Out of stock

Fruitful Labor

The Ecology, Economy, and Practice of a Family Farm

By Mike Madison


“Instead of taking us through his work, season by season, crop by crop–the narrative approach–Madison explores his farm and its methods analytically, from many overlapping angles. The result is profoundly interesting.” — The New York Review of Books

As the average age of America’s farmers continues to rise, we face serious questions about what farming will look like in the near future, and who will be growing our food. Many younger people are interested in going into agriculture, especially organic farming, but cannot find affordable land, or lack the conceptual framework and practical information they need to succeed in a job that can be both difficult and deeply fulfilling.

In Fruitful Labor, Mike Madison meticulously describes the ecology of his own small family farm in the Sacramento Valley of California. He covers issues of crop ecology such as soil fertility, irrigation needs, and species interactions, as well as the broader agroecological issues of the social, economic, regulatory, and technological environments in which the farm operates. The final section includes an extensive analysis of sustainability on every level.

Pithy, readable, and highly relevant, this book covers both the ecology and the economy of a truly sustainable agriculture. Although Madison’s farm is unique, the broad lessons he has gleaned from his more than three decades as an organic farmer will resonate strongly with the new generation of farmers who work the land, wherever they might live.

*This book is part of Chelsea Green Publishing’s NEW FARMER LIBRARY series, where we collect innovative ideas, hard-earned wisdom, and practical advice from pioneers of the ecological farming movement—for the next generation. The series is a collection of proven techniques and philosophies from experienced voices committed to deep organic, small-scale, regenerative farming. Each book in the series offers the new farmer essential tips, inspiration, and first-hand knowledge of what it takes to grow food close to the land. 

Reviews and Praise

"A good farming book—a book about the work of farming—shows a kind of narrative reluctance, an unwillingness to tell stories as if the main thing that matters is the way they end. Think of it as a Jeffersonian indifference to profit or the bottom line—a nonnarrative approach. What matters instead is the quality of observation, the details. From these things a sense of character will emerge. This isn’t just a conceit on my part. There are good models for this kind of writing.... But perhaps the best example I’ve ever found is a new book by Mike Madison called Fruitful Labor: The Ecology, Economy, and Practice of a Family Farm." --Verlyn Klinkenborg, The New York Review of Books

Wall Street Journal—

"Fruitful Labor is both an encomium to self-reliance and a testament to the analgesic effects of organized surrender. One chapter beautifully describes self-sharpening shovels as they pass through sandy soil; the next serenely concedes an annual percentage of fig trees to ravenous gophers. Yes, crops must be planted, the seasons attended and money made. But these urgencies are only revealed by reading between the lines. Calm prevails—the sort of composure that’s cultivated through a lifetime devoted to a greater cause.”

Fruitful Labor is a delightful book, full of practical advice and deep thinking about ecology and true sustainability. I highly recommend it for anyone interested in food and farming, but especially for young farmers looking to build their skills while gaining wisdom from someone experienced and respected in the field.”—Ben Hartman, author of The Lean Farm and The Lean Farm Guide to Growing Vegetables

“Mike Madison offers new and aspiring farmers a book outside the usual vein of small farm narratives and how-to tomes. Discontented with both formulaic prescriptions for the idealized family farm and mega-data studies that sacrifice particularities for trends, Madison instead digs deep into the three decades of farming history on the California plot where he and his wife raise more than 200 plant varieties, ranging from vegetables to flowers to olives—and no sacred cows. Madison puts nothing other than nature itself on a pedestal, and he questions his every decision by way of an ecological mirror that reflects back on him without embellishment or distortion.

“He confesses that he is not enamored with the current celebrations of mission statements, goals, and strategies. Rather, he describes the evolution of his family farm as a timeline without a road map—decision points on a long chronology, all informed by unhurried observation. His story is one of searching out hard-won possibilities through perseverance more than strategy.

“New farmers would be wise to take a day and travel with Madison through the course of his thirty-plus years, learning what lenses to use in examining each ecological, economic, and community-minded decision that all farmers face.”—Philip Ackerman-Leist, professor of sustainable agriculture and food systems, Green Mountain College, and author of A Precautionary Tale

“Mike Madison writes from a place of knowing that one acquires only through lived experience. The deep ecology he prescribes, which ‘advocates the rights and values of all species regardless of their utility to human enterprises,’ should be the central principle of food and farming systems. Akin to the creature in the crystal river in Richard Bach’s book Illusions, Mike stopped clinging a long time ago and let the current take him to a higher plane of thought and deed. Proof of this is sprinkled throughout Fruitful Labor.

“This book is a must-read for those embarking on their journey into farming and for all others who are remotely connected to food and farming, which is all of us.”—Sridharan (Sri) Sethuratnam, director, California Farm Academy