Farmer or Landscaper: Which is right for me?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASpring has sprung, and with it comes the surge of offers for “free garden space” from well-meaning homeowners. As interest in “local food” grows, more and more people are looking at their land through new eyes, for the potential it holds for food production. This is an exciting shift, and one which holds tremendous potential. However, straddling the divide as I do between farmer and landscaper, I think it is important to clarify the differences between landscaping and farming in order to help everyone—landowner and prospective gardener—gain some clarity.

Though landscaping and farming/gardening are in essence the same thing—stewarding land that another person owns who does not want to steward that land him or herself—they couldn’t be more different in the way they are viewed and compensated in our culture.

As a landscaper caring for ornamental plants, I earn $35/hour working that land, a rate which is seldom questioned and widely accepted as just the price of things, much as you would pay a doctor or a heater repair person.

As a farmer producing food, I am not offered compensation by the landowner, and am sometimes asked to actually pay for the privilege of stewarding their land for them. This is also generally accepted as the way of things, I suppose because it is assumed that I will be earning money from the food I will be growing, which is where my compensation will come from. As we all know, farming doesn’t pay well, but to be fair, a small farm operation does generate some income, so it’s not a totally off-base assumption. However, there are differences between a farm and a vegetable garden in your back yard, which is partly the point of this article.

While this dichotomy between landscaper as steward and farmer as steward deserves a thorough reexamination in our culture, until that time comes, here are a couple of questions to ask if you are a landowner considering whether you’re in need of the services of a farmer or a landscaper:


Farmland in action

1. How much land do I have available to be used for a garden?

In rural areas, it is common for people to own farmland which they lease to farmers. These are large tracts of land that are laid out for production farming—they’re cleared and graded, with irrigation systems in place. In our urban setting, pieces of vacant or underutilized land are much smaller, often surrounded by fences or other obstacles which make using equipment in them difficult. They also often have access only to expensive city water or are shaded much of the day by large trees. Potential farmers must learn to observe these things before agreeing to steward a piece of land.


Garden space is different than farm space

A small garden plot, say 20’ x 20’, or a couple of raised vegetable boxes, is not useful from a farming standpoint. It can certainly supplement a single family’s diet, and is of course a valuable asset on a piece of land, but I believe it falls under the same category as a lawn or a shrub border—a part of a parcel that is the responsibility of a homeowner to take care of. If they do not wish to take care of it, the person they need to seek help from is a landscaper, not a farmer. It is widely acceptable to hire a company to mow and fertilize a lawn, to trim trees or shrubs, and weed ornamental flower borders. This small amount of garden space should be treated no differently. It is barely enough for one family’s consumption. A typical farm would use at least this amount of space per CSA member.

That’s not to say an agreement between an individual homeowner and a neighbor who would like a little more space to garden can’t be amicably reached. What raises concerns for me is the number of these types of offers that are forwarded to me through email or facebook as viable options for farmers.

2. What are my aesthetic desires for the space?

Much of the time these offers for “free garden space” include some caveats about how the land will be tended. Often they include some requirements about weeding the garden. Again it is crucial to make a distinction between landscaping and farming here. From an organic farming standpoint, eliminating weeds is not necessary for producing a good crop, and farmers must balance weeding with the other demands on their time, working more from a standpoint of weed thresholds and reducing weed pressure on sensitive crops than on keeping the farm completely weeded. A weed-free garden plot falls neatly under the landscaping category, just like weed-free borders and lawns.

Home gardeners often have weed-free gardens, at least early in the season, because they like to putz in their gardens—it’s a form of recreation or relaxation for them. When a person invites another person to garden their land, that person doesn’t have the same thing invested in it—they’re not looking at it during dinner on the patio or mindlessly pulling weeds while chatting to a distant relative on the phone in their jammies. They’re doing that at their house, in their yard, if they have one.

Going elsewhere to garden is like going to a job. And when your job is as a landscaper and you’re getting paid by the hour, you will take whatever time the homeowner desires to make sure they have a beautiful, weed-free space. When you’re doing it for “free,” you’re balancing that with all the other demands of your life. Many home gardeners become tired of weeding their gardens mid-way through the season—why should it be any different for a gardener who isn’t getting paid to weed your land?


Summer on a wild and weedy organic farm

I’ve actually had landowners where I’ve been farming their (big enough, with ample irrigation water) land complain that the garden doesn’t look nice enough when they have parties and they want to walk their friends out to see “their” farm. Again, this is where the aesthetic desires become the territory of a landscaper, not a farmer. That there are hundreds of pounds of food coming out of that land each week and no crop is being choked out by weeds is as good as it’ll get for me as an itinerant farmer. Anything else is an attempt to create a Sunset magazine fantasyland. Believe me, I’d love to live in one of those too, but if I’m going to put that kind of meticulous time and attention into a landscape, it’s going to be my own or one I get paid to work on.

Because a farm isn’t completely weed free does not mean a farmer isn’t being an excellent steward of the land. It means that person is balancing a task list that’s far longer than the available hours in a day, and that their basic need for an income will sometimes necessitate doing other things besides weeding, like harvesting, washing, and distributing produce.

Which brings me to the last question…

3. What are your demands of the person/people you’re asking to garden your space?

mostly farm 026

Farmers or Landscapers?

These offers for “free garden space” often specify that they’re looking for a “responsible” person, a “conscientious” person, to come tend the garden. Of course, no one wants to open up their personal property to a sketchball. Still, if the answers to the above two questions point more toward needing a landscaper, then you may be disappointed in the way a person, even a conscientious one, does this work for free.

This is where it gets really prickly for me, so forgive what are obviously some deep scars coming through here. The above points circle around a set of unspoken values we hold as a culture about class. There is an idea that a person who owns a piece of land is somehow superior to one who may work it. The Benevolent Landowner mindset; the idea that a landowner does a farmer a favor when s/he graciously allows them onto his/her land to farm. There is some truth to this—if a person doesn’t have their own land and wants to farm land, then you are doing them a favor by providing them that land. But again, this is where the line between landscaper and farmer is a tough one for me to straddle.

If a person has more land than they want to deal with, then the farmer is absolutely doing them a favor by farming that land and not charging them money for their labor as a landscaper would. Years ago, I calculated the number of hours we spent on our farm plots, divided as it was then between three plots of land. If each of my landowners would have paid a very modest landscaper wage of $25 per hour for the time we spent tending their land, each landowner would have paid $21,000 per year, and we would have made $63,000 per year from the farm without selling a single vegetable. As it was, the farm brought in about $16,000 in revenue that year.

Food is tricky. Some argue that access to healthy food should be a human right. More and more of us wake up each day to the idea that we could be growing more food on our land, and that local food will create a strong, resilient community. We can look around our city with new eyes, seeing every vacant patch, every underutilized corner, as having the potential to feed us and our neighbors. How we each navigate the intersections of land ownership and land stewardship will be as varied as we are, but I hope this article can at least help to put some of the issues surrounding it into context, matching the right land owner with the right land steward.

A Heirarchy of Reverence



This week in the urban agriculture class I teach at the college, the students were having a discussion about what would keep them from selling their farm products to a local restaurant.  Reasons varied, from timing and quantity of harvest to discomfort or shyness about approaching chefs, but most held at their core a fear of not measuring up, of not delivering the exact thing a discerning chef would want, exactly when he would want it.

While there’s nothing particularly noteworthy about new farmers doubting their abilities, the conversation alluded to a more prevalent sentiment regarding food products, or any product really, that got my hackles up—in the hierarchy of “who matters” in our system, the end consumer is on top, and each descending rung of producers below garner less and less respect. The highly discerning and quality-demanding chef becomes a beggar at the hands of the almighty customer who will make or break her career. The industrial farmer, in order to deliver blemish-free, appropriately cheap food, exploits the labor of migrant workers and fossil fuels and wastes and pollutes topsoil and watersheds. A more sustainable small-scale farmer, who relies more on human labor and co-creation with the earth is at a disadvantage because her food costs more and possibly has some nicks or holes in it.

I realize this looks like a good ole fashioned critique of capitalism, but I’ll argue that it’s not. When it comes to my life’s work of creating resilient and delicious local food systems, it’s not so much capitalism I have a bone with—rather, it’s with the faulty accounting systems on which the omniscient “market” operates. The externalities, in economist jargon, coupled with the need for a more accurate and celebratory exploration of the “supply chain,” which necessarily involves flipping the hierarchy on its head. It looks something like this:

At the absolute top, the place of most power and respect, sits the earth, and whatever brought it to be. I like this because, not only is it factually true—we are made of the earth and rely totally on it to live—but it guides us into making better and better decisions at each descending rung.

Next comes reverence for the seed, the egg, made by the earth and of nearly tn_480_ebb741ca83e0df2bdfeca6bd4cc34ab6incomprehensible wealth and beauty. It holds the power to grow life in perpetuity.

Next, an honoring of the seed steward, the mother. For those who caretake the precious seeds, and for the plants—the primary producers, who can make tissue from sunlight and water, enough to feed every being down the chain. For the farmer who nurtures the plants or animals grown from that seed. One who does this in service to the awesome earth, and to the dear and deserving life that springs forth from it.

As the chain of consumers grows, from middlemen buyers to farmer’s market or CSA customers to chefs and grocery stores, each one must join in with a fuller awareness of what has gone on before to arrive at that point. The miraculous earth springing forth the wondrous seed and the plants that make food from the sun, and the seed stewards who’ve lovingly selected the seeds of these foods over centuries and the farmer who grew the plants, tended them, picked them, and brought them to where you are.

A grocery store adds gratitude for the distribution network for collecting and bringing the food to it. The diner at a restaurant, rather than tasting and dropping the thumbs up/thumbs down hammer, instead basks in complete awe of all the work and miracle that brought the food, already cooked, to where he sits. The earth, the seed, the plant, the seed steward, the farmer, the distributor, then the chef and the kitchen staff who coaxed wondrous, succulent flavors from it and the dishwashers who cleaned the plate and the server who brought him the food.

Heartwarmingly, this is where the ladder becomes a loop, as the castoffs of our food, and eventually, ourselves, fall into the open mouths of the decomposers, the fungi and earthworms and microorganisms that recycle all this tissue and flesh back into nutrients that will help bring forth and nourish the next generation of plants and seeds. Thus, we participate fully in the cycle, and it’s important to remember where we fit. To put it bluntly, as the end consumer, we’re one step from the recycling bin, and honestly, the farmer could skip that step if she needed or wanted to.

And from the vantage point of a farmer, and of one who’s mentoring hopeful new farmers into existence, this shift in perspective seems crucial if we are to ensure a sustainable supply of food to stock the restaurants and grocery store shelves. Farmers increasingly need to skip the step to the end consumer, packing up their knowledge and skill and handing over their land to a big box strip mall because culturally we don’t value them enough to provide them an ample wage for their efforts.

I’ve always been a fan of the CSA model because of its emphasis on the producer. Our CSA members pay us money without seeing the end product, trusting as we must in the continual capability of the earth to spring forth new life, and being willing to shoulder the risk alongside us should something go awry. They put their wallets and their palates in our hands, and they gain a broader culinary experience by eschewing their ability to choose what they get in their share. We, not them, choose what they will be receiving in their share for the week. We tell them when and where they must come pick up their food, in accordance with a schedule that works for us, the producers.

In a conference last month, I sobbed in my seat as I heard a story about a CSA farm in California whose members attended an early season meeting at the farm. As they watched the farmers’ kids playing, one of the members asked the farmers if they had a college fund for their kids. Of course, they said no, they didn’t have the money to have one.

“What about health insurance?” another asked.


“A retirement plan?”

Of course not. And their members, most of whom had steady jobs with health insurance and retirement benefits, decided this was unacceptable. They wanted their farmer to have the same level of security they had, to be valued at least as much as they were for their life’s work. They asked the farmer to sit down and crunch the numbers, to figure out how much their CSA shares needed to cost to afford their family these basic things. The farmers came back to the members and told them that a CSA share would need to jump in price from $400 to $900 for this to happen. And the CSA members agreed!

I sat in that room, surrounded by farmers, unable to hold back tears. What would it feel like to be valued like that? To get real about what food needs to cost to actually pay a producer, one who farms with the utmost respect for the earth, a living wage, and then to be supported fully in that!

I don’t know exactly what it will take to get us there, but we must. As spring begins again and a new season of cherished seeds find their way through the hands of reverent stewards into the wet, welcoming skin of the earth, let us come together in celebration and gratitude for all it takes to get food into our bellies, and let us work together to find ways of truly supporting that noble work.



We grew huge amounts of delicious food here for 4 years without incident, but the now-vacant lot needs a security camera to police it...

We grew huge amounts of delicious food here for 4 years without incident, but the now-vacant lot needs a security camera to police it…

I’m digging up the relics of another doomed garden. The garlic and onions that slipped through the cracks in our shovels last year, the hollyhocks Marty gave me that would finally set seed this year, that beautiful butter-yellow yarrow I don’t remember planting, Sarah’s grandma’s Irises, the sage we moved to this garden plot from the last one. The developer’s got a sign up now—in a few days or weeks or months they’ll start to build houses, erase our hand-dug furrows with big machines, scrape the topsoil, roll out the sod, put up a for sale sign. The new owners will have no evidence that there was once a beautiful organic garden where their house now sits. I pull the black-eyed susans next to the CSA pickup spot, cluck a nod of pity toward the purple orach sprouts that will never live to flower and reproduce.

If the bulldozers hold off, the dandelions will start blooming soon, followed by the vetch, giving much-needed pollen and nectar to hungry bees emerging from an exceptionally cold winter.

The garden that used to be here

The garden that used to be here

In the 9 years I’ve farmed, I’ve had 7 plots of land, and I’ve lost 4 of them for various urban reasons. Moving shouldn’t be as big a deal anymore (I don’t double dig my new farm plots with a shovel anymore like we did the first three), but every time it makes me melancholy. While my body scours the garden for any jewel that can be saved, I occupy my mind writing a love letter in reverse to the farming community, addressed to those who love local food, farms, and farmers, but aren’t necessarily farmers themselves.

It goes something like this:

I want to believe, like you do, that we’re going to create a secure and sustainable food system. I want it with all my heart. It’s what I get up for in the morning, why my calloused hands far exceed my age, why I continue to dig up new gardens, add manure, make compost, without a contract or health insurance or a living wage. Believe me, I have a lot invested in seeing us get there, too.

Conversations of this sort usually come to the question, what can I do? What can we do? From my particular vantage point on this spring day, the direction my compass points is toward land ownership. Less than 1% of arable farmland is owned by campesinos (the people who actually work the land). I think it’s correct to offer the perspective that the people who steward land would make the most fitting owners of it, or at least the most responsible ones.

Not that individual land ownership offers the best or only option, especially for an urban farm such as the one I run. What excites me more than owning a piece of my own farmland is leveraging the growing interest in creating local food systems to use a collective ownership model that values farmers with security and land with sustainable long-term care. As I leave this garden plot, my sights are set squarely on a secure place to concoct the lengthy love potion of building good soil, planting perennials, creating a legacy that can be passed down through generations of careful stewards to feed generations of grateful, healthy souls.

The union of money and farming has been swirling at the center of my storm for years now, and after countless books, conferences, research, dreaming, and scheming, I think I can offer a healthy, hopeful solution that has been done in other locales and can be replicated as we’re able.

1. Find a piece of land worthy of becoming or continuing to be a farm, with good water and decent soil. I’m looking for something in the city, because that’s been my business model, and because our city needs farms, just like every place needs farms. Don’t overlook city-owned land, abandoned schools, parks and rec land, etc, as these are generally the largest tracts of undeveloped land we have. I particularly like the idea of using city land, because it’s already collectively owned by all of us.

2. If the plot isn’t city-owned already, use the Slow Money principles and models to pool investors’ money to purchase the land. This can be done through the CSA model (investors are members who get paid back with food), the Soil Trust model (investors pool money philanthropically), the crowdfunding model (ala kickstarter), community investment mutual funds, grants, loans, or any combination of those.  With city land, this step becomes unnecessary, because we already own the land. These models could still be employed to purchase infrastructure.

3. Work with the Land Trust of the Treasure Valley, or the city, to get the land put into a trust with the stipulation that it will always be farmland. This alleviates the conundrum virtually every farm owner across the country has of whether to sell the land to developers at artificially high prices. Once the land is protected in a trust, it remains valuable as ag land, not the possibility of ticky tacky strip malls and subdivisions, and we are collectively the better for it. Rooted in the soil-based economics of what can be sustainably produced on it year after year, with the revenue from that production being able to comfortably cover the mortgage on the land, we elegantly link land and economy, thus bringing money down to earth, in Slow Money’s words. This holds potential for all sorts of exciting economic reform!

4. Show the farmer or farmers they are valued by granting them a lengthening lease on the land, starting at 1 or 2 years, then renewing for 5 years, then 20, so the farmers can have the security to build something that will sustain them into retirement and that can continue after they’re gone, in turn sustaining the community for the long haul.

This is a model I would be honored to participate in, and I’m certain other farmers would feel the same. It serves the deepest aspirations of my soul—a collective bettering of our beloved city by including more fresh, local food in it for the long term, creating an economy centered around sustainable food production, and truly valuing the farmers who devote their lives and livelihoods to doing this work. This model allows us to leverage the modest resources of a large crop of people, which in turn gives a large crop of people a genuine stake in the farm’s success, and therefore, in their own health and the health of their community.

Kinda breaks your heart, doesn't it?

Kinda breaks your heart, doesn’t it?