Tuesday, January 05, 2016

Being a small farmer doesn't always pay big in profits, but does in job satisfaction, farmer writes

Jaclyn Moyer
With the average age of farmers continuing to increase, there has been a national push to interest younger Americans in taking up farming. That has led to a new crop of first-generation college-educated farmers who are leaving urban life to give farming a try. While the work is rewarding, the pay often is not, and many farmers struggle to make a living and often turn to other means of employment to pay the bills, first-generation California farmer Jaclyn Moyer writes in an essay for Salon.

"Whenever a customer asked how things were going, I replied, 'Great,'" Moyer writes. "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."

Intermediate farms that gross between $10,000 to $250,000 get only 10 percent of their household income from the farm, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data from 2012, Moyer writes. "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."

So why run a small farm? After giving a presentation to a local high school, in which none of the students expressed interest in careers in agriculture, Moyer writes: "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," Moyer writes. "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." (Read more)

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