Aug 12, 2014

Don't Let Your Children Grow Up to be Farmers




It is not unusual to see our children "selling" product at impromptu "farmers markets" that they set up around the property.  In the picture that accompanies this blog post, Seth doggedly sells his products.  At this market he sold rocks, popsicle sticks and apparently gave away copies of "Edible Austin".  I am unsure as to whether the goat milk in the picture was for sale or simply being consumed.

When we see a tableau such as this it never fails to bring a smile to our faces.  Look, he wants to be a farmer, just like Mommy and Daddy!  Wow, a salesman at only six years old!  Way to go, Sethy, show your pride in your product!

It appears that we were misinformed parents.  According to an opinion piece in the New York Times titled "Don't Let Your Children Grow Up to Be Farmers" we learn that the median farm income for 2012 was $1,453.  Oh wait.  That is negative $1,453.

Everything in me rebels against this.  It must be that these farmers simply do not know how to price their products appropriately.  Maybe this is for big agribusiness farmers who are too far in debt or who simply worked the wrong side of the margins.  Perhaps this is for farmers who are too far away from a large enough city to support viable farmers markets and thus have to sell wholesale to processors.

We, however, are in a better situation than this.  We know better than to sell at wholesale.  We do not have a middleman.  We are not hugely in debt--in fact we do not even have a mortgage.  We do not price our product by comparing our prices to those at a big box store, we crunch the numbers and determine a price based upon what it costs us to produce the product.  One place where we do not do as well is in feeling comfortable enough to raise our prices higher than what it costs in order to pay ourselves a reasonable wage--but we are working on it!  We knew that our success would be dependent upon cultivating a niche market and exquisite customer service, which we pride ourselves on having done.  All of this brilliance means that now, as we approach our sixth year anniversary as a dairy crafting artisanal goat dairy products, I just had to text one of our long-time customers that we likely would not be at one of our markets on Saturday...because we may not have the gas money.  We do have $80 in our pocket, but we are also overdrawn at the bank.

There are a lot of reasons for this, I can console myself.  We dried off most of our goats in order to have them newly fresh in milk in November--and we have no control over the fact that the milk that we buy to supplement our supply became unavailable with no warning.  This left us with barely one fourth of the milk that we usually have at our disposal.  We face a string of very costly automotive repairs at the same time as fall tuition is due for my return to the University of Houston to study Creative Writing.  Due to an employer unwilling to provide needed accommodations for health reasons, Tim is not longer working his part-time gig that provided health insurance for the family and, well, healthcare and medications can add up quickly for a family of 14.   Wah, wah, wah.

As I start to become embarrassed over my pity party, I find myself becoming angry, instead.  I was raised that adults put their heads down and worked.  You don't share your hardships, shhh, everyone has them.  It is shameful to discuss them because we are self-sufficient, you see.  We aren't like them, the poor people across town, because we work hard!  Come to think of it, those "poor people" across town would have likely been...the farmers.  Were they, also, poor because they found themselves in conditions that they were unprepared for, despite their best attempts to prevent such conditions?

As I read the article in the New York Times, I find myself nodding and becoming even more angry.  The piece references several reasons why the small niche farmer cannot make it these days, from non-profits, to hobby farmers and even the vaunted farm-to-table chefs.  I know these people, I can give you proper names to go with the nouns.  I sell next to them at markets and to them when we make deliveries after markets.  I cannot be angry at the chefs who buy my product and the earnest young (salaried) faces working for the non-profit farm that teaches agriculture to inner-city students.  I cannot have disdain towards the retiree now following his dream to grow organic veggies--even if he can afford to sell them at a loss because his retirement account meets all his needs.  We, too,  appreciated our retirement accounts, meager though they were.  The last one was cashed out last month to help cover animal feed expenses.

So what am I angry at?  I guess myself.  Did I buy a lie?  Is what we want even possible?  I wrack my brain.   Is there anyone who is "doing it", who started a farm and is supporting a family with children with that farm without a trust fund or massive cash settlement of some kind?

I could not think of a single one that I know personally.  Some have a successful farm--but a spouse that works in town.  Some have a retirement account.  I know several who sold their successful business and used the proceeds from that to fund their farm.  In every case I could think of, farmers with families were not truly supporting their families with the farm, they were either relying on a second income in addition to the farm or they were flat out draining those additional sources of income to cover for the fact that the farm was losing money faster than my children come running for the table when dinner time is called.

And that just seems wrong.  I do not expect to be rich, but I would like to not be overdrawn at the bank more often than not.  Whatever happened to the idea of working together with our children to produce food for ourselves and others and being rewarded with a sense of security?  Why does it seem wrong that the people who do the work of farming, of being up at all hours to deliver baby goats, developing carpal tunnel by milking, having to deal with varied health inspectors should find it so hard?  Oh yes, I remember!  We farm for the love of it!

Well, we do.  We farm for the satisfaction of eating food that we grew or made with our own two hands and for the joy of seeing our children learn to be strong and resilient.  We farm for the joy of seeing a once sickly child become fat and healthy from drinking our milk.  We farm for the sweetness of seeing people who visit arrive tense and stressed and leave full of wonderment at how it feels to simply sit and listen to the crickets and frogs and goats as dusk turns to dark and the bejeweled night sky dazzles.

It would simply be nice to have all this and not be in the red, as well.

I guess that is what "next year" is always about.


Edited to add--

We have been asked what people can do to help.  This is very hard for us; we moved to the farm to teach our children how to be self-sufficient and to find ourselves in the place of needing to ask for help is very, very difficult.  The fact remains, however, that unless we do ask for help, the farm that we have built together with our children will not be here for us to pass on to our children.  We have set up a campaign to help save our farm and we would appreciate everyone who cares about our situation to sharing this with others.  

4 comments:

Andrew Dixon said...

Ma'am, I am only twenty and thus I have not yet faced all of those hardships. But, I am myself one of fourteen. Our farm couldn't make it on its own, fortunately, Dad always had a job that could top it off enough to get by... We all have had the great pleasure of growing up worn out at night because of the hard work and equally hard fun, pleased with the work and happy to live on a farm. Then we actually found it! The farm that supported itself (with proper management) We milked cows and bought goats milk from two other dairies, all of that milk was then made into cheese. It actually supported our family, another family, and three to four other people. We were doing well enough that we were expanding! And then we were suddenly shut down, and 250000$ worth of cheese embargoed. Because of a test that was done on a block that was kept for an illegally long span of time. "Authorities" had Stolen a large amount of product from a health food store (in an illegal raid). Amongst the stolen goods was a piece of our cheese, after fifty odd days they tested it. That is more than three times as long as legal! The whole story would take too long... I'll just say that they never found a single fault in our plant, after testing and inspecting we were clean as could be (which even surprised us), nothing even in the drains. That destroyed Dad's retirement.
My point: the small farmer is not supposed to succeed today, Now how stupid is that? I was raised on the farm, I will raise my family on a farm (on my farm). I am not yet married, but I say this honestly... I will give my life to my children, my wife, and I will not surrender to any corporation. I will be damned before I give up the honest life that the country offers.
~A. Dixon

Susan Ward said...

So on the money. Pun not intended. As a farmer myself raising lamb and meat sheep rabbits, it amazes me how so many people think our prices are high. They have no idea the cost of infrastructure, animal welfare and the strangling regulations we have to endure just to get our product to market. And the funny thing is I can go to the store and see the inferior products they sell from other countries and our prices really are comparable. Sadly more federal money goes to big farm operations such as Monsanto instead of the small family farms. As the public starts to demand more local grown products awareness is coming around. State level grants are helping the small farmer survive but it doesn't pay the bills as we can not compete with feed lot prices. I honestly don't know if our farm will ever be able to pay for itself much less truly make a profit but we continue to work hard, educate and try. My boys as your kids may be the last generation that can say they grew up on the farm. But that in itself is worth all the effort. Support your local industry people. Especially those that feed you. Bless your family and your blog. Perhaps your writing can give you the supplementation you need. You are off to a great start. Now i will share your blog in hopes it will get seen and bring success to you and your family! Susan Epps Ward

Susan Ward said...

So on the money LeeAnne. Pun not intended.

As a farmer myself raising lamb and meat sheep rabbits, it amazes me how so many people think our prices are high. They have no idea the cost of infrastructure, animal welfare and the strangling regulations we have to endure just to get our product to market. And the funny thing is I can go to the store and see the inferior products they sell from other countries and our prices really are comparable. Sadly more federal money goes to big farm operations such as Monsanto instead of the small family farms. As the public starts to demand more local grown products awareness is coming around. State level grants are helping the small farmer survive but it doesn't pay the bills as we can not compete with feed lot prices. I honestly don't know if our farm will ever be able to pay for itself much less truly make a profit but we continue to work hard, educate and try. My boys as your kids may be the last generation that can say they grew up on the farm. But that in itself is worth all the effort. Support your local industry people. Especially those that feed you. Bless your family and your blog. Perhaps your writing can give you the supplementation you need. You are off to a great start. Now I will share your blog in hopes it will get seen and bring success to you and your family! Susan Epps Ward

Debbie said...

A dear friend linked me to your post. A wonderful read. Reading your struggles is not unlike 2 Corinthians 1:3-4 that says; Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort; who comforts us in all our affliction so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God."
Thank you for such an encouraging read and a special thank you to my dear friend who shared this with me.