As a young person who is starting out in farming – a young person who has yet to build equity, buy a home, accumulate any significant savings, or many worldly goods – I often get asked by people (often well meaning people, who believe in and support local agriculture), once they learn of my chosen vocation, “But can you make a living by farming?”
My response is always something along the lines of, “Yes, I believe so, as I’m seeing more examples of financially viable farms, and have worked for several farmers who are making their full time living by farming.”
What I usually want to say is more along the lines of, “Well if you want to keep eating, and you don’t want to grow it all yourself, you better hope I can, or else where will your food come from, for chrissakes – do you think grocery store shelves fill up on their own?” Because that is the thing – for any food to be available to us at all, if we aren’t producing it ourselves, and most of us aren’t producing much or any of our own food nowadays, we need farmers to be able to make a living by growing food. Whether it comes from a local farm near you or not: No farmers, no food.
And if we have a choice between supporting a local farm in our community, preferably one using sustainable and organic practices, then why wouldn’t we? This invests in our local economies, helps the environment, and in addition is better for our health and taste buds too.
However, regardless of the necessity of farmers to grow our food, I still get asked this question often, and it bothers me each and every time. The above reasons not-withstanding, it bothers me because there seems to be a different standard that farms and farmers are held to, different from that of other businesses and business owners. The expectation seems to be that farmers will not make any money at it, and it is met with shock and awe when we say we do, or that we plan to. It is assumed that we do it for love, not money, and people seem to be ever so slightly disappointed to have their romantic notions of farming challenged, and to realise that farming, like any other job or business, must be economically viable in order to survive.
And while most farmers I know definitely do do what they do out of a deep love for the work and the land, profits preserve passion, as they say, and a farmer as well as the farmhands who do much of the field work, must be able to make a living at it in order to keep doing so. As one farmer I know who teaches workshops on business planning for farmers puts it: in what other job would you go to work and expect to lose money or not be paid? Not very many, and you wouldn’t be expected to stay at that job if that was the case.
And so, yes, farmers can make a living farming, and in fact they must be able to do so in order to keep growing food for their communities and the world. In order to do so, they will have to have good business sense, put in a whole lot of hard work and sometimes long hours, and deal with unexpected setbacks and challenges – all of this just like any other business owner. One difference between farming and many other businesses, however, is that we all need farms to survive, and so farmers and farm workers must make money doing it.
I write these thoughts after my first season farming for myself full time. I write these thoughts after many months of long days and with a tiredness that is so deep in my bones I think I could sleep for a week before it would abate in any way. I write these thoughts also, however, after a successful first season and first year in business for myself. I write this after receiving incredible support this year from the local community of eaters around me. I write all this feeling hopeful and bolstered about my future in farming.
And so while farmers need to work hard like in any other business, all of us (because most farmers nowadays do not grow all their own food, and so need other food producers too), the eaters and consumers, must support them whenever possible. We all must make this a priority. We must choose local and sustainable over convenience. We must eat greens in the spring time, tomatoes and eggplant in the summer, and carrots, potatoes, and cabbage in the fall and winter. We must adjust our cooking practices and recipes to what we find at market or get in our CSA Shares. We must pay the prices farmers ask for sustainable vegetables and ethical meat. In short we must eat with the seasons and with our farmers, eating what they can grow, produce, or forage for us depending on the time of year. We owe this to ourselves, and to the world, now and for the years to come.