Browsed by
Category: why farm

Why we are starting a suburban farm

Why we are starting a suburban farm

I’ve wanted to have a farm for years now, and we are finally taking the leap – albeit a very careful, bit-sized leap. We are starting small, with the absolute minimum of expenses and complication. Our goal for this first year is to learn how to produce and sell food commercially, so that we can scale up intelligently next year. I’ve been the co-owner of a small software company for the last 7 years, and we have learned a lot about running an efficient, lean operation: lessons I’ll be bringing to the farm, and lessons that I’ll be sharing here as they apply. Below in this post I’ll share what we have done to date, our expenses, and what is coming next.

The focus of this documenting will be to show how to make a decent living doing regenerative farming in a suburban area.

But why are we starting a farm? Oh, where do I start…

I plan to write a series of posts (or a book, or books!) about why I think it is important for us to be growing food. I’ll just give a few quick reasons here. There is way, waaaaay more to say than I have space for here. I hope to go into much more depth on each of these topics in the future, and include many more as well.

Farming because I love my kids

Right now, when I work, I have to shoo my two little daughters away (they are 1 and 3 years old). And my professional work is not something they can even understand, much less participate in. It frustrates them, and it frustrates me. But growing plants? They love plants! Almost every time we eat a meal my 3 year old picks one of the foods we are eating and says we should grow it. They both love being outside, they both love looking at seed catalogs… and they both love spending time doing things with their parents.

Look at any culture before industrialization – children were not only able to understand what their parents were doing to provide a livelihood, they almost always were involved somehow! I strongly believe that children are meant to grow up engaged with their world, learning directly how to live from their parents and other close adults.

Meggan and I want to give our children the best childhood we can, to give a foundation for lifelong flourishing. For us, the best we can give them is growing up farming.

Farming for our health, and our community’s health

Food that is raised well is incredibly more nutritious than food raised poorly (there is plenty of scientific evidence for this, by the way). If a person eats vegetables purchased from the store, it is difficult to get all of the phytonutrients and micronutrients that are needed to be healthy. This even applies to most organic food, too – the label “organic” means far less than what it might seem.

The short story is that healthy soil hosts an incredibly complex system of insects, microbes, and fungi that deliver a stunning array of services and nutrients to plants. Heirloom varieties of plants do far better at accumulating nutrients than the bland factory farm varieties. Modern industrial agriculture, including most organic farms – use nutritionally deficient varieties and engage in practices that destroy the life of the soil, reducing it to little more than sterile dust and sand.

In the United States, we don’t even grow enough industrial vegetables for everybody to eat 5 servings a day. And there are very few truly nutritious fruits and vegetables being produced. To be healthy, my family needs this kind of food to be available, and the same for my community. I want to be a foot-soldier in the efforts to provide it.

And for us personally, tending the fields in clean, fresh air, rain and sunshine, is just about one of the healthiest forms of exercise that there is.

Farming for future generations

The way food is currently grown, with tilling and chemical fertilizers and pesticides and herbicides, we have an estimated 60 years before there is no more topsoil in the world. We can’t grow food without topsoil, and the way we currently grow food destroys topsoil – it literally blows away as dust. That is 100% gone in 60 years, and we should expect massive hunger and starvation if we don’t get our act together quickly, because every year we lose more and more land. We have already lost a third of the land that was capable of growing food.

The way we have gardened, and the way I will farm, actually creates topsoil, and also sequesters carbon from the atmosphere. Soil and dirt may seem boring – until you realize that almost everything you have ever eaten came from topsoil.

There are plenty of people working on figuring out how to produce food not just sustainably, but regeneratively. The process of farming can actually make the soil better, it can make habitats better, it can make the air cleaner and the rains more consistent. If done wrong, farming will literally starve us all within decades. When done right farming is an unbelievably powerful force for good and wellbeing.

And you know what? It has been shown that is possible to produce more food when farming properly than when people farm with the most modern chemicals, machines, and genetic engineering. And proper farming is far more resilient in the face of drought, pests, diseases, and changes in climate, whether manmade or natural.

Farming for conservation

We are in the middle of a mass extinction, and could lose 75% of all species on our planet. There are now many rural places where you can drive for miles with a clean windshield, while not many years ago it would have been covered in bugsplats. Butterflies and bees are being lost. Mammals, reptiles, birds, fish, amphibians. It is not only incredibly sad to lose all this beauty, but it is incredibly dangerous. Ever study the food web in school? Remember how everything is interconnected, and when pieces start going missing stuff can fall apart? Remember how clean air and oxygen come from healthy forests and oceans? We are putting all of that at risk.

Of all the reasons for this, one of the very largest is… wait for it… industrial, chemical farming. We have demolished millions of square miles of habitat, and replaced it with extremely simplistic, single-crop fields that are sprayed with poisons to kill everything except the desired crop. This is unbelievably short-sighted.

And all this unnecessary to feed the world. I’ll quote myself from above because this is important:

And you know what? It has been shown that is possible to produce more food when farming properly than when people farm with the most modern chemicals, machines, and genetic engineering. And proper farming is far more resilient in the face of drought, pests, diseases, and changes in climate, whether manmade or natural.

The way I’ll be farming, a significant amount of habitat will be preserved. Moreover, given that the land I’ll be using is currently a grass pasture, I’ll be able to significantly increase the amount of natural plant, insect, and animal life on the land.

Farming as an example

Good farming can do so much good for so many people. I want to join the growing number of people who are helping show the way. My contribution will hopefully be to provide a free, carefully documented example of a startup farm that would be practical for almost anyone to do. An example that shows how to start with very little capital investment (no need to buy land, and hopefully under $1,000 for supplies which could be funded from community support). I’ll be putting together a practical, doable roadmap/plan that covers a span of years and shows how start with gardening, then on to farming part time, then farming as a full time career.

Farming for a good life

Think of a bear in the woods. It is always rumbling around doing things that it needs to do to survive… but is it working? No, it isn’t working. It is just being a bear, doing what a bear does. Fundamentally we are no different, and the troubles that come with work are our own doing.

We have a flawed mindset that divides our life into different kinds of things – work, family, church, community – and then if we spend time on one piece, it subtracts time from all the others. And then we lay awake at night stressed because we are too busy and don’t have enough time to do all the important things we have to do, much less the things we want to do.

We also often have the problem of making a livelihood in unnatural ways. We do work at tasks that are highly abstract, tasks that are far removed from what we are built to do. For example, with my software work I spend a lot of time sitting still, staring at a pane of glass, wiggling my fingers.

Look at any pre-industrial culture. Imagine a Maori warrior, or tribal Scot, or an indigenous American. How many of them sat still everyday, just wiggling their fingers? How many of them needed to isolate the bulk of their energy and time from their children, their community, and their religion?

Here’s what a farm-centered life will hopefully look like for us. We’ll wake up as a family, and share breakfast, the head out to the farm. We will plant, tend, and harvest till lunchtime, as a family. We will often sing hymns and other songs while we are in the fields, and we will (hopefully) often have members of our community stop by to visit, and to learn. We’ll spend more time in the fields in the afternoon, and some of us will hang out in our little farm stand by the road to sell our produce to the people driving home after work. We’ll get a chance to meet, talk with, and provide nourishment for our neighbors.

It will not be work, it will simply be life. Living. Doing the kinds of things we are meant to do, outside in the fresh air, sunshine and rain. Spending our time and energy with the people we are meant to live with.

On Sundays, we will stay home from the fields and have rest, worship, and fellowship.


There are so, so many benefits to farming. It will let us be whole as a family, better connected with our community, closer to our God, keeping ourselves healthy and helping those around us to be healthier, stewarding our inheritance for the generations to come, and helping show a better way to a world that desperately, desperately needs it right now. For the life of me I can’t think of a better way to spend our lives.

I should note that farming can be backbreaking and stressful work. But it does not have to be that way, and it should not be that way.

I have studied agriculture and farming for years now, and have found many, many examples of people who are farming properly and it is neither backbreaking nor stressful. When done right, farming does not involve farm loans, expensive machines, and chemicals. Good farming is very resilient, and is much more able to handle the pests, diseases, and market fluctuations that would ruin a conventional farm. All that good farming requires is responsible business practices, industriousness and commitment. I view responsibility, industriousness and commitment as very important components of a good life, so no loss there!

This is all for now. The next post will be a very practical one – a list of the steps we have taken so far, what we are working on now, and the general plan to take us from pasture to a working farm in the next few months. Stay tuned!

The farmer in the arena

The farmer in the arena

Feeding billions of people is a very difficult task. My hat is off to the people who have been doing it and keeping pace with explosive population growth. We have big problems with how we make our food, though.

Most importantly, the industrial way we make food right now is simply not sustainable. Organic or not, industrial agriculture ultimately leads to wastelands and deserts. There is no question about this — every year we lose arable land to topsoil loss, salt buildup, and etc. We literally cannot keep doing things the same way or we will run out of land.

And this does not even mention all the other problems like the abuse of harmful chemicals, ensuing collapse of honeybees, the economic strangleholds exerted on farmers by the multinational chemical and ag companies, the dependence on fossil fuels for equipment and fertilizer, disappearing aquifers, etc.

But the problems (and solutions) go a lot deeper than new tricks for growing and harvesting things. We need farms that can *sustainably* produce food, yes, but also farms that can pay livable wages to workers. We need a lifestyle and workstyle such that more people will *want* to have those jobs. And even then, most modern people won’t want to do farm work. So we need agriculture that is de-industrialized but still efficient enough that the work of a few people can feed many, many others. We need grain and vegetable cultivars that fit this, and we need to embrace currently uncommon crops.

I could go on, but I will stop there.

I do not see the industrial system addressing it’s fundamental problems until it reaches a breaking point. And while alternative agriculture has come a long ways, there is still a ton of work to do figuring out how to deliver those things that I just said we need. Market gardens and CSA programs and the like are an important and necessary step in rebuilding agriculture, but few of them are successful businesses, almost none of them provide affordable staple crops, and they don’t produce enough food for the labor input. There are critical pieces that are still missing.

I do not claim to have those pieces, and maybe they do not exist. Maybe the agriculture we have now is the only kind that we can have with the culture and society and economy as it is. I honestly don’t know. But I’d like to try my hand at putting the pieces in place.

I haven’t been able to articulate it quite like this, but this is on of the very core reasons that I’ve become so obsessed with “gardening” lately. Now that I’m coming to understand more what it is I’m trying to do, I intend to start getting serious about it. Starting with the little garden we have, I’m going to start learning to farm.

Exactly what that means will be the subject of future posts…

A list of reasons to grow your own wheat: kind of a manifesto

A list of reasons to grow your own wheat: kind of a manifesto

Food is not a commodity, and it never has been. It is treated as one by industrial culture, but it really isn’t.

The classic comparison of industrial and garden food is tomatoes. Compare a regular grocery store tomato to any well-tended heirloom tomato and the gulf between them is obvious. However, the same gulf exists with all the food we eat, it just isn’t as obvious sometimes. And where the discrepancy is greatest is in the foods that we rely on for the bulk of our sustenance — grains and legumes.

Wheat is as close to a commodity as it is possible for food to get, and wheat flour even more so. Yet it can be moldy and stale, deficient in vitamins and minerals, and harvested well past ripeness, and contaminated with industrial chemicals. Or it can be fresh and clean, untainted, high in vitamins and minerals, and harvested and cured at its peak.

Might as well start with the fun stuff. Here’s a picture of some wheat berries I sorted out of a cup that I was grinding for flour. You can see what some different kinds of moldy and bad wheat looks like, compared to some that is okay:


Mold toxins in grains and legumes can cause health problems (shocking!). The biggest problem is the Aspergillus family of molds, and the toxin they produce called aflatoxin. There are a number of factors that contribute to contamination. The more damaged grains, the more mold. The more insect pests, the more damaged grains and thus mold. Storage in cool conditions reduces mold.

It turns out that excess irrigation, while nice for plumping up crops, can cause excess plant susceptibility to pests, and increase the humidity levels, both of which increase mold contamination. This study has an interesting analysis of cotton, much of which is likely true of other crops. Also, it turns that harvesting late season, bug ridden dregs of a crop doesn’t help yield much, but does significantly increase contamination.

One solution: pre-contaminate the crops with an Aspergillus that doesn’t produce the government-regulated aflatoxin. Seriously, this is being developed. It is wonderful to reduce Aflatoxin, but I’d much rather have my grain not moldy in the first place. I’ll write more about this in next week’s post…

Solution: grow and store the crops with skill and care, in family-scale quantities. Before consuming food, have somebody take care to sort through and discard anything obviously moldy.

Traditionally, wheat was harvested at peak ripeness, and allowed to cure and harden before threshing. This optimized flavor, and probably nutrition. In modern wheat harvesting, it is allowed to fully harden to flint stage before harvest so that the mechanical combines do not crush it. Some is still damaged, of course.

Solution: Grow wheat on a human-scale, not a machine scale, and harvest at optimal ripeness.

The nutrient profile of wheat can also vary greatly depending on the variety grown, the fertility of the soil it is grown in, and how it is watered, and if it is annual or perennial (some perennial wheat strains do exist, and are nutritionally attractive). Annual that are grown in soil that has been tilled to death and has lost all its microbes due to harsh fertilizers and pesticides? Not going to be as nutritious.

Solution: Grow wheat in rich, fertile soil that is tended properly.

Industrial chemicals
Pesticides are a whole topic unto themselves. I want to mention, though, that industrial flour was found by the FDA in 2004 to have:

3 known or probable carcinogens
9 suspected hormone disruptors
5 neurotoxins
4 developmental or reproductive toxins
7 honeybee toxins

I know that the dose makes the poison, and that these were found in low levels. However, I also know that “low levels” is defined by bodies that are rife with industrial ties. I also know that if make the dose of a poison zero by not consuming it, then it cannot cause you any harm whatsoever. Also, I don’t care to support the poisoning of agricultural workers, or the poisoning of honeybees, or the poisoning of the groundwater and air in rural communities.

Solution: buy expensive organic flour (which doesn’t address the other points), or grow it at home and don’t spray poisons on it.

Too many shortcuts
The points above all connect at a central idea. When somebody else is growing the wheat that I eat, and that I feed to my family, they are almost certainly taking shortcuts that I am not okay with. And sometimes they do things that I find downright astounding, like applying poisons, or pre-innoculating crops with mold. I know that the supply chain from seed company to farm to supermarket is long, and I can’t imagine all of the shortcuts and shenanigans that are taking place.

Solution: grow your own wheat with the same skill and pride that you would have when growing an heirloom tomato. Grow food as though you and your own loved ones are going to eat it. And then eat that food.

The real thing
I don’t want plastic wrapped, industrially optimized, moldy, nutrient thin bread that comes from a fluorescent lighted warehouse. I want the real thing. I want my family to live on bread that we saw with our own eyes come from God’s provision of rain, sun, soil and seed. Grown and prepared with tender loving care. Fresh from the garden and warm out of the oven.

This is not sentimentalism, and achieving it is not a pipe dream. It takes work, and patience, for years, but building a life where this happens is perfectly achievable. Arguably more achievable than climbing a corporate ladder, because there is enough space for everyone on this planet, but there are only so many corner offices.

There is a hilarious twitter account I saw recently: @handsinwheat. The schtick is making fun of stock photos of people running their hands through a field of wheat. Here’s an example:

Screenshot from
Screenshot from

@handsinwheat does a great good job of satirizing the overuse of this imagery by anyone and everyone who is trying to pitch something. It is among the cheapest, most hackneyed tricks in the book. But you know what? It works, and it works for a reason. I dare you to look at the silly pictures on @handsinwheat and not feel something real. Something that comes from thousands and thousands of years of your ancestors — your own family — walking through land abundant with food, and feeling contentment, connection to God, and connection to their ancestors and a legacy for their heirs.

That is the way it is supposed to be. We are built for this, in so many ways. That twitter account is funny, but it is tragic that the imagery of so much of what should be fundamental to our lives has become an icon of cynical manipulation.


Well, that’s all for this post. I’ve got work to do.