Quitting Season: Why Farmers Walk Away From Their Farms

Shutterstock / Oleg Golovnev

Quitting Season: Why Farmers Walk Away From Their Farms

Most farmers don’t decide to leave their farms lightly—but sometimes it’s the only economic choice that makes sense.

By Debbie Weingarten on February 12, 2016

Last February, Tina Bartsch, co-owner of Walking J Farm, sat cross-legged on the floor of my Tucson apartment. We ate lunch and watched my newly mobile baby move in curious circles around the room. For the last several years, Tina and I have provided each other with moral support as we have navigated the precarious balance of farm and family.

We’ve traded homeschooling curriculum and birthday party invitations; we’ve called each other in frustrated tears and celebrated yoga teacher certifications and new babies; we’ve cursed the glut of cheap redistributed produce at the farmers’ markets and spent hours together in meetings trying to solve the food system gaps in our community.

On this particular day in February, Tina told me that she and her husband, Jim McManus, had decided to stop farming. Though many of our conversations had touched on this as a potential inevitability, this time it was real. After five years of solid record-keeping, the numbers showed the farm operating at a net loss every single year.

A month prior, Tina and Jim had presented their agribusiness success story at the second annual Arizona Food & Finance Forum. But over the course of a 20-minute presentation, McManus had shared the farm’s sobering financial reality, hoping to spotlight the disconnect between the local food craze and the farm economic reality on the ground.

“What I’ve determined is that I can’t go on this way,” McManus said to the forum attendees. He explained that after calculating the full cost associated with producing a single beef cow, he’d figured out that the farm was losing $62 per animal when it sold them by the quarter, and averaging a mere $214 profit per animal when selling retail cuts at the farmers’ market. McManus announced that they had no choice but to raise their retail prices by forty percent; the week before, a pound of Walking J ground beef had cost $8, and this week it was going to cost $11.

“Every year we’ve gone up three to percent, five percent to match inflation … but that hasn’t been enough,” he said, adding that, “We are running a big test here. We don’t know if the market will bear it, or what our customers are going to say. A lot of folks are going to really swallow hard when they see that their filet went up $10 a pound. But that’s what I have to do. That’s what the numbers say.”

A month later, the results of Walking J’s experiment were in. The market was not willing to bear the increase in price, and Walking J’s last effort to save the farm by charging prices based on the true cost of meat production was a flop. Since raising their prices, the farm had lost 30 to 70 percent of their client sales. The customers had spoken loud and clear.

“It’s a no-brainer at this point,” Tina told me, as we sat together in my living room. “We have to quit.”

I have been that farmer who chose to step away from the farm, and though I chose it as surely as I chose the farm in the first place, it has been no less a loss. Barring a catastrophic event, the decision to stop farming is rarely made overnight. Depending on how you look at it, it is either a steady erosion or a slow coming-to. Farmers spend years crunching numbers, tweaking production methods, and trying to stay ahead of market trends. There may be second or third jobs, a clambering for creative financing, or a reliance on government assistance programs such as SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) or state health insurance.

Year after year, the decision to quit can be kept at bay by a successful season or the hope that next season will be easier. But at some point, for some of us, the scale just tips. The moment comes when the path forward is just too unsure—when it makes the most sense to quit.

Trying all the Options

In the beginning, Walking J hit the ground running with a smattering of products for the marketplace, including chicken, turkey, pork, beef, eggs, and produce. Year after year, they ticked off the micro-enterprises that did not pay the bills. The heritage pork did not make money, nor did the Thanksgiving turkeys. The laying hens required too much outside feed, as did the broiler chickens. The farm’s pastured poultry system demanded bimonthly slaughters of 150 birds, which required an immense amount of time, skilled labor, and freezer space.

Jim and Tina embraced a direct-market sales model, typical for a small-scale diversified operation. They started a CSA, built partnerships with high-end restaurants, and began vending at the Tucson farmers’ markets. But as the number of Tucson farmers’ markets increased and the pool of customers became diluted as a result, they were forced to seek out new markets.

They tried to establish a CSA in the nearby town of Tubac, opened up a Saturday farm stand, started an online store, and eventually made their way up to Phoenix markets. At one point, they were staffing six farmers’ markets each week. In 2012, Walking J Farm received a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) grant—which they had to match with a private loan from family members—to cover marketing costs, meat processing, and the purchase of butcher cattle.

Despite their exhaustive efforts, the business was not making money.

When the farmers announced they were closing Walking J, it prompted a flurry of bewilderment and a general sense of shock among friends and customers. Supporters took to social media to encourage their friends to flood Walking J’s market booth with sales. Someone suggested an emergency Kickstarter. But urgent Facebook posts and new Twitter followers do not save a farm. Jim and Tina were financially, physically, and emotionally tapped.

The Hard Choice to Walk Away

No one wants to think about farmers calling it quits. It muddies the heroic glow cast around our food producers. It cuts through all of the feel-good chatter about food systems and local economies. Each time a farmer quits, a little piece of our new agrarian dream dies. But however hard it is to discuss, the rate at which farmers are walking away from their farms—whether by choice or by force—may be the most important measure of whether or not our food systems are actually working. Because although farmers’ markets are springing up everywhere, the average small-scale farmer is barely surviving.

For farmers like Jim and Tina, who believe in producing food by stewarding their land responsibly and supporting biodiversity, a direct-market relationship with customers who support those production values makes sense. But if our farmers cannot charge prices based on the cost of real production numbers, this model falls flat.

A 2011 study showed that southern Arizona farmers and ranchers on average sell a collective $300 million of food products per year, yet spend $320 million to raise those crops. The same study finds net farm income trends have been negative since 1989, which means that our farmers have consistently lost money producing food. According to the same study, southern Arizona farmers and ranchers reportedly lost $106 million in 2009.

National numbers reflect our region’s numbers. According the 2012 Census of Agriculture, farmers earned just 10 percent of their income from farm sales, while approximately 90 percent of their income came from off-farm occupations. The projected median farm income for 2015 is negative $1,558. Nearly half (or 1 million) of the 2.1 million farms in the U.S. require at least one member of the family to work off the farm.

Behind the scenes, farmers spend hours at the computer, wearily adding up market totals and expenditures. It is here in this solitary lamplit space that farmers visit some very dark emotional places. It is impossible to convey the deep anxiety for everything at stake, the fear that accompanies the risk, and the wounds that this stress inflicts upon a psyche or a family.

Although the choice to stop farming is a personal one, there is a familiar narrative that repeats in quiet reverberations across our country’s farmscapes. Lisa and Ali Moussalli are the former owners of Frog Bottom Farm, a small-scale diversified farm in Appomattox County, Virginia. Having spent years apprenticing with other farmers, the Moussallis were firm in their resolve to build a business that could support their family. This priority forced the couple to be absolutely diligent in their expenses and calculations.

“There was never a day when we weren’t thinking about the financial soundness of our business,” says Lisa. “Can we afford a second tractor? Are we charging enough for eggs? Are cherry tomatoes and green beans worth the labor?”

When the Moussallis purchased their land, they planned to continue farming there for many years. And while they fell deep in love with their farm and the lifestyle that it afforded their family, Lisa says, “It was the relentlessness of our worry that eventually wore us down.”

Though Frog Bottom Farm was never technically failing, they were always just scraping by. Lisa and Ali wanted to have a second child, and like any growing family, they craved financial stability. During a conversation in the fall of 2012, the couple made the heartbreaking decision to sell the farm.

“We were sitting in the kitchen discussing our finances … and suddenly everything seemed very clear,” Lisa remembers. “Ali suddenly said, ‘Our family is more important than our farm.’ And there it was.”

Two years after their last season at Frog Bottom Farm, Lisa, Ali, and their two young children live a block away from the Delaware Bay in southern New Jersey. Ali commutes to work as a full-time manager at Beach Plum Farm, where he and his crew work to provide produce, herbs, honey, eggs, and pork for three farm-to-table restaurants in the resort town of Cape May. With the support of Lisa and the kids, Ali is still farming, and as Lisa says, “His work is still full of the problem solving and tangible results he loves.”

The Failure of Farms, or Failure of the System?

Wendell Berry asks, “Why do farmers farm, given their economic adversities on top of the many frustrations and difficulties normal to farming? And always the answer is: Love. They must do it for love.”

I have an immense amount of respect for Wendell Berry, but I am growing tired of this answer. Certainly it would be a mistake to become a farmer if you did not enjoy being outside, if you were not fiercely independent, if you did not enjoy the physical labor involved in food production. But a farmer cannot survive simply on love alone. Love does not pay the mortgage, put diesel in the tractor, or make up lost revenue after a late freeze. Love does not fix hands spent from years of milking goats or resurrect the CSA vegetables when the walk-in refrigerator goes out in the middle of a summer night.

Although Tina and Jim could have imagined Walking J’s finances stabilizing in five to 10 years, Tina explains, “That’s a long time to sit in the hole and work to get out of the red. And we just aren’t willing to do that.” When she and Jim decided to quit, Tina says she felt relief. “We had all these questions. How do you shut a business down? How do you do it? And Jim’s like, ‘You just do it. You just stop.’ He said, ‘We’ve got to stop the bleeding.’”

There is no disputing the fact that communities love their farmers. When farmers call it quits it is not because they have failed—it is because our archaic food and agriculture system has failed them. One thing remains for sure: if, as a society, we don’t prioritize the health, wellbeing, and financial solvency of our farmers, we will lose them by the droves—along with all of their precious resources, talent, and skill—and the kinds of food only a farmer who loves his work can provide.

A version of this post originally appeared in Edible Baja Arizona.