. Their “little” farm is about 200 acres. (I guess that makes our three acre farm a miniature farm.) You care about the couple/farmers, their animals, the fruit (literal and figurative) of their farm. You want them to succeed. To me, the turning point was when the filmmaker and farmer, John, at his most frustrated and defeated time in the film, has the epiphany that he has to sit back, not fight it or play whack-a-mole, and just observe. And finally, nature seems to find her balance, and the vision they had, and were sold on by their mentor, begins to come to fruition. It was quite a transformation.

The metamorphosis is amazing, but is the farm sustainable? Does it rely on volunteers and/or passionate, underpaid workers? I stumbled upon a critical review when I tried to see if anything was written about the profitability of the farm; it was titled, “‘The Biggest Little Farm’ Review: Inspiring as Long as You Don’t Think About It Too Much.” I thought the criticism was a bit harsh (“At first blush, it’s an inspiring story about two people striving to revive land devastated by modern farming techniques, but the more we see of the Chesters and the ways they solve each problem they face, the harder it becomes to ignore the sickening sense of privilege that hangs over the whole affair.”)

I have a friend in rural Oregon who, as a favor, though she gets an hourly wage, drives her farmer friend’s produce truck into Portland to deliver to the farm’s various store customers. She says the store employees are always hungry to hear about how things are at the farm. She thinks that life in the city is so urban and removed from nature and our food supply, that city-dwellers yearn to connect somehow to dreams and illusions of pastoral life. Or we might have a fantasy of quitting the 9-to-6 (9-to-9?) office job, picking up and starting a brand new, simple, wholesome, connected-to-nature life … perhaps a farm!

We are privileged to have had the opportunity to take over a coffee farm that has been in the family for three generations. We want to do our best with it. It has taken money to fix it up from its under-loved state, to maintain it, and to get it to produce. We are not yet breaking even. We’ve spent less this year than last year. But where will this go? My concern from the very start is whether it can be sustainable or not. And if it isn’t sustainable, do we want to continue to lose money, to pay, to sell good coffee? There are now so many neglected “feral” coffee farms because coffee is a lot of work for little money, and you have to stay on it. We’ve already seen what happens when you put in minimal work (see images below). Are we as a society destined to only have large, efficient, industrialized farms?

If you’re interested, here are a few links that share a little of the back story to the making of the film: https://www.indiewire.com/2019/05/the-biggest-little-farm-documentary-breakout-1202139364/ and http://frontrowfeatures.com/features/film-features/exclusive-couple-trades-city-life-for-the-joys-and-challenges-of-working-the-land-in-the-biggest-little-farm-26069.html

The farm, Apricot Lane Farms, is biodynamic, a term that I had never really paid all that much attention to. I think I vaguely thought that’s the term (“biodynamique”) for “organic” in French. The first paragraph in Wikipedia says, “Biodynamic agriculture is a form of alternative agriculture very similar to organic farming, but it includes various esoteric concepts drawn from the ideas of Rudolf Steiner (1861–1925). Initially developed in 1924, it was the first of the organic agriculture movements. It treats soil fertility, plant growth, and livestock care as ecologically interrelated tasks, emphasizing spiritual and mystical perspectives.” “Biodynamic Farming is on the Rise …” is a nice article about Apricot Lane Farms & biodynamic farming.

It reminds me of an interesting article I read early this year in Ke Ola Magazine “The Cultivating Life: Agroforestry Expert Craig Elevitch.”

Agroforestry is intentionally putting plants, and sometimes animals, together and managing them to enhance productivity, improve soils, sequester carbon, as well as enhance biodiversity. 

Family farms mix cash crops (like coffee) with growing food for themselves. We have banana, papaya, pineapple, macadamia nuts, avocado, lychee, mango, guava, but we’ve had to remove many of our other fruit-bearing trees as we’re doing some rebuilding. We have ideas of other plants we want to grow (ulu/breadfruit, purple potato, jaboticaba, calamondin, vanilla bean, cacao, dragon fruit, star fruit, …). Chickens and eggs might be nice. And bees. Bea’s bees?

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