Raised to Farm

Thursday, August 28, 2014


The original version of the following blog appeared on The Huffington Post website on Aug. 28, 2014.

Co-authored with Matt & Peg Sheaffer; Jennifer & Jeff Miller, Sandhill Family Farms; Mike Sands, Farm Business Development Center; Brad Leibov, Liberty Prairie Foundation; Ken Cook, Environmental Working Group; Karen Lehman, Fresh Taste.

We read Bren Smith's recent op-ed in The New York Times on the economic challenges of small-scale farming ("Don't Let Your Children Grow Up To Be Farmers," Sunday Review, Aug. 10) with concern. The column has provoked responses from many corners of the food movement, from farmers struggling to make the decent living Mr. Smith yearns for, to patrons of those farmers at local markets, in community-supported agriculture and farm-to-school programs, or at locally sourced restaurants. In policy and philanthropic circles, Mr. Smith's economic plight and policy concerns raise questions about the viability of smaller scale agriculture programs as effective tools for lasting economic development.

While we sympathize with his concerns about the economic difficulties farmers face, we strongly believe that business-minded folks can make a rewarding living farming. Working with nature is not simple. But you can make a good living at it when you get your business model and growing system in place. Several of us are partners of a successful organic vegetable farming business that currently supports two farm families as well as year-round and seasonal employees.

We also know many other farmers, both neighbors around the upper Midwest and colleagues around the country, who are making a decent living supplying the burgeoning urban and suburban market demand for fresh local food. What common characteristics do these successful farmers have? Perhaps the most important is that they have focused on and mastered the business side of the farming: business planning, credit management, cost accounting, labor management, market management, etc.

Off-farm income, particularly during start-up or lean periods, has often been part of the business plan. Historically, "part-time farming" has been the reality for much of American agriculture for generations. While some may decry the notion that farming as a full-time occupation often is not enough to pay the bills, in this economy there's something to be said - economically and socially - for households that have a measure of diversity in their income stream.

Farming is never an easy business, especially for new entrants. Capital costs (land, especially) are daunting, our new diverse businesses are complex and tough to explain to traditional credit institutions or other investors, markets are elusive and fickle, and then there's the rain: too much, too little, or just the right amount to give everyone a bumper crop that sends prices tumbling. And because the movement toward a more local and sustainable food sustainable system incorporates ethics and values that pay attention to the factors that conventional agriculture too often treats as "externalities," the odds have always been against it.

However, much the same must be said about any entrepreneur who bootstraps a small, independent, family-owned business. Whether it's a hardware store, a restaurant, a bookstore or a technology start-up, most struggle to make ends meet, and too many end up closing their doors.

The reality that everyone committed to local, sustainable and just food systems must face, however, is that we are still early on in the movement. We are still sorting out markets and reinventing cost-effective distribution systems. Continued growth in the market channels for such food - in schools, hospitals, food trucks, farmers markets and through locally-supplied retail co-ops, groceries and supermarkets - is critically important to ensuring that small "foodshed" farming operations are profitable contributors to sustainable economic development. Unfortunately, the regulatory environment for these innovative enterprises hasn't kept pace, making it even more difficult for these businesses to succeed.

No one wants non-profit ventures to drive out commercial farm entrepreneurs, but in our experience, foundations and other charities have rarely financed farming operations that undercut farm businesses. If anything, charities have invested in efforts to create and widen demand through marketing channels for fresh local food - such as the growing movement to get local food into our schools - or to make urban farmers markets attractive for food stamp beneficiaries.

Mr. Smith's essay does raise important challenges that the local farming movement and our larger community need to address head on. Two important areas for focus are high quality training and a more appropriate and equitable policy environment.

Young people are often motivated to take up farming by the excitement and rewards of growing food. But much, much more must be done to train new farmers, particularly in the business side of local food production: marketing, pricing, cost control, economic return to labor and so on. Programs such as Farm Beginnings, Holistic Resource Management and targeted business programs at our local educational institutions need support and investment. Experiential training programs such as apprenticeships and internships need to find better ways to discuss the business side of the farm. We need mentors to step forward who can build a financial spreadsheet as well as a composting system.

At the national policy level we need a farm bill that rewards all farmers who steward our common natural resources and holds accountable those who don't. We need a farm bill that provides support for the development of new local food marketing, aggregation and distribution systems. Recognizing the opportunity, the Farm Credit system has already moved to change its policies to improve lending to this sector. Others need to follow suit. At all levels, we need a regulatory environment that is more flexible and encourages innovation rather than stifling it.

Equally important are innovations that can provide local farmers with affordable access to land through long-term leases and even land ownership. Land trusts and public land protection agencies are particularly well positioned to play important roles here because these organizations own thousands of acres of farmland across the country and because local, sustainable farming is far more in keeping with their missions than conventional agriculture. By providing long-term leases to sustainable farmers and taking active steps to reduce the often-prohibitive cost of traditional farmland purchases, these organizations can foster richer soil, protect streams and lakes from pollution, support local pollinator populations and contribute to vibrant community life.

There is also a significant need for high quality information about the economics of this new movement. At this point there is a paucity of data regarding the range of returns that diverse local farming operations are experiencing. In the commodity farm sectors, we have accurate statistics on farmers' revenues, costs and net returns. In the immature local food sector we lack that data and must rely on individual anecdotes, such Mr. Smith's or that of Sandhill Family Farms.

We wholeheartedly affirm that the movement toward a culture and economy built on healthy, earth-sustaining food won't succeed if the people doing the hard work of growing that food don't flourish as well. The title of Mr. Smith's piece struck us as largely a plea from a place of pain. We know many farmers are haunted by the financial strain of making even the most productive operations economically viable. Yet we are hopeful that people who care about healthy food and a farmers movement together can create a new food paradigm in our country that will make farming an appealing career choice for the next generation. The good news is that the number of people who are committed to good, humane food is growing quickly and is far broader than the "foodie" label suggests.

Now is the moment to provide more support to the field to enable rather than discourage farm entrepreneurs. Local, sustainable farming is a critically important and noble calling. Our health, the health of our communities and even the health of our planet depend on more children growing up to be farmers and being able to grow good lives in the process.



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