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Community Voices (Tanner): Living America’s farm fantasy

Lately, when my wife Jill and I tell somebody we own a small farm, they often tell us, “Oh, you have to see ‘The Biggest Little Farm!’” It’s a 2018 movie about a young couple, John and Molly Chester, who buy 200 acres in California and turn their land into a showcase of sustainability, totally organic and gorgeous.

John and Molly are living one of America’s most popular fantasies, the kind our friends and family think Jill and I are living. It’s a back-to-nature, escape-the-rat-race dream that seems to grow bigger by the year. According to a recent study, most Americans live in urban areas not because they want to but because they have to —that’s where the jobs are. Nearly 30% of Americans want to live in the country. No other option, whether suburbs, cities, or small towns, is as popular.

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So: when someone visits our farm and says, “I wish I had this!” they’re not just being polite. A small farm like ours seems to frame a core belief that this is where most of us belong: in the country. For Baby Boomers, the farm fantasy began in the 1960s and ‘70s with the popularity of communes, off-the-grid self-sufficiency, and organic foods. Not much has changed since then, except the demise of communes and vast improvements in technology. Now the dream is more about individuals and their families getting their own piece of paradise and making it flourish. More than ever, there’s something of a retreat mentality in this. A hunkering down. An escape.

When Jill and I saw “The Biggest Little Farm” finally, I watched with fascination and, let me admit, jealousy. It’s beautifully filmed and a story wonderfully told. But how were they paying the bills while getting their farm going? To keep ours going, Jill and I work two full-time jobs, as well as rent out an apartment on the property. According to the Chesters, by year three, their orchards are fully producing, their animals are thriving, and their crops are established. And yet here Jill and I are at the start of year five and we can hardly keep the weeds out of our kitchen garden!

For several days after watching the film, we were obsessing about Molly and John Chester’s paradisiacal “experiment.” The Chesters sell their produce and meat to high-end restaurants and markets in L.A. Their marmalade sells for $21 a jar. A boutique item. Their eggs sell for $15 a dozen — because they’re organic, from a now-famous farm, which busloads of tourists visit every day.

Here in Carroll County, where normal people live, Jill and I would be lucky to get $4 a dozen for our eggs, never mind we don’t yet have chickens because we’re still building and installing infrastructure. Guess what? The supposedly down-and-out Chesters bought their farm in 2011 for $10,500,000.

Let me say that again: ten million, five hundred thousand dollars.

Whoa.

My best estimate is that, after this purchase, they dumped another $2 million into the property. How many people who watch “The Biggest Little Farm” and fantasize about their own “escape to the country” understand what they’re really looking at?

As an American daydream, the farming life makes sense. Until well into the 20th century, most Americans did indeed live rural lives. Also, back in the day, most Americans kept gardens and chickens and even cows and horses. Both my mother and father, and all of their predecessors, grew up on small farms. Farming appears to be America’s taproot.

But as an actuality, farming demands a heavy dose of reality. Those who know rural life understand its challenges. Most farmers are lucky to make a modest income. Big subsidies and big incomes belong to super-sized farms, which rely on expensive machinery ($200K for a combine?) and huge, singular crops that bring heavy bills for fertilizers and pesticides. The upkeep of outbuildings alone is prohibitive.

No matter the size of your farm, there are no city services. Jill and I have to order propane to power our furnace and kitchen range; we maintain septic tanks for our sewage. We have a whole-house generator for power outages. After a heavy snow, we plow ourselves out — with a tractor. We stave off high gas bills by running a wood-fired stove in the winter. In the fall, we harvest and can our garden produce to last through the winter. In the spring we have (many!) black snakes in our basement (they chase after the mice). The list goes on and on.

City folk have no clue.

Mind you, I’m not complaining. Jill and I lived for 20 years in downtown Baltimore; we were dedicated city-lifers, or so we thought, until the farming fantasy swept us away.

We love our new life. We call it an “adventure.” That’s the kind of good humor you need to make a go of it. Not for the faint of heart, in other words. That’s why most visitors to our farm swallow hard after they hear some of the stories we tell them.

Which brings us back to “The Biggest Little Farm.” It’s fun watching the film, for sure, but it’s not real. The real story of American farming involves far more than hard work — it’s about hard times, deep debt, and a dream that, year by year, is getting harder for regular folk to hold.

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Ron Tanner is a professor of writing at Loyola University, Maryland. He and his wife, Jill, run Good Contrivance Farm, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit dedicated to the preservation of small historic farms in Maryland. Reach him at ron@historicfarm.org.

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