Don’t Wear a Straw Hat: A Q&A with Mike Madison


In the following Q&A, Mike Madison, author of Fruitful Labor, reflects on over three decades of organic farming, talks about what it means to be sustainable, and offers advice and optimism for young farmers.

Looking for even more insight?  Check out our other posts on Fruitful Labor:

Profit or Loss from Farming

A Farm is More than its Land: Why Farm Infrastructure Is Important

Care of the Soil


Q: After over three decades of organic farming, what inspired you to put your experience to prose in Fruitful Labor?

A: You think that your ideas are sound until you try to write them
 down; then you discover that
 your thoughts are plagued with contradictions and discontinuities. So writing out an account of my farm was an exercise in clarifying my ideas. There were some surprises. For example, my management of energy turned 
out to be not nearly as good as I thought it was.

Q: You express adherence to ‘Deep Ecology.’ What is that about?

A: My formal education was as a naturalist in the tropics, which fueled my innate interest in all sorts of organisms. When I took up farming, I understood that I was joining a community of plants, animals, and microbes, and I wanted to farm in a way that was beneficial for all of us. So I make decisions that favor farm ecology over farm economics, which garners me sideways looks from my neighbors, who suspect me of being slow-witted.

Q: Your final chapter concerns ‘sustainability,’ which has become a popular and ambiguous buzzword in the contemporary world. To you, what does it mean to be truly sustainable?

A: How you judge sustainability depends very much on the boundary conditions: geographic area, time frame, and what factors you choose to include. Looking at a rather narrow interpretation—crop ecology on my farm on a scale of decades—the practice is eminently sustainable. But on a larger scale of space and time, it is clear that my farm is embedded in an unsustainable culture on a beleaguered planet. This could be taken as a call to action. To live virtuously on your own few acres is insufficient. You must also try to persuade other farmers to attempt a more benign way of farming.

Q: What are the cumulative results on your farm after three decades of organic farming?

A: I started out on land that had been badly abused; for decades the previous owner had sprayed pesticides and injected anhydrous ammonia fertilizer, leaving a soil that was essentially dead. And yet, within just a few years of more favorable practices, the vitality of the soil has been restored to where it is permeated with active fungal mycelium and lively communities of invertebrates. What had once been a monoculture now has several hundred species of plants and a diverse fauna. Nature is extraordinarily resilient; all that is required to restore our arable lands is for us to cease from doing the harmful things that we do.

Q: How do you see the future of small-scale family farmers, given the corporatization of agriculture throughout the world?

A: There is a resurgence of interest in small-scale farming, and I am impressed by the intelligence and idealism of the young farmers. Many of them will succeed, despite daunting obstacles. Federal policy since WWII has favored cheap food/ cheap energy, and this plays out as an array of subsidies—some obvious, many hidden—for industrial agriculture. A higher price for fossil fuels, whether by policy or by market forces, would be advantageous for artisanal-scale farms, which typically are much more energy efficient than industrial farms. We can see this in Europe; where energy is expensive, small-scale farms do well.

Q: What advice would you give to a young farmer interested in working at an artisanal scale?

A: Two pieces of advice have struck me as valid. The first is from Peter Henderson, author of the best-selling book of 1876, Gardening for Profit. Henderson advises that every mile that you are closer to your market is a tangible advantage. The second is from my father, who said, “You’re better off with five acres of excellent soil than 200 acres of poor soil.”

Farmland is expensive. In my area, unimproved farmland is priced at $30,000 per acre and up. What a starting farmer can likely afford is poor soil in a remote location, which is contrary to both of those bits of good advice. If you’re 100 miles from your market, you become a half-time farmer, half-time truck driver. I advise the young farmers to seek a long-term lease (10-20 years) on excellent soil close to their market, and forget about trying to buy a farm. In the long run, who is the owner of record is less important than who has the use of the land. If you’re doubtful, read Thomas Jefferson, who farmed on leased land, and who wrote wisely on the subject of usufruct.

Oh, and one other bit of advice— something that I learned in the course of a dramatic personal experience: when you’re burning off a brush pile, don’t wear a straw hat.


Share This:

Read The Book

Fruitful Labor

The Ecology, Economy, and Practice of a Family Farm


Recent Articles

Greenhouse covered in snow

Winter Gardening Without Heated Greenhouses

It might seem like a myth that you can grow food in an unheated greenhouse during the winter, but we’re here to prove you wrong. As long as there is sunlight there are several techniques you can use to keep your crops warm enough to harvest well into the cold weather. The key? Layers. Just…

Read More
Tomato Plants in a Greenhouse

Deciphering the Many Varieties of Tomatoes

If you’re a tomato connoisseur you probably already know just how many varieties of these delicious summertime staples there are. But do you know what makes each one unique? Or how to cultivate them depending on your growing environment? No? Well then sit back and enjoy the read! The following is an excerpt from The…

Read More

How to Use Climate Maps to Navigate the Winter Harvest

Continuing to grow your crops and harvest them well into the winter months seems like an impossible task. How can they grow when weather conditions are far from warm sunny days? It’s all about adapting to what the season gives you. With the proper techniques and studying the patterns of your area’s climate, growing and…

Read More
Sprouts Growing in a Greenhouse

Four Books for Growing Food in Winter

Don’t let cold weather stop you from producing and enjoying your own food! For many, the coming of winter simply means cultivation moves indoors or under cover. Small farmers, homesteaders, home gardeners, and commercial growers can extend the growing season by following just a few of the techniques outlined in the books below. And, there’s…

Read More

Presenting the Four-Season Harvest

For most gardeners, a typical season begins with planting in the spring and ends with a big harvest in the fall – one that the frugal home-gardener hopes lasts through until spring sprouts again. And if it doesn’t, well, then it’s off to the store to pick up whatever measly, unfresh produce is available. But…

Read More