Hobby Farming: Growing a Good Life from America’s Roots
Small-scale farming—whether it’s called hobby farming, market gardening, part-time truck farming or homesteading—satisfies many Americans’ yearning to work the land for pleasure, as well as profit. These days, you’re just as likely to find a hobby farm in the city or suburbs as on a country lane.
Anyone serious about growing a large percentage of their own food, raising animals, tending colonies of bees, nurturing an orchard, generating their own renewable energy onsite or managing a timber stand or pond might be considered a hobby farmer. It’s about living close to the land, caring for it and letting it inspire daily life. It also can contribute to the family’s livelihood through sales of products such as honey, fresh produce, eggs or surplus energy.
“Living on our farm allows us to engage with the natural world with its seasonal patterns, provides many of our family’s needs in a sustainable way and offers a marvelous foundation for our homeschooling adventures,” enthuses Heidi Hankley, who lives with her husband and two kids in a straw-clay insulated home with a wood-fired masonry heater. Her husband commutes to his environmental engineering job in Madison, Wisconsin, and helps out after hours.
Their seven-acre farm includes a small flock of hens for eggs, three beehives, an organic garden that sends Hankley to the farmers’ market once a week in season, and three acres of tallgrass prairie. “We knew we wouldn’t need to cultivate all of our open land to meet our needs, so instead of leasing it out for more cropping and haying, we decided to restore it to prairie,” she explains. Their set-aside lands earn a per-acre payment from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Conservation Reserve Program.
“When the farm is a lifestyle, not a way to earn a living, that’s hobby farming,” write Michael and Audrey Levatino in The Joy of Hobby Farming. They operate the 25-acre Ted’s Last Stand Farm and Gardens, outside Gordonsville, Virginia. “It doesn’t mean one isn’t serious about farming,” says Michael. “We have a thriving, diverse farm business ourselves, but we pay most of our personal expenses via outside employment.”
On a residential lot in Santa Monica, California, Lewis Perkins nurtures an abundant orchard of avocados, oranges, guavas and pomegranates as a member of the Home Growers Circle for Forage restaurant, in Los Angeles. Each year, he sells more than 600 pounds of fresh citrus and herbs to Forage. He also harvests his own ginger, pecans, macadamia nuts and bay leaves. When not in the orchard, he works as a certified financial planner.
“My garden is so satisfying,” says Perkins, who raises more than 30 fruits on on his urban farm. “Sometimes I’ll spend an entire day working in my field, which comprises a 50-by-150-foot city lot.”
With enough pasture, livestock can be raised on small land holdings. Backyards work well for hens, while larger lots or a few acres may support goats, sheep, llamas, horses or a cow, depending on local ordinances.
“You can raise goats on a very small acreage, but then need to supplement the pasture with hay and grain,” says Diana Kalscheur Murphy, owner of Dreamfarm, a community supported agriculture (CSA) enterprise in Cross Plains, Wisconsin. “We have 24 milking goats grazing on about three acres of pasture.” She moves the goats to different pastures in alternating years. Murphy’s goat’s milk cheeses have earned awards, paid the bills and led to making many new friends.
“To avoid trouble with the IRS, the most important thing is to show that you are working towards making a profit over several years,” advises Michael Levatino. Besides registering their business with state and federal agencies, hobby farmers must pay applicable sales taxes, keep a separate business bank account, and maintain records of business expenses and revenues. For hobby farmers, especially those with animals, there is no time off. In cold climates, winter is a time of processing, planning next year’s gardens or making repairs, while a farm in warmer regions can produce crops or other products year-round.
“If everyone’s a part-time farmer, we can collectively go a long way toward living in a more healthy, just and sustainable world,” Levatino observes. “Many people primarily go into hobby farming so that they can make the jump from being a responsible consumer to a responsible producer.” John D. Ivanko and Lisa Kivirist, co-authors of Rural Renaissance, ECOpreneuring and Farmstead Chef, operate the award-winning Inn Serendipity farmstay B&B with their son in Browntown, WI. Connect at InnSerendipity.com.
Helpful Resources: Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency, dsireusa.org
Lifestyle Block, LifestyleBlock.co.nz
National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service, attra.ncat.org
Renewing the Countryside, RenewingTheCountryside.org
Rural Renaissance Network, RuralRenaissance.org