On the art and brutal economics of small-scale farming
Since moving to the North Carolina mountains in 2004 to launch a farm project, I’ve learned some sobering lessons about idyllic rural life.
To wit, small-scale organic farming is an art form — and as with most artistic endeavors, the hours are long and the pay is crap. How did I wind up penniless and exhausted, sporting a beat-up pair of Carhartts? You’d think I had set up shop as an abstract painter in some squalid, ruinously priced Williamsburg, Brooklyn, garret.
(There’s much to love about the farming life, too: for example, the volunteer broccoli raab that’s sprouting up everywhere in one part of the garden, a triumph of unintentional permaculture. Saute it with a little olive oil, garlic, crushed chile, and vinegar, and you remember why you came to the farm in the first place.)
The USDA’s Economic Research Service recently released two reports on the state of farm economics. The information contained therein can help greens as they formulate an agenda for the 2007 Farm Bill (which may be even more important than defending biofuel and hybrids from critics.)
The first one, Economic Well-Being of Farm Households (PDF), should be handed out at farmers markets and in CSA boxes everywhere. It’s only four pages; here are some highlights:
- Commercial mega-farms — those with at least $250,000 in annual sales — represent just 7 percent of U.S. farms but command about 70 percent of total farm sales.
- Those large farms are profitable (although, as we’ll see below, they lean heavily on commodity subsidies). But “the other 93 percent of farm households have negative farm operating profits, on average, and draw most of their income from off-farm sources.” In other words, Earth to Philpott: Get a job.
- The smaller the farm, the less profitable it is: “farm operating margins become more negative and share of household income from farm sources decreases as farm size diminishes.”
- Here’s the kicker: 85 percent of U.S. farms generate income of less than $100,000/year. These farms generate just “15 percent of [total U.S. farm] sales, and earn negligible income from farming.” (Emphasis added.) Ouch!
- And here’s why I say that farming has become a labor of love, complete with requiring a “day job” for support: “Off-farm sources of income (including employment earnings, other business activities, other investments, and transfer payments) provided 85-95 percent of household income over 1999-2003, up from around 50 percent in 1960.” That’s a macro number, including even the mega-farms that draw hundreds of grand per year in subsidies.
The other report, “Growing Farm Size and the Distribution of Farm Payments” (PDF), offers its own shockers. To wit:
- Farms with sales of between $10,000 and $99,000 — where my own Maverick Farms falls — have an operating profit margin of (gulp) negative 24.5 percent.
- Not surprisingly, young people aren’t going in to small-scale farming — probably because they can’t afford to. “Over 30 percent of operators in the $10,000-$99,999 sales class were at least 65 years old by 2003, versus 13 percent of the operators of very large family farms.” When these old operators retire, think their kids will want to continue a business that brings in a quarter less than every dollar spent?
- Government commodity payments — the Farm Bill’s meat — increasingly support large farms rather than small ones: “Farms with less than $250,000 in production value (2003$) received 63 percent of commodity payments in 1989; by 2003, they received 43 percent of payments. But farms with at least $500,000 of production received 32 percent of all commodity payments in 2003, up from 13 percent in 1989.”
Note that the study’s data set ends in 2003, thus not really accounting for the 2002 Farm Bill, signed into law by Bush, which has been churning out cash to big farms like a cow pumped full of Monsanto’s growth hormones.
What, then, are the implications for greens of the 2007 Farm Bill?
If we accept the premise that small-scale organic ag, geared to a nearby market, is more environmentally responsible than Big Ag, then it’s time to redirect federal farm policy. As things stand now, farm policy works toward bolstering the power of the large chemical-intensive farmers and their customers — grain-buying giants like Archer Daniels Midland.
There’s no reason the Farm Bill couldn’t be reformulated to support small-scale ag, though. I’ll be laying out ideas for how that can happen here and in other publications over the coming months.