Highest and Best Use

On a good day at the farmer’s market we’ll make less than I would’ve earned for a half hour of my time as a lawyer.  Our CSA shares, which are over 7 months of weekly deliveries of homegrown organic produce, and the product of a lot of work, cost less than what I charged for 2 hours of my time as a lawyer.

I can say in hindsight that I was a pretty good lawyer.  I was given good analytical skills and the good judgment to appreciate how best to advocate a position.  Those, combined with a strong work ethic, made for a successful career.  But even though my clients rarely seemed to mind the amount they were billed, something just doesn’t seem right about how we value an hour of an attorney’s time versus how we value an hour of a farmer’s time.

Time will tell how good a farmer I am.  For now, whatever I lack in God-given skills I’m trying to make up for with hard work and passion.  Our production continues to increase each year.  We’re getting food to a lot of families and I can honestly say that we and those who get their food from this farm are eating very well.

But how can our society expect young people to take up farming when the disparities of income between farming and other professions are as great as they are?  Even for those who decline to drink the kool-aid which leads one to believe that the highest paying jobs are the most valuable, or that more money means more happiness, there are very difficult financial obstacles to overcome.  It is almost impossible for a young family to break into farming, for example, without significant capital expenditures up front for land, a home, a barn, fences and a tractor.  While I realize these aren’t absolutely necessary to farm sustainably, and there are some amazing young farmers managing to produce lots of great food without some of these things, it is very difficult as a practical matter to make it without them.

In the past young families would inherit farms or, through hard work and thrift, buy them at affordable prices.  Now the “highest and best use” (a term from real estate appraisals) of moderately sized tracts of land is not farming, but residential development.  These tracts are priced not in a way that would make them affordable to small farmers, but rather to city dwellers who want the experience of “country living.”  And so there are fewer and fewer young farmers and fewer and fewer small farms.

Until recently it seemed that small farms would soon disappear and the world’s food production would be controlled entirely by large corporations.  The local food movement gives some hope that small farms may survive.   At least it’s now clear that they won’t go away without a fight.  More and more people are choosing to live simply and sustainably, walking away from our consumeristic debt-laden culture, and more and more people are choosing to feed their families food from local sustainable farms.  These cultural rebels are sowing the seeds to a better future.

Still, for a young family to take up sustainable farming, while avoiding debt, is a enormously difficult challenge.  We’re blessed to be able to do this without feeling the financial pressure that a young family would face these days.  But it is all too clear that we must change our cultural priorities if we want to make farming a viable option for young people.

A good way to start,of course, is by buying our food from local farmers.

Love Wins