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what nobody told me about small farming


Jaclyn Moyer, a small farmer and writer in Northern California, has an article at Salon on not getting by as a small farmer. She describes a situation familiar to many of us, that “90 percent of farmers in this country rely on an outside job, or a spouse’s outside job, or some independent form of wealth, for their primary income.”

Courtesy of the Farm Security Administration photo archive, Library of Congress.

Courtesy of the Farm Security Administration photo archive, Library of Congress.

She writes:

“On the radio this morning I heard a story about the growing number of young people choosing to become farmers. The farmers in the story sounded a lot like me — in their late 20s to mid-30s, committed to organic practices, holding college degrees, and from middle-class non-farming backgrounds. Some raise animals or tend orchards. Others, like me, grow vegetables. The farmers’ days sounded long but fulfilling, drenched in sun and dirt. The story was uplifting, a nice antidote to the constant reports of industrial ag gone wrong, of pink slime and herbicide-resistant super-weeds.

What the reporter didn’t ask the young farmers was: Do you make a living? Can you afford rent, healthcare? Can you pay your labor a living wage? If the reporter had asked me these questions, I would have said no.”
Read the rest of Jaclyn’s essay at Salon >>

We’d love to hear your comments on Jaclyn’s piece and your stories. How do you make farming work for you? Do you see outside employment as a long-term necessity or as temporary, a transition point from our modern day urban professions back to farming? What would most help you, as a new, small or someday-maybe farmer?

3 thoughts on “what nobody told me about small farming

  1. It’s hard work for little pay- to make a living wage most farmers find work elsewhere. I know that I would love to be a farmer someday I just do not see how I would make it work financially. So I will farm half-way if you will, producing enough for my family and maybe a few things extra to barter. But honestly if we want farms dotting our communities we would do well to pay our farmers a living wage for their toil.

  2. I think what will be constructive for our movement is to focus on the specifics (the budgets, the profit-loss; the supply and the demand in the market) of why some small farms “pencil out” and others do not. (Perhaps this is something the Greenhorns / Young Farmer’s Coalition could to work on.)

    We need not tell our kids “don’t grow up to be a farmer,” nor let them blindly believe they will make a living with a small farm business. We should show them some profit-losses.

    Because there are many from small farm businesses that are succeeding…. and, yes, perhaps many more from small farms that are not. (The Ruminant makes a good point on his might be true of all small businesses — just ask a restauranteur, an artist, or an independent hardware store owner.) I think there is a lot to learn from this kind of exploration. The reality is not black or white — it is a lot more boring, detailed, site specific, and definitely not salacious enough for a viral blog post or a NY Times article.

    I think we will find trends. Small, diversified farms need to have a special kind of market capable of absorbing their produce. This can look very different one farm and one community to the next. One might have a captive audience (i.e. an undeserved rural community with enough of an exceptionally dedicated population to absorb 230 CSA shares, Ex. Caretaker Farm, Williamstown, MA) Another might have access to a large, insatiable, and rich food market NEAR enough to the farm that it can dabble in wholesale, and lucrative farmer’s markets.

    What happened to Jaclyn’s farm? Was the demand in the market in Placerville not up to the task of soaking up the amount of produce they needed to from this beautiful farm? I have a hunch if she had rolled the dice on another community and come up aces, she would be writing a very different article.

    I don’t know what didn’t pencil out for Jaclyn’s farm but I would love to know — we all could stand to learn something. We all know the game is tilted against us and toward industrial food (and industrial prices). Some are succeeding, and some are not. Why?

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