NEW HAVEN — AT a farm-to-table dinner recently, I sat huddled in a corner with some other farmers, out of earshot of the foodies happily eating kale and freshly shucked oysters. We were comparing business models and profit margins, and it quickly became clear that all of us were working in the red.
The dirty secret of the food movement is that the much-celebrated small-scale farmer isn’t making a living. After the tools are put away, we head out to second and third jobs to keep our farms afloat. Ninety-one percent of all farm households rely on multiple sources of income. Health care, paying for our kids’ college, preparing for retirement? Not happening. With the overwhelming majority of American farmers operating at a loss — the median farm income was negative $1,453 in 2012 — farmers can barely keep the chickens fed and the lights on.
Others of us rely almost entirely on Department of Agriculture or foundation grants, not retail sales, to generate farm income. And young farmers, unable to afford land, are increasingly forced into neo-feudal relationships, working the fields of wealthy landowners. Little wonder the median age for farmers and ranchers is now 56.
My experience proves the trend. To make ends meet as a farmer over the last decade, I’ve hustled wooden crafts to tourists on the streets of New York, driven lumber trucks, and worked part time for any nonprofit that could stomach the stink of mud on my boots. Laden with college debt and only intermittently able to afford health care, my partner and I have acquired a favorite pastime in our house: dreaming about having kids. It’s cheaper than the real thing.
But what about the thousands of high-priced community-supported agriculture programs and farmers’ markets that have sprouted up around the country? Nope. These new venues were promising when they proliferated over a decade ago, but now, with so many programs to choose from, there is increasing pressure for farmers to reduce prices in cities like my hometown, New Haven. And while weekend farmers’ markets remain precious community spaces, sales volumes are often too low to translate into living wages for your much-loved small-scale farmer.
Especially in urban areas, supporting your local farmer may actually mean buying produce from former hedge fund managers or tax lawyers who have quit the rat race to get some dirt under their fingernails. We call it hobby farming, where recreational “farms” are allowed to sell their products at the same farmers’ markets as commercial farms. It’s all about property taxes, not food production. As Forbes magazine suggested to its readers in its 2012 Investment Guide, now is the time to “farm like a billionaire,” because even a small amount of retail sales — as low as $500 a year in New Jersey — allows landowners to harvest more tax breaks than tomatoes.
On top of that, we’re now competing with nonprofit farms. Released from the yoke of profit, farms like Growing Power in Milwaukee and Stone Barns in Pocantico Hills, N.Y., are doing some of the most innovative work in the farming sector, but neither is subject to the iron heel of the free market. Growing Power alone received over $6.8 million in grants over the last five years, and its produce is now available in Walgreens stores. Stone Barns was started with a $30 million grant from David Rockefeller. How’s a young farmer to compete with that?
And then there are the chefs. Restaurants bait their menus with homages to local food, attracting flocks of customers willing to pay 30 bucks a plate. But running a restaurant is a low-margin, cutthroat business, and chefs have to pay the bills, too. To do so, chefs often use a rule of thumb: Keep food costs to 30 percent of the price of the meal. But organic farming is an even higher-risk, higher-cost venture, so capping the farmer’s take to a small sliver of the plate ensures that working the land remains a beggar’s game.
The food movement — led by celebrity chefs, advocacy journalists, students and NGOs — is missing, ironically, the perspective of the people doing the actual work of growing food. Their platform has been largely based on how to provide good, healthy food, while it has ignored the core economic inequities and contradictions embedded in our food system.
Unlike our current small-bore campaigns, previous food movements of the 1880s, 1930s and 1970s were led by highly organized farmers’ organizations — like the American Agricultural Movement, National Farmers Union and Colored Farmers’ National Alliance — trailblazing new paths for the economy.
They went toe to toe with Big Ag: crashing shareholder meetings; building co-ops and political parties; and lobbying for price stabilization. In the late 1970s, for example, small-scale family farmers organized a series of protests under the slogan “Parity Not Charity,” demanding a moratorium on foreclosures, as well as the stabilization of crop prices to ensure that farmers could make a living wage. They mobilized thousands of fellow farmers to direct action, including the 1979 Tractorcade, where 900 tractors — some driven thousands of miles — descended on Washington to shut down the nation’s capital.
It’s not the food movement’s fault that we’ve been left behind. It has turned food into one of the defining issues of our generation. But now it’s time for farmers to shape our own agenda. We need to fight for loan forgiveness for college grads who pursue agriculture; programs to turn farmers from tenants into landowners; guaranteed affordable health care; and shifting subsidies from factory farms to family farms. We need to take the lead in shaping a new food economy by building our own production hubs and distribution systems. And we need to support workers up and down the supply chain who are fighting for better wages so that their families can afford to buy the food we grow.
But none of these demands will be met until we start our own organizations — as in generations past — and shape a vision of a new food economy that ensures that growing good food also means making a good living.