Can sustainable farming provide a sustainable living?
In “Dispatches from the Fields,” Ariane Lotti and Stephanie Ogburn, who are working on small farms in Iowa and Colorado this season, share their thoughts on producing real food in the midst of America’s agro-industrial landscape.
Should small-scale farmers who grow organically and sell locally or regionally be able to make a middle-class living with farming as their sole source of income?
I’ve always answered this question with a fervent “yes,” at least from a philosophical perspective. But the answer to the follow-up question — “do they?” — is nearly always a resounding no.
Sure, there are exceptions. In Southwest Colorado, I live in an immature market for small-scale, local food, so farmers here are probably doing worse on the whole due to lack of market penetration. (When you live in a rural area with low population, you can’t just sell to the top 1 or 2 percent of customers — you really have to have a widespread appeal in order to lift sales, since your population base is so much smaller than if you were selling to an urban center. And that depth of customer base takes a long time to build.) So here, out of, say, 25 vegetable farmers I know selling at area markets, only one of them earns a full-time living from her farming occupation.
The reality is, it’s really hard to make a living selling a low-end product that is easily replicable and requires a high quantity of labor, but, comparatively speaking, a low level of skill to produce. And food is a low-end product. Tomatoes at $3/lb, which is what they go for here, are cheap. Like it or not, small farmers locally and across the U.S. are selling a cheap product on a minuscule scale, which, anyway you look at it, is a failing business model.
This is a problem, and the small growers I know have a variety of solutions.
The most common solution I’ve seen to the difficulties of making a living while being a small farmer involves having a second source of income. Farmers work winter jobs, second jobs, and moonlight as writers, web designers, or other time-flexible occupations.
Another way to get by is to sell higher-end products that make the farmer more money per unit of input. My employer, Dragonfly Farms, sells value-added products to rich people in Telluride, Colo. My boss purchases fair-trade organic herbs and teas in bulk, blends the dry ingredients together (sometimes with herbs we grow) to create her own teas and herbal infusions, pours those blends into tins and sells these as loose leaf, one-of-a-kind teas. She also uses those bulk herbs to make a variety of non-food products, like bath teas, eye teas, and lavender dryer sheets. The profit margins on these products are much higher than those on the vegetables we produce with our own backbreaking labor, primarily because the raw materials for the teas and herb products are produced with cheap (albeit fair trade) labor in developing nations.
Other farmers have also jumped on the value-added bandwagon, noting that fruits like apples, tomatoes, and grapes in portable form (sauce, wine) sell for significantly more than the raw material per pound price, and people pay more for items like goat milk when it comes concentrated into a soap.
Still another contingent of farmers have upped production, noting that if you sell a heaping ton of food, even at low prices, you can make some money. This comes at a cost, though — when you raise production to sell, say, 30,000 lbs of food per season at an average price of $3/lb (lettuce sells for slightly more, zucchini for slightly less), you have to have more hands to harvest and wash all that food so it’s ready to sell to restaurants and at your two Saturday markets. Of course, if you have more workers you spend more money on labor, so the people you hire have to be cheap laborers. This is the model followed, at the largest scale, by places like Earthbound Farm.
Organic farming is no different from conventional farming in this way — if farmers make the decision to make money by upping the scale of their production, they must minimize their labor costs so that each additional unit of production is more profitable than if they were just growing what they could produce with their own labor. Notably, “small-scale” vegetable farms that are really making money with this direct-to-customer service are often quite large, and rely significantly on their cheap labor to make their operation possible.
And finally, there are niche producers, those who make products like artisanal cheeses, organic cut flowers, or truffles. Based on my own observations, however, and also according to a recent New York Times article, even those farmers haven’t been able to drop their day jobs.
Farmers who have chosen not to grow larger, like Torrey Reade, who dropped her Wall Street career to work on a farm, often live at the poverty line, in terms of income. Reade, a Harvard Business School graduate, is hardly ignorant of business profitability principals. But she doesn’t seem to be able to make money doing small-scale farming; she instead made a choice stay small and stay poor. The article about her notes that her vegetable sales were crowded out by larger organic operations, and while she still grows vegetables for personal consumption, she turned to beef, lambs, and oats, which now keep her afloat, but barely.
In a world where the dominant economic model is “get big or get out,” small farmers, no matter how diversified or creative they are, don’t have much of a chance to make a full-fledged living growing food. As a farmer, it seems difficult, nearly impossible, to stay rooted in the desire to stay small enough to farm alone or with a partner if you want to make money. Note that small-scale conventional farming is a livelihood that essentially does not exist, and that the existence of small organic farms is more a function of ideology than a reflection of market functions.
At any rate, while there are success stories here and there, for growers trying to stay small and sell mostly fresh fruits and vegetables, these success stories are very few and far between, and they depend on a precise combination of pre-existing capital, smart marketing, intelligent land and crop management, and hard work put into locating good markets. And even then, it’s the rare farm that manages to be the sole income source for a family.
In this economy, if you want to be a small farmer, it’s probably more practical to assume it will be an income-boosting hobby rather than your primary source of income, even if it is what you spend the majority of your time doing. I’ve run into this reality repeatedly over the time period that I’ve been engaged in the alternative food movement, and as a result, I’ve come to think of small-scale farming more as one of a diverse set of economic activities practiced by an individual or couple than as a primarily income-generating career occupation.
Maybe I’m getting worn down by the dominant economic system. And I’m certainly starting to think of market farming as being no different from running any small business in America — from a financial standpoint, if the business owner wants to keep her operation small, it’s by and large a losing proposition, and only one worth entering for quality-of-life reasons.
The exception is if one offers a high-end product that rich people will pay a lot for, thus enabling one to keep quantities small, quality high, and the business local and independent. Thus, someone entering small-scale farming, and expecting to stay small, should either develop a value-added product that she can sell at a high margin, or expect to be poor yet happy and work additional jobs to make ends meet.
Although the local foods movement does seem to be thriving, I haven’t seen an equivalent jump in the percentage of small farmers being able to base their entire livelihood on their farming occupation. I guess I’m glad there are a lot of people out there who are willing to farm on a small scale because it’s what they believe in, but I’m also sad that it’s so hard to make money farming. I’m also curious if others, possibly those living near higher-end markets like San Francisco or New York City, have seen an increase in farmers making a livable wage as the number of local consumers and the prices they pay for fresh produce rise.
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