9.5 min readCategories: Uncategorized
Farmer John
A homeschooling single dad living in an off-grid bus conversion named 'Totoro,' Spirit of the Forest. After nearly 20 years in the fields, John decided to go a *slightly* different route to keep Life spicy. You can find us in public lands, friendly farms and wild places somewhere between Hudson Bay Ontario, the Columbia River, the Ozarks and the Sky Islands of New Mexico and Arizona.

The farming model that many, if not most, operators take on are single owner and partnerships. These farms succeed though a tight management structure that allows them to cultivate and maintain a vision with all aspects of their farm operations. The scope of this management, however, is no simple task. A single owner farmer is responsible for not only the planning, budgeting, ordering, planting, cultivation and harvest of crops. They must also function as financial planner, accountant, contractor, long-term planner, marketer, mechanic, human resource manager, employee trainer. They must also be well versed with all stages of crop growth, harvest, storage, and pest remediation.

Farmers and farming partners of this sort are extremely resourceful people. They know how to prioritize and make the most of every dollar that comes in the door. They also tend to over identify with their work and their farms, leading to adrenal fatigue, decision making fatigue, burnout, and eventually exhaustion. This is the space and time where negative thinking is of little help and positive optimism has run out as they face the reality of their farms they have created — “Do the ends justify the means? Why am I working so hard for so little recompense? Am I working my farm or is my farm working me?”

This is where farms die. When all aspects of the farm are laid out on the dining room table one winter day and the chief cultivator(s) take a cold hard look at the balance sheet of their operations from a personal cost. This is the cost of worn out knees, the cost of decision making fatigue and multi-tasking that has eroded their focus, and, most importantly, there is the cost of personal identity where one’s role as farmer has consumed all of their vital life energy.

The role of farmer as cultivator of a livelihood and marketer of clean food is a just one, yet as I watched the farms of my day and those that preceded me die off, I wondered how the systems we were taught to create in and though were fundamentally skewed. Americans have an ideal of a farmer that so many in the fair and clean food movement wish to fill, consciously or unconsciously. This archetype holds fast at farmers markets and in the pretty pictures of an idealization that we keep propping up despite the fact that it only ever existed in our imaginations.

Once a market farm is three to five years deep from their beginnings, the cracks in that idealism begin to show. The farm has matured and made it. Mistakes have been learned from and remediated. The crops look good and the markets are established. This is where the routine sets in. This is where the joy and discovery of farming has opportunity to turn into farming for production, into making a living, and into the routines of obligation. While this trap is not inescapable, routines become habit and sometimes our habits are born from how we conceive of work and worry and constant repetitive action.

When we lose our beginners mind as cultivators, the farm is already beginning to die. I witnessed how the fair and clean food movement has a bunch of independent martyrs and saviors in its ranks as cultivators. While the world is in desperate need of change there are those among us willing to throw ourselves on the grenade of making that change individually because we cannot see a place to make it collectively, interdependently. The grenade we are throwing ourselves appeals as youthful idealism until we realize that we’re making our living three and four dollars at a time with bunches of arugula and kale and radishes. We find out that we’re alone as the architects of our own creations and that there are zero systemic supports in most areas that might enable us the space and time to do anything but give our whole focus to our farms.

My argument is that these farms were dead before they began. Existing farms with stable markets have limited options to transition their operations from generation to generation because few serious upstart farmers could afford the price tag for a well developed and capitalized farm. So, the farm gets pieced out to those that have yet to learn the lessons of agricultural economies that do not have long-term community support in place to sustain fair and clean food for the long haul.

The issues with the independence and hyper-independence of the farming ideal are then laid bare. A community has a core farm that sustains its market and CSA and coop and restaurants. That farm was established long ago and in the consumer mind will continue to exist forever, at least until it does not. Then, there are sad faces on the FacePage and news stories on the local NPR station announcing the death of another farm. Instead, maybe that farm just goes the way of the dodo and ceases to exist with little fanfare. Either way a community lost a precious resource and a family had to find a new way of making a living in the world.

The voices of those farms tell the tales. Stress, family time, complete exhaustion, excessive management time are more likely to lead to a farm’s death than money issues. Many of the farmers I know, including myself, that have quit were making good money, between $55 and $80k a year in profit. Sure, labor is an issue, but labor is always an issue. Farmers don’t get out because they don’t have enough greenhouses or tractors or because their market truck broke as these are all practical, solvable problems for well resourced, practical folk. They quit because when they look at the data on the dining room table and compare it to how they feel at the end of a season their energetic, emotional, mental and spiritual bank accounts are overdrawn.

They are fundamentally exhausted.

There is only one farmer I know that has survived decades of cultivation and makes a solid living as a flower grower. Her products are top shelf and her creative mind has found little niches that sometimes went big. After back to the landing in the 70’s she had a few acres to work with and learned to make the most of it. She’s the only farmer I know who has relocated her farm to a new plot of land, built a house, greenhouses and barns with her market income. Decisive and knowing that marketing is everything. She is particular about who she hires and the culture on her farm– and she works 20-30 hours most weeks. She has grand kids and the time to spend with them. She cares as much for the landscaping around her house as she does for her farm.

Vegetables were my bread and butter. The markup on vegetables, except in very high end markets, does not carry the weight of a high labor to price point ratio that flowers do. One cut on a flower farm might yield $1 to $20. That same effort on a vegetable farm might yield $0.50 to $4. The landscape of a flower grower is very different from that of a direct market vegetable grower. In fact, that same vegetable grower would not be in business at all if they only supplied wholesale markets unless they were able to take advantage of economies of scale where sales volume overcomes low margins.

Low margins are an artificial construct. Can one place a dollar value on fair and clean food grown in and for community? Yet within the economic and social constructs of our day and age we have continued attempting to adapt right food with an economic system that expects farmers not only to fit neatly into a picture perfect image, complete with a red truck and tractor, but to run an operation singlehandedly with mostly untrained seasonal labor who rarely get a fair wage. The farmers themselves get the least wage, even compared to their hourly hires as a farm netting $35-55k is a pittance if the total labor hours of the owner are tallied and divided by the farm’s net income.

How does $5-10 real dollars an hour sound to you for running your own business?

“You have to put in the time when you own your own business, what about sweat equity?”

Sure, kind of. Many businesses that start today are scalable beyond a community-centric market. Owning and running a restaurant is no joke, but if the owner is successful that success might include additional locations, a franchise, or the hiring out of the management. A fair and clean market grower will never know such limitless potential in their business. All a vegetable grower can do is grow more for the highest price available if the capital is available, if the land is available, and if the labor is available. Then, once they have reached the pinnacle of their farm’s development market changes outside of their control as a wholesaler can wreck their dreams and finances with sudden changes like the loss of a major buyer or the bottom line squeeze of a big retailer.

Market growers are making systemic change and bringing food back into relationship with community. There is intangible value there. Americans live in a disassociated food system where the connection between soil and seed and fork is chaotic and schizoid. The unreality of grocery store abundance comes at the cost of health and ignorance and connection. Yet the convince of the three day supply of food at the grocery wins out many times over making commitments to the health and vitality of themselves, their communities and the farms that serve both. We take for granted that the grocery store shelves will be full. We take for granted that local farms will continue to serve our wants and needs. All these farms have asked of their communities is an unequal exchange of dollars for their goods.

Within the fair and clean food moments a reckoning is necessary. If one values fair, clean food and one value’s one’s food security and the sustainability of their community, then we need a new contract with local farms. This contract needs to look deeply at the marketplace system, the grocery store distribution model, and the relationship and value that community has with the land on which it finds itself. That relationship includes farms, farmers, seeds and harvest. The reality check of 2020 showed us the deep flaws in our food system. The death of successful farms demonstrate that there is great need in supporting local farms and farmers. The history of agriculture shows us that viable communities take care of their soil and primarily eat cleanly within their communities.

Put a hoe in someone’s hand. A lawyer. A student. A contractor. A stay at home mom. All are equal in their ignorance on how to use it, and all are equal in their ability to learn.

How can the model for local food be reclaimed to benefit all aspects of our communities, deepening our relationship with not only each other, but the land itself?

How can farmers go from a independent hyper-independent mindset to one that releases the reins of control and allow community into their spaces and places in mutual benefit?

What shifts might need to be created so that fair and clean food farmers can go from surviving their farms to thriving with their farms in relationship with their communities?

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