As I finish my Sunday morning coffee after breakfast and chores today, I find myself thinking about many things related to farming. Often times, I am not sure what I will write about until I sit down at the keyboard, and today is no different. Maybe today is different, though, because I have been thinking all morning about how lucky I am to be a farmer and to have the support of so many people. I have also been thinking about other farmers today and the challenges that they face daily, and lastly, I have been thinking about what defines a successful endeavor. Perhaps, I can make some sense of these ideas before I am done.
After returning from vacation last week, I have been thinking about what I might do when I stop working. The implication in that line of reasoning is that somehow we have these two lives, our work life and non-work life. In our work life, we do something “productive” for society where productive is usually defined as having some economic benefit, and in our non-work life, we do activities for ourselves. At some point, we are supposed to gracefully exit our work life and ride into the proverbial sunset of our non-work life. When I examine that paradigm, however, I realize that its underlying premises may be flawed.
The first flaw I think I see is that I think that we do not necessarily have to separate our lives into work and non-work, and that in our work life we must produce a positive economic value to be considered successful. Reducing our value using purely economic considerations has led to many unfair societal evaluations, including but not limited to, how our culture has treated women, especially in the workplace, when childcare issues arise. Taking a sick child to a doctor does not contribute economically, and therefore, a parent who engages in such activities is seen as contributing less. Yet, who among us would ask that our children remain sick because it is more economically viable that a parent report to work?
This space is too small to take on an entire economic idea, but I do want to steer this back to farming for a moment. In our economic system, for good or otherwise, food is considered a cheap commodity. Our culture gives little thought to its daily importance, and in an economic system that values monetary value in the highest regard, raw food has little value. Producers of raw food, AKA farmers, are left with profit margins that are slim to negative. I have often cited the national statistic from the last USDA Farm Census that showed that the median farm income was -$1530. We would love to only lose only that much money each year. This is not sustainable for our culture when farms are all but guaranteed to operate in the red.
People will pay hundreds of dollars for the latest electronic gadget, but complain when their grocery bill increases slightly. We occasionally have people who will stop by one of our stands to inform us that our prices are too high. I used to be embarrassed because I would see our food on the table through society’s eyes and completely dismiss the value of our work. Now, if I have time, I will seize the opportunity to help educate them on the realities of our food system, like low incomes for employees and farmers in general and the challenges of bringing organic food to market. It is almost always a positive exchange that results in a teaching moment not being wasted.
Even when things go perfectly, it is difficult to live on farm income alone. We, like the majority of farmers as indicated in the USDA Farm Census, have to work off of the farm to have the privilege to farm 50+ hours per week farming. We have been incredibly fortunate this summer. While we had too much rain in the spring that affected some crops negatively, we have mostly been disaster free. Earlier this spring, a storm that dumped 8 inches in one night tracked just 4 miles south of our farm. Storms with damaging winds and tornadoes have also missed us every time. Last week, a storm that tracked just 25 miles to our west, dumped over 15 inches of rain in a 24 hour period. Just 100 miles south of us, they haven’t had significant rain in a month. I am grateful, but the truth remains that farmers just north, south, and west of us have been devastated at times this summer For some of them, the season is over! They will receive no income for their full-time work. According to our society and its economic system, these farms have no value this season.
Some farms will be forced to lay off employees. Of all the things that scare me, this is my greatest fear. We have two employees who work all year with us, and about ten others who work seasonally. We realize the responsibility of paying their salaries, and what a job means to them and their families. We pay fair living wages to all of our employees. We do not feel that current minimum wages are sustainable for anyone involved. Farm work is difficult and requires a much higher degree of skill than most people realize. Most importantly, however, is the fact that people are the most important part of our farm or any farm, and we want to appreciate them appropriately by paying them fairly for the hard work that they do. When I think of the hard choices that a flooded farm near Madison, WI will have to make after the storms of this past week, I am sad for the farmer and his or her employees.
Some of these farms will survive because of the communities that support them, but none of them will survive because the farm has made them independently wealthy. There is just too much risk and too much that can go wrong. My neighbor, who is a conventional grain farmer who has done some organic projects with me, always says that maybe every 5th year or so he will have a year that will help him survive for four or five years. The rest of the years are full of weather-related or equipment issues.
Farmers must maintain large capital debt in the form of land and equipment to make even the most modest living. One flood or hailstorm can be a complete disaster. To make matters worse, while input costs have grown with inflation since the 1970’s, farmers’ incomes have stagnated at their 1970 values. Farmers receive a similar price for their crops as they did in 1970! Last year, the price for a bushel of corn was literally within pennies of what it was worth in 1970! I know personally that it is very difficult to raise the price on produce to better reflect the real cost of producing it. This is not sustainable either for our society.
With that reality on the table, I am still grateful for the opportunity to grow food. Susan and I live a simple enough life that we are able to leverage our income to subsidize the opportunity to work a second job, but that brings me back to my earlier point about work. I don’t see either of my jobs as work most of the time. I am a teacher and a farmer, among other things such as father, husband, grandfather, etc. Instead of living two lives, work and non-work, I feel like I am living one purposeful life that has meaning. In other words, I am fortunate enough to love what I work and work what I love. While money is a reality that our farm faces weekly, I do not define my life as successful or not based upon economic indicators. By those measurements, I am a complete failure.
Yet, I feel successful. I don’t feel that way because of what I do as much as with whom I am fortunate enough to collaborate. Without a community who supports our farm by subscribing to our CSA, or those who even on rainy days buy produce at our stands, we could not afford to return each season. It is a mutual exchange that humbles me every single day. You eat. Therefore we farm. Our community also consists of other farmers who work just as hard as we do and who face similar challenges every week. After all, we are all nothing without those in our lives who give it meaning. Our farm has meaning because those who support us give it meaning.
It is a new kind of economics where we find value in the meaning of what we do instead of what the bank says we are worth. We define something as successful, not because it allows one to take lavish vacations or drive expensive vehicles, but because it actually affects the world in a positive way. My life as a farmer is not separated into a work life and an non-work life. It is just a life.
Lastly, don’t forget the positive way that your actions have affected our farm. Some of you have watched us grow for a long time, but please know that by supporting us, you are doing more than just making an economic transaction. When you purchase produce from a local grower, you are making a statement that you value the farmer and what they do more than just a simple cheap commodity. In return, they value your family by growing food that is both medicine for your family’s bodies and souls. To me, anything that facilitates that mutual relationship is a successful endeavor.