Can new farmers make a living farming?
The answer is, unequivocally, no.
At least certainly not during Year One. As I have not yet moved passed the planning stages of Year Two, I’m unable to tell you at what point in your new farming career you will actually begin to make money.
But the consensus from the field does not look promising. In fact, the true answer is probably: Maybe never. I wanted to dig a little deeper into Jaclyn Moyer’s excellent tell-all piece from last year:
On the radio this morning I heard a story about the growing number of young people choosing to become farmers. The…www.salon.com
I wondered how many small farmers actually made a living. Before I set out trying to answer this question, I had to define what constitutes “a living.” I decided making a living meant three things: 1) The farmer had to pay herself a weekly wage that equaled what a person working full-time would make on minimum wage, which in my town would be $360 per week. 2) The farmer had to abide by labor laws, meaning no unpaid workers or interns doing essential farm tasks. 3) The farmer had to earn her income from farming, which meant nonprofit farms that survived on grants and donations didn’t count; neither did farms that sustained themselves on outside income sources.
I talked to all the farmers I knew, considered farms I or my partner had worked at in the past, farms I’d visited, friends’ farms. Most farmers I talked to worked outside jobs to keep their farms above water, others skirted by on an income they calculated to be $4 per hours, and most depended on interns, volunteers or WWOOFers for labor. I did not encounter a single farmer who met my requirements.
Paying yourself a salary — good luck!
Personally, in my first year, I did not manage to make a profit (at least not in $$$), so there is no way that I would have been able to pay myself a salary. I averaged about 30 hours of work per week.
In order to pay myself minimum wage ($10.55 in Quebec), I would have had to earn $316.50 over my total expenses per week. How many weeks did I actually work? It’s a bit tough to say…
In my first two months (March & April), during which I got geared up and began perfecting my microgreens technique, I never made a sale more than $17. Things started picking up in May a little, so let’s start there — even though my outdoor stuff (and animals) didn’t start in earnest until June, after which the danger of frost is finally passed here. Though I had a few scattered sales after, my season functionally was over the first week in November. Hours worked dropped off significantly in early to mid-October, but let’s just call it 26 weeks.
26 weeks * $316.50 per week = $8,229
Now, my total sales during the entire season did not even reach that amount: it was closer to $7,500 (itself $1,500 less than my total expenses).
If we add my total expenses ($9,000~) to my theoretical minimum wage salary paid to myself, I would have to earn $17,229 in sales in order to be able to fit Moyer’s totally reasonable and realistic financial model for a “viable” small farm.
No unpaid labor
Despite the fact that I spent months WWOOFing, working on small organic farms in exchange for room and board, I made a commitment during my first season to not rely on volunteer, unpaid or intern labor. I fully understand that this is pretty much what powers most small commercial farms, but I didn’t want to go that route because I don’t like it. It doesn’t make sense to me in any other context to work as a volunteer at a for-profit business, so why is it acceptable in agriculture?
Your mileage getting started, of course, may vary. But that is my experience. Part of the goal I set for myself was to be able to run a small farm enterprise as one person working part-time. I succeeded at least in that, even if I didn’t turn a profit.
No outside work
So, 90 percent of farmers in this country rely on an outside job, or a spouse’s outside job, or some independent form of wealth, for their primary income.
I understand that her research criteria were stringent for a reason — to prove the point that it’s neither sustainable nor viable economically for the average farmer to run their farm. And she laments that most of their family income came from her partner working as a carpenter and her working as a baker off-farm.
Personally, I worked part time at a local slaughterhouse during the season — from the end of June to almost Christmas. It was one day per week until September when volume increased enough that we moved to two days per week. I also did a handful of small web development projects totaling maybe $2,000, and had also a partner working full-time off farm.
The way I see it is we could either (1) lament the fact that farmers can’t work full-time on-farm and make a full-time income above expenses. And this is certainly a major travesty. But if we’re the kind of people who still want to start a farm, despite a clear understanding of the massive hurdles we’ll encounter, we could also (2) accept and plan for these facts.
That is, if you’re going to start a farm: don’t plan to be able to pay yourself during Year One (or probably for some time after). Don’t plan to make a profit during Year One. Don’t plan to work full-time on-farm Year One either, unless you have money saved, a partner working full-time or “other income” — whatever that means.
There is nothing inherently wrong with working part-time off-farm. There is no shame in having a partner who brings money into the farm while you work to develop the business. There is nothing wrong with fueling a farm from your savings or other income. In fact, we could say that satisfying at least one of these conditions is a requirement.
Farming is busted
Because let’s face it now: small farming is broken. There is no way around it. Economically, you can’t survive from only that. So knowing that, make other plans and do what you have to do to make it work.
But farming will not be repaired and harmonized with a sustainable ecological food system if we all just throw our hands up and say “It’s impossible!” and give up because we have set for ourselves too strict criteria to follow in order to feel successful.
To fix farming, we need new farmers. We need them to start any which way they can. We need them to experiment, share their results and talk openly about the challenges they face. And we need them to not stop!
If your goal as a new farmer is full-time income over and above expenses, I encourage you to plan to fail. In fact, I guarantee it!
But if you’re the kind of person drawn to this world and this lifestyle, do it anyway. Try, fail, pick yourself up, do it all again and do it better. I’m no expert either, but I’m going to keep trying.