Farming for the Long Haul

Joan Bailey
Wednesday, 29th January 2020

Joan Bailey speaks to Michael Foley, author of 'Farming for the Long Haul', who explores how to future-proof farming and food production: small and diverse is the key.

Michael Foley’s epiphany came during a visit with his daughter.

“I found myself one morning picking weeds while the farmer maneuvered his horse down the row, and suddenly I knew that’s where I wanted to be,” laughs Foley, who soon after traded the halls and classrooms of the Catholic University of America for the fields and furrows of Little Lake Valley in California. There, in addition to farming, he helped manage the local farmers market, joined the Grange, and founded the School of Adaptive Agriculture. Once again, he was in the classroom offering a course called 'The People’s History of Agriculture' where he brought his two passions, history and farming, together to illustrate how agriculture got to where it is today.

“I’d been reading about this for 50 years and had all this material I needed to share,” says Foley, whose new book, Farming for the Long Haul: Resilience and the Lost Art of Agricultural Inventiveness (Chelsea Green, 2019), contains that history and a compendium of practices and principles traditional farmers and their communities used to weather hard times. For modern growers and producers facing climate change and hungry to learn, Foley finds hope in the past. 

“More than anything, new farmers need models of how to farm without all the modern props, how to manage drought and uncertain weather,” says Foley. “I’m writing about lots of things I haven’t tried, but that all of us who farm should be thinking about trying.”

Subsistence first

Farmers, Foley says, should grow for themselves rather than for production. “If we can’t provide for ourselves, we can’t feed others,” he writes. The modern vision of subsistence - poverty and a hardscrabble life - is a limited picture for Foley.

“Farmers who do well produce more than just for themselves,” he says. “Traditionally, farmers were more than just scratching by. Subsistence was a defensive ethic, but historically they always produced for themselves.”

According to Foley, modern farming with its emphasis on production and profit is misguided at best. It pushes farmers to overwork themselves as well as their land. It encourages a focus on short-term gains for an unstable market and leaves the farmer holding much of the risk. Equating economic sustainability with profitability is a “subtle wrong turn”, he warns. “Economic sustainability in the historical record, however, relies more on resilience than on profitability. In fact, the quest for profitability can be the enemy of resilience.”


©School of Adaptive Agriculture and Michael Foley: Rachel Britten, to the right in the soil science photo, teaches hands on soil science

Small is best

An important part of that resilience and subsistence-first farming is the concept of small. Small is good for many reasons, says Foley, but for the long haul it is best. Not only is working by hand feasible, but studies in the US, India, and Turkey from 1962 to 2005 show that small to mid-sized farms (ranging from one to 49 acres) are more efficient in terms of cost than their larger (upwards of 2,000 acres) counterparts and can be more productive per acre.

“Small farms,” he says, “require lower costs in equipment and inputs. They require more labor, but they are also capable of feeding farmer and family and can do so even when some crops fail or the market turns sour. As the Age of Oil winds down, small is what will be manageable and where increasing numbers of people will turn for employment and to feed themselves.”

Foley also argues that the advice to scale their operations up, work more land, and increase production is a recipe for debt and disaster. Scaling up also takes attention away from the whole farm and its other assets that can provide shelter, sustenance, and energy. In the long haul, small farms will be more resilient, productive, and efficient for the future, Foley says, and will be the key to feeding us all.

“In the end, what we want today to meet the need for local food and a vibrant local economy is not bigger farms but more farms, many more,” posits Foley.

© Green Uprising Farm: grandson Sasha and his friend harvesting in the main field

Implement diversity in all things

Diversity, of crops, of varieties of a single crop, of land use, of techniques for working and managing the whole farm – is another key element for long-haul farming. Foley points to the practice of indigenous farmers who maintain multiple varieties of the same crops in case the season is less than ideal for their standard variety.

“We will have to pay more attention to seasonal crops and learn to eat the way people used to eat,” says Foley. “Traditional diets, even in colonial Virginia, were astoundingly varied, and ours will be more seasonal and vary from place to place.”

Past to present, traditional farmers use everything from cover crops and inter-planting to weirs and terracing in order to produce food successfully. These are also augmented by livestock, orchards, hunting, and foraging.

“The lack of the regular rows and neat subdivisions (were) part of highly productive systems that take advantage of synergies among plants, exploit ecological niches, and preserve and enhance genetic resources, among other virtues,” writes Foley of botanist Edgar Anderson’s visit to Guatemala in 1971 where he found a complex tapestry of plants akin to the permaculture food forest that allowed villagers to thrive.

© Green Uprising Farm: Quinoa, squash, beans, potatoes

Use regenerative practices

In the future, Foley believes the growers at the center of long-haul farming will be working lands that are rocky, sloped, or with less than spectacular soil. Regenerative practices will be pivotal not only for storing carbon, but also for improving and caring for those soils. Things like terracing and check dams – techniques used by desert and highland farmers then as well as now - help conserve soil as well as build and maintain fertility. Manure, animal and human, will have to be incorporated and managed while the making of biochar, compost, and the use of cover crops will become even more important.

“We need to reexamine processes and economies,” says Foley. “Are we really able to provide for ourselves and our neighbors? Are we so production focused that we go out to dinner every night because we are too tired to feed ourselves? We need to be constantly thinking how to better manage the soil and how we can adapt.” 

Think beyond the fields

Long-haul farmers need to see their farm as not just a set of animals or crops, but a system in a context. Wild plants, for example, on the edges of a farm need to be added to the list of farm assets. Traditional farmers, Foley writes, sow the seed of wild relatives with their regular crops for an infusion of genetic diversity that might create a new, more resilient variety. Wild plants would also be incorporated into the farm medicine cabinet or viewed as edibles. 

Long-haul farmers need not only skills for their fields, but they will also need to know how to butcher chickens as well as gather their eggs or how to turn grain to flour and bake it. Foley also points to the once ubiquitous wood lot as a source not only of material for building, but as a source of energy for cooking and heating in colder months. Learning to tend it by coppicing, for example, yields tender branches that can be shaped into baskets or other items for use around the farm or trade.


© Green Uprising Farm: The kitchen garden outside the door is the entrance to a growing food forest

Foster community

As climate change unfolds, a variety of things can and will happen, many of them unpredictable. As farmers develop skills, tools, and crops to meet these challenges, they will do so with their neighbors. Community, Foley writes, has always been and will be even more so in the future, integral to thriving rather than simply surviving these changes.

“Living in a rural community has been a real revelation,” says Foley of his own experience. “There’s a lot of reciprocity and a lot of ways the community contributes to our existence outside of production. For an awful lot of us, we rely on seconds from our fields and barter with other farmers for meat or other things we need. That’s part of our economy.”

The adage, ‘many hands make light work,’ will be even more applicable in the long haul as people gather to help plant, harvest, build, trade, preserve, and celebrate. Foley points to the many events and festivals cultures historically have throughout the year that bring people together for work as well as play. Such activities build social as well as civic skills that will be much in demand as negotiations for access to water, land, tools, seeds, and more ensue.

Start now

“Today might be a good time to start,” urges Foley, and the steady influx of students to the School of Adaptive Agriculture are a testament to that. They range from younger to older, those who want to try farming, and those preparing to farm. Workshops focus on grain growing, carpentry, raising high-caloric crops, ranching, and seed-saving among others.

“We use local farmer expertise to teach while also connecting everyone,” says Foley. “It’s important for aspiring farmers and for knowledge, and it builds community and lets farmers learn to work together.”

Michael Foley's latest book, Farming for the Long Haul: Resilience and the Lost Art of Agricultural Inventiveness is available from the publisher, here:

Useful links

Reviving local food, farming and economy

Modernising farming for young people