This Week on the Farm 12/18
It has been almost a month since our last blog update. Time does seem to fly by in the late fall/winter months. Since Shelbi left last month for her winter job it has been very quiet on the farm. Tyler’s parents left for Florida on Halloween and Tyler started working at a local cabinetry business the first week in November, so it has really just been me and Devin taking care of the farm.
We have been listening to a lot of Christmas carols while we play with blocks and dump trucks, particularly John Denver and The Muppets. There is a song on the album that starts “The season is upon us now/ A time for gifts and giving/ And as the year draws to its close/ I think about my living.” Every time I hear the song I think about the ups and downs of farming and what that means for us as a family.
There was a lot of hoopla this past August when an opinion piece in the New York Times was published where the author wrote that he didn’t want his kids to grow up to be farmers because it was so hard to make a living. There was a pretty strong backlash from the “green” community that smaller farmers can indeed make a living from farming. One of the large CSAs in the Madison area responded in the Wisconsin State Journal, saying that they have been able to make an income from farming since the late ’70s and now are able to bring in a comfortable middle class income.
During August I really did not have time to write about this article or the responses that it generated, but it has stuck with me ever since. Although I do believe it is possible to make a living just from farming (otherwise Tyler and I would not be trying to do just that), I think that it takes a fairly long time for a farm to become self-sustainable. Every small to mid sized farmer that I know either works off farm part of the year (like Tyler), the whole year, has a spouse or partner that works off farm, or the farm is a retirement project. The reality as I see it is that many small farms like us are not able to see that transition period through and end up shutting down their farm or turning to other sources to try to make an income.
When we started farming in 2010 we started with a tiny amount of savings that helped us purchase a 1955 Ford 860 tractor. Almost all the money that the farm has profited has gone back into the business to help build our infrastructure. We have invested heavily in our infrastructure because we believe the infrastructure is what will allow us to get to the size we need to be in order to make a living and so that we don’t wreck our bodies in the process. We have been able to put up a large greenhouse, invest in an irrigation system, build a packing shed, install a road to the back fields, purchase a two row corn planter, a two row transplanter, a three row transplanter, a 5’ rototiller, a 3-pt mower, a walk behind rototiller, replace tractor tires on our tractor (a set of rear tires was close to $1000), airplane tires for our bulk wagon (which was also purchased), and various other pieces of small equipment. We have been able to do all of that without taking a out a single loan from a bank. But it does mean that in the last five years we have personally taken out only $6,000 from the business to live on.
People have asked us in the past how many hours a week we work and it really depends on what time of year it is. From November to January we each work around 20-30 hours a week on the farm (Tyler works full time off the farm during that time). From February through March it bumps up to 40 hours a week. In April probably 50 hours a week. From May through September 70 hours a week is standard. October is down to about 55-60 hours per week. Most of this work (especially for Tyler) is outside and done rain or shine.
That all being said, Tyler and I enjoy what we do and we think that it will be possible to make a living off of the farm in the next year or two. The reason I am writing about this is that so many people have become disconnected with how food is grown that it seems odd to them that organic, locally grown food is sometimes more expensive. There is a reason for the cost. It is more labor intensive to grow multiple crops without the use of chemicals than to specialize in one or two crops and be able to spray to control insects and diseases. On our farm it is even more labor intensive since we have chosen to abstain from the use of all products on our fields, even those like Entrust which is approved under the National Organic Practices guidelines set out by the USDA. We are trying to return to a balanced system that isn’t reliant on organic or synthetic sprays. But that does mean more work and thus higher labor costs. We think that our members appreciate the extra effort to have food that can be eaten straight from the ground.
Getting back to the original article that prompted this reply, do I want our son to grow up to be a farmer? Yes, if that is what he wants to do for a living. But he will have to come to terms with the fact that farming rewards you in many, many other ways than just monetarily. There is something truly magical about harvesting peas in the rain and then looking up to the east past the trellising to see a double rainbow and then looking to the west to see a magnificent setting sun. He will have to ask himself, is it worth it? I hope that he thinks it is.