Steph LarsenSteph Larsen down on the farm. Or not?Last spring, our sheep had six lambs. Now five of them have taken a one-way trip to the meat locker, bound for not only our freezer but those of five other families, too. The chickens are laying eggs moderately well, and we might actually be turning a small profit on them. Unlike last year, I picked this year’s chick breeds based on which produce well all year and give me the diversity of egg colors that my customers like. We’ve also sketched out plans to sell a few vegetables, herbs, and fruits through our local online farmers market.

So at what point can I legitimately say that I’m a farmer, and not just someone with a big garden, some backyard animals, and a hobby?

It seems like a simple question, but I find myself squeezed between two opposing views. On one side are those who think that most of a farmer’s income should be from the farm, without an off-farm job to cushion the blow of a bad harvest or virulent disease. I tip my hat to the hard work of those farmers, and can understand why putting myself in the same category as them could seem insulting — it doesn’t give due respect to the risk to their livelihood and financial well-being those individuals and families are taking.

On the other side are those who scold me for being too cautious and not proudly embracing the title “farmer.” It’s increasingly rare for a farm family to not have at least one off-farm job, these folks argue. And it’s not the size of our chicken and sheep flocks that matters, they say; it’s how we’re making decisions — based on profitability, not whether the flock looks pretty against the big Nebraska sky. To these people, I’m a farmer, full stop.

People whom I love and respect live on both sides of this fence, and I never quite know who will be where.

One definition developed by Center for Rural Affairs founder Marty Strange in the book Family Farming says that a family farmer is one who, among other things, provides the labor, makes the management decisions, earns enough income from farming to pay farm and household expenses, and conserves natural resources. Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts (R) likes to reference the real farmers in Kansas who are 6’3″ and grow grain, versus the gentlemen farmers of Vermont who are 5’3″ and grow apples. The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines a farmer (for some of its programs) as one who earns at least $1,000 in gross sales.

Then there’s Brian, my partner in life and farm, a philosopher by trait and training. This question is a regular source of active debate in our house. Brian stands by a point that’s sticky for me, namely that a meaningful part of our income must come from farming, though he does recognize that beginners (like us) won’t typically make money in the first few years.

Larsen uses that tractor for more than just lookin’ cool.My definition of farmer includes substantial hours of labor, growing products to sell to others, and also the qualitative notion that we’re treating the farm as a business — keeping records, paying attention to our bottom line — and not as a hobby. It’s not a factor for me what percentage of our income is coming from the farm.

So, am I a farmer? Here’s a slice of activities from the past year. We raised a flock of chicks into adulthood, and I learned how to drive a 1960 Farmall tractor. We raised a few lambs and marketed them, a few to folks I had never met before. I learned the difference between hay and straw. I fought with electric netting and weeds, sometimes both at the same time. We planted our ground to pasture and learned some lessons about managed intensive grazing. I killed two animals with my own hands and said goodbye to five others. I spent the winter regaining energy and planning how to use what I grow more efficiently. We did market research and decided to try growing a few things specifically for selling. We successfully signed up for two USDA farm programs.

So where does that leave me — real farmer or hobbyist?

Brian and I do the vast majority of the work for the activities above, and spend a lot of time doing it. We keep careful records and change our management strategies when we see we’re losing money on inputs. We have marketed eggs, apples, and meat to over 40 families. We have made the deliberate decision to grow our business slowly so as not to go into debt beyond our mortgage. We do our best to conserve the resources we have.

So, we meet most of Marty’s definition — we provide all the labor, but our mortgage is not paid by our farm income. Neither of us make the height requirement for Sen. Roberts. We didn’t quite sell enough in 2010 to meet USDA’s definition, but we will in 2011. We probably don’t meet Brian’s definition yet, and probably do meet mine, but we’re also finding more of a consensus position as we develop our business.

Marty makes another point too: farming is also more than a profession. It’s a mindset and a lifestyle. I learn so much every day about what being a farmer entails, both in the skills I need and the way of confronting challenges I must master. I fall woefully short on both, and aspire to improve. Every day I’m faced with tasks I have no idea how to tackle, and I’m learning all the time that I have to be faster at problem solving and at independent but thoughtful action. I’m learning the importance of planning ahead and anticipating everything that could go wrong, even as I hope for everything to work smoothly.

I’ve certainly come a long way. For myself, I think the answer is that like many things in life, farming a process. I am becoming a farmer.