The sentence nearly leaped off the page and knocked me down: “No one with land should be without a job.” Jennifer McMullen, writing in Farming magazine in the current Fall, 2009 issue (“Good Food Depends On Local Roots”) was quoting Jessica Barkheimer, who, like Jennifer, is deeply involved in developing farmer’s markets in Ohio. I was at the time wrestling with a closely related concept but had not thought to put it in those words. I might have said it a bit differently— “no one with land is without a job” but the meaning would be the same. If you have some land, even an acre, you have the means for making at least part of your income and in the process gain a more secure life. Surely that is what it means to “have a job.” Our society hasn’t endorsed that notion yet, but I think that we are evolving toward that kind of economy.
We are only beginning to recognize how many income possibilities that a little piece of land can provide. We know about market gardening but most of us do not yet appreciate its reach. It’s not just sweet corn and tomatoes. It’s about all the fruits and vegetables on earth. Tasted any pancakes made with cattail pollen lately? Neither have I but it is treasured in some gourmet circles, I understand.
Market gardening goes beyond the plants themselves. A whole new world of marketing can open up from inspired ways to package the products. At a market in Bellefontaine, Ohio, a couple of weeks ago, shelled lima beans were going fast at five bucks for a half pint!
There are far more products you can grow than just fruit and vegetables. Meat is beginning to show up at farmers’ markets, as well as dairy products and grains. Flowers, fresh and dried, too. Uncommon seeds are a possibility, especially of heirloom varieties or uncommon wildflowers and trees. Medicinal herbs. Mushrooms. Nuts. Baked goods. Plants for holiday decorations. We are all familiar with the success of pumpkins, but have you ever seen corn husks that in the autumn develop streaks of red and green and purple in them, fashioned into wreathes and bouquets? Magnificent. If you get into cattail pollen pancakes, you can use the dried cattail leaves to weave handsome, durable baskets. There’s a market for uncommon native tree species coveted by people who want to use only native plants in their ornamental landscapes. Local nurseries sometimes sell wahoo trees with their bright reddish pink berries. This small tree grows wild all over the eastern U.S.
Forest products are not just the purview of the commercial timber industry. Some small woodlot owners saw out blanks and boards from logs not profitable for the larger timber market. They sell the wood to woodworkers or turn it into products they sell themselves. Have you ever seen a bowl fashioned from a blank of boxelder which has the highly-desirable reddish grain in the heartwood? Awesome. Some farmers make good sideline money selling cedar, black locust, and other long-lasting woods for fence posts. There’s always a market for firewood and as energy prices soar, its value will continue to increase.
Think also of insect and animal products that the small acreage homeowner might explore for sideline cash. Think out of the box. Earthworms. Honey bees. Pigeons for squab. Aquaculture products in ponds or backyard tanks.
In more traditional livestock ventures, the Nigerian Dwarf goat is being touted as the best dairy animal for small acreages. (There’s an article on these goats in the same issue of Farming as the article cited above.) A mother Nigerian weighs only about 50 lbs. but can supply enough milk for a family at least part of the year. The cream, like that of cows, makes great ice cream. Ice cream always sells.
I could go on for pages, but you get the picture. We all accept the fact that most of us must invest in a car to keep our jobs. I think the day will come when most of us will also invest in a few acres of land to keep our jobs.
Gene and Carol Logsdon have a small-scale experimental farm in Wyandot County, Ohio.
Gene is author of The Mother of All Arts: Agrarianism and the Creative Impulse (Culture of the Land), The Last of the Husbandmen: A Novel of Farming Life, and just released: Small-Scale Grain Raising, Second Edition: An Organic Guide to Growing, Processing, and Using Nutritious Whole Grains, for Home Gardeners and Local Farmers.