Why We Farm: The Final Chapter

I began Dissertation to Dirt hoping to answer a single question: can young Americans make a career of farming? It may not seem compelling at first, but that question is the heart of the food movement.
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Dear Readers,

This will be my last post on Homegrown.org. At least for a while. Let me tell you why.

I began Dissertation to Dirt hoping to answer a single question: can young Americans make a career of farming?

It may not seem compelling at first, but that question is the heart of the food movement. Why? Because for all the excitement around eating good, healthy whole food, we cannot have this food without farmers. More pointedly, we will not have this food without new farmers. You probably know the statistics. The average farmer is a 55+ male, and together they make up about 1 percent of the population. There are few local food chains left in the United States, and the majority of our food is made up of the same genetically-modified crops: corn, soy, and wheat.

If that's how we want things to stay, then nothing needs to change. But if we want to create dynamic, functional food systems that supply local areas, then farming must be accessible to those who want it. And if we want to create these systems sooner rather then later, then farming must not only be accessible, but also attractive, to young people starting their careers.

After three years of trying to make farming our living, Travis and I are leaving the fields. We've taken different jobs, and we're not planning on farming again until we can do it from a place of financial security and stability. So as for the question with which I began my blog, the answer, for me anyway, is no. Young people cannot reasonably have careers in farming in America. Here are a few reasons why it hasn't worked out for me:

Wages. As farm interns, we earned well below minimum wage. As farm workers, we earned between $8.50 and $10.00 an hour. And as farm managers, we earned $11.50. And... that's it. here was nowhere else to advance. We had no health insurance, no benefits, and often we weren't able to find consistent work 52 weeks out of the year. How long could we go on earning a static income, barely able to save money, and certainly unable to buy a house, have children, or have any luxuries in our lives?

Land Access. There is one place to advance from farm worker, and that's to farmer. But buying a piece of land and farming -- it meant loading ourselves with debt upwards of $300,000. Considering that working on farms had already depleted our life savings, we weren't interested in accruing debt at the very moment we'd have a hefty loan payment every month. Even with resources like the FSA loan, buying land is extraordinarily risky for a young farmer, especially if he or she has little or no financial parachute in case the business goes under. And for those working on farms for a length of time before applying to FSA, financial insecurity can usually be assumed.

Understanding and Support. While the food movement is incredibly supportive of young farmers, there is a lack of understanding of the difficulties of beginning a farming business. Starting a farming business is different than growing food in your spare time, on an abandoned lot with city water fees and no equipment. Starting a farming business requires money, all your time, and a lot of risk. I have had countless offers to both farm tiny plots of land with no infrastructure, as well as purchase large tracts for close to $1,000,000. Anything I felt was even close to feasible, I pursued, but because I wasn't willing to risk my finances or stability for my family, I never got very far.

On the other hand, those who do understand the intricacies of farming for a living -- other established farmers -- are not exactly waiting with open arms for young farmers. Farming communities vary from place to place, but often newcomers are viewed with suspicion. Even spite. And because labor is such a valuable commodity in farming, the temptation to take advantage of young farmers by making them work hard and paying them in "experience" is very high. While I've had some amazing mentors -- namely, Betsey Ryder and Fuad Aziz at Ryder Farm and Marysol Valle at Urban Roots, other farmers I've worked with have sought little more than to take advantage of my enthusiasm and work ethic for their own gain.

As the holidays approached this year, I had to take stock of my priorities. I first went into farming in order to take care of my family. But what I discovered is that farming alone will not let me do that. Agriculture has slid so far out relevance, it's going to take a lot of effort to bring it back into the American mainstream. While food and agriculture remain important to me, I think valuing it over my ability to provide for those I love would be selfish. Will Travis and I farm again? Perhaps. After we've made enough money to buy a farm on our own.

I want to thank all of you for following me on my journey. And I want to give a huge thank you to the folks at Homegrown and Farm Aid, who have been so supportive, so thoughtful, and have let me post whatever the heck I want here week in and week out. If I think of a way to further contribute to this conversation about farming in America, I'll be back and writing again. Until then, best wishes over the holidays. Peace!

This piece was originally featured on www.HOMEGROWN.org.

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