The Farm Hustle: Trying to Earn a Living as a Farmer
I have a secret: I'm not just a farmer. I have two other jobs as well. I help manage Transplanting Traditions, a community farm for refugees from Burma, and I teach cooking classes for children at Kitchen Patrol. I'd like to be farming full-time, but in these early years of starting a farm business, Gordon and I rely on my off-farm work to pay the bills. My week is a tangle, often fitting in farmwork early in the morning and in the evening, to leave room for off-farm work during the day.
Here's another secret: I'm not alone. These days, more than 9 out of 10 farm families rely on off-farm income. Gordon and I are an average American farm family, just trying to make ends meet. Why is it so hard to make a living as a farmer? There are many reasons-more than I can go into here, or that I fully understand myself-but, as far as I can tell, it boils down to the price of food not reflecting its true cost, and farmers getting too small a share of that price. What I know is that consumers expect food to be cheap, and that farmers struggle to produce food cheaply while still making a living (given the high cost of land and infrastructure, and the risks of an industry that's so vulnerable to extreme weather).
I don't know how to solve this problem on a national scale, but I do have some ideas about what Gordon and I can do try to make our living entirely on the farm. Our main strategy is selling directly to our customers, via the CSA boxes that we deliver each week. When you shop at a grocery store, the farmer is getting, at best, 50% of your food dollars-and significantly less if their produce went to a wholesaler before it ended up on the grocery store shelf. Whereas with a CSA, we get the full food dollar-and, moreover, we get to know our customers, who care about us and want us to earn a living wage. They understand how hard we work to grow the best possible food for them and have chosen to put a value on our work.
If you want to make a difference in the future of farming and food, here's the most important thing you can do: buy as much of your food as possible directly from a farm. Join a CSA, shop at the farmers market, or frequent a farm stand. Shop at your local food co-op and eat at locally owned restaurants and urge them to buy food from local farmers. Your dollars will make a big impact in your community and I promise you'll eat better than ever before.
Juggling three jobs is kind of crazy. We're hopeful that as the business grows, and as we continue to re-invest our profits back into the farm, one day soon I'll be able to transition to farming full-time. As more and more people buy directly from farmers, I do believe that other farm families like ours will also be able to make a living on the farm.