Novella Carpenter on being dirt-poor but joy-rich

Living off the thin of the land: Like many farmers in America, Novella Carpenter is “almost totally broke,” the author of “Farm City” writes in this moving first-person essay. She has lots of company. So-called residential/lifestyle farms (there are 837,000 of them in the U.S.) lose 35 percent annually, about the same as “low sales farms,” of which there are 400,000. So why do people do it? Says Novella: “The joys of the farmer — pulling carrots out of the earth, watching a newborn goat’s first steps, the soft clucking of chickens in the morning — I can’t let those go no matter how much it costs me.” (San Francisco Chronicle)

3 Responsesto “Novella Carpenter on being dirt-poor but joy-rich”

  1. Bob Comis says:

    I leave this comment with mild trepidation. I do not want to start a fight, and I do not want to distract from the Ethicurean’s point — Carpenter’s ability to find joy in farming, in spite of her poverty. Nevertheless, I think it is important to maintain a little perspective here because a connection is made between Carpenter’s experience and that of American farmers (“Like many farmers…”). Carpenter is a poor person not because she is a farmer, but because she is poor. Subsistence farming, by definition, does not alleviate poverty, so to point out that a subsistence farmer is poor is redundant, or to demand (culturally-speaking) that a subsistence farmer not be poor (as a result of farming) is absurd. In order to not be poor, a subsistence farmer, again, by definition, must have some other way of making money.

    Regenerating an American culture of subsistence farming (to find such a dominant culture we would have to go back to the federal period) would be wonderful, and is something that I would wholeheartedly support (although actually achieving it would require a broad and massive cultural revolution). We need to maintain, however, perspective and recognize that there is a clear distinction between subsistence farming and farming for profit. We need to be careful to not equate definitional poverty with the poverty of a broken system. We cannot advocate for a culture of subsistence farming and then complain that subsistence farmers are poor. If we want our farmers to not be poor (as a result of farming), then we need to minimize our advocacy of subsistence farming and prioritize our advocacy of a system of farming for profit that provides a just income, but, if we do such a thing, we also need to demand of our farmers that they farm at a scale that warrants such an income.

    We can, do, and will, of course, have both types of farming; we just need to be clear about what sorts of demands we can make on each type.

  2. Dammit Bob, you’re always starting fights around here! :-) You just love to smash those rose-colored glasses. Agreed: definitional poverty should not be confused with the poverty of a broken system. Energy is best spent advocating for a just system that pays farmers (and farmworkers) a just income. But I still really like this essay.

  3.  There are some very successful and progressive urban farming systems in place and those systems are being taught to others. Novella chooses to be ‘poor’ as a farmer simply because she farms in a ‘poverty’ method. You certainly won’t get rich by small scale farming yet you can create a very nice lifestyle for yourself. 
    Then again maybe we need to define what poverty is for each of us. I really fine example was Helen and Scott Nearing. They had very little disposable income  yet had a great deal of wealth. I’m sure they did not fit the American definition of ‘wealth’.