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Five Acres or Less: Josh Volk's Vision for Farming

Mar. 3, 2017

Five Acres or Less: Josh Volk's Vision for Farming

By Richard Adcock

Josh Volk's new book Compact Farms: 15 Proven Plans for Market Farms on 5 Acres or Less is a nuts-and-bolts, highly visual manual for growing food for market on very little land. Paging through its first section, "Why Farm Small?", I find a tightly focused guide to what works in small farms, honed, one imagines, by his work consulting for fellow farmers. It also has a concise, concrete polemic on the importance of sustainability, which places the reader in the monumentally daunting mental space of someone who wants to be a steward of the land while actually making a living. That is to say, it's engaging, even for a reader who has no immediate interest in starting a small market farm. I wonder who the intended audience is, and I put this to Mr. Volk.

"The book answers the question of what compact, production-scale farms look like and how they work," he says. "A person who's just somewhat curious about farming could learn something from it, and hopefully an experienced farmer who's been doing it for decades could learn something from the examples. But mainly, it's for beginning farmers. Small farmers who are just starting out." He pauses. "I wrote it for who I was when started a small farm."

Volk's path to starting his own Slow Hand Farm in Oregon began in East Palo Alto, years before. He got involved in community garden projects, and came to see them as a powerful force, instructive in their impacts. "The social justice and ecological aspects were both interesting to me," Volk says. He just didn't know what the next step was. Then he found John Jeavons' book How to Grow More Vegetables: Than You Ever Thought Possible on Less Land Than You Can Imagine, a 1974 manual and manifesto on biointensive farming methods that presaged the organics movement. "That really brought things together for me, and I started looking for ways to get more involved," Volk says.

After moving to Washington, D.C. in pursuit of this goal, he met Jac Smit, founder of the Urban Agriculture Network, who set him up with a project in the area--but not before giving him some advice. "He had worked with what we would call 'urban farmers' in developing countries, and that gave him a really different perspective. Because urban farming is very different in subsaharan Africa versus the U.S.--here, people launch urban agriculture projects that treat it as this new, different thing. There, people are farming in cities because there are farmers who move there from rural areas, and they figure out how to continue and adapt those practices." The advice Smit gave was to approach urban farming like any other farming project: learn from experienced farmers who are doing what you want to do.

That's exactly what Volk did. After learning to farm on production-scale organic and sustainable farms, he became farm manager at one of them, and eventually started his own small farm: Slow Hand Farm, in the Portland, Oregon area--less than a quarter acre in size. He sees small farms like his own as part of a burgeoning movement, centered on an alternative food economy.

Slow hand farm traps

It's important to note here that the imperative of scaling up is part of what gave us large monoculture operations in the first place--big farms respond to the capitalist priorities of competition and global market demand. And so to steer away from economies of scale is, for Volk, to advocate a different vision of our food economy writ large. "There's this narrative that you can't feed the world with small farms, and I think that's just not true," he says. "Certainly you can feed more people with a larger farm--that's just simple math. But we could have so many more small farms than we do, and that's what will provide people food sustainably." To persist, he believes, a movement of small farmers must offer a real alternative to industrialized food production. To create a food system that works for everyone, Volk says, "we have to think in terms of a collaborative model. And that is actually hindered by competition."

CSA's--community supported agriculture shares--are one application of this model. CSA's let farmers collect revenue up front, stabilize incomes, and connect more directly with the people they're feeding. Josh agrees that the unprecedented growth of CSA's in the past two decades has generated great opportunities for community connection around food, and the rise of the farmers market movement generates yet more opportunities like this. Still, the model is not without issues. I steer the conversation toward the future of CSA's--how might they evolve as the number of CSA farmers continues to grow? “One negative aspect is people have coopted that model and are just using it as a marketing tool," Josh says. “There’s plenty of room to continue growing the CSA movement. If people look at it just as a marketing model, that's when they feel like they’re hitting a saturation point.”

If the obstacle isn't one of market saturation, perhaps it's bringing new people into the movement. Josh seems to agree. "It's a matter of bringing more people into the conversation, and that's not a short-term sales pitch. It's: how can we work together better?" But smaller farms may have an advantage here. "Larger farms create distance between the farmer and the eater. Really small farms connect more directly with the end user--they have to. So that connection to the eater ends up being really important."

In case you're wondering, the "Slow Hand Farm" name is indeed inspired by Slow Food. Why? According to Volk, “the thing that’s been most inspiring to me about the Slow Food movement is that it's not just calling out the problems--it’s a celebration of the things that are right.”

If you're an aspiring small farmer--or you just want to feel optimistic about the future of farming--Compact Farms is one of those things to celebrate.

Compact Farms is available now; buy it here.

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