Authors note: This article was initially written for a Slow Food group in California, that is why there is a particular focus on the struggles of California farmers. I have found similar struggles throughout the country as we talk to farmers, but it is true the California has a particularly tough land market.
According to the latest USDA Census of Agriculture (2007), there are a little over 2 million farms and ranches in this country, at least those that fill out the mandatory census once every five years. This number has held fairly steady since the 1970s with a few dips and hills but always holding around the 2 million mark. The majority of these farms are family-farms, meaning that the principle decisions are made by the family (or at least the owner-operator) and financial resources accrue or disappear from that same family. Average farm size in this country has decreased somewhat to 418 acres, down from 441 acres in the 2002 Census. This makes sense since there are many more farms under 49 acres in this country- some would call that an expansion of “hobby farms”. In many cases these are little ranchettes, oversized rural lots in which a few cows might be raised or a few acres of corn. In fact, most farms in this country sell less than $25,000 worth of products- a whopping 71% of farms are in this category. Along the same vein, 64.7% of farm operators have off-farm jobs and 40% actually work FULL-TIME off their farms in addition to working many long hours on the farm. This may point out that their farms are just hobbies to keep them busy on the weekends, a tax shelter so they can own land in the country, or that farmers are not earning enough income in their farming endeavors to support their families so they have to work off the farm. Working two jobs sounds like an 80 hour work week to me- a great way to wear someone out physically and mentally. Likewise, 53% of US farms had net LOSSES of an average of $15,596. How many businesses do you know in which 53% of the players in that industry loose money each year? It’s normal in agriculture, but should not be the norm.
Why do I point out all these gloomy figures? Because despite the best efforts of the Slow Food movement, the rise of farmers markets and CSAs, and a near obsession with food right now in this country, farmers are NOT DOING WELL AT ALL. In the 1950s, farmers earned an average of 41% of each food dollar. Now they are earning a paltry 16%. When land prices, fuel, seed, feed, water, and labor costs continue to rise, their earnings continue to tumble. Numbers tell you one side of the story, but personal stories will add some heart to it. Here are a few of those stores that we have heard while we travel the state talking to farmers. In order to give respect to the honest and sometimes difficult stories that folks have shared with us, I have created fictional names for each farmer.
Meredith has tried to find the right blend of direct markets such as her CSA and farmers markets that she attends with a little bit of wholesaling to stores and restaurants. She had a couple great years selling heirloom tomatoes to Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s before they pushed the prices down and started buying from larger farms. She has tried for years to get into the decent farmers markets in and around the county where she farms, but ironically she can’t even get into the farmers market located a stone’s throw from her main farm fields. She has patiently sat on the waiting list for this market while the market manager ignores her inquiries and pulled an unethical move of allowing another farmer from further away to bring the same crops that Meredith has been trying to get permission to bring. This other farmer has been on the waiting list for fewer years and yet somehow magically they moved ahead in priority over Meredith. The lack of ethics in the management of some farmers markets is shocking in a world that promotes itself and pro-farmer and pro-community. So instead, Meredith drives for hours to get to smaller farmers markets that are much further away- her only options for selling her colorful, organic produce. One recent bright spot is that Meredith has been able to partner with a close relative of hers to purchase a little ranchette of a few acres. This gives her some land security (she pays the mortgage and will eventually own the property) and a place to start her seeds, store equipment, fix machinery, and raise perennials that would not be possible on annually rented land.
The Holliday family got into farming later in their lives after working over 20 years in other careers. They were looking for some country property, a get-away from their urban lives and a place they eventually want to retire to. To pay for the land and increasingly support their family, the Holliday’s began breeding and raising a small-framed breed of cattle. Customers raved about the meat quality, so they have quickly expanded into direct marketing cuts of beef in several farmers markets and small stores too. A year ago, they added pasture-raised broiler chickens to the mix. Their challenges are many, but the most significant are the hurdles and costs to process their meat. The nearest USDA-inspected slaughter facility is about 2 hours away from the Holliday Ranch. They can only take 8 cattle at a time due to the small size of the abattoir. The processing costs are high, the facility does not follow their cutting instructions precisely, the yield of meat is often lower than what they expect (sometimes meat processing facilities don’t give you all of your meat back), and the Holliday’s can’t control the quality because they have no choice to move their business to another abattoir (there are no others within 4 hours of their ranch). The Holliday’s have to turn around and drive back two weeks later to pick up the packaged meat which has to be frozen. Due to the decline of agriculture and food processing where they live, there are no cold storage facilities for them to store their meat, so the Holliday’s have had to purchase several huge, expensive freezers. Added to all these costs, the Holliday’s can’t get into any of the good farmers markets locally so they must travel for hours to market further and further away from the ranch, at which point it hardly defines ‘local’ anymore. All of these challenges add costs to their production, making their enterprise less financially sustainable. It also makes the beef incredibly expensive relative to other grassfed beef on the market.
Lastly, Amy White and her new husband started farming just last year, renting a small plot of land from another farmer. They started with pasture-raised broiler chickens, realizing it was a niche that seemed unfulfilled in their region. Sales were good that first year, so they decided to expand. Amy could not negotiate an affordable lease for more land and access to water from their current landlords so they had to look for other land. Where they live, much of the best farmland is rented to large berry producers, leaving smaller, hilly parcels as their only option. Rent prices are high for pasture, sometimes up to 10 times the normal rate for pasture in other parts of California. But being close to their markets has its price. They have found a new landowner to rent from, but he is very particular about what they do, they can’t build the infrastructure they need to expand, and they are paying a lot while having no power to change things to improve their farming operation. Only a few months into the new lease and they are already beginning another exhausting hunt to find new land opportunities. The success of their farm depends on it. Her husband recently quit his job to dedicate himself to the farm full-time, but they need a certain level of production to afford that. Despite the huge demand for their meat and eggs, their farming future is tenuous due to lack of land access and the ability to expand. A non-profit that is supposed to help farmers like Amy find land has thus far provided no leads. Other than consumer support, Amy and her husband are completely on their own.
We can’t continue to ignore the fact the farmers and ranchers are struggling and treated like serfs in our society. They, along with their workers, are responsible for keeping us nourished and yet they are some of the poorest paid, over-worked individuals in society. That must change. Farmers need to move ahead in the equation- they need to have more power in the exchange of commerce and they need to receive better remuneration. How can you help? You can start to think of yourself as more than a consumer- you are a partner in agriculture. As Carlo Petrini, the founder of Slow Food, calls you, you are a co-producer. As a partner and co-producer, you can help remove regulatory barriers for farmers, implement new pro-farmer policies, fight for farmland protection, volunteer on a farm, sign-up for a CSA, organize a new farmers market in your community, provide a low (or no) interest loan to a farmer, become a farmer cheerleader. There are so many ways to get more involved, to help create a sustainable future for diversified, sustainable, family-farmers in your region.