The second week of the summer CSA heralds the first official day of summer. The summer solstice happens this week on Friday. We will experience our longest period of daylight for the year. Even though it’s officially summer this week, it still feels like mid-May. We are experiencing cooler temperatures after a cooler and wetter than normal spring. This is having two effects on the growing season. First, the spring crops like lettuce will last a little longer, but the second effect is that summer crops that were planted late as a result of the weather will not catch up easily. That means many crops will ripen later than usual this season and in smaller yields. Smaller yields means less farm income.
Farming is difficult. The national farm census numbers confirm that. It is difficult to fathom numbers like the median farm income is -$1530 and the average farm income is a little over $43,000. The average includes large corporate land trust farms, and the median income tells a clearer story. Over half of all farms are not profitable, and the average says that a family farm, consisting of 7 days a week, often 70+ hours/week of work might pay $43,000. Moreover, a small farm will need hundreds of thousands of dollars in capital investment for land and equipment, and medium sized farms need to carry millions in capital investment to make, if they are fortunate, $43,000/year with no insurance. Many farms in the Midwest did not even get their crops planted this season due to the extreme flooding of this season.
I have found myself in several discussions lately with people about farming. Often I am asked, why I farm if it is so difficult, and why don’t I quit. The answer is simple. If farmers, including me, quit farming because it is difficult, then who will farm? The reason that everyone is not responsible for gathering their own food, is that in a organized society, it is the farmers who provide the food to the system. If farmers quit because it is too difficult or nearly impossible to do, society cannot function. The average city in the US has three days worth of food in it. Without food coming in daily, farmers would be noticed quickly if they all quit. Obviously, there is food in the distribution system, but those reserves would be depleted fairly quickly without farms. The simple truth is that we need farms and passionate people to run them, regardless of whether they are profitable or not.
We are building our farm with a generational plan. We know that our farm won’t likely be profitable in my generation. We are spending all that we have to invest in the infrastructure required to start a farm so that we can pass it to the next generation, whether they are related to us or not. Even that may be difficult to do. The average age of a farmer in the US is over 58! That means that it is a dying profession. There are few new farmers because one cannot live on the income of a farm. Children are growing up on farms and choosing to do anything but farm. Can you blame them? This is a slow moving disaster that will be fully realized within a few years. There can be no society as we know it without farms. Imagine if we learned that doctors were aging out, and no one was entering the profession. Yet, we tolerate the steady decline of the profession that feeds ever human on the planet.
The model has never been sustainable. We want cheap food, and in fact we have a general expectation that food prices can never go up. We panic when they do. The prices that farmers are getting for most of their products is about the same as they have received for them for the past 40 years! All other costs have increased steadily, like fuel, seeds, fertilizer, housing, labor, etc. Farmers make less real money every year. It’s funny because as a culture we have grown accustomed to budgeting hundreds of dollars a month to eat out, hundreds of dollars for phones and gadgets, and yet we will walk up to a farmer and point out that we would love to eat more fresh food, but it is too expensive. Of course, not everyone does this, and if you are reading this email/blog, you are most definitely part of the solution. We are grateful for people like you, and you are one of the reasons I don’t quit farming. The problem is systemic, however, and the solution requires advocates, like you, to help raise awareness. The future of society as we know it depends on this.
As a culture, we have gotten by on the passion and commitment of farmers, but those farmers are dying. No one is lining up to work 70+ hours, invest millions, and likely lose money every year. That is why the average age of farmers is over 58! Farm laborers are paid sub-living wages as a rule as well. The legacy of cheap food is low quality food grown by a transient, hungry population of low-wage workers with landowners making the money. I will remain farming. Perhaps I am stubborn, or maybe deep down I am an optimist. Still what will we do as a society, when the last of the 58 year old farmers age out or die in their fields? We need to answer that question quickly before it’s too late. We will continue to invest and build a farm for the next generation, but the only way that our efforts won’t be in vain, is if there is some future for the farmer(s) who will resume our role out here someday. If the next generation of farmers cannot even make a living when given a head start in terms of the capital investment required to run a farm, there will be no future generation of farmers. If that is the case, it will be a loss felt profoundly by everyone.