Friday, December 6, 2013

Buzzwords - Defining the Terms

The buzzwords post generated lots of email with people asking me to define each one. Well, in my experience there isn't just one definitive definition for most. Don't ask me why, but there seems to be differences in opinion when it comes to classifying food growers. Even the USDA doesn't do a great job of it, and they're the ones who have to come up with the legal definitions. When it comes to their regulations, they wimp out when it comes to the hairsplitting with the small growers by just saying, if you make under a certain amount annually, then your not governed by the regulation. No need for them to say what differentiates a larger gardener from a hobby farmer. 

So here's a list of what I'm thinking. Feel free to chime in with ideas, opinions, different viewpoints! 

Urban Farmer - seems like anyone with a tomato plant in a pot by the front door is now labelled an urban farmer. But of course there are folks who are more involved by having a garage housing meat rabbits, a garden shed with chickens, a basement with tilapia tanks, and a backyard with nothing but veggie plants (no grass!). Pigeon coops are now starting to appear on the roof. Since ag operations are illegal in most urban areas, urban farmers tend to fall into the shadowy outlaw world. (By the way, I'm a bit of an outlaw myself, so I fully empathize with the full fledged urban farmer.) But where does one draw the line between a city gardener and an urban farmer? And just what is an urban homesteader? I find it hard to define an urban homesteader. 

Family Farmer - the news media focuses on the family farm vs the corporate farm, basically using the term family farm when reporting the decline and death of the family farm. Although small farms have seen a significant decline in the past few decades, the family farm still exists. Or does it? So what's the difference between a family farm versus a small farm? Can the family farm hire outside employees? Does just one member of a family working the farm still allow it to be termed a family farm? Gosh, this is getting confusing! 

Hobby Farmer - this term seems to be displacing Gentleman Farmer. The latter signifies a wealthy owner who conducts farm activities generally for the tax benefits (as opposed to making a profit) while supporting his comfortable, beautiful, home (or vacation) farm. The former (hobby farms) tends to cover both retired people doing something a bit beyond gardening and new people trying to start farming while retaining jobs off the farm so that they have an income. The term hobby farming seems to me to imply a project done for fun or enjoyment, but I don't totally agree with that definition. Many people who call themselves hobby farmers (because they aren't yet making a profit) do it because the food they produce helps them survive. They need it. And many young hobby farmers are trying to learn to farm with the intent to quit their off farm jobs eventually and become full fledged farmers. 

Organic Farmer - nowadays this term is defined and regulated by the government. But it wasn't all that long ago that Rodale introduced the idea of farming without any man made fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides. But since the government has gotten involved, organic farming can now incorporate the use of the very chemicals that Rodale advocated avoiding. Yes, a certified organic farmer can legally use a whole list of "non-organic" chemicals, though their use is regulated via the regulations. But on the other hand, animal manure not processed via government regulations is now banned. Rodale would be quite surprised if he were alive. Great examples here in Hawaii - Farmer A lost his organic certification because a sheep and a sheep, one chicken.... were allowed to roam his multi acre coffee farm to control weeds and bugs. The sheep and chicken poo were of course non-processed au natural, thus prohibited even though coffee cherry never was in contact with the manure. organic certification allowed! Farmer B uses sheep to keep the grass short in his orchard and to eat fallen fruit, thus helping to control fruit fly. At one time Farmer B was praised for this method and invited to speak at seminars, promoting this natural control method. His method caught the eye of a USDA official and ZAP...lost certification. No livestock allowed in the orchard. Crazy, no? One more thought -- once upon a time if you grew your veggies by Rodale's guidelines you would of course proudly say that your garden/farm and food was organic. No more! The term organic is regulated by the government. If you don't fit the regulations, you cannot use the term, legally that is. Nowadays if the product advertises "organic" it's most likely from a big commercial farm. 

Homestead farming - subsistence farming usually involving one family core group (as adverse to a commune) where emphasis is placed on self sufficency. 

Small family Farming - farming for profit which involves a family core group. Emphasis is more on making a profit than in self sufficiency (homestead farming). 

Mini Farm - I'm not sure on this one at all. Is a mini farm one too small to support a family? How's it different from a hobby farm? Or are all mini farms hobby farms too? But then, an herb or miniature rose farm could be really small in size but still be capable of supporting a family. I know if a three acre herb farm that does fine, and a one acre miniature rose nursery supporting a family. Are these mini farms? They are certainly not hobby farms. 

Apartment Farming and Balcony Farming -  oh, these are a real stretch for my thinking patterns! Farming in an apartment? On a balcony? I'd tend to call it gardening, myself. 

Container Farming - most people who use containers are gardening, but there has been a recent move toward farming in containers. A few years ago I would have raised eyebrows at the mention of container farming, but not now. In order to farm in areas of no soil, innovative people are building unusual container farms that surprisingly are productive. 

Vertical Farming - utilizing the 3D aspect of your land, thus growing crops vertically and not just traditionally horizontally. Trellising is vertical farming. But so is building containers upward, like a set of stairs. Green walls are an example of vertical gardening. 

Backyard/Frontyard Gardening and Edible Landscaping- pretty much self explanatory. The movement is causing controversy in some towns, urban areas, and some suburbs due to restrictions. Yes, people have been arrested for growing a veggie garden in their front yard. 

No Till - a farming method where the soil is no flipped over or rototilled. Some no till systems rely upon herbacides while others use mechanical controls for weeds and cover crops. No till has proven effective for grain farming in certain areas with suitable soil. 

Factory Farming - commercial farming utilizing controlled conditions, usually in buildings or greenhouses. Both livestock and vegetables are factory farmed. 

Better Than Organic - small farmers that opt not to conform to government regulations for organic (there's an annual, hefty fee plus lots of paperwork and costly annual inspection) and who often incorporate Rodale's principles ( using natural manures while not using any manmade chemicals) are adopting this term. 

Naturally Farmed - similar to Better Than Organic but placing more emphasis on natural life cycles. Livestock outdoors on pasture. Veggies in the field rather than greenhouses. No hydroponics. 

Korean Natural Farming (aka Dr Cho's Natural Farming) - a specific style of farming following the teachings of a Korean experimenter/researcher, Dr Cho. Calls for specific homemade formulations for soil amending and foliar sprays. When raising chickens and pigs, calls for construction guidelines for pens and housing, plus certain diet amendments. 

Sustainable- can be continued indefinitely without degrading the system/environment. Not necessarily natural or organic. There's a lot of leeway in how farmers and gardeners view sustainable. Lots of debate in this category. 

Subsistence farming - just enough to get along. No surplus worth talking about. This term usually implies a poverty situation. 

Self Sufficient - not relying upon outside resources. As being used today, basically assumes that some outside resources are being employed, like tools, basic input items such as concrete, sand, wire, nails, that sort of thing. The focus seems to be that the gardener or farmer is producing their own fertilizer, sprays, seeds, livestock feed, and a significant potion of their energy needs. Or...Or...Or....that they can trade surplus for those items that they need.  I get confused when I listen to discussions about self sufficiency because everyone tends to stretch the boundaries as to what's acceptable and what's not. 

Biodynamic - a proscribed method of farming following the teachings of Rudolf Steiner. An organic style that incorporates mystical aspects. 

Permaculture - a system of design modeled after natural eco-systems which aims to be sustainable. There is some controversy among its supporters and followers as to how rigid the system needs to be in order to be termed permaculture. 

Polyculture versus Monoculture - polyculture is an agricultural approach allowing for more than one crop in the same space. Examples would be alley planting (example: rows of apple trees where the space between the rows is used to grow green beans), companion planting (two or more plants that grow well in proximity to one another. Example: beets grown among lettuce), multi-cropping (example: radishes growing around the base of trellised cucumbers). With polyculture even livestock can be part of the equation (fish in a taro pond). Monoculture refers to vast plantings of a single crop.......think fields of wheat or corn, commercial orchards, most commercial farms.

Gardening versus farming - gardening brings a vision of a person supplementing their food. They still rely heavily upon outside food sources. Farming gives me the feeling that the person is producing significant amounts of food, enough to cover a major percentage (if not all) of their fresh food needs ..... or producing a crop for income purposes. 

Localvore - a food system based upon local produced food, rather than foods shipped into the area. 

Green - don't ask me. The term green is being thrown around all over the place nowadays. What's green, what's not? 


  1. OK, so what's a ranch? A farm with animals (if farms only have vegetation crops)? How far away is a localvore if it has to be transported on a roadway? Or, does it lose the definition if you buy it at the roadside stand and drive - or fly - to fix a meal with that item at a distance? All these definitions" are not too useful, I think, except to invite "regulations", with all manner of taxes, fees, restrictions, and da kine.

  2. Barry, definitions tend to vary from person to person, don't they? That's why some government agency comes along to come up with an official definition.....then here comes the fees, taxes, licensing requirements, etc. Sometimes I agree with the need for legal definitions because it helps curb the businesses trying to make money by misleading people. But I'm not fond of all the government regulations and the pricy fees associated with them. Shame there's not a way to zap the scammers without hurting the honest business person.

    So what's a ranch? It just couldn't be livestock. Pigs or chickens wouldn't make it a ranch, would it? Could a ranch be sheep? Horses and cattle seem to go nicely with the ranch idea from my point of view. Would pasture be a ranch requirement? Or could you have a ranch if the horses were fed only brought in hay cubes? Ooooooo, my head hurts! That's why definitions are painful. Too many variables to consider. Too many opinions!

    I read a few other blogs where definitions get debated on a regular basis. Fun to watch the purists almost have heart attacks and epileptic seizures when the more flexible people offered fairly open ended ideas.

    I suppose it's best if definitions either are rather general......or severely restrictive. That way people know where they stand. Personally, I don't care. I don't see any harm if someone fantasizes that they are a farmer because they grow veggies in baskets on the high rise apartment balcony. But the government might question their application for a farm subsidy.

  3. Localvore, now that's one really open for interpretation, isn't it? You hit the nail on the head Barry. Distance. Just how far is allowable and still be local? Here on Big Island I see different tiers of mileage. Some people, especially the earthier types, mean that the food came from our own district of Ka'u. Most people seem to mean that the food is produced on our own island. The news media and government seems to include the entire state as being local. So welcome down to personal interpretation. Lets hope the government doesn't become involved in the definition, otherwise we won't be able to say local unless we are certified and pay them an annual fee.