Architect Kathryn Clarke Albright studies farmers markets and reveals the pleasures and demands of the farmer’s work
Architect Kathryn Clarke Albright’s interest in a farmer’s work arose from studying farmers markets as civic institutions and the types of markets in America. Conversation with many vendors revealed the choice to farm and the pleasures that the demanding work provides. Their daily ritual is accompanied by sweet surprises. Their cherished independence is complemented with camaraderie at the market. Their children benefit from a sense of community at the market. Conversations transform into lasting relationships.
It is universally accepted that work is labor and requires exerting purposeful effort. Most farmers I know would agree that whether plowing a field, harvesting a crop, or selling the bounty, all require work to some degree. The gains resulting from a farmer’s work are measurable by the sustenance provided and monies earned. However, there are by-products and/or pleasures resulting from most kinds of work that have value beyond the anticipated. In the situation of farmers’ work there are the purposeful pleasurable outcomes as well as unanticipated joyous ones.
Over the past two centuries of Amercia’s existence, agricultural labor efficiency has increased from 27.5 acres per worker in 1890 to 740 acres per worker in 1990.1 Mechanized farm equipment has reduced the time it takes to tend the fields; fertilizers and pesticides require time to apply but increase yields per acre. And a farmer’s work continues to change and evolve as advancement in science and technologies alters a farmer’s work on large and small farms alike. Due to innovations and other forces there are structural changes in farming that have altered the way the United States Department of Agriculture [USDA] assesses farming today.2
Farms across America have dwindled since their peak at 6.8 million in 1935, although there are more mouths to feed. Today the USDA estimates there are over 2.1 million farms in America with 90 percent family owned and operated.3 However, since 2002 the number of small farms has increased 2 percent per year although the number of acres that comprise small farms has decreased. Until 2002 the USDA defined a small farm as consisting of 200 acres or less; today it considers under 50 acres to be a small farm. Between 1982 and 2002 the number of farms with fewer than 50 acres increased by 17 percent. According to the USDA 2007 Census, the number of small farms grew in 39 states, and in 21 states, including Alaska and Hawaii, increased over 5 percent.4 Notably, the farmers who sell at Blacksburg Farmers Market in southwest Virginia cultivate between 3 to 8 acres for their organic produce that garners in sufficient income.
Many of the farmers I have met over the past decade have chosen farming as a way of life for many reasons. Tenley Weaver of Full Circle Organic Farm located in Floyd, Virginia offers this encompassing view. “The farmers I know are very educated people, most of them have college degrees. They have had other professions and have many other options besides farming.”
“We feel drawn to grow food. It is an incredible intellectual, physical, and emotional challenge of producing a crop. It is really a deep broad field, that has to do with the sowing of the crop at least as much as to do with the selling of the crop. It is a whole way life.”5 Her partner, Dennis Dove, who once taught in the College of Agriculture at Virginia Tech, concurs about the knowledge required to be a successful farmer, and often shares his wisdom about growing heirloom tomatoes and organic practices at local farmers markets, as well as regional agricultural events.
While it requires physical labor and lots of it, farming offers the capacity to live one’s beliefs in a direct way and alters how each farmer views their work. The independence it affords is often cited as a primary benefit, yet family is a strong factor. Lauren Cooper of Greenstar Farm in Blacksburg, Virginia sums it up; “my husband [Andrew Schenker] and I choose organic farming as a way of life because we are interested in creating a livelihood for ourselves that didn’t clash with our ideals. We wanted to be able to create for ourselves a way to earn an income on our terms and to be able to feel good about how our lifestyle affected the environment. Our farm is intended to be a sanctuary for people and wildlife as well as a livelihood.”6
It is good news that the number of small farms are gradually on the rise and, even better, the number of farmers markets in America has nearly tripled from 1,755 in 1994 to 4,600 in 2008, and with an unofficial count of over 4,800 in 2009.7 This is important to the economic and ecological vitality of local communities in the face of globalization due to technological advances. At least two of the new digital technologies, specifically websites and email enabled by the Internet, have increased even the smallest farmer’s reach of distribution and farmers markets capacity to attract patrons. There is also an increase in the heightened awareness of the nutritional benefits of eating organic food as well as fresh food that has traveled less than 100 miles from farm to table.
This renaissance in farmers markets and small farms has brought additional meaning and value particular to each farmer. Fulfillment in a season’s work can be found in ritual coupled with surprise, independence paired with camaraderie, raising children with a sense of community and conversations that become relationships. Farming is a chosen way of life. In 2007, 22 percent of all U. S. farms have been in production 10 years or less.8
“The challenges and joys of farming can be the same. We did choose farming as a way of life for the independence to raise healthy food and kids, and to care for our part of the community and environment– economically and ecologically. In 2002, we found our home in Floyd and began reclaiming fields and farm buildings to prepare for our future full of new markets, a few interesting value-added enterprises and our beautiful children. We took what we learned from our mentors to create a farm business of our own.”9
“We chose farming as a lifestyle, not a profession. Having lived and worked in cities, I needed a job where I could work outside independently. Farming allows us (wife, Gwynn Hamilton and daughter, Zoe) to eat three meals together every day, get eight hours of sleep every night, and have Zoe with us all day long. We’ve managed Zoe’s first five years without childcare besides Mondays with grandma.”10
“Most of the work in farming is hard, heavy, dirty work; my wife makes me undress before I can some into the house, and rightly so, because I am usually filthy. What pleasure could there be in baling hay in the hot sun, body covered in hay dust, sweating profusely? The pleasure comes from looking ahead to the next winter, when you haul hay out through six inches of snow to a waiting herd and watch them eat what you worked so hard to preserve. There is also delight when someone takes the time to call and say that the steak they bought from us is the best they ever had. It all seems worthwhile.”11
“When I (Tenley) started to become interested in agriculture in my early twenties I was so amazed at what farming is really about and how deeply you have to understand the natural system and the soils and the workings of the craft and nature together. You also have to understand the workings of the markets, you have to understand and be on the top of national trends of which vegetables are selling and which are not cool anymore.”12
Ritual & Surprise
The planning and execution of the repetitive actions that are inherent in farming suggest there would be predictability of the outcome and the surprise of unanticipated results would be limited. Some disruptions in daily routine can be offset through regular attention to maintenance of things such as machinery to avoid breakdowns that cause delays. And although there are known seasonal weather patterns, Mother Nature is full of unpredictability that tests a farmer’s ability to anticipate and compensate for a multitude of variables. Other surprises defy any relation to the routine or rituals of farming.
The routine of work on the farm spills over to farmers markets where the ritual of setting-up of each stall each time involves particular placement of the bounty of a day’s harvest, and yet when the patrons arrive to shop there is a sense of surprise and joy in the air. Alice Waters, acclaimed chef of Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley, California asserts that “there are times of the year when we can hardly wait to go to the farmers market, in anticipation of the treasures we will find there.”13
“Our favorite rituals are letting the chickens out in the foggy mornings, unrolling a bale of hay to mulch a bed, checking the rain gauge but the surprise of farming is the lack of control. When we imagined our farm, we thought we could plan out the whole thing at the start of the year. Instead, it feels like every day we evaluate what’s going on and react to it. Even crop rotation and seeding plans are constantly revised.”14
“We plow the fields and plant seeds every year, but it is almost just magical that I can put seeds in the ground and in five, ten, or fifteen, weeks harvest a product. That’s the magic that led me through graduate school, through my Ph.D. I have taken a lot of courses in the area of plant biology, and I still don’t know what the magic is. And then there is the magic that happens after a period of soaking rain in the spring. I walk certain areas of the forest that surround the fields and find shitake, morels and other mushrooms.”15
Independence & Camaraderie
The repetitive interaction among vendors selling at farmers markets offers camaraderie that serves to counter balance the hours spent alone in the fields on the farm. For farmers independence is treasured autonomy that is often viewed as one’s perceived control over the outcome of one’s work. Nonetheless, self-reliance has a partner in camaraderie.
Both farmers and patrons value the solidarity that gathering on a regular basis provides. Most share appreciation of the work involved in producing the goods they sell, some commiserate about various difficulties entailed in farming, and others exchange stories of recent travels or their children’s achievements. There is always a tale to tell and someone to listen.
The camaraderie of social interactions for common purpose allows for casual conversations over time to evolve into lasting relationships. Camaraderie between vendors and patrons at the market fills many needs that the autonomy of independence cannot. The camaraderie leads to a sense of community among diverse groups of people who share an interest in fresh, local food and handmade goods.
“You are your own boss and you are doing something you really care about. You feel good about it. No day is ever the same and that is a good thing. I think of all the Saturday morning camaraderie at the farmers market and the festive atmosphere. I just love it. You meet so many people and make so many connections. The market is not just about buying produce, it is a whole social circle.”16
“There is feeling of independence fostered by the way we farm. We have sold at the Blacksburg Farmers Market for 18 years and have built a loyal customer base. They love not having to deal with the ‘middleman’ or whims of the wholesale market. Every winter we review our profits, both financial and spiritual, of the previous seasons and adjust our growing and marketing plan for the upcoming year. There is also camaraderie with other vendors that has developed overtime and built upon dealing with the weather, inevitable problems and issues that we work out democratically through meetings.”17
Children & Community
For many the choice to farm centers on family. The rituals of farming find resonance with the daily activities of raising a family, both require performing particular activities daily, weekly, and seasonally without fail. Phil Mosser observes, “watching my children eat and love everything that we raise is an incredible experience and makes all the hard work seem small.”18 Phil “retired” from 20 years as a builder in Virginia Beach for the opportunity to enjoy the great outdoors while providing for his family.
Farmers often bring their children to the market and they help in the selling of the goods. For some who home-school their children, the market offers necessary opportunities for socializing. The relationship among children, whether farmer’s, vendor’s or patron’s is typical for most public settings, yet many patrons develop special bonds with children of vendors and bring them gifts annually on their birthdays.
Like many public gatherings, coming to the market provides children with a better understanding of customs of the society in which they live.
“The quieter moments when you have longer conversations. People come to me to ask about herbs for different ailments, and just for talking. I think that people really enjoy farmers markets because of personal conversation and sense of community. Our children have grown up ensconced in the farmers market. Our daughter, Kaily, is a cellist and often performs at the market’s First Wednesday music series. She looks forward to the market, helping to set up and selling her cookies. Our six-year old son Julian enjoys socializing. Our children benefit from relationships formed at the market and have a sense of belonging to a community.”19
Conversations & Relationships
Appreciation between vendor and market patron usually begins with conversation about the food being purchased. The exchanged words convey a mutual rapport. There is a sense of companionship among patrons and farmers although each has very different daily routines.
Farmers who sell at farmers markets know their customers by first name, know a bit of their lives and receive gifts from them. Some patrons visit the vendors farms. “In contrast to the anonymity of food bought from a food conglomerate, farmers and others marketing local food should not take for granted the appeal of “food with a face”—food that has a unique and important story behind its creation.”20
UC Davis professor and environmental psychologist Robert Sommer observed though years of research that shoppers have up to seven times more social interactions at a farmers market as they do in a supermarket. For most people, the plethora of ways to communicate via the Internet or cell phone has not replaced the worthiness of face-to-face conversations.
“I learn a lot from the customers because we have international travelers visit Blacksburg every week. I get to take an imaginary trip to Spain or hear about someone’s trip to Prague for a music concert. You feel like you’ve been on a trip after conversation at the market. Also one minute I am selling coriander to someone from southeast Asia, and the next minute I am selling someone a jar of homemade plum preserves. The mixture of people gives you a sense of being involved with a world community even though I haven’t left my home.”21
Sustainable Agriculture in the twenty-first century
The essence of a farmer’s work that has been presented here is work that matches ritual with surprise, joins independence with camaraderie, unites children with a sense of community and transforms conversation into relationships. Farming as an occupation of necessity has transformed into one of choice for many due to these by-products of subjective fulfillment that meet their own needs as well as interests of patrons.
The increase in the number of farmers markets and small farms in America is a trajectory that is changing how people view the necessity of agriculture for our collective well-being. Recent publicity of detrimental practices of ginormous-scaled mono-culture farming has given the general public a better understanding of the importance of sustainable agriculture and eating locally grown and raised food.
The structural change that more smaller farms promotes includes the formation of cooperatives and other networks of multiple farms whose ecological practices counter the so-called efficiencies of extremely large farms that grow with degenative practices that require large sums of money. One fairly recent example of structural change that alters how farmers cover their initial seasonal costs is Community Supported Agriculture, CSA. Robyn Van En of Indian Line Farm in Massachusetts introduced CSA in 1985. The concept is based upon building a network of patrons who buy shares “subscriptions” in a season’s crop prior to harvest, thus providing farmers financial resources at the beginning of a season which gives them more control over the business of farming. In 1990 there were 60 CSA’s and today due in part to farmers’ web sites and email, there are over 1,300 CSA farms.22
In Floyd, Virginia over the past decade several farmers have formed what they refer to as ‘value-added’ enterprises that build upon each other’s production. In 1998 Dennis Dove and Tenley Weaver created Full Circle Organic Farm, and soon thereafter founded a co-op Good Food for Good People, GFGP, that led to opening Green’s Garage in 2006 which is home to their fruit share CSA and GFGP. Johanna and Brett Nichols started Five Penny Organic Farm in 2002 and sell their produce through the co-op GFGP at Green’s Garage. A few years ago they expanded their crops to include those needed to make beer. They opened Shooting Creek Farm and Brewery in 2009 and sell to local restaurants and beverage stores.23 Tenley and Dennis farm without digital technologies but rely on the Internet to operate Green’s Garage. Many small, family-owned farms across America employ the Internet to increase their supply to a regional base of consumers who, given the awareness, will support sustainable agriculture.
Although changes in a farmer’s work in the 21st century now necessitate a few hours a week at the computer as well as at the farmers market, it will always require hours in the fields working the soil as they always have. “Technology is not changing agriculture. Agriculture itself is changing and the technologies are just a set of tools to deal with those changes and enhance natural resource and agricultural decision-making.”24 Sustainable agriculture appears to be gaining ground at the human scale where the gratification of farming extends beyond the labor of work.
1. USDA, Illinois data: Hunt, 2001. ↵
2. Nigel Key and Michael Roberts, “Tends in Farm Size Tell Differing Stories,” Amber Waves, Vol. 5, Issue 5, November 207, pp. 36-37. ↵
4. USDA 2007 Census of Agriculture: Farm Numbers, map, pp.1. ↵
5. Tenley Weaver, Interview by Cristina Rodreigues, April 11, 2006. ↵
6. Lauren Cooper, Interview by Kathryn Clarke Albright, August 22, 2009. ↵
7. USDA, Agricultural Market Service, Program Announcement, Sept. 19, 2008. ↵
8. Mary Ahearn, “Beginning Farmers and Ranchers: Who Are They?”, Amber Waves, Vol. 7, Issue 2, June 2009, pp. 36-37. ↵
9. Johanna Nichols, Interview by Kathryn Clarke Albright, August 12, 2009. ↵
10. Bert Webster, Interview by Kathryn Clarke Albright, July 27, 2009. ↵
11. Phil Mosser, Interview by Kathryn Clarke Albright, July 28, 2009. ↵
12. Tenley Weaver, Interview by Cristina Rodreigues, April 11, 2006. ↵
13. Valerie Jablow with Bill Horne, “Washington D.C.’s Open Air Farmer’s Market,” Smithsonian, June 1999. ↵
14. Bert Webster, Interview by Kathryn Clarke Albright, July 27, 2009. ↵
15. Dennis Dove, Interview by Cristina Rodreigues,, July 7, 2006. ↵
16. Sharon Morley, Interview by Cristina Rodreigues, April 11, 2006. ↵
17. Lauren Cooper, Interview by Kathryn Clarke Albright, August 22, 2009. ↵
18. Phil Mosser, Interview by Kathryn Clarke Albright, July 28, 2009. ↵
19. Lauren Cooper, Interview Cristina Rodreigues, March 23, 2005. ↵
20. Brian Halweil, Eat Here, pp. 123. ↵
21. Ron Holdren, Interview by Cristina Rodreigues, March 23, 2005. ↵
24. Mauricio Espinoza, “Go Digital at Farm Technology Update,” Ohio State University Extension. ↵
Kathryn Clarke Albright is an architect, an associate professor in the School of Architecture + Design at Virginia Tech and serves as chair of its Foundation Program. She has received numerous awards, including the University’s Excellence in Teaching Award in 2005. She founded her own practice in 2001 as well as Friends of the Farmers Market in Blacksburg, Virginia. She also serves on several town advisory committees.