Written by Mari Omland
Read more in Vermont's Local Banquet Spring 2014 issue.
At a wedding last summer, I sat next to a neighbor who buys her Thanksgiving turkey from our farm. She described her daily drive-by dose of the farm, and her ritual of slowing down to see where the goats, pigs, and poultry had been moved. She said, “I’ve gotten to the point I think I should pay a toll to pass your place!” I joked, “In order for us to survive it might come to that!” The conversation awkwardly fell off. But it has preoccupied me since.
Later that same week, as I drove my 96-year-old dad to the doctor, he said, “I miss seeing farm animals on these hills.” I shouted to overcome his World War II deafness: “Small farms are coming back!” I repeated myself, unsure if he heard me, but also needing to bolster my own resolve.
Five years into our farm’s startup journey, my partner Laura and I are pleased with our progress and all that we’ve learned. We’ve restored long-neglected agricultural land to balance, woven our local offerings into the lives of our neighbors, mentored staff, and inspired hundreds of visitors. We’ve grown the farm’s gross annual income to $100,000 and see the potential to double that.
However, we have invested long, arduous days and our substantial mid-career resources. (I regret that with each pound of turkey sold, I may be sending off some change I earned decades ago from waitressing.) And in spite of successes, we are struggling to make our small farm profitable—which often leads to increased stress and a sense of failure. We’re grateful that we’ve been able to finance our startup ourselves, but we recognize that most of our farmer colleagues don’t have such reserves.
If we were the only farm struggling with profitability we would return to desk jobs in the nonprofit sector where both Laura and I found productivity, joy, and fulfillment. But as we gain entry into more intimate conversations with fellow farmers, I am increasingly concerned that profitability problems appear to be the norm. Especially distressing is the apparent lack of public awareness that this is so and the associated symptoms of long-term exhaustion, even burnout, evident among farmers.
Scale, efficiency, and a myriad of other factors influence profitability. But scaling up does not match well with our small, undulating acreage, nor would it enable us to meet the ecological and social mandates we’ve set for our farm’s complex bottom line. Instead, we are experimenting with scoping up, offering a tight weave of interconnected niche products (food, events, experiences, farm stays), collectively producing alchemy and value. We know we aren’t perfect, but we are very much trying to be at the leading edge, investing in appropriate technologies, honing best practices, yet finding that it is still not enough.
“You’re getting in at the right time,” has been the refrain of our savvier friends and relatives, who are aware of the new wave of national interest in local food. And there is an unending chorus of “Good for you—you’re living the life!” These are the moments when I ponder the disconnect between public understanding and the real situation. People are picturing the known satisfaction that comes with time outdoors and facilitating growth. Or they may simply envy the short commutes (like a walk from the house to the barn) or being your own boss. But many are unaware of the low wages and associated concerns such as retirement savings for farmers.
This isn’t new news. A June 2010 article in The American Prospect highlighted a Hudson Valley farmer who made just $7 an hour, even though he is well respected in farming and culinary circles and praised in the pages of Gourmet and by the likes of Alice Waters. The article went on to say that the same farmer “sells eggs for $14 per dozen.” And it concluded, “Most local, unconventional and organic growers don’t come close to earning a living wage from being farmers.” A harder truth is that this is a recurring pattern. The New York Times recently documented a meeting of “elders” within the organic farming community who discussed critical concerns about their own retirement.
The sobering reality of farmers’ wages is offset by certain factors such as tax breaks, value added to one’s land, the ability to grow one’s own food, and so on. But we farmers, broadly speaking, have not been clear enough about our struggle around profitability, neither with each other nor our customers. I’ve had the occasional buzz-killing moments when random people yell at us for our prices. “YOU MEAN TO TELL ME YOU’RE CHARGING $5 A POUND FOR TURKEY!?” I swallow hard, blush, and babble about organic grain costing more than double that of conventional grain.
Yet I resent being ashamed of the high prices of local food because I know it is costly to grow all food. Directing attention to why conventional, industrial food is so cheap seems helpful. Although obscured by distance and tied up in a complex weave of subsidies, the outsourced environmental and social costs of industrial food are significant and worthy of more dialogue and attention. As we know, the true cost of this food simply isn’t reflected in its price. I wonder if the high price of local food is really the problem or if it’s simply expectations of low prices for food in general.
At Green Mountain Girls Farm, our free-choice, full-diet, year-round farm share has been a focal point in the community for more than 230 weeks. Laura and I also embraced agri-tourism partly because it suits our personalities and because our infrastructure begs for this potential to be tapped. But we did it in large part because food grown at the small scale using environmentally and socially responsible practices produces small profit margins at best. Our initial success is promising. We host guests from near and far who share earnest interest in small farms and in growing food sustainably.
Together with colleagues in the Floating Bridge Food and Farms Cooperative, we see widespread hunger for hands-on farm experiences as well as food. And we are inviting Vermonters to access the working landscape and help move it from the background of tourists’ pictures to the foreground of our lives. In doing so, we reinvigorate and intensify Vermonters’ rural identity and, for that matter, the Vermont brand. This is a way to get significant dollars high into the hills.
The actual cost of local food may be too steep for many of us to afford, given the low wages earned by so many. If so, we need to shift government subsidies toward small farms. But this isn’t a handout; this is an investment in building soils and fertility into the land, increasing resilience in an era of climate change, mitigating the impacts of flooding, building connectedness and community, and guaranteeing that small farmers have the financial resources to do all of the above well into the future.
Additionally, farmers need a safe and transparent dialogue with each other about profitability—and a dialogue with their customers and communities. What if customers’ potential to contribute to the viability of small farms is under realized simply because they have never been asked to step up to the next level? Farmers need to ask themselves, “Are our prices lower than they need to be if we want to pay ourselves and our staff a living wage?”
Here is the good news. We can continue to support local food by enjoying it! To invest in this asset, simply shop more from farmers—even, as author Barbara Kingsolver notes, when it is raining! Understand the practices of the farms from whom you source food. Make your preferences known.
Keep celebrating the resurgence of small-scale farming, too. Even if profitability is problematic, we are cultivating wealth in soil richness, sparking community connections, assembling appropriate technology, and building skill and knowledge in a new generation. Know that it is possible but hard to raise food well. Know that farm-fresh food is of a different caliber in its nutrition and leaves a lighter footprint on the planet—and let’s continue to quantify that difference.
Beyond all this, remember that food draws people together and farms connect people with the cycle of life. People are as hungry for this connection as they are for nutritious food. Believe that farmers will thrive into the future and talk with them about that future. When there is grit on your veggies, like difficulty in your conversations, it means they are real. That realness builds connection, which we humans universally seek.
We need to actively co-create a marketplace that holds all our interests fairly and is therefore sustainable. Feel this push, advance anew, and let’s achieve the improbable together.