Organic Hobby Farming: A Practical Guide to Earth-friendly Farming in any Space

review by Richard Robinson
Hobbies are respectable enterprises, and everyone should have at least one. But nonetheless, the phrase “hobby farm” grates on me like fingernails on a chalkboard. It’s a phrase I have only ever heard from the mouths of people who are not farmers and have done no farm work, and in fact are deeply alienated from the work—physical, mental, aesthetic—that farmers do every day to make food, and beauty, from the land they care for. To me, a more-than-part-time-but-less-than-full-time farmer, “hobby farm” evokes a combination of condescension and cluelessness, such that I am predisposed to reject out of hand a book that calls itself “Organic Hobby Farming,” even when it follows that up with its more promising subtitle, “A practical guide to earth-friendly farming in any space.”

But authors don’t always choose their titles, and this book is part of a series from a publishing house called Hobby FarmsTM, so I gave the author, Andy Tomolonis, a pass as I dug into his book, to see what it might offer its intended audience: “backyard organic growers, experienced hobby farmers, and those who are dreaming of the day.” And for that audience, this book may be a valuable acquisition, despite some limitations. Mr. Tomolonis is clearly not alienated from farm labor, and clearly knows his way around the organic garden.

At 353 pages plus another 25 of resources and index, the book is big. It also aims to be comprehensive, covering topics from assessing new property to how to grow individual crops to marketing opportunities. It succeeds in at least one respect, in that it gives those who aren’t yet farming a big-picture idea of how much the farmer must think about and plan for and do to keep all the balls we juggle up in the air throughout the season. If you are thinking about farming and are trying to get that big picture, you could do worse than to read this book cover to cover. On the other hand, if you are a serious gardener who is planning to scale up to farming, this book will probably not offer you the in-depth knowledge you will need to succeed (and perhaps no single book can).

As you would hope in a book of organic farming, it has a good chapter on understanding both the mineral and biologic aspects of soil, and in its 40 pages, you can get a pretty good introduction to these critical topics. Mr. Tomolonis presents a month-by-month overview of farming activities from seed starting to insect control to harvest, which can give the novice the feel for the rhythms of the year. There are many (many!) sidebars and boxes along the way to highlight topics such as basket weaving tomatoes, stale bedding, and other practical information.

Growing information on specific crops may be useful to the novice gardener, with basic information (e.g., “one cauliflower plant produces just one harvestable head”) and growing tips (“Use floating row covers over young carrots, especially when sown in the spring, when sawflies are most active”), but my guess is that this section may be less useful to even intermediate gardeners, who will have their own stockpile of experience with most common crops, and will have learned to find more expert information elsewhere. There is also a survey chapter on fruit crops, 20 pages on chickens, and a brief introduction to bees, rabbits and goats. Aspiring farmers who want to think hard about the business side of the operation will find a quick introduction to marketing, but will need much more information from elsewhere to feel confident about their business plan.

I was surprised at a few things I read, and a few I didn’t. I would not recommend heirloom crops to beginning farmers, who will have all the challenges they can handle just getting their systems in place without trying to succeed with the slower growth and greater disease susceptibility of older varieties. I don’t know anyone in the Northeast who plants a late-season crop of snap peas; in my experience the seed rots in the warm soil of August, and the shoots grow too slowly in the dying light of October (perhaps others have more success, and I’d love to be wrong). There is no mention of downy mildew on basil, which will take most of your crop after July. But these are relatively minor quibbles in a section that is otherwise solid, if necessarily limited.

The biggest surprise was the almost complete absence of discussion of season extension techniques. Row cover is discussed primarily as an insect control strategy, and, remarkably, hoop houses are not discussed at all, despite having become a centrally important tool for market farmers to increase their profits—for many farmers, including me, they have made the difference between succeeding and not. Yes, there are other books that present the principle and practice in depth, but the absence of even a brief introduction here may leave the reader who is trying to see how the whole farm puzzle fits together missing a very large piece.

So, should you buy this book? If you are a serious gardener looking to make some money on your (ahem) hobby, I don’t think this book is likely to give you what you likely need most, namely practical advice on the business side of farming.

If you are a homesteader hoping to expand your knowledge of growing crops and whole-farm systems, this might be useful as exposure to crops and techniques you haven’t tried yet. If you are still shaping your farm in your dreams, I’d recommend it, to get an overview of the many, many activities and decisions and considerations that go into farming at any scale.

In a world in which there is a firehose of information at the touch of button, but only a trickle of wisdom, it is a good thing to have this kind of survey—broad, relatively complete, and reasonably authoritative—all together in one book. I commend the author for undertaking it, and, despite my reservations, I hope it finds its audience and has its intended effect, to increase the number of people who practice organic farming.