"All Farmers Deserve to Make a Living!" Are We Sure About That?

On Feburary 10th, farmer-writer Jaclyn Moyer wrote a piece for Salon entitled What Nobody Told Me About Small Farming: I Can't Make a Living. Jaclyn grows ten acres of organic veggies, unprofitably, just east of Sacramento. She says she couldn't locate a farmer whose business is viable, based on a definition that required the farmer to make at least minimum wage, pay her labourers at least the same, and the farm's income to come entirely from farm production, rather than, you know, grants or subsidies. Sorry, Stone Barns! You don't count. 

I feel for her. As a small-scale organic veggie grower in British Columbia, there was much in her article I could relate to. The long, tiring days. An obliviousness of some customers to the challenging economics of farming that borders on insensitive. Farming's labour-exploitation problem. 

But the not-making-a-living part? It didn't surprise me--like I said, challenging economics. But it didn't describe me, either. I am managing to make a living according to Jaclyn's (depressing!) definition. And I don't think I'm an anomaly.

Jaclyn's piece completes a trilogy of mainstream blog posts published about this subject in recent months. The Facebook Darling of the three was Bren Smith's Don't Let Your Children Grow Up to Be Farmers. Which made inevitable, a few days later, Jenna Woginrich's Let Your Children Grow Up to Be Farmers.

Let them or don't let them. I don't care. But before you decide to lock up your daughter the day the local farm boy comes 'round with a glass farmboot he found after last night's harvest dance, I would like to offer a few counterpoints.

As I said, I'm making a living according to Jaclyn's definition. My net income is modest, but it ain't nothing, and has been growing steadily through the four seasons I've been in business. Right now it's around 28K per year (those are canuck bucks; to convert to greenbacks, subtract, like, most of it). I think it could be forty within a couple more, if things go well. It takes time to build a business, and one's farming skills, especially when one starts out with none, like I did.

Which has me wondering: is it possible Jaclyn, Bren, and Jenna are just kind of crappy at farming?

It's an awkward question, but an important one, I think. Jaclyn begins her piece by lumping herself in with the bellyful of idealistic new farmers "in their late 20s to mid-30s, committed to organic practises, holding college degrees, and from middle-class non-farming backgrounds." 

In analysing this problem, is this a demographic we should focus on? Should we really be surprised that a bunch of middle-class city kids like me are struggling to make it on the tractor? I am not apologising for the litany of real barriers we need to break down to make farming more viable, nor for other models of farming that fail to incorporate certain externalities into the prices they charge for their goods. But: no one's entitled to make a living from the land just by showing up. I think that's easily overlooked when considering the plight of a group whose hearts are so clearly in the right place. 

The path to success for small farmers is littered with structural, social, and political obstacles. Unfair labour exploitation. Market-distorting subsidies. Etc.  For evidence, read a Michael Pollan book. But as a group, we're also occasionally blind to our own uncritical assumptions about what we can, and should, expect from the profession.

"Ninety-one percent of all farm households rely on multiple sources of income," laments Bren. Jaclyn makes a similar objection. So what? How is that much different from millions of non-farmer households in North America? Actually, it is different: the same USDA report Bren quotes for that stat also reveals that since 1998, median household income for US farmers has been higher than for US households in general. 

Based on these articles, I find it easier to pose the bad-farmer question to Bren and Jenna. After reading their posts, each, for different reasons, left me skeptical those two possess sufficient farming experience to warrant serious consideration of their arguments.

Jaclyn is different, though. She and her partner have been slogging it out for ten years, long enough that it's hard to believe she's terrible at it. I'm inclined, rather, to believe that she is probably a good farmer who farms in a region that is particularly beset with the obstacles to which I briefly alluded above: abnormally high competition, abnormally high availability of exploited labour (which drives down prices), etc. Which would explain why she couldn't find another small farmer who is making a go of it. If I'm right, we all should be concerned about those farmers' inability to survive. Our food security is at stake.

But I'm sceptical of the piece's eponymous claim that no one ever told her she couldn't make a living in small farming. I heard plenty of such warnings when I announced my intentions to farm. I heard it from my parents, and other role models in my life. Worse, I heard it from the farmer who took me on for my first apprenticeship, who feared my lack of experience would be too great an obstacle to making it in such a tough line of work. 

Then again, maybe I can believe it. My generation's version of the back-to-the-land movement isn't just couched, but awash in affirmations about the importance and selflessness of this work. Add to that the seductive appeal of a life pastoral, and also the platitude in the agricultural reform movement that farmers, all farmers, deserve to make a living; from there it's a pretty easy couple of leaps: we want to make a living doing this. We deserve to make a living doing this. We can make a living doing this.

Well, yeah, we can, if we work hard, and the stars align, and we're lucky as hell. But nobody owes us that.