Behind Every Successful Farmer…

“Behind Every Successful Farmer…. is a spouse with a good job in town”

The current crop of business advisers for the new generation of farmers sincerely hopes they can help those young farmers to successful farming careers. For them steady and consistent profits define success. Business advisers to farmers have always been convinced they could help farmers achieve such success. But as agricultural economist John Ikerd found during the last great farm crisis, in the early 1980’s, the farmers who were failing were precisely the ones who had taken seriously the advice of the business advisers (including Ikerd himself).

What business advisers rarely do is question the meaning of “success.” What does it mean to be successful as a farmer? Does it mean the same thing as being a successful small business person, a successful investor, a successful real estate speculator? The reality of farming is that the vast majority of American farmers today rely for most of their income on sources outside the farm – that proverbial spouse with a good job in town, or full-time or part-time work elsewhere for the farmer, or a few wise investments. Are these farmers “successful”? They manage to continue to farm, and that’s a good thing, because we all need the food they produce. And most of them, it appears, do not farm at a loss – at least not enough of a loss to drive them out of farming.

And yet many young farmers I know assume that “success” means getting a living from their farming. Some farm advisers even tell them to decide how much they want to make and build their farming plan around that. Or to be sure to include a suitable wage for themselves (and their spouse, too) in calculating just how much it is going to cost to farm. No wonder that the majority of young people who start out trying to farm eventually give it up as a loss. They have adopted standards of success that older farmers have long left behind.

Maybe we need to start over. Maybe we need to recognize that the object of farming is not to “make a living” in the business advisers’ sense. We could point out that most farmers farm because that is just what they love doing – and they will do it whether it provides a living or not. We could argue that farming is more a vocation than a business. But, beyond those purely personal goals, how do we assess “success” in farming? Maybe we should start with the obvious, that the goal of farming is to produce excellent food for our community. If that is the goal, how do we define “success” in such a way as to ensure that farmers will stick with it? Because, of course, we all need to make a living somehow, even farmers, and we won’t have that food if the farmers quit producing it.

Certainly we have to recognize that to produce excellent food for our community, farmers need to be able to pay for both the costs of farming and their own living. But that “living” doesn’t have to come from the farm. Or not all of it. To put it another way, we can have a “profitable” farm – even on standard economic criteria – without having a farm that provides us (and whoever we want to include with “us”) with income at whatever standard of living we happen to desire. A profitable farm pays for itself and then some. How we get a living is up to us. How we pay ourselves for our farming efforts is up to us. We can insist that the farm pay us – but how much? Do we want $100,000 a year? Or $20,000? Or pocket money? It’s up to us. Not up to the farm. The success of the farm can’t stand or fall on its ability to pay us whatever arbitrary figure we choose.

What then does it depend upon? At a minimum the farm must not only pay for itself, it must also be able to provide me, the farmer, with enough satisfaction – monetary and non-monetary – to keep me at it. Because the goal is to feed people, not build a bankroll. Of course, if I require $100,000 a year spending money it will be a rare farm that can return that sort of expectation. On the other hand, most farmers will come to question their affection for farming if the enterprise delivers just $0 a year, year after year, or even digs into those other sources of income that pay for the mortgage, the utilities, gas, the groceries, and all the rest of life’s pleasures and necessities. But again, how much we ask or expect – how much we need from farming to support our farming habit, as Gene Logsdon puts it1 – is a personal matter.

And our decisions about this matter will be shaped by all the circumstances that surround the effort to get that essential living. If we have a huge mortgage to pay on the farm, if we have indebted ourselves to the hilt building a dream home (or any home, these days), if we have college debt that stretches on forever and ever, we may have a hard time sustaining our “farming habit”. If our skills are limited and employment opportunities more so, we may also find it difficult to pay for the pleasure of living on the land and struggling away at farming. But the reality is that this is the way most farmers, indeed, most rural people, live – namely, by scraping together a living doing all sorts of things. For some a “cash crop” that could sustain a full-time farmer might be that answer; but it might also be here today, gone tomorrow, like cannabis in the states that have abandoned prohibition, or tobacco in the southeast. For most of us getting a living farming means supplementing with other sources of income a practice we love.

What do farmers do? They drive trucks and repair tractors, they are teachers and real estate brokers, heavy equipment operators and wildfire fighters, seasonal loggers and fishermen and women, caterers and white-collar workers, psychologists, sheep shearers, and IT specialists. They do, in short, whatever they have to do, like to do, want to do to sustain their farming practice. That doesn’t make them “hobby farmers” any more than the plumber who also invests in real estate is a “hobby investor.” It makes them farmers who have other jobs. Or teachers, firefighters, heavy equipment operators who are also farmers.

It’s true that most of the best of the new farming books out there come from farmers who have made a decent if very modest living farming full-time. Many of them have advantages that don’t readily appear in their accounts: mortgage-free land, relatives with the assets to loan on favorable terms, invisible sources of income (like writing and speaking about that wonderful farm). Many of the rest of us, too, have advantages and alternative sources of income: farming for a large, health-conscious company; low-rent access to land and infrastructure; a captive-audience CSA at some local firm; salaried work for a farm patron; school and tour income; niche crop specialties, not to mention those unrelated off-farm jobs, pensions, and income flows. In the farm economy we face, it’s all legitimate, all part of the mix, all important to sustaining food production for our communities.

And sales, salaries, and subsidies do not exhaust the possibilities for getting our living. Subsistence, too, has to be part of the “value equation” in thinking about making a living from the farm. Outside the reckoning of the business experts and scorned as “mere homesteading” by those in their thrall, attention to subsistence from their own land has traditionally sustained farming families despite the failures of the market to do so. In fact, through most of the 10,000 or 12,000 year history of farming, providing a family’s subsistence has been most of what growing food has been all about. The market economy in which land, labor, and food are all supposed to be “commodities” up for sale to the highest bidder is an invention of eighteenth century England, a brief blip in the history of human subsistence. And it has hardly been the felicitous turn of events portrayed by its numerous proponents. Among other things market society has regularly ruined farmers. Witness the millions who lost their farms and livelihoods in the United States alone over the last century.

Wedded to the market, desperate to make a living at full-time farming, too many farmers have given up the returns from preparing their own food, dining on “seconds,” and processing for home use. “Time is money,” as the saying goes. But eating out is also money (and time); buying groceries at the store is also money (and time); eating like the rest of the world is money, too, and time lost in the health effects most Americans today suffer. On the other hand, eating your own fruit and vegetables and dairy products and meat has its own satisfactions, quite aside from its health benefits. So does processing your own food. And so does building relationships with other food producers for whom gift, trade, and barter also contributes to the ultimate bottom line: our ability to feed ourselves, in good times and bad.

In the end, “success” at farming means being able to feed ourselves (from whatever source) and staying on the land. The scramble for profit in a market stacked against us is no key to success. The measured use of all the resources available to us – from markets to jobs to relationships to our own sweet land – may not promise inevitable success, but it can right the balance and sustain us emotionally as we work to wrest a living while we pursue our passion for farming.

1Gene Logsdon’s indispensable wisdom on the subject comes especially from his last book, Letters to a Young Farmer (Chelsea Green, 2017).

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