To many, farming is a rejection of urban lifestyles, of being chained to a desk. Farming is a lifestyle of independence and a connection to nature. But do farms have to be profitable?
Recently, I was in a conversation with Ginger Myers, Extension Marketing Specialist, and a beginning farmer. We were discussing to what extent she wished to be profitable. She replied that she wants to sell her free-range, naturally raised eggs at a low price so that families of all income levels can afford them. Even when faced with feed, carton and hen replacement costs that would eliminate all of her profitability, she was firm in her commitment to be of help to the community by keeping her price very low.
Her motivations are noble and she is not alone. There are farmers and non-profits raising food and selling it at or below market value for the same reason — to help local residents be healthier with fresh local food. Why is food different from any other product? Can’t farming be meaningful and be profitable too? And does pricing one’s product below market value push out farmers who set their prices in order to earn a living wage?
All of these are complicated issues. Consumers have said time and again that they want to support farmers, however they don’t have a good understanding of what it costs to get a tomato to market, or that fruits and vegetables are already priced so low because of competition with imported food from countries with low wages.
A farmer who has been in the business for over a dozen years noted a couple of weeks ago that the farmers who seemed to succeed were ones that started with a spouse or partner with an off-farm job. However, a beginning farmer without such backup is particularly vulnerable to any miscalculation, loss of crop, or loss of market share –either by a legitimate competitor or one subsidized by other sources. It’s complicated.
The only answer that I have is that we should support farmers who have to make a living wage and that we, as consumers, be should sure that we are paying a fair price. To those who grow food just to help others in need, thank you.