The Future

We know a young family who live outside a nearby city, trying to make it as full-time farmers. Recently their hometown newspaper did a feature story on them, emphasizing in the title of the article that the farm was “barely” surviving. The farmers responded with a blog post saying that while it is true that they’re having to live very frugally and that they realize they need to expand their business, they believe they are on track to achieve financial sustainability in 2016, which will be their 6th year in business.

These folks are a young couple with small children. They operate a large CSA, an on-farm farmstand, and are at five farmers markets weekly. I don’t know how they do it all.

As they said in their blog post, farmers don’t like talking about their finances. The reality is that unless you are an industrial-scale farm operator it is extremely difficult to make a living as a farmer these days. The median farm income in the U.S. is negative 869 dollars. Almost all farms in the U.S. require off-farm income to stay alive. Even on what the USDA calls “commercial” farms ($350,000 and up in gross receipts), nearly 25% of the farm income comes from off-farm jobs. And below the “commercial” scale farm income is almost always zero or  below, so all the income those families receive comes from off-farm. It is the norm for one or both spouses to work off-farm to earn the money (and get the “benefits”) needed to keep the farm going. No wonder you don’t hear much about the financial side of “sustainable” farming (it should be obvious why sustainable is in quotes).

We do a thorough end of year review of our farm operation every year in early January. We’ll be doing it again soon and we’ve already peeked at the numbers. Now in our fifth year, we’ve developed a solid and loyal customer base, we’ve been a part of improving our community’s food culture, we’ve helped a lot of people eat better and we produce nearly all of our own food. But are we economically viable as a business? Honestly, not yet. And that’s despite having advantages unavailable to most beginning farmers.

We’re friends with a nearby farm family trying to make it as full-time farmers. It’s a large family and the children pull their weight and more, as I did at their age. They work very hard and they’ve done a great job of developing a loyal customer base. I don’t know how they’re doing financially, but I know it’s challenging. They want their children to be able to earn their living as farmers. They want them to be able to go out into the world someday and have their own farm, their own house, the ability to send their children to college if they like. But those kinds of basic things, which most Americans take for granted these days, are only available to a tiny minority of the farmers in our movement–the ones who write books and inspire the rest of us. They’re not the norm.

My friend, the father in that large family, once told me something about this business that has stuck with me. If farmers price their products at below the cost of production, he said, then they are paying people to eat their food. Worse, when farmers choose to operate at a loss, by setting their prices too low, they hurt families like his, which is trying to make ends meet with the money they earn from farming. I took that to heart and we’ve tried to set our prices fairly. But the truth is we’re constrained by a system flooded with cheap industrial food. Our prices should be triple what they are, which would put them in line with what people paid for food a generation ago. Small family farms could survive with those prices. But very few people would pay them these days. So it doesn’t seem a realistic option to me.

It will be a shame if industrial food becomes the only available choice in our culture. If small diversified family farms cease to exist, we’ll have lost something very valuable.

We’ll be processing our data in a few weeks and determining our plan for 2016. We’ll still be growing food next year, even if we have to reevaluate our ultimate goals. We’re fortunate in that respect. Because even as more people continue to take up the hoe and join the movement, many small farmers will go under next year, unable to make the numbers work, regardless of how hard they work.

If this movement is going to succeed, it will take more than just growing superior food. We also have to educate the public on why good food matters, how to tell the real thing from the stuff being pedaled by impostors increasingly trying to steal our tiny piece of the pie, and, most of all, what excellent ethically-produced food truly costs.

I choose to remain optimistic that we can do that. There’s a lot at stake.