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May 27, 2011

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Erin

Rebecca,

I'm so glad you are sharing truths about farming. Write on!

Erin
Green Gate Farms

Rebecca T. of Honestmeat

Rich- we have not traveled extensively in the Midwest or Plains states yet, simply because it was too snowy for the last six months there to drive around in our RV. We went South instead. But we do intend to visit some farmers in Michigan, the Dakotas, and Wisconsin. I imagine you have many things going for you in those states like large tracts of land, low regulatory barriers, etc. but I have heard that not all is sunny in the breadbasket of America. For example, high subsidy prices over the last few years have helped to push up farmland prices, especially for the most productive farmlands. CAFOs are everywhere, fouling the air and polluting the water. Markets are far away, many out of reach to small to mid size farmers. If what you are doing is sustainable (economically, environmentally, socially) and your business does not require subsidies to operate profitably, then you do indeed have a model worth looking at. I hope you continue to have much success.

Rich

"...If you have any suggestions of sustainable farmers who have created successful farming businesses, please let me know!..."

You detailed the problems farmers face on both the East and West coasts, FL, TX, and the Western states. What about the Plains states and the Midwest?

I live in OK and think there are advantages to farming in states like OK (or KS or MO) for a beginning farmer.

Land is relatively inexpensive compared to some areas (an 80 acre or 160 ac farm should be affordable).

There are butchers readily available (it's 30 min to where our beef is butchered and on-farm slaughter is also available).

I don't have any first hand experience with it but it is possible to sell your products through a coop at:
http://www.oklahomafood.coop/

I can't keep up with the current definition of sustainable; but in my mind a farm needs to make money, grow the majority of the its livestock feed, needs markets (both conventional and niche markets), and needs to be somewhat diversified and flexible.

I have cattle that are either sold as beef or sold at the stockyards as feeders, I raise wheat, grain sorghum, soybeans, and the hay for our cattle.

I can easily expand the direct marketing of beef aspect of our cattle or I can expand the calf or feeder aspect instead. I could grow different types of grain, or I could choose to turn all the cropland into grass and have a grazing operation. In the future, if I wanted to try raising direct marketed pork, I could raise almost all the feed needed.

I am surrounded by similar farms and suspect that the majority of the farms in the states surrounding OK are more similar than different.

I don't know and don't care if our farm meets the definition of sustainable, but it should come pretty close. And, I don't think our farm is that unique, so there should be many more like it.

Rebecca T. of Honestmeat

Rich- every place has its challenges to farm. Texas has its drought and outdated water appropriations policies, Colorado has its rapid sprawl dividing up all the good farmland left along the Front Range, Washington has its aggressive environmental laws requiring a permit for just about everything, Florida has horrible sandy soils and a high water table, the New England has high property taxes and land pressure from 2nd home shoppers, the list goes on. Its not that easy to farm anywhere- the key is creating the right scale business on the right land with the right markets. I have profiled a few farmers who are sorta pulling it off and will continue to look for more as I do research for my book. If you have any suggestions of sustainable farmers who have created successful farming businesses, please let me know!

Rich

With all the obstacles that a small farmer in California faces, why would anyone even try to start a small farm in that state?

And, is the goal to start a farm, or right all the wrongs of the past and present (Spanish land grant injustices, water subsidies, land monopolization)?

Life is too short, if you want to farm you are going to have to move to an area that has affordable land (either rented land or purchased land).

Rebecca T. of Honestmeat

Bruce- glad to see you are still reading my blog. I'm not sure I promoted the idea of not having an off-farm job- I was simply sharing the statistics of the nation. I am of the opinion that working two full-time jobs kinda sucks, but since so many farms in the US are smallish, hobby-ish style farms, maybe it's only a part-time job to farm. My preferred route is that somebody partner (either romantically or business-wise) with somebody else who has off-farm income that can infuse capital into the farm or at least cover basic living expenses while you get things off the ground. I also have no problem with somebody earning income in another career prior to farming, although for many young people who want to get their hands dirty, that is not their ideal route to starting a farming business. But as Tim of Nature's Harmony reminds folks, farming is a business just like any rest and requires up-front capital. To think you can farm without it (capital) might be setting yourself up for an impossible challenge.
The folks I profile are real stories and not me, although they all have similar challenges because they are all trying to operate in a high-rent state with limited processing options. It's too bad you think all these farmers are delusional in trying to grow food in one of the best climates, with the best soils, some of the best markets. Perhaps Californians should just import all their food from cheaper places- like Mexico? FYI- California has some of the worst land monopolization in the country and the majority of farmers across that state are renters, not owners. For example, there are about 13 families that own most of the farmland in Monterey County, a vestige of the corrupt Spanish land grants that stole land from the Native Americans. Today descendants of these land grants rent out their land to giant berry corporations for the highest possible prices based on fencerow to fencerow mono-cropping of strawberries (which only survives in that region because of subsidized water- thank you govt.). So much for the equalizing institution of free market capitalism working there...
Once again, instead of trying to understand what other farmers in this country are facing, you attack. Interesting style, but not gonna win you many friends nor respect...

bruce king

Rebecca, having an off-farm job allows you to hedge the risk
of having a farm in the first place. The off-farm income
isn't subject to the variables that on-farm income is. You
don't lose your off-farm income to a hailstorm, or a cold,
wet spring. And that hedge of the risk of farming is
considered a valuable asset.

Your view that the only farm
that is worth having is one that is your sole occupation is
one view, but by no means is it the only one.

With respect
to financing a farm, considered Natures Harmony, which
you profiled in another posting of yours; they made a
bunch of money in another industry, and after getting tired
of living in the house on the golf course decided to
start a farm. Thats a model that would be hard for others
to emulate, but it seems to be one that you're promoting
and approve of.

(Just to be clear, it's a model that is
pretty close to my own experience, just to be clear. My
farmland purchase was with money I made in another industry,
too. )

In your "amy white" example (Hi, Rebecca!) you
make the point that "...the best farmland is rented to
large berry producers" and "rent prices are high for
pasture, sometimes up to 10 times the normal rate for
pasture in other parts of california"...

The best farm
land in every part of this country is in use by someone
who is making a profit. In california or elsewhere that's
how it is. And if you want prime, productive farmland,
you'll have to pay a premium price for it -- you'll
NEVER get it at a discounted price based on some idea
of your farm being more politically correct than someone
elses farm.

Land rental rates are set by the market.
Someone is paying that rate. If the rents are too high
where you are -- move!

...and in fact, the land that you
vacated is rented and producing right now. Funny how
that works.

Walter Jeffries

"Farming is a business where you buy at retail, sell at wholesale, and pay the shipping both ways."

This is true. Yet, despite this, ours is a positive tale. Our farm has been a success for years. It supports our family, pays our mortgage, puts food on the table and employes our family. We have no off-farm jobs. We farm. Not only that but the next generation wants to continue farming. They grew up with it and know the farm inside and out. It is their home.

We do own our land. It is up in the mountains, rocky and cheap. I did carefully pick a location that centered us between our markets, has good water, forests and signs of old pastures (stone walls in the woods). I consider land ownership to be a critical issue. Renting or leasing land means one never builds up equity. Yes, I carry a mortgage but every year I build equity and the land pays that mortgage. I would much prefer to put that money towards a mortgage than rent. Consider that by economic reality a rent must be more than a mortgage since it must pay for the purchase of the land (mortgage), the taxes, insurance and any upkeep. Having a mortgage is cheaper and you build equity. It's better than money in the bank.

We did bootstrap to buy our farm, always working from home, gradually doing more and more of that as farming and sustainable forestry (a long term form of farming). It is doable. It does take a long time and patience. We continue to bootstrap things such as building our on-farm slaughterhouse. Much of that has come from our cash flow (bootstrapping). Some has come from CSA Pre-Buys to be delivered after we are cutting (future bootstrapping). Some is local business owners and individuals who have loaned us small amounts to be paid back with interest which is bootstrapping off of our future cash flow and savings on having to take our meat to the butcher. Since processing eats up about 40% of our gross income it is a wise investment to have our own slaughter and butchering. It will pay back and it gives us security for our farm.

From talking with farmers who have off-farm jobs the number one reason they do that is so that they can get health care benefits and retirement benefits. Our land is our investment and I never plan to retire. I will work my whole life. That is the way it used to be. Retirement is a new idea that came in the middle of the last century. People are living too long for it to be realistic.

As to health care, well, that's a luxury. I live carefully. Mostly I treat myself. Same as the veterinarian care. Hope I don't break a leg, again, lest my wife might need to shoot me. :} Last time I was able to mend up. (No, no, honey, I"m fine! Really!)

What ever reason people farm and at what ever age they start I encourage them. It doesn't matter how they get land (legally of course) but being landed is so much better than not. Raising food, even if just for yourself and your family makes a big difference in your life. Its better than a gym membership, its fresh air and free food. Who knows, you might discover something you're really good at growing and find you can support yourself on it. Living frugally helps.

Kim Williams

From a California farmer perspective...well said!
Farming here IS hard. And when successfull farmers like TLC shut their doors it sends a ripple through the honest farmer community that resonates in our hearts. Some days the obstacles can seem insurmountable. Our passion for producing honest food is what keeps us going, but for how long?

Rebecca T. of Honestmeat

Jackie- yes I have some positive tales. I have been profiling a few of them on my blog over the last 6 months. I should have prefaced this story (which I will now) that I featured farmers in California for this story because it is especially difficult to break into farming there, despite the great climate, soils, markets, etc.

Jackie

Have you come across no farmers with a positive tale? California is pushing the high end of the spectrum - what about farmers in a more moderately priced area?

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