The new and beginning farmers of today do not pursue the career to get rich. Most are drawn by the chance to work outside, to be their own bosses and to grow food to sell. A recent New York Times Letter to the Editor by Bren Smith entitled “Don’t Let Your Children Grow Up to be Farmers” (Sunday Review, Aug. 9) states that the “much-celebrated small-scale farmer isn’t making a living.” The letter disturbed me so much that I put it aside for a few weeks, with a decision to address, in a blog post, the core issue—can you make a decent life farming today?
My first reaction to the article was that the author was exaggerating. After all, if you sit around a table with any group of friends or associates, will they admit that they are doing well financially? It is much more likely that they will say that they don’t have two dimes to rub together.
However, the author’s reference to the ag statistics is true. According to the USDA Ag Census figures, most farmers don’t look that good financially, especially small-scale farmers, and most rely on at least one off-farm job per family to pay the bills. What distorts the federal figures is what the USDA until recently defined as “residential/lifestyle farms,” which is the largest type of farm in the U.S.
The term “residential/lifestyle” was used because many of the operators on these farms view farming as an avocation and their farm as a place to live where they can enjoy a rural lifestyle, not earn their principal income. Take, for example, the farm owners who have off-farm jobs and who are incorporating recreation with the notion of farming. An example might be 20 acres of land with a dozen horses, some of which may be boarded or bred.
Others are farming for the product, not the income. They don’t want to lose money, but making lots of money is secondary to the primary purpose – quality food. A good example is a recent story “Retirees Turn to Farming as an Encore Career“ where 74-year old beginning farmer Dave Massey isn’t farming for the money. He gets a pension and retirement health care benefits. Anything he makes from the farm gets recycled back into the business. “Money is not my major motivation,” he says.
Still, I think that Mr. Smith’s impression is correct for many serious, hardworking, small-scale farmers. They are putting in long hours with few resources and little return. They need affordable access to land, equipment, training and markets and a level playing field. They are competing with mega farms and huge corporations in global markets. I have noted in a previous blog that federal policy appears to have been driving farmers toward a pattern of over-production to compete. As I mentioned in a previous post, in 1973, Congress adopted a farm bill that “introduced target prices and deficiency payments to replace price supports, coupled with low commodity loan rates, to increase producer reliance on markets and allow for free movement of commodities at world prices.” As a result, farmers scaled up and specialized to compete and many farmers simply got out of the business.
Support and more realistic prospects
Where I might differ a little from Mr. Smith is that I know of many farm organizations who worked desperately to improve drafts of the 2014 Farm Bill and they actually bent the trajectory of the bill slightly toward helping the small-scale farmer. The Bill finally provides the opportunity for fruit and vegetable farmers to get crop insurance and it has allocated some money to assist with the development of food incubators and food hubs.
It would help still more if the federal government were to adopt better immigration policies. As it stands now the USDA has acknowledged that approximately 50% of all U.S. farm workers are not documented and many, I assume, are paid less than U.S. citizens. That puts the thousands of small-scale farmers who are operating legally at a huge disadvantage.
Many of Mr. Smith’s suggestions for improving the prospects for small-scale farms are shared by the National Young Farmers Coalition. Much more can be done to help level the playing field for our farmers.
Of course, his article’s title may have been meant to just be provocative. Farming never has been easy, but there are small-scale farmers who are making a decent living, with and without assistance from off-farm income. My dad farmed his entire life, but often supplemented the family income during the fall and winter using his carpentry skills. However, that did not detract from his joy of farming or my joy of growing up on a farm.
Farming is a worthy profession with real results. I could never discourage a child from pursuing a career that can have such a positive effect on the world. If you wonder if that is true, visit a farmers market, roadside stand, CSA, etc. and witness the fruits of their work!