Labor of Love: Small-scale farmers in alternative food networks

The Blue Review

10/05/15

By Analena Bruce

It’s a cloudless Saturday morning at the farmers market, perfect for strolling past stands overflowing with tomatoes, summer squash and melons. Filling your bag with fresh grown goodness, you feel the satisfaction of feeding your family the best and knowing that your choice is helping a small farmer steward the land in the best way possible while making a living, right? Not exactly…

Here’s a day at the market from the perspective of Sue, a small-scale alternative farmer:

And then you go there, you’ve spent five or six hours preparing, getting your linens together, baskets and harvesting and packing and getting the coolers, the trailer and all that crap.

You get there. You stand around for five or six hours. You listen to people come up “Oh, yeah I have tomatoes. I have blah blah blah.” And they comparison shop. So these guys that are buying at the auction are undercutting you. Then you come home, and you have to unpack all this stuff. And it’s not worth it.

The problem is that many small-scale alternative farmers have trouble making a living from farming. Research suggests that many only manage to ‘get by’ if they have some off-farm wealth or outside income that enables them to operate the farm without earning sufficient income from it. If sustainable agriculture is only feasible for those who can afford a paltry income, the likelihood that it will transform the larger agricultural system seems low.

Kids, old farm truck, Cynthiana, Ohio.

Small-scale, alternative farmers practice a more environmentally sustainable, or more organic agriculture, meaning they avoid synthetic pesticides and genetically engineered crops, while building the organic matter in their soils, which provides greater resilience in drought and flood conditions. They grow a greater variety of fruits, vegetables and small livestock, selling their products in alternative food networks such as farmers’ markets, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) and farm-to-table restaurants.

THE DECLINE OF AMERICAN AGRARIANISM

As Americans, we place an almost religious value on small, family farms, and for good reason. Going back to Thomas Jefferson’s American agrarianism is the notion that family farms possess virtue and independence that is essential to our republic. Small-scale alternative farms of today capture the imagination of what farming should look like because they grow foods that people actually eat, rather than large-scale farms that typically produce one or two commodity crops for animal feed, biofuel or processed food fillers.

Traditional small-scale farms around the world produce a greater variety of crops more efficiently on less land with far less fossil fuel and chemical pesticides, by relying on intensive cultivation and careful management of complex, ecologically adaptive systems. Small-scale farmers provide important ecological services to society, growing a greater diversity of crops and planting locally adapted varieties, thus preserving genetic traits that may become essential in a changing climate.

Despite the apparent benefits, it’s disheartening that small and mid-sized farms are still going out of business in the U.S., while the number of large farms is steadily increasing. Large and very large farms now account for 30 and 47 percent of American agricultural production respectively, despite representing just 9 percent of the total farms in the U.S.

"Pastured Providence", a diverse livestock farm in Chillicothe, Ohio.

In general, farmers have been caught in a cost-price squeeze driven by their loss of control over production and marketing processes. Proximity to urban markets is important for alternative farmers’ ability to market their products directly to consumers, but the price of farmland, particularly on the urban fringe, has increased significantly. National farmland values doubled from $1,090 per acre to $2,140 per acre between 2000 and 2010.

Given the prohibitive cost of farmland and the increase of rented land (up to 38 percent of farmland in the U.S. is rented), many new farmers search for long-term lease agreements. However, these arrangements are very difficult to establish, given the high rental prices, reluctance of absentee landowners to take risks with new farming practices and the difficulty that beginning and alternative farmers have in accessing credit.

FIELDWORK IN THE ALT-FARMER FIELDS

To better understand how small-scale alternative farmers make a living, I did extensive fieldwork including participant observation on 25 farm tours, numerous food and farm events and working as a caretaker on a small organic farm in Southern Ohio. I did 45 interviews with farmers in Southern Ohio and founding members of the Ohio Ecological Food & Farm Association and professionals who work with farmers. The farmers also completed a survey about their land access, the percentage of their household income that comes from their farm, non-farm revenue and off-farm jobs and socioeconomic information. I spoke with farmers from a range of backgrounds and farming experience, from organic grains and dairy and small livestock to vegetables and cut flowers. With this data I identified three pathways into alternative agriculture:

  • nontraditional first-generation farmers who are inspired by the food movement,
  • experienced farmers who adopt organic practices to improve their financial standing,
  • and returning farmers who are a generation or more removed from agriculture, yet find new opportunities via alternative food networks.

My research revealed that one of the main reasons small-scale alternative farmers struggle is that growing food more sustainably is much more labor intensive. Small-scale alternative farmers are forgoing the synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, monoculture-based system, and economies of scale that industrial farming practices rely on. They are substituting their labor power for fossil fuels by investing significantly more time in the health of their soils. Making long-term investments in their soils with extended crop rotations, cover crops and amending with compost or manure requires a lot of work. In addition, many of them market their products directly to consumers, which is logistically challenging and time-consuming.

Farm in Cynthiana, Ohio.

Thus, while they achieve more profit per unit of production, these farms are logistically complex, highly labor-intensive operations. Organic price premiums are not high enough to compensate for these differences, so sustainable agriculture is an economically precarious enterprise. Beth described it this way:

Well, it’s way more hard work than you could ever imagine. Bob and I were just talking about that the other night and I was even crying about it. I was reading an article in Farming Magazine and this couple had just moved back to the land. It was a young couple and they had young children, and they were all idealistic. They had bought a cow that they were going to milk and had chickens. I was happy for them but it made me cry because I thought, they have no idea of what’s coming.

Half of the farmers I interviewed work more than 65 hours a week, and the rest work more than 40 hours a week on their farms or maintain full time or part time jobs off the farm. Diversifying their income by patching together different revenue streams enables them to offset the precariousness that defines small-scale farming. Keeping up with farm work in the evenings and weekends, often working into the dark, is common. For example, Sue works in commercial real estate and still manages her farm on the side:

Yeah, I do it… I’m working two full time jobs… I get up at 4:30 or 5 every morning and work the real estate part of it until usually my girls come, in the summertime they come around 8 o’clock, and we work til about 2. Then I go back to doing real estate until the evening. Then I go back out and work until dark. As my son says, ‘Mom, you have no life.’

Because managing their farms is so time-consuming, many small-scale alternative farmers find themselves caught in what Jeffrey Jacob called the time-money dilemma. This dilemma is that alternative farming requires a lot of work, but because much of the work is unpaid, it leaves farmers without sufficient income to support their efforts. Farmers with a time-money dilemma either lack adequate time or hired labor to develop sustainable systems because they are working off-farm to support their operations, or they lack the capital to invest in them. Richard describes it as:

Labor. Even though it seems like we’ve got it all together, we grow and then we hit this wall where we’re not making enough money yet to hire another person, but we know we need another person.

A consequence of the time-money dilemma is that it’s much easier for wealthy people or those with substantial off-farm income to practice this type of farming.

COMPETITION ON THE LAND

Small-scale alternative farmers also struggle to compete with highly capitalized industrial organic producers who use economies of scale to drive down the premium in organic prices through what Julie Guthman calls “organic lite practices.” Organic lite hamstrings small-scale farmers who practice a more comprehensive form of organic farming. Adam describes the challenge of selling to a restaurant that wants to work with local farmers:

That’s the challenge is it’s not sustainable. They’re not consistent. Their bottom line is so low that the prices they’re used to paying aren’t based on a sustainable system, so when they have to pay the prices of me or somebody, even though we’re not high, they can’t because of their bottom line.

The challenges facing small-scale alternative farmers are not an inevitable result of their size. U.S. farm policy dictates the structure of agriculture in a myriad of ways, and for the past several decades has given a competitive advantage to large commodity producers over small-scale diverse farms. The USDA’s Economic Research Service found that commodity payment programs are directly correlated with the concentration of farmland in the U.S. Median payments for farms operating on 1,000 to 10,000 acres were almost three times the median payment for farms operating on 500 to1,000 acres, and about 200 times the median payment for farms with 150 to 500 acres of farmland.

These commodity payments were directly correlated with the solvency of farm businesses that received them. Thus a significant portion of Farm Bill spending, which represents billions of dollars of tax payer money, goes to the production of a few commodity crops that will become animal feed, biofuel or the raw ingredients for processed foods and soft drinks, rather than high quality food grains, fruits and vegetables.

Agricultural policy and technological innovations in the U.S. have emphasized the perceived value of saving labor over the values of environmental sustainability, human health and farmers’ viability. The Green Revolution led to significant achievements in labor saving technology, resulting in extensive mechanization, genetic engineering to accommodate reliance on synthetic pesticides and herbicides and a monoculture-based system that produces a limited number of commodities.

Together with U.S. farm policy, these innovations accelerated the consolidation of the farm sector into larger and larger farms, resulting in the loss of small and mid-sized farms, serious environmental problems and unemployment and economic recession in farming communities. Alternative farmers practice ecological stewardship that has become critical in the face of climate change. Their higher labor requirements could be recognized and better supported as a social good with the potential to increase employment and enhance the vitality of farm communities.

FUTURE FARMING

Small-scale alternative farmers continue to persist despite all odds, partly because they are deeply passionate about what they do, work extraordinarily hard and make personal sacrifices that not many of us are willing to make. The farmer-owned and operated Organic Valley Cooperative has been very successful in keeping a fair and stable price for their members. In contrast to the other farmers I interviewed, the organic dairy farmers and organic grain farmers who sell their grain to them are able to make a living as farmers, earning greater than 80 percent of household income through farming. In fact, Organic Valley not only keeps a stable price for its members, but also sets a higher standard of fairness in pricing and contracts in the organic dairy market that other companies are forced to compete with.

Keep buying from alternative food networks but don’t stop there. Pay attention when the next Farm Bill, the big piece of legislation that shapes U.S. food and farm policy, is up for debate. The market for organically grown foods has grown by double-digits in most years since the 1990s, but there is a significant national shortage of farmers able to meet this demand. There is no reason we shouldn’t have a policy structure that reflects this demand and provides fair competition and equal opportunity for all farmers.