News & Politics

The Big Risks and Small Rewards of Farming

Thoughts from a small farm during the midwinter lull.
Before I became a farmer three growing seasons ago, I lived in Brooklyn, N.Y., and reveled in the array of top-flight local produce available from mid-spring to late fall. Long about January, though, a kind of local-food withdrawal would set in.

By this time of year, the legendary produce aisle of the Park Slope Food Co-op would be given over mainly to dull vegetables trucked in from the mega-organic farms of California, Arizona, and Mexico. My beloved Clinton Hill CSA -- which introduced me to the community-supported agriculture model now in use at my own Maverick Farms -- was hibernating. And the usually bustling Grand Army Plaza Green Market would be operating in shell form, frequented by shivering diehards like me and a few dairy, meat, apple, and egg vendors.

I have to admit, while tending my winter braises and pining for spicy salad greens, I gave little thought to what was actually happening on the farms that sustained me during the growing season.

Now I know: Winter is the planning season on a small-scale farm, the time to sort out budgets, seed orders, and marketing plans, and figure out who's going to do what and when. Recently, while engaged in that process, I've been pondering lessons I've learned since coming to the farm that I wish I had known back when I was an urban local-food enthusiast.

One lesson I've learned viscerally: Small-scale farming is an inherently fragile process. In the summer months, farmers' markets across the nation bustle with vendors selling gorgeous produce at prices well above the factory-farmed wares sold at supermarkets. Surveying these vivid and life-affirming scenes, it's easy to assume that here in the U.S. we've managed to create a robust economic model for small-scale farming.

In reality, the economics of small-scale farming -- even close to booming markets like New York City -- are dismal. Large-scale industrial farming replaces human labor with energy-intensive machinery and health-destroying chemicals; the small-scale farms that supply the nation's burgeoning green market scene generally reject those methods, and are much more labor intensive. That means that the premium you pay for an heirloom tomato might not be covering its real cost of production.

Anecdotally, I know that the great bulk of small-scale farms operate on the following model: One spouse runs the farm, while the other one holds a full-time off-farm job, securing such luxuries as health care and retirement benefits and anchoring family finances. In my area, the off-farm spouse typically works in the public school system; in New York state's Finger Lakes district, which supplies New York City with some of the finest produce available there, the state prison system supplies farm families with gainful employment as guards.

USDA numbers back up my observation: According to a report issued early in 2006, the average farm with annual sales between $10,000 and $99,000 -- which describes the great bulk of farms geared toward local markets -- had an operating profit margin of negative 24.8 percent in 2003. Off-farm work -- whether as a schoolteacher, a prison guard, or a weekly food-politics columnist -- papers over the difference.

Big Risks, Small Rewards

Before I get a spate of triumphant emails claiming that small-scale farming doesn't work because it's an economic disaster, and should thus be scrapped, consider this: Farming has always been an economically vexed activity. Every spring since the birth of agriculture 10,000 years ago, farmers have deposited little pellets in the ground and crossed their fingers. You never really know what's going to come up -- or whether flood, pestilence, drought, or some other calamity is going to wipe out your efforts.

As Richard Manning shows in his Against the Grain: How Agriculture Has Hijacked Civilization, human history since agriculture's emergence has been regularly marked by famine, or periods when the economics of farming collapse and people starve.

According to one comforting fantasy, large-scale, chemical-intensive farming -- which has been providing a steady supply of cheap food for as long as most people can remember -- has resolved agriculture's economic dilemmas.

There are at least two problems with that statement. First, in historical terms, industrial agriculture was born yesterday. For just five decades now, we've devoted the great bulk of our arable land to an agriculture that supercharges yields not by carefully building fertile soil, but by dousing it with synthetic fertilizers and pesticides while relying on an ever-narrowing genetic basis of plant and animal varieties. There's absolutely no reason to believe such practices can sustain themselves over time.

Secondly, farmers' earnings have plummeted since industrial agriculture's rise. Surging yields have meant steadily dwindling prices for farm goods, forcing farmers to "get big or get out," in the notorious phrase of Richard Nixon's USDA secretary, Earl "Rusty" Butz. But to "get big" and get outfitted with the latest yield-boosting technologies proffered by seed and equipment conglomerates, farmers have to take on ruinous debt loads and watch their profit margins plunge.

If small-scale farm operations look mainly to off-farm work to supplement incomes, their large-scale counterparts look to Washington, D.C. The government doles out about $20 billion per year in farm subsidies; the largest operations, which according to industrial-agriculture dogma are the most efficient, capture nearly all of that money.

So let's be straight: Agriculture is and always has been a tough racket. Societies support it because people like to eat.

The question is how to support it. The new Congress will soon begin cobbling together the next farm bill, the five-year plan that dictates federal food and agricultural policy. I'll turn my attention to that topic soon.

For now, as farmers and consumers await the next growing season, remember that while all farming is economically precarious, small-scale farmers operate without much of a safety net at all. They're subsidized not by the government but rather by their own and their families' off-farm labor.

How can you help? One way is to join a CSA. By buying a share in a farm's harvest now, you're injecting cash into a farm at a time of year when little other money is coming in and seeds need to be bought. And you're sharing in the inherent risk that farmers take every time they drop little pellets into a field and cross their fingers.
Grist staff writer Tom Philpott farms and cooks at Maverick Farms, a sustainable-agriculture nonprofit and small farm in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina.