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 for us:
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. There 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.
As we both approach 30 years old, 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 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, other farmers I've worked with have sought little more than to take advantage of my enthusiasm and work ethic for their own gain.
There are no hard and fast solutions that would give young farmers a better chance at success, but I can speculate on a few first steps.
1. Pay farm workers real wages. And when I say wages, I mean everything that goes with them. Revise the Federal Labor Standards to include farm workers in all 50 states. Give them mandatory overtime pay, rest breaks, and health care. Keep children out of the field, and get rid of farming programs that do not pay minimum wage in exchange for work. There are plenty who will disagree with me on this, but I do not see the need for farm internships. Aside from the legal ambiguity of paying people in “experience” rather than wages, it seems that the farmer gains much more in free (or nearly free) labor than the intern does in education. Beyond this, a farm worker’s wages are often static because of low profit margins on most farms. An exact remedy for farm worker pay is beyond the purview of this article, but it’s perhaps the biggest obstacle for young farmers. Because farm work does not pay a living wage, gaining farming experience through employment often means becoming transient, living in substandard housing, and/or lacking the money to take care of yourself and your family. Until farm work can provide for a family’s basic necessities, we shouldn’t ask people to take it up.
2. Subsidize small farms. Right now small farmers are competing in an unfair marketplace. Large crops grown primarily for processed food and animal feed are subsidized, while fruits and vegetables intended to go straight to the consumer are not. As much as I’d like to see all subsidies go, farming has been systematically sidelined for the last century and it’s going to take some real effort to bring it back into relevance. Providing small startup farms with funding -- public or private -- is a necessity for young farmers, especially those trying to make the transition from farm worker to farm owner.
3. Appraise land for its agricultural value, not just its developmental value. When we see land, our first impulse is to build on it. Flat land close to the city is immediately swallowed up by malls and homes when this may be some of the best land for growing food. Agriculture must become a priority in city planning, and potential farmland should be set aside and linked up with young people willing to farm it.
The question we need to ask ourselves is this: Do we want farming relegated to the sidelines of society? Or do we want it to be an acceptable career choice for Americans? The latter is the only way I see to really change our food system in this country. For people to choose farming, farming has to be at least mildly choose-able. Will Travis and I farm again? Perhaps. After we've made enough money to buy a farm on our own. Until then, I’ll do my best to continue to contribute to this national conversation on food.
This post was published in the California Institute for Rural Studies.