A Family Farmer Looks Back at 30 Years in the Field

In his new book, Mike Madison examines the ecology, economy, and practice of sustainable agriculture in a landscape dominated by industrial farming.


Mike Madison wants to make it clear from the get-go that his new book, Fruitful Labor: The Ecology, Economy, and Practice of a Family Farm is not meant to be a guide—even if it does at times veer into granular detail about his farming practices. Instead, he refers to it as a “report card” to himself, a 30-year journal of the small family farm he created in California’s Sacramento Valley with his wife Dianne.

The 21-acre piece of land is a diverse patchwork of native forest, wild plants, and annual and perennial crops, but the majority of the organic farm is planted to orchards, mainly olive trees. They sell their fresh fruit, vegetables, cut flowers, olive oil, jam, and soap at local farmers’ markets.

This isn’t an idealistic, everyone-should-become-a-farmer kind of book. It’s factual accounting of the hardships, challenges, and rewards involved in farming. It’s also radically transparent in some places, such as the chapter in which Madison chose to share a copy of his Schedule F tax form.

“Being a good farmer is like being a good musician—it takes a knack,” Madison writes. “Ably strumming a guitar in your living room does not mean you can become a professional rock-and-roll musician, which is a far more stringent calling. And similarly, growing a productive garden in your backyard does not mean that you’re suited to earn your living by farming, which requires both aptitude and a particular personality. Possibly only one person in a dozen, or one in 20, is temperamentally suited to farming.”

If you happen to be among the “one in 20” that can weather the work and maintain a livelihood in farming, you will surely find a huge amount of value in the book. But it still holds nuggets of advice and wisdom for the rest of us, in topics such as wildlife diversity, water, soil, energy inputs and outputs, economics and the vast network of social contexts we all find ourselves embedded in whether we want to be or not.

Madison’s prose is witty, slightly sarcastic, and poetic at times, which makes reading about seemingly mundane details like tractor parts and the energy efficiency ratio of crops can be a pleasure. He recently delved a bit deeper with Civil Eats.

You say you wrote this book as more an account than a guide. What do you hope readers will gain from reading it?

Every time I visit a farm, I learn something—a new way of laying out irrigation, an ingenious way of rigging tillage equipment, a new source of supplies. A farm is a bundle of idiosyncratic practices which nonetheless adhere to fundamental principles, and a farmer who has been at it for enough years will have figured out a coherent system. I would like the reader to experience this book like an extensive visit to my farm, with both the idiosyncrasies and the fundamentals in evidence.

Tell us a bit about your writing background and how this book came about.

My second year at boarding school, [at] age 14, I had a wonderful English teacher—Mr. Guy Hughes. He taught me to write and encouraged me to become a writer. That impulse lay dormant for quite a while, but then in my 50s, I started writing, mostly essays for magazines and newspapers, and also a few books. (I haven’t yet managed to get a novel published.) I wrote Fruitful Labor to clarify my own understanding of my farm and how it was operating—a sort of report card to myself. I thought I would get an “A,” but it turned out to be more like a “B.” Even with virtuous practices, my dependence on fossil fuels was greater than I had expected. The pumps and cooler and olive mill, along with the tractors and cars and trucks all require fossil fuels to operate, even if that use is mediated through electricity. And the $10,000 a year I spend on bottles and jars for packaging mostly reflects the fossil fuel costs of manufacturing and shipping glass.

When did you know you wanted to be a farmer? What would you tell your young farmer self now?

Although I was born on a farm and worked on farms as a child—in an era when child labor was considered admirable rather than criminal—I didn’t consider farming when I was young. Farming was my fifth, or maybe sixth, career; I stumbled into it at age 39 with little planning and only vague intentions and immediately loved it. I knew right away that it was my destiny, to use an antique term. What would I tell my beginning farmer self now? “Don’t worry, be happy—it will all work out.”

Could you explain the difference between ecology and agroecology?

Agroecology applies the principles and techniques of traditional wildlands ecology in an agricultural setting. In the narrow sense, it is the study of crop and livestock ecology. But in its broader sense, agroecology includes the social, economic, cultural, and institutional factors operating on a farm. This book is a study of agroecology in the broader sense.

You write that “the social and institutional side of farming” is favorable in your region. Do you think you would be a farmer if you didn’t have those conditions in your community?

Operating a small farm successfully is certainly easier where you have a sophisticated and wealthy populace enthusiastic about good food. Artisanal farming would be a tougher proposition in rural Oklahoma than in California. But there are other, less obvious, factors as well. For example, there are four commercial compost manufacturing facilities close to my farm; I only have to pick up the phone to get 40 yards of compost delivered the same day. In other parts of the country, that’s just not possible. I might well still be a farmer if I lived in a less congenial place, but it would have to be a different kind of farming than what I do now.

What are some of the biggest changes and challenges you have seen over the course of your 30-year farming career?

The industrial farming of today is almost unrecognizable compared to the artisanal scale farming that I knew in the 1950s. The changes could be summarized as mechanization, commodification, and globalization. And it’s not done yet. An engineer friend tells me that the future of agriculture is drones and robots. Dismal prospect!

Have you always been as organized as you describe in the book? And do you think it is a requirement for successful farming?

The successful farmers that I know usually share three traits: they’re information seekers, fast workers, and orderly. I run a very orderly farm. Everything has a place, and either it’s in use or it’s in its place. This is partly for the great efficiency it confers and partly for the aesthetics of orderliness. The aesthetics of the farm are more important to me than the economics of it.

In your chapter on economics (excerpted here), you discuss the true costs of food. Do you think our society will ever get to a place of transparency in regards to cost?

Our federal policy for the last 80 years has been “cheap food/cheap energy.” Since industrial farming is basically a system for turning petroleum into food, those two are tightly linked. The true costs of food—environmental, geopolitical, social, and economic—are not reflected in its low prices. Will that ever be remedied? I doubt it. Truth is held in low regard in our culture, certainly well below comfortable entitlements.

What is the most important advice you would like to give to a young farmer just starting out?

Good farmland is very expensive—in my district, $30,000 per acre or more. The kind of farm that a young farmer can afford to buy—steep, stony soil 40 miles down a dirt road—is not worth owning. My advice to young farmers is to seek a long-term lease (10 to 30 years) on excellent soil close to your markets—and forget about buying a farm. These leases are complex, and they require a penalty-free escape clause for the farmer if things don’t work out. In many parts of the country, this is the best option. Not being able to buy your own farm is partly an economic problem, but mostly a psychological problem. And once you accept the idea, there are many advantages. Your capital is free to use for the best possible equipment and supplies. You needn’t worry about mortgage payments and property taxes. And you will be following in the footsteps of our nation’s foremost farmer, Thomas Jefferson, who did much of his farming on leased land.

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  1. Clifton Whitchurch
    Monday, May 14th, 2018
    Keep the good books coming, please.
    I enjoy your FB posts.