Farmer, Homesteader, or Hobby-Farmer?
Updated: Dec 22, 2022
This is a topic I've been wanting to write about for some time. Call me strange, but I think about this topic every so often and have since childhood. What is the difference among farmer, homesteader, and a hobby-farmer? When does one earn the right to call themselves a farmer or their property a farm? What on earth is the difference between a homesteader and a hobby farmer? Before I get into this, I want to clarify that the following is an essay discussing my own experiences and opinions regarding the subject. Think of this essay as a conversation on this topic with a farmer's daughter over coffee (or in my case, tea). I think defining terms from the dictionary and referring to studies kind of ruins the fun of what you are about to read. So instead, let's have a little fun and just talk.
That being said I am fully aware that the USDA and state agriculture agencies have already defined and studied this topic and probably have given in their own stale government-speak the answers to the questions I posed at the beginning. In fact, the NH commissioner of Agriculture Shawn Jasper wrote on this topic in the Weekly Market Bulletin a few months ago, stating that if you want to call yourself a farmer, or your property a farm, more power to you. There is nothing stopping you nor illegal about you doing so. So if you want to be a farmer, call yourself a farmer! But I'm about to challenge that way of thinking...
Ok, so let's get into this. I like organization, so we will tackle the three topics one at a time.
What is a farmer and who earns this title? There was a time in history where most people living in New England were farmers, and almost everyone participated in farm work to some degree or other. These days farmers are much more rare, and it is even harder for farmers to find reliable employees. People these days are disconnected from farming so much that they hate the smell of a farm and don't realize where the food on their plates actually came from. These days there are lots of social media out there connecting people to farms, but it's not the same as being there in person. I digress..
My definition of a farmer is someone who makes money producing a product by raising plants or animals as their main source of income. When this person "goes to work," they walk out their front door with work clothes on (stained with dirt, grease, and cow manure), and start working. The workday usually starts bright and early and ends later than they expected. The work is physical, but also requires their brain to work in many different capacities. Typically farmers are skilled in a number of different areas including veterinarian, mechanic, dietician, laborer, employee manager, crop harvester, horticulturalist, forester, etc. You don't often see farmers at local social events or restaurants. They are at home living their dream.
Farmers sell products to the public whether it is shipping milk, raising beef, selling large crops like wheat, or the like. Almost always they are dealing with bureaucracy whether they are receiving for payment for a crop or getting inspected at their farm. These days many farms have a farm store to one capacity or another. In my opinion the future of small family farms is in direct sales at your farm store.
I was raised on a small family farm - a commercial dairy farm to be specific. My father is the definition of farmer to me, and I know a lot of other people like him who are dedicated to their work and love the life of farming even though it is challenging. Most people don't realize that a farmer is "on" 24-7. I grew up knowing that the cows had to be milked on Christmas day and every other day, no matter what was going on. There were many times as a kid I woke in the middle of the night to hearing a cow bellowing and my dad pulling on his clothes to help birth a calf. Or the sound of cow hooves outside where they shouldn't be. Chasing cows in the middle of the night is kind of exhilarating though, I will say.
Throughout history I'd say society has looked down on farming and growing your own food generally as a lower-class job, however a phenomenon of sorts is happening in today's society. Partly thanks to the pandemic and the current political and economic climate, people are turning to homesteading in droves. Social media is glamorizing homesteading like nobody's business. There are countless resources out there on how to raise a milk cow, start your own homestead, fill a root cellar. (Root cellars are what homesteader dreams are made of!)
So what is a homesteader? Homesteaders raise as much of their own food as they can, plain and simple. This kind of farming is customizable to the amount and kind of land you own, the kind of animals you want to raise, and how far you are willing to get into it. A homesteading couple typically farms on the side as one or both of them go to a "real" job. Some homesteaders raise milk cows. Others raise all their own meat but don't have a garden. Some have huge gardens and can and freeze all their produce for a whole year. Mix and match to whatever your (literal) taste.
Often homesteaders don't sell the products they raise - it is all for home consumption. I hear about countless homesteaders starting out with no previous farming experience, which I find extremely commendable. They usually have a passion to forge their own way into the farming world, driven by thoughts of healthier food and a better way of life for their family - I give these people my hearty praise and approval.
You all know that person. You know, the place you call when your chickens stop laying. In my mind, the hobby farmer sometimes owns just a few animals but usually it's quite an impressive collection (typically a little bit of everything), and the animals are all pets. They have names like George or Freddy and the owners spend more money on feeding the menagerie than they'd like to admit. This farmer takes into their fold chickens that have stopped laying, pigs that were saved from the butcher, and lame horses. The hobby-farmer doesn't make money from the animals but rather runs a barnyard sanctuary-of-sorts. These people are super compassionate about animals and love sharing their property and collection of barnyard animals with others, which I find very sweet.
The pros of this farming style? You can enjoy all the animals fully without being afraid of getting too attached. People love coming over to your house to see all the different animals. You gain skills in knowing how to care for an assortment of animals. The biggest con is the major expense to feed, house, and keep all the animals clean.
WHAT AM I?
What do I call myself, you are probably [not] wondering? Well, I'll tell you anyway. At the current stage we are at with our property and what we raise, I think we register somewhere between homesteader and farmer, but mostly homesteader. We dabble in farmer because we sell our own milk and maple syrup products out of a farm stand. We have a large vegetable garden, but it could hardly sustain us year-round. We raise laying hens - just like I will forever be making soap, I will forever have chickens. We dabble in raising our own beef and maybe will raise more of our own meat someday. I don't can my vegetables but I'm really into fermenting anything and everything right now, which is totally homesteader of me.
We both have full-time jobs apart from our agricultural pursuits. So I claim the title "soapmaker" over "farmer" currently. Heck, I have a hard time calling the building that houses my five cows a barn, so I don't think I'm anywhere close to calling myself a farmer. To me, the term "farmer" is a badge of honor. It's not something I take lightly and after you read this, I hope you think the same.
If you do any kind of farming pursuit, tell me in the comments below what category you fall into.