Going back to my plough -- lifestyle farming growing more popular

Tired of the urban grind? Sick -- literally -- of the produce from your local supermarket?

You are not alone. A growing number of urban dwellers and suburbanites seeking a rural life where they have more control over the food they eat and can get their fingernails dirty are taking up farming as an avocation.

The trend, dubbed "hobby farming" in some circles -- and "lifestyle farming" in others --is loosely defined as one in which the participants' incomes are not derived solely from farming. Many who slip on their first pair of overalls have no experience whatsoever with the avocation, but their business skills give them a leg up. They also are enthusiastic about trading in their lattes for Lima beans, so don't mind the learning curve.

"More and more people are wanting to return to basics and take control of a fundamental aspect of their lives," says Michael Ableman, a longtime farmer and author of Fields of Plenty. "Farming gives people a sense of deep satisfaction and a connection to the real world."

Lifestyle farmers -- those who mostly work 1 to 12 acres -- make up about half of the 2.1 million U.S. farms, according to the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture. The participants invest big bucks to launch their enterprises: growing crops such as beans, tomatoes, potatoes, fruit, herbs and summer veggies, as well as raising grass-fed beef and organic pork for food and sheep and llamas for wool.

"Some farmers consume the food they raise just for themselves, or sell food to locals from a truck," says Lisa Munniksma, managing editor of Hobby Farms magazine, which has a circulation of 126,000. "It depends on how much time they have for it."

Ellen Sullivan and her husband Paul Bernhardy bought The Lavender Fields, a farm in rural San Diego County, Calif., in 1998, so that Sullivan could raise sheep for a steady supply of wool for her weaving hobby. Lavender was popular then, so the couple planted it to provide income for the property's upkeep.

For the first five years, Sullivan did the hard labor of caring for the sheep -- Bernhardy kept his job at a major food corporation -- but the lavender crops spawned a business for them, which really took off: bath oils, lotions, candles, sachets and other products they sell through mail orders and a gift shop on the property. In 2008, the couple sold the farming business so they could concentrate on their product line. They no longer live on the farm.

Other farmers, such as Nanci and Ken Sutton in Apple Valley, Calif., raise llamas, goats, peacocks and fruit on their 7-1/2-acre spread. Ken, a retired plumber, and Nanci, a weaver, lay out about $5,000 a year for the animals' feed and care. They show the llamas at local and national events, and the wool from the cute creatures ends up on Nanci's loom. Caring for the animals is, Nanci says, "her therapy."

Author and farmer Ableman, a leading consultant about local and urban agriculture models, co-owns Foxglove Farm on Salt Spring Island, British Columbia, which not only produces a wide range of organic foods, but also holds workshops at its Centre for Arts, Ecology & Agriculture. Ableman sees the demand for lifestyle farming growing, based on the invitations he gets from all over the U.S. to speak about the movement.

"People love the value of growing things," Abelman says.

I, for one, can dig it.
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