Winter 2015

A Farmer’s Double Life

Raising crops isn’t always lucrative, but maybe that’s OK

By Jennifer Hashley, G05, and Samuel Anderson, G09

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Illustration: Ward Schumaker

An opinion piece in the New York Times caused quite a stir in the farming community last year. You’d expect as much from an article titled “Don’t Let Your Children Grow Up to Be Farmers,” especially when the author is a farmer himself (Bren Smith, who grows seaweed on Long Island).

The article touched a nerve with its central premise: “The dirty secret of the food movement is that the much-celebrated small-scale farmer isn’t making a living.” Despite all the buzz about local foods, Smith says, most small farmers can’t survive on farming alone. “After the tools are put away, we head out to second and third jobs to keep our farms afloat.”

Although many in the farming community bristled at this, most people who have been small-scale farmers or worked closely with them will tell you that Smith’s claim is absolutely true. Without some form of off-farm income, the majority of small-scale farmers in the U.S. wouldn’t be able to pay the bills.

Perhaps the American small-scale farmer is most often a part-time farmer—but is that necessarily a problem?

Many will probably tell you that they aren’t counting on their farm enterprise to make ends meet. At the New Entry Sustainable Farming Project, where working adults learn the business of farming, many trainees fall into this category: While they’d love to scale up to be full-time farmers someday, they know that it will take years to reach that point. In the meantime, they need to keep an off-farm job in order to maintain a livelihood, like the two New Entry graduates who farm their leased land but also work 30 or more hours a week as certified nursing assistants. Many may not have full-time farming income as a goal in the first place, instead seeking to farm parttime for supplementary income and to contribute to their local food system. Perhaps the American small-scale farmer is most often a part-time farmer—but is that necessarily a problem?

As for those who do endeavor to make it pay off—either as a full- or part-time career—it certainly is not what anyone would call “easy.” At New Entry, we strive to improve the livelihoods of beginning farmers and to prepare them with the strategies and skills to succeed. We provide farm business-planning courses, practical skills trainings in crops and livestock, farmland access and market connections for people interested in starting commercial farms. But we also want to make sure new farmers go into the field with their eyes wide open, fully aware that it is very challenging in today’s economy to make a full-time living as a small-scale farmer, and especially as a new farmer. We aren’t in the business of luring people into becoming farmers. If anything, prospective farmers who come to our Explore Farming workshop might say we try to talk them out of it.

Of course we believe—we know, in fact—that if you have the right combination of skills, drive, resources and circumstances, starting a farm business may be the best thing that’s ever happened to you. But we also know that no matter how much buzz you may hear about local foods, no matter how “hip” it may be to be a small farmer, it’s also very hard work, and it doesn’t always work out. New Entry’s trainees can walk away better appreciating the hard work it takes to grow food—or they can continue farming and scale up over time. Both are successful outcomes.

Donald Sutherland, who runs Long Life Farm with his wife, Laura Davis, a graduate of New Entry’s Farm Business Planning Course, had a particularly poignant response to Smith’s article. He points out that the economics of small-scale farming fit into the broader context of challenges facing all small and start-up businesses. “That said,” he continues. “I don’t think there is any career that offers as broad an array of skills, both managerial and business, as running a farm… farming gives a work ethic and business experience that few other jobs in America can offer… Farming is a brave risk-taking venture and not for the weak. I have never been so proud of a job and lifestyle which keeps on giving.”

Neither have we.

Jennifer Hashley and Samuel Anderson are, respectively, director and livestock program and outreach coordinator for the New Entry Sustainable Farming Project at Tufts. 

 

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