JULIA BAYLY

Chickens, bees and land add up to a farm

Julia Bayly
Julia Bayly
Posted Feb. 09, 2012, at 6:15 p.m.

Guess what, friends and neighbors — I’m a farmer.

Apparently this is so by virtue of the 16 egg-laying chickens, 20 meat chickens, one bee colony and “potential crop-producing” acreage here at Rusty Metal Farm. The Rusty Metal Sled Dogs do not count.

I’ve always used the term “farm,” somewhat loosely, but now according to the United States government — an unimpeachable source if ever there was one — it’s official.

I got wind of this new status last month after receiving the National Agricultural Classification Survey put out by the United States Department of Agriculture.

According to the USDA, I had been identified as, “someone who may have some agricultural activity.”

Let me just add the USDA does not fool around as the statement, “Response is required by law” appears more than once on the document.

As one who is easily intimidated by official missives, I took the form and went looking for some guidance at the local USDA office.

There I was told that, yes, I was required to fill out and return the form and the reason the USDA was seeking the information was the agency’s desire to get a handle on “the new face of agriculture” in this country.

Wow, if I’m the new face of agriculture, we are going to starve.

Chickens, bees and acreage not withstanding, if there is one thing I am not, it’s a farmer, a profession for which I hold the highest respect and admiration.

Ever watch a St. John Valley farmer in action? In a word, it’s impressive.

Up long before dawn and often out in their barns or garages beyond sunset, farmers and their families are among those who define the word “work” in this country.

Subject to the whims of nature, governmental pricing and marketing trends, farmers are the front lines in keeping us fed.

As a friend of mine has said more than once, “Never complain about farmers when your mouth is full.”

In fact, as I see it, this country needs more farmers and a resurgence in small family farms producing food on the local level.

Among the groups advocating for the family farm on the national level is the National Family Farm Coalition ( www.nffc.net).

According to the group’s website, there is a growing generational gap in the farming population, meaning there are more farmers retiring than farmers to replace them.

At the same time, the coalition notes, “the local food movement is growing as consumer interest in local food is rising [and] within that movement exist many young landless farmers with skill and energy who would farm if they had access to land and credit and other opportunities.”

The group works to match those new, young farmers with available land and resources.

Here in Maine, the Maine Farmland Trust’s FarmLink, is a farm transfer program connecting prospective farmers to retiring farmers or other farmland owners who want to see their land remain active and productive.

The trust also offers resources for farmers just getting started in agriculture.

Thanks to groups like these and others working on regional, state and national levels, there is good reason to be optimistic about the future of farming in this country.

A year or so ago I made a personal commitment to, whenever possible, purchase food as close to home as possible.

Thanks to a rebirth of small vegetable growers, meat producers and local food co-ops, I have been able to enjoy beef, pork and veggies raised no more than five miles from my house.

As for poultry products, I can thank my own Rusty Metal hens for keeping me in eggs throughout the year and that small flock of meat birds might have meant some extra work, but it was well worth it.

Next on the horizon is to continue working with my Rusty Metal bees in the hopes of a honey crop next fall.

But farming? No, I fear not this fairy princess.

Sure, there’s the Farmall 656 tractor out in the garage and sitting on it, as blue diesel fumes swirl around my head, certainly makes me appear farmer-like to the casual observer.

But I must be painfully and brutally self-honest. The fact of the matter is this — I simply do not enjoy working the land.

Every year, with the best of intentions, I purchase seed, till up a few plots in the garden and dutifully create somewhat straight rows of beans, peas, beets and carrots.

Some years I’ll go the extra mile and place black plastic between rows in an effort to keep the weeds at bay.

After that, I am perfectly content to practice what I’ve come to term, “Darwinian gardening,” or survival of the fittest.

Trouble is, dandelions, mustard, thistle and chickweeds are far more successful on the evolutionary scale than tender young vegetable shoots.

From time to time throughout the summer I wander out to the garden and — amid the black flies, deerflies and mosquitoes — pull, yank and swear at a bumper crop of weeds.

It is at those times that the only thing growing in my garden is my respect and awe of those individuals who spend their lives working outside so the rest of us can eat.

So, I’ll let the U.S. government believe what it wants about my acreage and lifestyle here on Rusty Metal Farm.

If the USDA wants to call several dozen chickens, one bee colony and some nonproductive — yet potential — cropland a farm, who am I to argue?

Julia Bayly of Fort Kent is an award-winning writer and photographer, who frequently submits articles to the Bangor Daily News. Her column appears here every other Friday. She can be reached by email at jbaylybdn@gmail.com.

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