In the Long Term, Small and Local Wins. In the Short Term, Not So Much

Sharon September 1st, 2009

Several people have noted that in _A Nation of Farmers_ we spend a lot of time talking about very small-scale agriculture - home gardening, farms spread across multiple yards, very small home farms - and less time talking about farming for a living - and this isn’t an accident.  One of my standing bits of advice to people who want to become farmers is this - do it.  But make sure someone in your household keeps a job with a paycheck.

This, of course, limits the scale on which anyone can do this work - if you have to farm around your night-shift at Walmart or substitute teaching, or driving deliveries, this cuts into your time for the farm.  If you have to watch the kids and farm at the same time, because your partner is off earning the health insurance and mortgage, you are going to spend a lot more time taking people potty and getting snacks than you would if you could farm full time without kids.  So why aren’t I advising more people to farm full time?

 Don’t get me wrong - I want to see more full-time farmers.  But while in the longer term, I think that small scale agriculture is going to win, in the shorter term, Walmart and the economy are going to devour a lot of small farmers.  The trick, as you are planning your course of adaptation, is to learn the skills now, maybe obtain the land if you can get it, but hold in reserve for the time when you can make a living doing the work.  Don’t get me wrong - if you are already trying it, or called to do the work, I encourage you.  But have a backup plan - we need you, but you need to make a living.  With less than 1% of the US population involved in agriculture, the average age of farmers at 59 years old and the average age of small farmers at 65, we need, waiting in the wings, a relief force.  But we can’t pay them yet.

Had oil prices continued to rise without affecting the economy, we might have seen the gradual evolution of a local farm economy as local providers were increasingly able to compete with industrial ones.  But that, as we all know, didn’t happen.  Instead, volatlity is the name of the game - and that means that most Americans will never know, from year to year, how much basic needs like their utility bills and groceries are going to cost them.  And when price rise and jobs are lost - people stop paying premiums for their food.  That $7 gallon raw milk stops being a necessity for your family’s health and starts being a luxury, easily replaced by $4 gallon milk at WalMart.  The CSA share cost seems more and more onerous.  The grassfed meat may taste better, and be better for you, but, well….

We’re already seeing this - organic and raw milk dairy farmers are struggling just like everyone else - organic milk sales are expected to drop by 15%.  Organic food sales slowed to a 6% year over year growth last year, up from 26% the year before - still growing as of January, but expected to decline overall this year.   The truth is that people are committed to organic and local - but only so far.  And small and niche producers just plain can’t compete with larger farms with contracts.  They depend on affluent consumers who care about good food to keep going - they need people to be able to afford their food,  and to care enough to buy it.

Meanwhile Target and WalMart and the rest of the industrial producers are pulling out all the stops to convince us that their organics, their faux-local food is just about the same at half the price.  Never mind that for this food we pay twice - in agricultural and corporate subsidies, in health costs, in welfare and food stamp payments for the farmers and the WalMart employees.  The vast majority of people will, for a while, probably go back to WalMart and the rest’s milk and vegetables because they are trying desperately to get by. 

In the very long term - local food is likely to win this battle - the larger scale industrial middlemen can’t succeed in an era of high energy prices in proportion to buying power.  Their margins are tight, and higher energy costs and other factors are likely to drive them out of business - eventually.  But we’re not there yet, and their death throes are likely to be long and painful, as they devour market shares of small farmers. 

In the longer term, there will be a shift to paying more of our limited incomes for food - we’ve never paid less.  Toby Hemenway and I once discussed this, and despite some differences, we both agree we’re headed rapidly (over the next decade or so) to a life where people in the US and other rich nations spend 30% of their income on food.  But that’s a long and painful shift - one in which other costs decline proportionally, and in which a lot of people are ground between the stones of declining budgets, not enough food to go to the end of the month, and their desire for decent health and good food.

This is why I don’t spend more time exhorting people to take up full time agriculture for a living - I wish I could, since it is so desperately needed.  But my own view of the future is that a lot of farmers will be driven from their land and run out of business - we are down to less than 1% of our population farming - but my own estimate is that the crash in farmers is going to come down further still - and that believe it or no, we’ve got a ways to go.  I suspect we’ll lose as many as a half million farmers in the next few years - and I say this with great sorrow and fear.  The combination of one more economic straw on the camel’s back, aging and foolish agricultural policies are going to bring us to the brink of disaster - without the people we need most to pull us back.

So please, grow that garden, start that little farm as a side income, begin your retirement agricultural venture, and please, if you can, buy local, buy from the good guys, not the huge industrial organic farmer, but the little guy who still raising grains in your neighborhood.  Train your kids to grow food.  Learn as much as you can.  Talk to the old farmers, get to know them, help them out if you can.  Because in the end, we will need you all.  The time is coming, but it isn’t yet, and there’s hard stuff in the middle.

Sharon

33 Responses to “In the Long Term, Small and Local Wins. In the Short Term, Not So Much”

  1. Danon 01 Sep 2009 at 11:19 am

    “And there’s hard stuff in the middle”

    Ain’t that the truth. Those of us who currently own no land are stuck in that spot where it makes no sense to buy, because prices are sure to still drop further…but feel a sense of panic as we have little to no way to provide any real security outside of an emergency food cache (which we all know won’t last long). So there’s one bit of the hard stuff…over-pay now and risk being underwater for the duration and stuggling to make payments on the land…or risk your families ability to feed itself because you don’t have anywhere to grow food, raise chickens, etc?

    I know everyone has their particular rock and hard place, but this seems like one I can’t quite figure my way around.

    Further compound it with the fact that any land I could stretch to afford would be a hour plus commute from my job…doesn’t leave much time in the day for getting the ’stead up and running.

  2. Shiraon 01 Sep 2009 at 11:36 am

    Another thought, and that’s to raise some calorie crops in the garden. It sounds futile, growing a few rows of wheat or a single raised bed of oats. I’ve certainly had plenty of elderly neighbors patiently explain to me that my crop trials are a waste of time, when professional farmers in Eastern Washington and Montana grow fields of the stuff and harvest by combine.

    And that’s just the point - the closest professionals are on the other side of the state, and those are mostly the specialty growers of Washington’s Palouse region, who provide edible beans to the whole country.

    Washington State Extension says that right here, in a maritime climate which is so-so for grains, we used to grow wheat, barley and field beans for the bread, beer and beans that fed the large numbers of loggers, miners and fishermen that used to work here. The population of this area actually crashed in the 1890’s (the Big Bust) and has never recovered to boomtown levels.

    We just don’t know and don’t have the varieties that were grown here. As grain production shifted to better suited regions, the varieties were lost. There have been some trials of calorie crops in the last few years. The white cannelloni bean and soft white winter wheat did notably well. Some reliable varieties for other regions failed spectacularly. The agricultural research station in Mt Vernon is running wheat trials now.

    A garden is an opportunity to run your own trial. By doing so, the gardener gains experience growing small amounts of grain and processing it by hand. Seed that is localized to a certain area often does better there in subsequent generations than seed raised elsewhere, so if you have a good yielding variety, you can save seed and share it with other gardeners, or grow out enough for a small field. Just growing your own cover crops or knowing how to grow your own chicken feed is valuable.

    I find the learning curve is considerable. I was planning on planting fall barley (in my 4′ by 8′ field of gold), since the excellent Seattle Tilth book says to plant barley in October. Turns out that is true, for barley as a cover crop. For two row malting barley around here, plant in March. And plant hulless oats (Avena nuda). The regular kind are too hard to thresh by hand.

    Shira in Bellingham, WA

  3. Isison 01 Sep 2009 at 1:02 pm

    Sharon,

    What are your thoughts on organic vs. local? I currently live in a major city on the East Coast, and I buy organic and local when I can find it, but most of the time, I have to choose between organic-trucked-in-from-California and non-organic-local. I generally go for organic, but I’m having second thoughts…

  4. Heatheron 01 Sep 2009 at 1:37 pm

    Isis, I understand completely what you are saying about Organic vs local. For me personally,its local first. I go to the farmer’s markets, the farms and get things listed on Craigslist. You ask questions and see how they treat their food. Many times its organic without the name because it is too expensive to go through the certification. I’d rather have something grown within walking distance with a few pesticides, than organic shipped halfway around the world. Just my opinion though. I want them to stay in business, I feel that I have a personal stake in it.

  5. risa bon 01 Sep 2009 at 1:42 pm

    I get to begin retirement farming in one month, GWATCDR. Since I’m now officially old, I’m reminded of the Audrey Hepburn angel’s line from Spielberg: “Remember, from here on anything you do in your own behalf will be a waste of spirit.”

    So I’ll try to pass on the little that I know in case it’s useful, and not worry too much about the day that I might get triaged out of the world.

    But you younger folks! Learn it now — it takes time. Find a mentor and discover those pre-industrial trades.

    And: consider that while not everyone will end up owning land, those who do may need farm workers and ranch hands. There might be worse futures than living in a bunkhouse, and thinking up songs about misfortunate “dogies” as you work. ;)

    Sharon, is there a “Skill Savers Exchange?” So that people could look up other people near them who can teach them what they want to know about adapting in place (as you have been doing), and also township-scale leatherworking, harness making, pottery, sharpening, hops growing, chandlery, wheelbuilding, coopering, lens grinding, smithing, turning, milling, seed cleaning? In exchange for labor around the place?

  6. Mark Non 01 Sep 2009 at 2:36 pm

    Generally, you are right on the economic squeeze occurring on the smaller farmer. I think the key for a small grower/gardener/farmer outlasting this period and continuing to operate is to have some financial support possibly from being in an extended family or other shared living situation and most importantly: maintaining good health and reducing costs of living down to a bare minimum.

  7. homebrewlibrarianon 01 Sep 2009 at 3:30 pm

    @Shira

    I’m with you completely on doing your own grain trials. Living here in Alaska with what seems like endless micro climates, the only way to know for sure is to try it yourself. It was helpful that the Cooperative Extension has a very detailed report on nearly thirty years of trials for various grains, but all those trials were done in the agricultural areas outside of Anchorage. Helpful but not too helpful.

    So I started some trials. In community garden plots with really sucky soil, no less (think grit with a tiny bit of organic matter). This first year my upstairs neighbors and I planted hull less oats, malting barley, culinary flax and amaranth. This after mixing (not nearly enough) compost into the beds. Oats were planted following the instructions on the packet - 5″ apart in rows 5″ apart - and amaranth was planted as thinly as possible in rows 12″ apart but not thinned after sprouting. Barley and flax were broadcast. Planting occurred in early June.

    At this point, the barley is starting to dry, the flax is almost done flowering and the oats have heads but have not started drying yet. The amaranth was a flaming disaster - practically every seed sprouted but none of the plants got more than a foot tall and this from plants that should be anywhere from 4 - 7 ft tall! That was the bed that had the worst weeds, too. The barley and flax beds had the fewest weeds because the plants were so close together and crowded out any other plants. The oats had a few in between the rows but not too many.

    The plan for next year is to chop up the straw to leave on the beds over the winter after harvesting the seed heads and to help increase organic matter. We’re debating planting winter rye as a green manure because winter and subfreezing weather come on pretty quick once you get through September in these parts. Perhaps sow winter rye and cover with straw mulch? Might be worth a try. Next season we’ll plant on top of everything - we’re going no-till since the soil is so poor. We’re going to see if leaving the previous year’s roots in place will help with tilth. We’ll also try some crop rotation.

    We’re guaranteed the right of first refusal for the same plots next year if we get payment in by a certain time so that’s why we’re spending so much time on the soil. We’re hoping to pick up a third plot next year to expand our experiments (so far we’re thinking a bigger patch of malting barley but that’s as far as we’ve gotten) although I believe one of the plots will be for growing potatoes. Got to get those calorie dense foods however possible.

    It’s best to try different grains and/or potatoes because with ever changing weather, one might work one year and not another. Last year was a terrible year for us for potatoes. This year is looking much better. Barley might do well this year and poorly next. Trials allow you to know how to match plants to climate - or, well, as best you can. I’m guessing that we’d have to plant at least two types each year just to be safe. I’m thankful we’ve already started.

    Kerri in AK

  8. Devin Quinceon 01 Sep 2009 at 3:38 pm

    Isis,
    I am with Heather in that local is better than organic. I mean how “sustainable” are blueberries or other things from Columbia, etc. The organic label is joke now owned by agri-business and the USDA. Know your farmer and you may learn they do not use fossil fuel based practices, etc., but do not have the organic label which again is a joke and economic fraud.
    Devin

  9. sealanderon 01 Sep 2009 at 4:19 pm

    I too always favor local food over organic - I’ve been avoiding the local organic store ever since they started stocking organic pears imported from the US a few weeks before pear season started here in NZ. Plus sometimes there are American lemons on the market here at a time when local lemons are available. I can’t see who would be willing to pay a premium on bruised imported out of season fruit that had probably been in cold storage in the US for months. Not only unsustainable, but poor business practice as well.
    There’s a cold wet patch in my garden where most vegetables don’t grow well so I’ve been using that for overwintered hull-less oats, which do very well there. I’ve yet to actually do anything with the end product though other than feed it to the chickens :)

  10. Jillon 01 Sep 2009 at 4:38 pm

    We’re growing hull-less oats this year too. They’re getting pretty dry here now, but I’m not sure what I’ll do with them. I might do like sealander and feed them to the chickens.

    I’ve thought about growing spelt (which is planted in the fall) but I don’t know how to process it. Ideas?

    As for local vs organic, I chose local. At least I know my dollars are staying in my community and helping out folks I know.

    Jill in Michigan.

  11. Lori Scotton 01 Sep 2009 at 4:42 pm

    You’re right about the organic label. We have a small holding and while we have soil tested and used only organic approved fertilizers etc, we will never be certified organic because we are not prepared to pay for it.

    I have been told that not only do you pay to join the association, have the testing done and have ongoing testing to your land and produce, some certification groups also take a percentage on what you produce under the idea that you are using their licencing system to sell your produce so they deserve a cut.

    This cost means that organic producers must pass the cost onto consumers and that they must gear up to a high profit business to justify the cost of certification. There is no guarantee that the lack of banned additives means that the produce is nutritionally sound.

    However, anyone who wants to buy my produce is welcome to come to my place and walk around the gardens and check my sheds where I keep my fertilizers and assure themselves that they are happy with what I am offering. Don’t get hung up on the organic label - if you can, make the connections with your producers.

  12. deweyon 01 Sep 2009 at 4:54 pm

    Risa B - You might look into John Michael Greer’s new Cultural Conservers group (currently just a listserv), which may aim to include something of that nature.

  13. Risa#2on 01 Sep 2009 at 7:05 pm

    Yes, everyone grow what you can where you can. The only things that can’t be taken from you are knowledge and experience. So learn and grow as much as you can.

    You would be amazed by what can be done with a tiny piece of land. On a quarter of an acre we produce most of our meat, dairy, eggs, and produce. Plus a good amount of wheat, dry peas, and animal feed. We live in the high desert with saline alkali soil and about 90 days between frosts. Just to get the point across, my family of four lives on about $300. a month with no assistance from anyone. But we have been working towards this for a while, and I am a little obsessive about it.

    I also agree with Shira and homebrewlibrarian. Calorie crops are very important. Knowing what grows well in your area is key. I have been experimenting with grains in my garden for a while, and have been very surprised at some of my findings. For example, we are at 5300 feet altitude and dry, so I thought quinoa or amaranth would do well. Nope. Too cold for amaranth and too hot for quinoa. Corn gets its butt whooped by our weekly 30+ mph winds. Though I continue to try different varieties, I devote very little space to the “wimps”. I have found that winter wheat loves our harsh climate. What a surprise that was. Potatoes also do well.

    The wheat does a lot more for us than make grain. It also provides us with animal feed, bedding, winter soil protection, and organic matter. In the fall (between late August and November) as each bed gets harvested I plant wheat. The August planted wheat beds usually have about a foot of growth by November which I cut for my goats and rabbits. It stays mostly green all winter, it takes freezing very well. Though our winters rarely go below -15 f. When the ground starts to thaw in Feb. it starts to grow again, and by April I’m able to start cutting the wheat grass again. I usually take two cuttings before it starts to “knuckle” (that’s when it’s getting ready to send up seed heads) so I leave it alone till harvest time. The spring cutting covers all the feed for my goats between early April and June. By that time the pasture is ready to cut. Depending on the weather the wheat is ready to cut and thresh in June or July. I cut it and stack it then get a late crop of potatoes, or other crop before starting the cycle over again (I do rotate winter onions, garlic, and hardy peas through the winter beds to keep things healthy). Then we thresh and winnow as we have time.

    This year was a really bad rodent year. They wiped out about 20% of my seed heads (considering getting a cat). But we still got plenty. Here are my wheat yields for this year. This is from 1000sf
    Wheat berries =77lb
    wheat grass =765lb (wet weight)
    straw =127lb

    * the older more improved beds yielded much higher than the new beds (almost double). Lots of room for improvment.

    homebrewlibrarian - I also do no till. Leaving the roots will help the tilth. I usually just furrow into the stubble plant then compost. By the time I’m harvesting the crop, the worms have broken down the roots. The only time I dig any more is when the potatoes get rotated through a bed. Digging in my soil just makes “cob”. I’ve actually plastered over my walls with our unimproved soil. LOL

  14. Jerryon 01 Sep 2009 at 7:58 pm

    I admire your calling for part-time farmers to try to keep the knowledge of farming alive and possibly teach to a younger generation. Farm policy in this country is broken and like everything else coming out of Washington these days they throw money at in an effort to sustain it till the good times return. The only problem with this approach is what happens if the good times don’t appear.
    I’m at the age when most people would consider retirement in the near future but I’ve also read that retired farmers only live two years into their retirement. I think I’ll keep farming. I really should have the secret to farming in Connecticut, a wife with a good job.

  15. Berkshireon 01 Sep 2009 at 9:06 pm

    I am experimenting with buck wheat as a fall cover and possibly some grain. I’ve never grown it before but experimenting is the only way to learn as many others here have said.

    Here are a few numbers from my yield experiments. I grew about 50 feet (equivalent single row) of Cranberry beans that we harvested yesterday. This is a bush type and they took 90 days to maturity. We pick them before the dry stage and freeze them for succotash. We had 5 pounds of clean beans from the row. They did very well given our rotten weather - well filled out and no disease. One pound of beans (10 feet of row) should yield 640 calories, 44 g of protein, 115 g of carbs (16 g fiber). Beans are one of the highest protein vegetables and I thought these numbers might be helpful to someone starting to plan their future garden requirements.

    I grew Red Norland early potatoes and harvested 60 or 70 pounds (still digging) from the same 50 foot row length. Planting was a simple shallow trench and later hilling. Again, a good crop in very poor conditions. This equates to 390 calories per pound (a foot of row?), 8 g protein and 91 g carbs (8 g fiber). I am not a dietician but I think the math is right. These are your storage staples if grain does not work and corn bread for every meal gets a little boring.

  16. Sarah Headon 02 Sep 2009 at 7:39 am

    Sealander - you asked what to do with your trial oats. Have you thought about producing your own tonics and medicines from the oats just before they dry up, when they’re at the milky oat stage. You can make the seeds into tincture and use the straw for nourishing infusions for the whole family to drink. You could also offer them to the community, especially if you have some under-nourished elders or people with serious medical conditions. Just a thought.

  17. Heather Gon 02 Sep 2009 at 8:51 am

    Doing garden trials has been good for us too. We’ve grown oats 2 years in a row now, but thinking of giving it a pass next year — the wind and rain we’ve been getting the past couple of summers knocks them down and makes them harder to harvest. L wants to try barley next. Although we also want to try wheat too — I have some hard red winter that we didn’t get to put in, and should plant some of that this fall before it gets any older.

    The flax is doing better this year than last — should be able to harvest some for fiber.

    Hops are doing well. I don’t have an oast house, but do have an electric dehydrator so that should do the trick. Hops are supposed to be dried with warm moving air, so no oven or solar dehydrator for them.

    Potatoes survived all the rain! And I think my soldier beans (new crop for us) are doing okay. Meal corn is doing better (so far) than last year — we tried a different part of the yard. And looks like we might get butternuts this year! (crosses fingers)

    *chuckles* Things were a little crazy this summer so I have to look at my squash seed packets to see what I planted, as I can’t quite identify a couple of the varieties. All winter varieties of course. Didn’t have to plant summer squash as we had a volunteer come up from some old squash left in the upper garden last year.

  18. Anion 02 Sep 2009 at 9:36 am

    I for one am throwing in the towel on the small-scale farm after this year. I will continue with the blueberries but that is it. I am looking foward to having just a garden for household use, the orchard and a few hens for eggs. I need to do something else to earn a living- this is not tenable and it has gotten even worse each year it seems, especially with the weather, late-blight, snails and more and more invasions of woodchucks and other predators, as well as the poor economy which results in lowered sales.

    I am always hearing from others, especially on-line bloggers such as Jan Lunberg on Culture Change, Carolyn Baker, etc how important small-farms will be but if I didn’t grow this stuff I could never afford to buy it to eat. I am tired of working so darn hard and living in poverty.

    Not much else going on here in terms of other work so not a great time to make this change but it will free me up some mentally from trying to keep it going. Some are making it, but honestly, most small farms are doing it by having one spouse working off-farm who brings in most of the income, the health insurance etc.

  19. Chileon 02 Sep 2009 at 1:53 pm

    I biked by my CSA last week on the day other than my regular pick-up and was surprised to see our farmer there. He doesn’t come in all that often anymore. I plopped down beside him and had a nice chat. I asked advice for my husband’s gardening efforts, especially in dealing with the heat since the CSA farm is in Phoenix which is even worse than Tucson. I mentioned my hubby was experimenting with small scale hyrodonics and asked how the farm’s hydroponic tomatoes were doing. The farmer sadly told me he’d had to shut the greenhouses down because he couldn’t find anyone to work in them. They are located too far for his regular crew to take care of the daily work there and, despite advertising far and wide, he could not find a single person willing to work. I know he also has trouble finding farm workers despite paying a fair wage and even offering health insurance!

    We talked for a while about the lack of small farms and he’s very worried about it. We need more farmers, especially ones that can figure out how to farm without all the petroleum inputs. My farmer looks like a good ol’ boy but he keeps up on what’s going on and was well aware of the coming problems with peak oil. We didn’t discuss what it will mean for the CSA considering the farm is about 100 miles away, but it does serve approximately 500 people locally. (He also has several other CSA’s in the state, does farmer’s markets, and supplies some restaurants.)

    The CSA share that I get in exchange for my volunteer work is a big part of our diet. As long as there is a CSA here, I’ll be able to work for my food. I do, however, make sure to do a little more than needed each week to make myself indispensable! The goal for my hubby’s gardening is to eventually fill in the holes from the CSA shares and grow enough to can those things I’d like to have year-round (like tomato sauce, salsa, pickled peppers, etc.)

  20. Karenon 02 Sep 2009 at 6:05 pm

    Regarding local vs organic, the consumer is the one who drives the market. If fewer folks purchase canned peas or boxed cereal, they will eventually take up less space in the grocery store as there will no longer be a market. By the same token by asking local growers to provide naturally grown produce, we create a market which the grower will want to fulfill. As a very small scale farmer, I keep my ear to the ground and listen for what is wanted or needed here. For instance I will plant a small crop of cayenne peppers next summer as herbalists do not have a local source this year. My naturally grown seed garlic will fetch $10.00 a pound, all 60 pounds of it. I expect my farm income to supplement my part-time job income. I think it’s important to find small niche markets and offer some products that are a little different. On around 1/4 of an acre, we produce most of our vegetables and herbs as well as dried beans and potatoes. One further note, in a fifteen foot row, we saved about 4 cups of carrot seed which will be traded at the next Seedy Saturday.

  21. Claireon 02 Sep 2009 at 7:30 pm

    Wow, what great information, thank you!

    I’ve been trying to grow more calorie crops too. This year I got about 75 pounds of potatoes out of a 100 sq ft bed. Not too bad considering it was the first year for this bed (it had been grass the year before). I’m in the Midwest so I am growing popcorn, which looks great so far - not ready for harvest yet - and a small crop of black beans. I have about 50 sq ft of sweet potatoes too, hope they produce well, it’ll be a month or more till it is time to dig them.

    Jerusalem artichokes are another good calorie crop, if you have a place to store them cold over the winter. I don’t like them as well as potatoes or sweet potatoes, but I can and will eat them.

    That’s another thing: to learn to save seed, or tubers, for the following year. I will attempt to save some of the potato crop for planting next year. I saved the tubers for this year’s sweet potato crop and learned how to sprout them. The popcorn seed was from the crop I planted 2 years ago. The Jerusalem artichokes are almost too good at reproducing themselves … advantageous in the long run.

    As I expand my garden, I plan to add winter wheat, barley, and oats. I’m already growing hops, which my DH will use for beer.

    I don’t consider myself a farmer. I’m just trying to feed myself and my DH and learn some skills I can pass along to others when needed.

  22. KathyDon 03 Sep 2009 at 4:40 am

    Ani- who is throwing in the towel…

    I agree that small, local food farming is incredibly hard, back breaking, low paying, work. And if you are doing it organically it can be downright depressing trying to keep up with all the manual labor. I hope that you find another area of work that feeds your spirit.

    And I agree with the many who say you need a full time off-farm job to support the farm. True. I’m the off farm income/health insurer for our family. It is the only way this will work. We have a stand at the farmers market and having spent a week harvesting (to say NOTHING of planting/weeding) I earn earn about 3 to 4% of my monthly farm payment. That’s if I don’t count the outlays for seed, equipment, fuel, etc… It is impossible.

    Lately I’ve noticed that there is such an overwhelming amount of labor needed that I don’t look up at the sky and clouds anymore while in the field/garden. I don’t find those beautiful granite stones under the plants anymore. It is just raw, grinding labor. And I’m still embarassed at the weeds and there are so many weeds in the black bean field that we may not be able to use the combine. And there is no way to harvest that amount by hand.

    Sorry for the rant. But I had to get up at 3:45 to get the work done today- knowing the day won’t end until about 10 pm. This is my “treat” for the day with my cup of coffee.

  23. Anion 03 Sep 2009 at 6:14 am

    Hey Kathy D- sister in pain- I hear you alright……

    It seems to me perhaps that the people who don’t actually do this for a “living” confuse getting to garden a bit for fun with trying to earn a living at it. The two are so different- kind of like if you have a hobby and turn it into your professional work- it is no longer a hobby and the icome you earn from it is what keeps you afloat. I think a lot of people assume that farming is just fun- they can’t wait til they have time after they retire or something to muck about in the yard and grow some tomatoes- so we are having way too much fun to be paid well for it…..
    And some people sell a few extra eggs or cukes- and that’s easy- so they just figure how much they could make selling lots of eggs or cukes- not realizing that scaling it up is a whole different proposition.

    Well that and all the imported from elsewhere competition- I can’t compete with the prices for the most part offered at the supermarket, many of which are just loss-leaders- buy 1 get 2 blueberry pints or such- although I have noticed that my prices for local organic are often competitive with the non-sale prices of conventional produce offered at the supermarket- but most people are oblivious to that and just assume the store is cheaper……

    Also, in my area there are SO many growers- mostly organic- the farmers markets are just loaded with growers and the customers take it for granted- not to mention all the backyard types who bring their stuff too- and the few markets that are not full of growers have few customers and are in tiny little towns- fine if doing a market for $30 is your cup of tea…..

    There are some really young (20ish) farmers growing in my town now- and doing a market that I do- and I am happy to see this- although the reality is that they are using daddy’s house and land to live in and grow- a whole bunch of them all living there- and they are not currently facing the prospect of having to pay for land/house mortgage, taxes, insurance etc on their farming income-that is a whole ‘nother thing… but they are doing a nice job and maybe they can keep at it……although if daddy sells the house…….

    I think I am too burned out to do this anymore- it’s one thing to work hard and do ok- but if you just work hard all the time and get nowhere,,,,,

    I think I used to have more energy for this- didn’t come in from the field til it was too dark to see anymore, making bouquets of flowers for the market late at night- that could be done inside with lights- no time off but Saturday night- that was a treat- one night off a week- can’t do this anymore- and don’t see that it got me anywhere anyway…..time for the next wanna-be farmer to do it- maybe they will do a better job…

    hang in there- I’m heading out to dig potatoes for market……whichever ones don’t have blight……sigh…..

  24. John Andersenon 03 Sep 2009 at 7:39 am

    One thought that occurs to me is everyone should be, to the greatest extent possible, weaning themselves off processed food.

    They should be turning toward home cooking of raw vegetables, fruit, grains, etc.

    This way of eating must become more familiar to us now before it comes a necessity.

  25. Sharonon 03 Sep 2009 at 7:51 am

    Ani, my complete sympathies, and I’m sorry, but I also understand. The reality is that the job is *hard* and unrewarding - and only getting more so. Even the 20 somethings I know, who go in full of joy and enthusiasm, find that when they have children, or someone get sick, or when it gets a little harder, it is too damn much sometimes - working that hard for no money.

    I’m going back in the other direction myself - I’ve decided I need to get away from my computer (no, not entirely) and farm more - and to build up the farm’s potential income. But when I closed the CSA, I was so tired…. It is only after a couple of years of doing other things that I can even imagine going back to it - and most of the time we had another income.

    Sharon

  26. deweyon 03 Sep 2009 at 10:20 am

    May I ask one of you experts a question? When should I dig up my potato plants? The tops are getting rather sprawly and slightly yellow but they are not withered yet. Do I wait until frost (which will be weeks away yet) or just yank ‘em early?

  27. Sharonon 03 Sep 2009 at 10:28 am

    Hi Dewey - I wait until they completely die back - you can leave them in the ground longer, until you get a hard freeze, which might make sense if fall temps are really warm and you are waiting for it to cool to make them more storable, but you can dig them anytime after they fully die back. Actually, you can dig them before if you want to eat them first, but they will continue to size up a bit for a little longer until the plants are dead.

    Sharon

  28. deweyon 03 Sep 2009 at 1:56 pm

    Thanks!

  29. Malcolmon 03 Sep 2009 at 6:02 pm

    dewey - just make sure you get them out before there’s more than a surface frost (unless you have them heavily mulched). I made that mistake last year and what was left in didn’t survive the frost.

    Some of mine are actually regrowing! They mostly dried out over the last few weeks when it finally got hot, but a few resprouted. We’re probably a month off having any frost though.

  30. Anion 04 Sep 2009 at 6:09 am

    Sharon

    Thanks- but I’m learning to be ok with it I guess. It’s actually my second “burnout” of vegie farming- the first was after doing a CSA along with Farmers Market, coop sales etc- 80 hour work weeks(at least) with a kid at home, and STILL making so little money wise…..

    I think part of the problem is where I am- farm location in the mountains- a tough spot to grow- but what I could afford. As well, lots of farms in this state and the public is totally spoiled when it comes to what is available at the market- they have no clue really…. I do get people from other states here on vacation buying produce, eggs etc to bring home with them…..

    The young 20ish farmer at my market this year noted that she had worked for a farm in another state last year and stuff just flew at the market- so not the case here. I am actually not encouraging younger people to get into farming here where I live but suggest they go where it is needed-urban ag in Detroit or Cleveland for instance- but NOT to just become aother grower at the local markets taking home much of their produce at the end of the market(unless they are in the very few markets that do well and are a favored(large) grower there).

    The problem is that this area is lovely and people want to live here because of its beauty- but the market just isn’t there at present- well it would be but the chain grocery stores take a lot of that market from us.

    Anyway, I will continue to do blueberries which I am known for- and do well- and whatever excess tree fruit I produce beyond my own needs- and figure out what else to do…..

    Meanwhile I see you are going back into farming……….it is an addiction I guess….need a twelve-step program for farmers…..

  31. Apple Jack Creekon 04 Sep 2009 at 9:24 am

    Ani, I would need that twelve-step program too … all I wanna be when I grow up is a farmer. Maybe that makes me crazy, eh? :)

    It’s never gonna happen though … well, not in the usual sense of things, not in the current world-as-we-know-it. In the meantime, we do the one foot in each world thing and practice our skills as best we can. Some day, when I lose my job (which is pretty much inevitable I figure, I work in IT in support of industrial agriculture … I know, the irony of it all is apparent to me too), at least I’ll have enough food in the yard to keep us from going hungry and enough of a start in the business to hopefully bring in some extra money if I end up farming full time.

    Our farm products are lamb, wool and eggs - much less energy/work intensive than vegetable and fruit gardening, I think, although there’s a lot more infrastructure involved, and you need good cash flow management to be able to afford the up front costs of the butcher and so forth. The only way we can do this is with our full time off-farm jobs, and I won’t try to tell you it’s not tiring or that we do just as awesome a job as we would if we were actually around all the time. The big plus we have is that between work-from-home options and home schooling, there are humans around during the day to help with emergencies and you’re not always worrying about what disaster you’re gonna come home to. It can be done with everyone away during the day … but you need really good fences. :)

    The demand from local customers for grass-fed, naturally raised, locally grown meat is really encouraging though. My customers tell me how happy they are to have the option to get local non-factory meat and eggs, and more and more people are looking for healthier local choices. We have more demand than we can meet - something that’s definitely dependent on the economy being solid enough for folks to afford the premium (grocery store meat is way cheaper than ours), but … well … one step in the right direction, I suppose.

    Thanks, Sharon, for encouraging us to keep doing whatever we can do, at whatever scale we can do it. The one-foot-in-each-world thing wears me out and sometimes I think I have lost the last of my marbles … but then, I think about what would happen if I had no job … if fuel costs go up and driving to the store is expensive … as well as the cost of trucked in food … at least, with what we have started, we won’t starve. We may eat a lot of omelettes and lamb and chicken, and we may get sick of it, but we will eat.

    I confess that I’m rather afraid that I’ll live to see the day that “well, at least we all have something to eat” will be considered a major victory. Thanks for helping me realize that what I am doing now is “crazy” only if the world continues just like it is - which it isn’t gonna do.

  32. Anion 04 Sep 2009 at 10:40 am

    Apple Jack Creek

    Yes- being able to grow all my fruits and vegies is a real plus- so am looking foward to doing it as just a home-gardener……..

    I don’t know what will happen regarding whether people will just be looking for the cheapest stuff around or wanting quality- may depend on where you live perhaps and how the local economy there is doing.

    I guess I thought for a time when energy prices skyrocketed that this would make local more affordable and attractive than shipped in stuff- but then gas prices dropped and there went that hope! Who knows what will happen……

    I don’t personally do any livestock for meat being a vegie sort- but when done well it does seem to be somewhat profitable.

  33. Apple Jack Creekon 04 Sep 2009 at 5:26 pm

    Ani -

    For us, meat animals are really the only way to make use of the land we have - it’ll grow grass, but not a lot else. :) The land we live on wouldn’t sustain a lot of veggies or fruits, our climate has too short a growing season, and the land itself is marginal pasture land. Sheep are perfect for us … now if only my fence building skills could keep up with their escape skills (they were out again today … but my son rounded ‘em up and brought ‘em home!)

    Fortunately, the animals give us enough manure to build up a really good garden … well, judging by the success of the grass INSIDE the garden fence, anyway, it got away from me this year, big time! :) I’m thinking that as soon as I’ve harvested the last of the veggies, I’m gonna turn the sheep in there and let them graze it down - they might as well eat it (pastures are dry and overgrazed), and why not have them help me clear the land in preparation for next spring? They’ll enjoy the labour … I’d have to whack and dig and pull weeds that they consider delicacies! Just gotta figure out how to protect the strawberry bed from their nibbling teeth. :)

    Some friends of my parents did the market garden thing, like you, and they were UTTERLY exhausted by it. It is a stunning amount of work, truly, and I can totally see why it’s just ‘too much’. When the world shifts, and local is the ONLY choice, then it may start to make sense again … but who knows when that will be, eh?

    I hope your garden brings you much more joy when it can be the thing you do for yourself, not the thing that wears you out. :)

Trackback URI | Comments RSS

Leave a Reply