What My Parents Told Me About Small Farming: You Can’t Make A Living

“What do you do in the winter?” folks sometimes ask when we wrap up our harvest season in October. Well, first we indulge in a few nights of extra sleep. Then, we prepare the gardens as much as we can for the next growing season: clearing plant debris and trellises, adding compost and mulch, repairing fences, etc. Once the weather forces us inside, we clean and repair tools, inventory seeds, and balance the year’s financial accounts. And then we look at the numbers and ask ourselves whether we’re crazy to think about farming another season.

A couple of friends forwarded me an article this week by Jaclyn Moyer titled “What nobody told me about small farming: I can’t make a living.” Jaclyn’s farm is big compared to mine: ten acres of organic vegetables and flowers in the Northern California foothills. In her article, she describes the disconnect she sees between the media’s celebration of the local food/farming movement and the physical/financial realities that she and her neighboring small farmers face. Though her farm looks beautiful and productive to her customers, with “tidy rows of salad mix” and “heaping bins of produce,” when asked whether she considers her farm sustainable, she has to confess that it isn’t: “my farm relied on uncompensated labor and self-exploitation . . . I knew the years my partner and I could continue to work without a viable income were numbered.”

Moyer’s story reflects my experience and that of every small farmer that I’ve had the privilege of talking finances with. And, like Moyer, I’ve sometimes been less than honest with my community members about the sort of self-exploitation that keeps this farm afloat: 12-14 hour days of physical labor in all kinds of weather, 7 days a week at the height of the season. In our most profitable year, we netted $835. 21, all of which we invested back into the farm. In four years, I have not taken one dollar of personal income from this business and neither have any of my farming partners. The other thing I do in the winter (and the fall and the spring): I work the job that pays my bills.

Moyer doesn’t see a way to make her small farm pay her even close to minimum wage for her labor. Neither do I. So why do it? Why continue to bend over beds of salad mix on frosty mornings, my fingers holding the cutting knife numbed to the bone? Why subject myself to sweating through August harvests? Why give up weekends, vacations, time to read and write and lay in the hammock, visits with friends, adequate sleep?

This evening as John and I sat down to supper, his phone rang. He answered and I heard my mother’s voice: “We have an emergency. A man just stopped and told us that our steers are out. He saw them from the road.” “We’ll be right over,” John said. My snowpants and boots were already on. In less than two minutes, we met my parents in their driveway, my brother pulling in just ahead of us. We found the steers at the edge of the orchard and gently herded them back down the hill and into the barn. My sister-in-law arrived as we shut them in. She’d come as soon as she could—from previous steer-chasing escapades she knew we might have needed an extra body in the field.

Folks, we have an agricultural emergency. Our current farming systems are degrading our health, our ecosystems, our communities, and our climate. And they are undermining our ability to feed ourselves into the future. We need more bodies in the fields, more people—both large and small farmers—working to change this, to create food and farming systems that enrich our lives and our world. I want to be one of those bodies.

One difference between Moyer and me is that I come from a farming family. For as long as I can remember, dinners have been interrupted by calls to round up recalcitrant cattle. I’m not surprised by 14 hour days and the lack of a living wage—they’re two of the reasons my parents actively discouraged me from pursuing farming as a career, why they very clearly told me: you can’t make a living as a small farmer.

So I don’t expect to make to make money growing vegetables on a few acres. I’d like to think that someday we can create a social, economic, and agricultural system in which that is possible, but as far as I can tell, that day is not today.  And while I whole-heartedly agree with Moyer’s point that farmers shouldn’t be expected to be satisfied with the non-monetary rewards of doing “meaningful” work in the great outdoors (after all, this is the same outdoors that can give you heat-stroke during those mid-August harvests), I think that it’s going to take people willing to make financial sacrifices and unpaid investments of time and energy to develop truly resilient farming systems that can feed us into the future.

John and I may be crazy, but we’re farming for another season. We expect to put in long days of unpaid labor again this year, but we’re planning the season to maximize our rewards of joy and satisfaction. We’re cutting back our workload so that we can get a little more sleep and maybe even take a half day off each week for some fun. We’re planning a mid-season break in harvests in order to take a vacation. And, we’re prioritizing some projects that don’t make sense financially but that we feel are vital for the future of localized farming, such as saving seeds from resilient plant varieties that are particularly well-suited to our area.

Maybe we can’t make a living at this. But we can make some really good food. And if we’re lucky, we can have some fun doing it. If we’re luckier, we can be a part of a movement that changes how we eat and how we farm and how we take care of each other and the land. Maybe that won’t be enough to keep us farming forever. But it’s enough for now.

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About Harvest of Joy Farm LLC

At Harvest of Joy Farm LLC we seek to develop, practice, and share farming systems that mirror the resilience, diversity, and self-sufficiency of a healthy biotic community.
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12 Responses to What My Parents Told Me About Small Farming: You Can’t Make A Living

  1. pethikemou says:

    i stand with you, amy! it’s about the food, health, and joy of it; not about the money. blessed be!

  2. Diane G. says:

    Beautiful my little sister.

  3. Accolades to you! Best wishes and have a great growing season!

  4. Reblogged this on Big Head Farm's Weblog and commented:
    This post really captures many of the challenges we face here daily on the farm. I am hoping that with the continued support of our customers we can continue to bring you the good food that I love to labor over. I know that I will be rewarded, if not with money than with your smiles, health and appreciation. We will soon have a new way to support our little farm through Credibles.co – with some fun rewards attached!
    Thank you again to all the farmers, customers and supporters of small farms like ours – we could not do this without you.

    • Thanks, Karen. My hope is that if we can have more honest conversations about what it really takes–physically & financially–to grow food in a healthful & sustainable way, farmers and eaters can vision together ways to make small farming a viable profession. Best wishes for the coming season and good luck keeping the zombies at bay!

  5. Michael Hoag says:

    Wow. What a great essay, Amy. Thank you for the inspiring words.

  6. Kris says:

    We’re with you, Amy! We have had the same experience, and we’re farming year-round (in Michigan) with no off-farm income. It will definitely take a revolution in how we as Americans look at what we value in our food, and how much we value it. Everyone still wants cheap food, and until that changes for the majority of Americans, it will continue to be hard to make a living as a small farmer. For our part, we try to grow as sustainably as possible, and are adding some value-added products to help cover the costs of winter.

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