Farming Is Not Gardening

I’ve been spending a lot of time lately assisting my friend Gowan at the Noyo Food Forest, which produces fruits and vegetables in a production garden as well as several smaller demonstration plots around the coast. Their primary clients are the schools, who order fresh produce for use in their cafeterias, and they also sell to several restaurants, provide classes for interested members of the public, and welcome volunteers at the garden. There’s pretty much always work to be done in the garden, whether it’s sowing seeds or weeding or helping to prep beds.

One thing that has really struck me in my time there is the stark differences between gardening and farming.

I am a gardener, and a dabbler at that. I like growing things and watching things grow, I produce small numbers of vegetables in my little garden plot, and sometimes I wonder around and poke at things with trimmers to encourage them to grow more. My approach is more aesthetic and highly individualised, I’m very careful with individual plants because I want them to thrive and grow, and my long-term planning is geared towards how things will look as the garden develops, and what I want as an end goal.

I can also take a lot more time on individual projects, whether I am preparing beds or setting up a new plant or any number of other things, because I am working in small quantities. My focus is also not on production for others, but for myself; I don’t need to think about taking food to market, or feeding people who are counting on me. It’s solely a pleasurable activity, a hobby that allows me to go outside and grub around in the dirt for a few hours now and then because I like doing it.

Gowan is a farmer. Like me, she loves watching things thrive and grow, and thinking about long-term plans and how things will look and be laid out. We are both interested in natural methods of production, and using means like companion planting to control for pests and disease, rather than applying treatments to plants. She loves grubbing in the dirt and being outdoors and is immensely happy with her career as a farmer; she knows that’s what she wants to do for life, and she’s feeling good about that.

But she’s also growing for production. Transplanting lettuces back in February, I was laughing because I was carefully, gingerly, neatly handling each plant and making a little hole and patting the dirt around it…and in the time it took me to do one plant, she’d done four, whipping down the bed with ruthless efficiency. Every plant is not sacred when you are a farmer, and you can’t afford to coddle plants that are struggling, or to grow crops that are going to be finicky without much return when it comes to market.

Planning in farming isn’t just about ‘hrm, what would look nice in this bed’ but a far more complicated algorithm of getting stuff ready for market, thinking about harvesting, and making sure it will be possible to meet orders. It requires a very different way of thinking about things. Everything from how to arrange things in a bed to planting schedules is totally different. I think, for example, about when I want spinach, and then I plant spinach. Gowan thinks about when customers will want spinach and how to stagger plantings to keep spinach production where it needs to be; and she lays out her beds in a way that is efficient, even if it’s not as pretty. She can’t afford to waste time or space.

She practices biointensive farming, which is, as the name implies, very intensive. We’re talking about continuous harvesting and very aggressive methods for maximising food production in a small space, while still preserving the integrity of the environment. I am learning a ton from Gowan as I work with her, even as many of the techniques just don’t apply to me. I don’t have 25 meter beds of strawberries to manage, you know? Nor am I growing 300 heads of lettuce and thinking about how to coordinate harvest and planting to make sure some looseleaf will always be available to clients.

We were laughing over the Shit Weekend Farmers Say video recently, because it really did speak to both of us[1. ‘The compost smells amazing today.’], but I was also thinking about how it illustrated the differences between farming for production and gardening. A lot of weekend farmers are doing something that I would argue is closer to gardening than running a small production farm, given what they’re producing, how they’re producing it, and who they’re producing it for.

And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that—I am excited to see so many people getting into food production, to the point that growing fruits and veggies is now a hip social trend. One thing that small farmers like Gowan do is bridge that gap really, really well, because the biointensive techniques she uses can absolutely be applied to small gardens (and weekend farms), and she has a wealth of knowledge about how to grow things, make them happy, and harvest tasty food from them.

What she does is a world away from industrial agriculture, where the goal is maximum profits at all costs, even if it means the soil is stripped and crops are so heavily damaged that half of them are discarded. But, what she does isn’t gardening either, and gardening principles can’t be seamlessly applied to a production farm, as I’ve learned; some of the things I think of as routine, for example, are not on a production farm, no matter how small it is.

I love getting glimpses into the lives and careers of others, and my time on the farm has taught me so much, a more immediate connection with concepts that were primarily abstract. As a gardener, I thought I understood. As someone who’s volunteered on a tiny production farm, I understand how much I don’t understand.