When it comes to farming, bigger isn't always better.
It's what Beaufort resident Randy James came to understand as the county agriculture agent in Geauga County, Ohio, home to the fourth largest Amish settlement in the United States.
In his second book on the Amish community, "Why Cows Need Names and More Secrets of Amish Farms," James follows one young Amish family for five years as they start a dairy farm.
James himself grew up on a small farm before earning three degrees in agriculture and a doctorate in soil chemistry. Now in retirement, he is an agriculture professor emertis of the Ohio State University.
We talked James about the book and how he uses an Amish family's narrative to examine the benefits of small farming, from sustainability to the treatment of animals to the community values the farm embodies.
Question. What do you hope readers take away from the book?
Answer. What I would like folks to understand is that starting a new farm is possible. New small farms are very common, with about 20,000 a year nationally. This was just an opportunity to follow one family and their path to see the opportunities in farming. And, of course, it happens to be an Amish farm, so it's kind of the quintessential small, American farm.
Q. What are some of the positive aspects of Amish farms over large corporate ones?
A. I talk about that in the book as well. One of the things that happens on small farms -- not necessarily Amish farms but on small farms -- is the animals are treated so much better. And our relationship with animals is one of the recurring themes in the book. If the animal is there in the small herd, that animal is not a member of the family, it's not a pet, but it is very much valued by that family. Whereas on a huge farm, where you have 4,000 cows that you're milking, you have no clue what the next one coming on the line is.
Q. What are some of the unique challenges an Amish farmer has over any other farmer?
A. The very first question I ever got (from an Amish farmer) was when you're plowing with a five-horse hitch, is it three in front and two behind? Or two in front and three behind? That one was unique to the Amish because they are the only ones using horses to plow. So the size of the farm is limited to about 50 acres because that's about all you can get done with horses, whereas somebody with tractors can have thousands of acres.
Q. What did you learn in writing this book?
A. I learned that small farms can be very, very profitable and most of agriculture doesn't believe that.
In my bachelor's degree in agriculture, we were taught that you needed to get big and specialized or get out. What the Amish taught me is that is just not true. You can be very small and very diverse and if you're a good farmer, you can do very well. Even though it's taught in the colleges of agricultures and -- by the way -- I'm one of those teachers. I've changed my teaching very much so.
The big take-home message for me was that all technology comes with a cost, and we so seldom recognize what that cost is.
That's probably the biggest thing I learned from that community because that's what they do every day. When a new technology's coming down the road, they ask, "Will the adoption of this technology pull us together or apart?" And if it will pull them apart, they won't use it.