A headline we’d like to see

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by Brian Devore • When the New York Times‘ Andrew Martin dug into the results from the most recent U.S. Census of Agriculture, the resulting article had a clever headline: “Farm Living (Subsidized by a Job Elsewhere).” Which raises the question: what’s wrong with that?

Loon Commons is a blog of the Land Stewardship Project. Contact Loon Commons at bdevore@landstewardshipproject.org

As the Times articles points out, the 2002-2007 Ag Census shows that we have more smaller farms, fewer mid-sized operations (agriculture’s “middle class,” if you will) and more mega-operations.

A Star Tribune article localized the numbers: in Minnesota we added 2,200 “small” farms (well under 100 acres in size), and lost 2,100 mid-sized operations (defined as farms in the hundreds of acres size range) between 2002 and 2007. Meanwhile, the state added 100 mega-operations (2,000 acres in size or bigger) during that same period. Overall, Minnesota had 80,992 farms in 2007, a 153 increase from 2002.

LSP is doing some long-term excavation to get the skinny on some of these numbers. For example, how many of these small farms are actually producing food and fiber for sale on an ongoing, working basis, and how many are hobby farms?

LSP’s anecdotal evidence, gathered from our vast experience working with beginning farmers through the Farm Beginnings program, shows that a number of these new small farms are significant contributors to the local food economy. They are producing and direct-marketing naturally raised meat and produce to consumers who want food with a face behind it. They’re participating in the burgeoning Community Supported Agriculture model and supplying the growing organic foods market.

But as Andrew Martin points out in the New York Times, few of these smaller operations are providing a full-time living for the entire farm family. Skyrocketing health care costs, among other things, are sending at least one family member off the land to earn a living in town. Once in awhile you do run into a farm family that is deriving a full living from an agricultural enterprise. They are usually quite proud of that fact. For good reason—it’s a rare situation indeed.

In fact, the Rochester Post-Bulletin recently featured Eric and Lisa Klein, a farm family this is able to make a viable living on the land by producing naturally-raised meats for local markets. But they are the exception.

LSP’s Amy Bacigalupo, who was quoted in the New York Times article, made it clear in her comments that it’s very important for initiatives like Farm Beginnings to communicate to wannabe farmers that life on the land is not just another fun-filled episode of Hee-Haw. In a perfect world, all farming enterprises would provide enough income to house, feed, clothe, entertain and provide good health care to everyone living on that farm. But, of course, things are far from perfect.

“We try to dispel any myths that it will be easy,” Bacigalupo told the Times‘ Martin.

That’s why Farm Beginnings emphasizes careful business planning and the development of goal-setting skills. It’s also why even though it’s exciting to see that over 60 percent of the program’s graduates are farming, LSP also considers it a success when someone takes the course and decides that actually, farming is not in their future after all. Setting people up for failure through false expectations isn’t good for anyone.

One way to prepare people for life on the land is to make it clear that for the foreseeable future, anyway, at least someone in the farm family is going to need a town job. Health care costs alone make that almost a necessity. LSP is working with the Make Health Happen/Affordable Health Care for All Campaign to create a health care system that is affordable for everyone, including farmers.

Until that day comes, the off-farm jobs are going to be a reality, even in a local food economy. That’s too bad, but here’s another thought to keep in mind: how many households in general—no matter what the occupation of the inhabitants—are making a go of it on a single revenue stream?

As LSP’s Dana Jackson put it to me recently: “I’m waiting for the New York Times article headline that says: ‘Dentistry business not enough income for family; spouse needs to work’ or ‘School teaching not lucrative; family needs second income from spouse,’ or even, ‘Target managers need outside income from spouse salary offsite.’ “

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