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.