What Nobody Told Me About Small Farming: I Can’t Make a Living

What Nobody Told Me About Small Farming: I Can’t Make a Living

People say we’re "rich in other ways," but that doesn’t fix the ugly fact that most farms are unsustainable.

By Jaclyn Moyer / Salon

January 1, 2016

organic food background Vegetables in the basket
Photo Credit: Aleksandra Zaitseva

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.

My farm is located in the foothills of Northern California, 40 miles east of Sacramento on 10 acres my partner, Ryan, and I lease from a land trust. In the heat of summer, my fields cover the bronzed landscape like a green quilt spread over sand. Ten acres of certified organic vegetables trace the contours of a small valley floor. Tomatoes glow crimson. Flowers bloom: zinnias, lavender, daisies. Watermelons grow fat, littering the ground like beach balls.

A businessman once advised me never to admit my business was struggling. No one wants to climb aboard a sinking ship, know what I mean? he’d said. At the time, I agreed. I believed if a business was failing it was because the entrepreneur was not skilled enough, not savvy enough, not hardworking enough. If my farm didn’t turn enough profit, it was my own fault.

Whenever a customer asked how things were going, I replied, Great. I thought about the sinking ship, and never said, Well, we’re making ends meet, but we work 12 hour days, 6 days a week, and pay ourselves only what we need to cover food and household expenses: $100 per week. I didn’t tell anyone how, over the course of the last three years since Ryan and I had started our farm, I’d drained most of my savings. I didn’t admit that the only thing keeping the farm afloat was income Ryan and I earned through other means — Ryan working as a carpenter and I as a baker. I didn’t say that despite the improvements we made to the land— the hundreds of yards of compost we spread, the thousand dollars we spent annually on cover crop seed to increase soil fertility, every weed pulled — we gained no equity because we didn’t own the land. I didn’t say I felt like I was trying to fill a bathtub when the drain was open.

One afternoon, a fellow farmer came over for a visit. He asked how we were doing, and this time I told the truth. The farmer told me he’d been farming for nearly a decade and last year he made the most profit yet: $4,000. I spewed out a slurry of concerns, told the farmer how I’d done the numbers every way and the future wasn’t looking much more profitable. The farmer just nodded, as if I was telling him what I’d eaten for breakfast that morning and not revealing the shameful secret of my failing business. The more we talked the more I began to wonder about other farmers I knew.

I wondered how many small farmers actually made a living. Before I set out trying to answer this question, I had to define what constitutes “a living.” I decided making a living meant three things: 1) The farmer had to pay herself a weekly wage that equaled what a person working full-time would make on minimum wage, which in my town would be $360 per week. 2) The farmer had to abide by labor laws, meaning no unpaid workers or interns doing essential farm tasks. 3) The farmer had to earn her income from farming, which meant nonprofit farms that survived on grants and donations didn’t count; neither did farms that sustained themselves on outside income sources.

I talked to all the farmers I knew, considered farms I or my partner had worked at in the past, farms I’d visited, friends’ farms. Most farmers I talked to worked outside jobs to keep their farms above water, others skirted by on an income they calculated to be $4 per hours, and most depended on interns, volunteers or WWOOFers for labor. I did not encounter a single farmer who met my requirements.

Then I looked into national statistics. According to USDA data from 2012, intermediate-size farms like mine, which gross more than $10,000 but less than $250,000, obtain only 10 percent of their household income from the farm, and 90 percent from an off-farm source. Smaller farms actually lost money farming and earned 109 percent of their household income from off-farm sources. Only the largest farms, which represent just 10 percent of farming households in the country and most of which received large government subsidies, earned the majority of their income from farm sources. So, 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.

One day late into my second season owning the farm, a customer walked in while I stood behind the counter spraying down bins of muddy carrots. The man asked how things were going. Financially, I mean. He held a head of lettuce in the crook of his arm, a bundle of pink radishes dangled from his hand.

I looked at the man and instead of replying with my usual “great,” I said, We’re getting by. He nodded, Well, you may not be making lots of money, but you’re rich in other ways. I opened my mouth to reply, but the man had already turned away and was gazing dreamy-eyed out at my fields, each row buttered in late-afternoon sun. I turned back to the heap of carrots, not sure what I would have said anyway.

I wanted to ask the man which “other ways” did he mean, exactly. But I knew what he meant. I heard this kind of thing all the time: You must love what you do, or not much profit in farming, but what a great lifestyle, or, well, you’re not in it for the money, right?Customers repeated these aphorisms warmly in an attempt to offer me some consolation or encouragement. But watching this man gaze out at my fields, I couldn’t help wondering if it was the customer who was the one being consoled.

Surely many farmers enjoy what they do, as I often find pleasure in my daily tasks, but ultimately farming is work, an occupation, a means of making a living that must fulfill the basic function of a job: to provide an income. Does the notion that farming is lovable work excuse the fact that the entire industry relies on underpaid labor? Does it somehow make it OK that in 2014 it’s forecast to be $–1,682? I had to wonder if this notion works only to assuage a collective discomfort provoked by an unsettling fact, a fact that should enrage us, that should disgrace us as a society: the fact that the much celebrated American small farmer can’t even make a living.

A few weeks later I gave a presentation at a local high school. The teacher had asked me to talk to her food systems class about being an organic farmer. After I finished my talk the teacher turned to her class. So, she asked, how many of you think you might consider a career in agriculture after high school?

Not a single student raised a hand.

The teacher surveyed the air above her students’ heads for a few moments as if scanning the ocean for whales, as if any minute a hand might spring up. None did. Then she looked to me and offered a sympathetic half-smile, half-grimace, as if the tally had come in and I’d just lost an election.

I shrugged. She didn’t have to apologize to me, I hadn’t expected the students to want to become farmers. I guess I didn’t make it look too appealing, I said. And I didn’t — I didn’t romanticize the early mornings out in the field or extol the health benefits of physical labor. I’d told the truth: I grew 10 acres of organic vegetables, worked upward of 60 hours a week during the height of the season, and my total income last year was $2,451. Most of the kids probably earned more that this with a summer job. I told them how most jobs in organic agriculture were either “internships” where workers received food or housing instead of a salary, or were as underpaid and exploitive as jobs on conventional farms where workers were hired seasonally, earned minimum wage or less, and received no benefits.

Driving home from the high school I wondered if perhaps I should’ve placed a more positive light on farming. As the average age of the American farmer neared 65, I knew young farmers were badly needed in this country. Would it have hurt if I’d mentioned the evening the great white egret landed just a yard away from me in the field? How the bird’s body stood taller than mine as I crouched between rows of collard greens, how its neck moved like a snake, slithering upward so it could peer down at me. And when the egret unfolded two white wings and lifted into the sky, a breath of wind pushed against my cheek.

Or I could’ve described the joy of pausing in the field during a summer morning harvest to slice open a watermelon, how the fruit’s pink flesh remains slightly cool inside its thick rind despite the heat of the day, how I hollow out the melon with a spoon from my pocket and eat an entire half.

Of course the lifestyle of a farmer had its perks, but it didn’t seem this was the point. Surely there were plenty of professions that offered moments of joy and satisfaction, surely the doctor, the wildlife biologist, the chef, or mechanic, at times enjoys her work. But no one expected these people to take this satisfaction as pay.

When a student asked if my farm was sustainable, I told her that I was certified organic, I managed my soil fertility through crop rotations and compost applications, I didn’t use synthetic pesticides, I conserved water. But no, I’d said, I didn’t think my farm was sustainable. Like all the other farms I knew, my farm relied on uncompensated labor and self-exploitation. My farm was not sustainable because I knew the years my partner and I could continue to work without a viable income were numbered.

One evening while running errands in town I recognized a customer walking toward me on the sidewalk. Hey, the woman said, I drove past your farm today, it looks beautiful, all those flowers blooming.

Thanks, I said.

I love having an organic farm in our community, the woman continued, I just think this whole food movement it so great. I imagined this woman walking into my farm stand, fumbling a tomato in her palm, admiring the new-car-shine of each purple eggplant. Maybe she chooses two crookneck squash and a handful of thumb-size jalapenos. Before getting back in her car she looks out at the fields, at the tidy rows of salad mix and baby kale; then the woman drives away smiling, watching my fields rise and fall in her rearview mirror.

My farm’s become a billboard, and like all billboards, this one is deceptive. It depicts abundance and prosperity— two young smiling farmers working among neat rows of greens under a crisp morning sun. Heaping bins of produce, all of it picked fresh and free of synthetic chemicals. Despite all the talk of small farms disappearing, despite concerns of big ag controlling our food, GMOing everything and dousing it all in RoundUp, driving past my farm one might feel a flutter of relief, think there’s a small farm right there where I can go and pick up a bag of organic baby kale, spot a bluebird resting on a fig branch, notice a patch of weeds growing among the lettuce.

Meanwhile, millions of dollars in federal subsidies are doled out to mono-crop farms growing high-input GMO corn and soybeans. Meanwhile, the EPA continues to approve the use of pesticides such as Atrazine, which have been linked to birth defects, infertility and cancer. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court rules in favor of Monsanto, allowing the corporation to sue farmers whose fields are inadvertently contaminated with GMO seeds. Meanwhile, Ryan and I rifle the Internet in search of a new opportunity, one that can provide us with enough income to purchase health insurance or see the dentist, to take our soon-to-be-born child on a trip to visit its grandparents, to save a little chunk of money each year so that one day we might be able to buy a piece of land ourselves, and perhaps then we could return to farming. Because the truth is, no matter how many young people choose to farm, no matter how many bunches of kale are made into smoothies, or canvas shopping bags are packed full of colorful carrots and lacy heads of lettuce, no matter how many hip new restaurants declare themselves farm-to-fork, none of these things address the policies that dictate how our country’s food system works, policies that have created a society in which the small farmer can’t even earn a living.

I smiled at the woman on the street. Thanks, I said, and we both continued in our opposite directions.

Then the woman glanced back over her shoulder, I hope the farm stays here forever,she added. I hope you never go off and get a real job.

I let out a too-quick, too-loud laugh. Don’t worry, I said, not turning around to face the woman, hoping she wouldn’t detect the uncertainty in my voice, I won’t.

A quarter mile up the road from my farm the land rises just enough to give me the elevation to look down upon the entirety of my operation — the fields, the greenhouses, the barn. Sometimes when I’m driving past I pull into a turnout here, step outside the car and lean on my hood. I look down at my farm, at the rows of tomatoes and peppers. I notice the thistle has grown high around the fence line, the bindweed curling up the steel tines of an idle tractor implement. I wonder how long it would take for the landscape to erase my farm if I simply walked away, if I quit farming tomorrow. If no one dragged a scuffle hoe through the rows of onions or mowed the thistle, if no one harvested the wheat or the melons or the squash, no one seeded cover crop in fall. The thistle would flower, each bloom dropping a dozen yellow seeds into the soil like needles into a pincushion. Ground squirrels would wait for the melons to ripen, for the pumpkins to flush orange, then carry them away in pieces. The neat edges of each half-acre block would fray, weeds creeping in until the 10 acres appeared once again undivided, just a fallow field.

Or maybe another young farmer would take over my lease, buy the greenhouses and tractor equipment, irrigation lines and stacks of harvest bins. Maybe this farmer would do it better, last longer. Or maybe she too would quit after only a handful of years.

Jaclyn Moyer is a writer and vegetable farmer based in the foothills of Northern California.