I get asked this question pretty frequently. It usually means either “When should I start filing a farm income tax form?” or “When will I be accepted and identified in my community as a farmer?” Depending on the circumstances the answers are often similar. There is no magic formula or right of passage that will transform you into a “farmer”.
Language is a powerful tool. It can be used to unite or it can divide and generate conflict. For example, historically there have been divisions created between eastern farmers (who cultivate the land) and western ranchers (who graze livestock). Agricultural policies have, at various times, tended to favor one group over the other creating categories of ‘winners’ and ‘losers’, setting up regional rivalries and emphasizing differences rather than the similarities.
Likewise in the northeast the term ‘farmer’ is often used to describe those who have livestock while the term ‘grower’ is more commonly used to describe those whose primary crops are fruits, vegetables, flowers and plants. As for greenhouses, gardens, orchards, vineyards and agricultural tourism – we have a lot of descriptive titles for the stewards of these businesses, all of which serve to create special niches and delineate specializations in our agricultural industries.
And then we have the production system labels such as organic, sustainable, and conventional that, are too frequently used to divide rather than to unite.
In a time when less than 2% of the US population is identified as farmers and ranchers, maybe we need to welcome all those who are willing to be counted and let the market determine the rest.
So, how about this? You are a farmer when a bad year requires you to make some hard choices about your lifestyle and your business. You are a farmer when you accept that more production variables are out of your control than within it, and you choose to continue anyway. You are a farmer when you take pride in the quality, freshness and health of your product and when you know your customers have made a wise decision in choosing to do business with you. You are a farmer when someone refers to you as a farmer and that causes you to stand straighter and feel proud. You are a farmer when you know, in your heart, that no other profession will fit you as well. You are a farmer when you choose to accept the title.
To all of you who are new farmers…welcome!