The Bright Line Between Farmer and Gardener


The Northeast Organic Farming Assocation of New York
had its winter meeting in my town of Saratoga Springs last weekend.  Seems like a great organization.  The meeting was focussed on helping new farmers.  One of the resolutions they were voting on was whether "organic" chicken should mean chicken fed organic food–or chicken that was actually free to go outside, peck, scratch, eat insects, and behave like a chicken.  I know which one I want to buy when I'm buying organic chicken.

Unfortunately, I had too many other obligations to spend three days there hanging out, as I would have liked, but I did make two talks: one by the lovely Kerry Trueman, food activist and food blogger for the Huffington Post, on planting fruit trees in small spaces.  Another, the next morning, on urban beekeeping.

Notice the small-scale, urban nature of the workshops: word is that NOFA-NY was really trying to draw in gardeners this year as well as farmers.

But they are not the same audience.  And the farmers–way too knowledgable and precise–kept interrupting the talks directed at gardeners. 

I like farmers.  I think that if I was born 20 years later, I might have become one.  Alas, that was not what Yale graduates did in 1980. They went to work on Wall Street and looked like the anxious workaholic couple played by Diane Keaton and Harold Ramis in Baby Boom.  Or they looked like me–ne'er do well waitresses with ambitions to write War and Peace, but secretly bored to death by their own juvenile ideas about love and war.

Today, a Harvard guy of another generation heads Slow Food USA.  And I know dozens of young college-educated farmers doing their own sustainable thing.  And amen to that, too.  We're eating a lot better because of them, and maybe eventually, they will drive agribusiness out of business and save the planet.

But when I encounter farmers today, after pumping them for information, I generally feel no envy.  I'm glad to be a gardener.  I think farmers have to work very hard and be very serious to be successful at growing food, and I don't.  I just have to scatter some seed on my excellent soil and smile.

Farmers have to be systematizers. You can't feed hundreds of people a year without a system.  I get to be  seat-of-the-pants about my crops.  Farmers often have to compromise on soil management and use tractors, forgo mulches, and generally do what is efficient.  My garden, on the other hand, gets to really mimic an ecosystem, and I get to be as unintrusive and no-till and lazy as I can be.

Farmers have to grow what will sell.  I get to experiment with the truly weird crops.  Farmers have to grow things in proven ways.  Again, I get to experiment–to allow volunteers to inspire new thoughts about the timing of crops.  To see if I can get away with no irrigation whatsoever just because I'm a minimalist and interested in the question.

Despite the clash of cultures, I did gather some interesting ideas at NOFA: pawpaws and persimmons from Kerry Trueman.  And the beekeeper did answer the one question I really wanted answered.  "Would you, " I asked him, "put a hive in a city yard if your neighbor told you she is allergic to bees?"

"No," he said. 

Unfortunately, that's all I need to know about bee-keeping.


  1. Farmers & gardeners?

    Terminology, as used (most places), a fuzzy line.

    Agriculture vs. ornamental horticulture.

    Odd, calling both ‘gardener’.

    So much for fancy degrees.

    My fancy engineering degree? 30 years later my parents are still horrified at my landscape design career choice. They’ve not read any of my books, never heard me lecture nor visited any of my client gardens. At least 1/year, sometimes more, they still give me the, “go get a real job” lecture. Imitating The Great Santini, to perfection unfortunately, during the lecture.

    Alas, a common thought about my profession.

    Would love to have gone to that symposium with you.

    Garden & Be Well, XO Tara

  2. there is a difference between gardeners and farmers which I knew at an early age having spent part of my childhood on my uncle’s dairy farm in Vermont – and watching the changes and challenges in my early adulthood. No one farms that land anymore. I am glad to hear that at least some people consider chickens to be ‘organic’ if they go outside and eat bugs even if they don’t eat ‘organic’ grain. That’s my category.

  3. Adam and Eve were the original gardeners and had a pretty good thing going on until they lost their perspective. Now they are farmers, ones to toil and sweat.

  4. I didn’t understand the difference between being a gardener and a farmer until I took a horticulture class at Hartnell Community College in Salinas Valley CA ( the lettuce bowl of america) It was a real eye opener as to all the different professions available to an agricultural graduate. I thought if you studied agriculture you went on to be a farmer or a gardener. I had no idea of brokerage houses and ag brokers, the amazing amount of different inspectors within the ag field , the soil managers, the crop managers, irrigation monitors , packing houses, gas houses, hot houses ….. and more.. such as turf management

  5. The kind of chicken you want to buy is called pastured chicken. It has lived outside.

    Poor Tara. You’ve heard the joke about the parents who complained, “A gardener is what one has, not what one is.”

  6. Thank you for this thoughtful post, whoever wrote it. I am both a farmer and a gardener, and I agree with your points (and don’t get me started, I could go on!). I will add though that a farmer really has to look at the operation as a business, which is NOT my favorite part of the whole thing, I confess (and it’s messed up in this country). Besides the actual farming, there are piles of paperwork to do, loads of regulatory and compliance issues to deal with, and if you hire help there are whole other management issues too.

    Meanwhile, my annual veggie garden is strictly for me to have fun in 🙂

    I just read that Multnomah County (the county in Oregon where Portland is) has just put in place a program to guide and mentor young people who want to farm in the mostly-urban county (sounds similar to what your NOFA-NY folks are doing). Apparently there have been a lot of young people starting up operations there and then getting into trouble when they realize how much more there is to it than just doing the growing (and they don’t have family connections to help them). But they saw how important it is to encourage a new generation of farmers, as the average age of a farmer here in Oregon is 57, and the children of farmers are not staying on the farm (I am 53, my husband is 63, and none of our kids will follow us in this profession, most likely). Also, they’re hoping to support the active food and farm market scene in the county, and create a system for food security. Smart move, I think!

  7. It’s funny I was just thinking about doing a post about farmers vs gardeners.

    Yes professional farmers are under a strain to make a living.

    I really feel sorry for them.

    Some Big Ag farmers laugh that I grow my own little garden and call myself a farmer. But that’s what I consider myself.

    Maybe it’s just my upbringing, but gardeners grow flowers. Farmers grow food. As for me, I grow both! Giggles

  8. Tropaeolum, you made me laugh! I was there with a friend around my age, and he was commenting on how gorgeous the young women farmers were. They were! So maybe No Fanny is No Accident.

  9. I farmed on a friend’s land organically for a couple of years in the 80’s and decided to take a pass on that lifestyle as it required living in the boonies. I love nature and all, but I love being able to walk or bike to a restaurant or movie too (or just to visit neighbors without having to get in the truck).

    My wife and I have the same ideal fantasy home tho: a downtown bungalow in a “front porch” neighborhood, where you step out the back door onto a 5 acre backyard of fields, woods and a stream. 🙂

    Incidentally one of the most succinct definitions I’ve heard of the difference between ‘agriculture’ and ‘horticulture’ is that the former is what goes on outside the city walls and the latter is what goes on inside the city walls. FWIW.

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