For most Americans, income is a simple exchange of labor for money. Go to work 40 hours a week, perform specified tasks, collect a paycheck.
For farmers, especially market farmers, earning an income is far more complex, without any guarantees their labor will produce an income. Before an income can even be anticipated, a large outlay of cash is necessary. Land rent or purchase, equipment to till the soil and plant the seed, the seeds themselves, are upfront costs incurred months, and often years, before a crop is ready to harvest.
While commodity crop farmers can do much of their work from the seat of a tractor, market farmers, those who grow crops or raise livestock for direct sales to customers, do much of their labor in a more physically demanding, hands-on fashion. Planting, weeding, harvesting, and moving animals from paddock to paddock are accomplished under muscle power rather than tractor power. On-farm processing or transporting animals for off-farm processing are time-consuming tasks, as are keeping the farm’s licenses and record-keeping up to date. Work days are frequently twelve or more hours long, six or seven days a week. Seventy to eighty hour work weeks are considered normal during most of the growing season.
But working hard is no guarantee of income. Seeds have to germinate, rains have to fall, weeds have to be pulled. Strong winds, a pounding rain, hail or an untimely frost can decimate a crop in minutes. Livestock can be lost to accidents or fast acting viruses. Months of work can be lost in a heartbeat. Insurance? Not likely. Crop insurance for market farmers is not widely available and is costly when it is. Insurance on livestock is very specific for types of losses, and, it too, is expensive.
Once a farmer has beautiful fruits and vegetables, delectable meats and eggs, artisan cheeses and other specialty products, an income still has not been attained until the product is actually sold. Preparing for market usually requires a full day or more of harvesting, washing, and labeling. On market day, everything must by packed and loaded for transport, including all the tables, baskets, and other paraphernalia needed for presenting the products. At the market, attractive displays must be rapidly constructed to attract customer attention. After all the preparation, what happens if the sky is dumping buckets of rain? No customers. Or, what if all the farmers show up with piles of the same thing? Not enough sales. Or perhaps, there is another event that the customers attend rather than visiting the market? Not enough customers or sales. So the farmer goes home with the fruits of his/her labor, but no cash. Unfortunately, bunches of carrots do not pay the electric bill or cover health care. Nor does it replenish the outlay of cash that was required to produce the crop.
Loyal customers who make consistent purchases week after week can be a stabilizing force in this uncertain equation. If a farmer can rely on one hundred customers to each spend $20, he/she goes home with at least $2000. But that $2000 still doesn’t represent income. First the production costs must be paid. Then there are costs associated with transporting and marketing the products. The amount left after those costs are met is the farmer’s actual income.
Faithful customers impact a farmer’s income in additional ways. As the farmer gets to know his customers’ needs and buying habits, he can adjust his production to grow more lettuce and fewer potatoes, or raise a few more pigs and fewer chickens, thus eliminating expense that may not be recouped if the product remains unsold. As customers learn what products are available throughout the season, they can adjust their menu plans to take advantage of seasonal delicacies like asparagus and morels or maitake mushrooms and spaghetti squash. Obviously, as consumption increases, so do sales. Sales also increase when satisfied customers tout the virtues of “their” farmer’s products. Whether it happens away from the market with family and friends or while waiting in line at the market with a bunch of strangers, a comment like, “Last week I got the best tasting strawberries I’ve ever eaten!” generates an increase in sales and often results in a new regular customer for the farmer.
Every season, a market farmer chooses to take a risk, planting seeds in hopes the rains will fall, the sun will shine, the crops will grow and the customers will buy generously. Farmers take pride in supplying beautiful, nutritious food to consumers who deeply appreciate their efforts. This interdependence is far more than a means to an income. It is an interlocking set of relationships, based on needs and fulfillments. Obviously, humans need to eat, farmers provide the food. Farmers need an income, customers provide payment for the food. But the relationships are far deeper and complex. The land on which the food is grown needs to be protected and replenished so that food can be grown not just for one lifetime, but for all the generations to come. By choosing to buy food from a farmer who nourishes his land, consumers are buying a wholesome food future for their children and grandchildren. Not only will the land persist in bringing forth a bountiful crop, but the farmer will continue his stewardship and pass that wisdom to the next generation of farmers.
Within this multifaceted relationship, a farmer’s income is the most fragile component. Because profit margins are so slim, inadequate income during just one or two seasons can eliminate a market farmer’s financial ability to continue taking risks. Generations of farming wisdom are lost. Often that land disappears from food production altogether.
As a consumer, you have the power to strengthen and stabilize this delicate connection, bringing a measure of security to your food future. Choose three or four farmers who can provide your fruit, vegetables, grains, meats and dairy products. Commit yourself to buying your weekly groceries from your farmers first and filling in from other sources only when necessary[i]. Adjust your eating habits to accommodate seasonal availability. Develop an ongoing dialogue with your farmers so you better understand the challenges they face. And above all, spread the word!
[i] Purchasing CSA (community supported agriculture) shares are a great way to do this. You get a certain amount of farm products each week at a pre-determined cost. Your farmer knows how much to grow and you know you can put delicious, wholesome food on your table. Often CSA shares can be picked up at your local farmer’s market so you can purchase additional items while you are there. Alternatively, you could organize a CSA drop at your workplace, sharing the goodness with your co-workers and increasing your farmer’s income!
February 16, 2012
I planted lettuce, radishes and basil today, and worked up a sweat in the process. The air temperature was about 85 degrees and the humidity was well over 70 percent. Yes, I was still in Minnesota and there were still several inches of snow on the ground. But that really didn’t matter because I was inside one of our high tunnels, a double layer inflated plastic marvel that allows us to grow vegetables right in the ground all year round. Without heat. Yep, even when it’s twenty below outside.
I had already put in a fourteen hour day making a batch of cheddar, before I headed out to play in the dirt. I am not trying to impress you with my workaholic tendencies. Nor am I looking for sympathy. I had intentionally started my day at midnight, for the express purpose of finishing the batch of cheese early enough in the day so I could take advantage of the sunshine.
My kids always laugh when I say I’m going out to play in the greenhouse. My daughter, Bethany, thinks it strange that I choose to spend my downtime in the greenhouse working. But to me, it’s not work. I may be completing tasks that need to be done, but working in the soil is so elemental, it brings so much satisfaction and contentment to my spirit that it can’t possibly be work.
I come from a long line of farmers. In fact, my cousin has traced the family tree back over almost two and half centuries. Guess what? Every single generation farmed. Some of them did other things as well, they were an extremely well educated bunch, but no matter what other occupation they may have had, my branch always farmed.
That passion for farming is probably what caused my ancestors and I to happily work sixteen hour days to earn a living.
Each generation has put a different twist on the way agriculture is practiced. Many of the changes were wrought because of advances in science and technology. Some changes were good, others not so much.
But I certainly love the inventions that are allowing us to grow real food in Minnesota in the middle of winter. Namely, clear plastic that doesn’t get brittle in the sun or in freezing temperatures, wiggle wire that holds the plastic in place and Ty-Vek® tape.
The rest of it is just applied science and mathematics. Example: the density of soil allows it to hold heat. A larger mass of soil holds more heat than a smaller mass. Therefore a larger greenhouse has greater heat retaining capacity than a small one.
So I get to put all that high school science, physics and algebra to use in doing what I love best: growing food. And I get to do it when most farmers are only dreaming about spring planting.
 We use the terms high tunnel, hoop house and greenhouse interchangeably on our farm even though each is technically distinct.