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Ten Million Dollars, Small Farms, Food Choices

February 11, 2015

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOne of the incredible things about agriculture is the vast array possible. From urban gardens to organic to thousands of acres being tended by families, agriculture provides great abundance. It provides ingredients for family meals as well as toothpaste, bullets and guitar strings.

It also, sometimes, provides for interesting conversations. On the sustainable front we have a ways to go, and are not alone. Many small farms are struggling, as indicated in yesterday‘s post. Why am I so sure we’re not alone? It’s Monsanto right? The government? No. It’s the same reason that we exist – food choices. Consumer choice doesn’t always support small farms, and it’s blamed on poor management, poor marketing or…we just don’t want it bad enough. Hogwash.

According to USDA data from 2012, intermediate-size farms like mine, which gross more than $10,000 but less than $250,000, obtain only 10 percent of their household income from the farm, and 90 percent from an off-farm source. Smaller farms actually lost money farming and earned 109 percent of their household income from off-farm sources. Only the largest farms, which represent just 10 percent of farming households in the country and most of which received large government subsidies, earned the majority of their income from farm sources. 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.

How about a reality check? Bare bones truth – I’ve been pretty transparent here, the good times and the low ones too. They pass! But if 90% of consumers seriously, really want to know where their food comes from then y’all better get with the 90% of farmers that need more income! Sustainable isn’t just weed control or the type of seed. That’s a national statistic – that means the city areas and flyover country. And which are thriving? They bristle at being called poor. Larger farmers, with volume production. Even that isn’t always what it seems.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI was recently talking with a good farmer – a large scale farmer playing in a much different playground than myself but with common ground in growing some nonGMO for the market. His was dwindling, and it can cost him to grow it. Looking at operating this year means a $10 million loan – that’s money that must be paid back and is not profit at the end of the year. I won’t say where this farmer is or who it is, as that’s not my point. The point is, not all is what it seems and whether large or small, for varied markets and different demand on the food choice scale, there’s incredible risk carried before a sale comes. The amount may be less for us, but the percentage of risk is no more serious. If not for farmers like that, farmers like me wouldn’t have chickens because of room to raise feed for them. If not for farmers that grow hay, our rabbits would have less options for their natural diet.

Be it large or small, management decisions can be dire. It’s not for the faint of heart and sometimes it just outright sucks. Sometimes all looks well and in the middle of the night a blown breaker means losing many chicks – that’s income lost. Sometimes promises don’t happen and we’re scrambling to cover $250 every bit as desperately as the farmer with a $10million loan on his shoulders.

And behind it all is food choices. What consumers buy when they go to the grocery store. No what they really buy, not what they say they buy. Folks aren’t nearly as ready to wean from the grocery store as they say, with less direct market and more links in the food chain. Before blaming corporations, pesticides, GMO or the government take a good hard look at what society overall is asking from us. Variety, low cost, convenient and abundant.

The length of the food chain depends on your choices. If you want lowest cost, per unit large volume then there’s a farmer with a loan to pay who is eager to fill your request. If you want something different, we’re just as eager to fill that market. With over 310 million people to feed just in the USA, none of us can do it alone.

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