I've been wanting to comment for a long time on the thread which relates to
farm economics and the relative value of full and part-time farmers.
With all due respect to those who are making a living farming, and in
sympathy with all those (including a number of friends) who have suffered
financial failure or family dissolution in trying to, it may be that the
very notion of making a full-time living by farming is flawed (especially
by growing just one crop, like corn or wheat). It may resemble the notion
of killing all soil life before growing food, or of growing lettuce for New
England in the Arizona desert. The government economists' promotion of
making a living farming may have been as harmful as its agents' promotion
of pesticides and anhydrous ammonia. In each case, positive and/or
negative externalities have been ignored.
The reality, according to 1996 figures from USDA Economic Research Service
is that for all 2,023,810 family farms, an average of 89.4 percent of
household income comes from off-farm sources. Only in the large family
farms category (with sales over $250,000) does this figure drop below half
to 25 percent. (For high sales, primary occupation farms- sales of
$100,000 to $249,999- the average is 54 percent. For low sales -under
$100,000- primary occupation farms, the average share from off-farm sources
is 103 percent because farm losses reduce family income. ) The only other
category of family farm that sees a positive net income from farming is
retirement farm families where 94 percent of income comes from off-farm
sources. The 31,190 non-family farms are not included in these figures for
For much of the past, if farmers didn't depend on off-farm income, they
definitely depended on satisfying more of their family's/community's needs
from the farm- food, fuel, scenic beauty, wildlife, transportation or an
educational context for their children, to name a few examples.
How many mid-west farmers have covered hundreds of acres with harsh
fertilizers and toxic pesticides this year to grow corn that may not be
sold for the cost of growing it? In other words these farmers create
negative effects extending from their bank accounts and local wells to the
Gulf of Mexico and the stratosphere in order to lose money and keep ADM,
Cargill, Tyson, Coca-Cola et. al. in cheap raw materials. It seems that
growing firewood on some of that corn land might make more sense,
especially if the trees could also produce fruit, nuts or lumber. (Note
that those corn growers are considered to be examples of the "world's most
productive agriculture," their crop output carefully recorded, studied
and/or subsidized, while the millions of citizens who use compost piles and
backyard and community gardens to turn local wastes into fresh food - which
doesn't have to travel more than a few hundred feet to eager mouths- are
not counted or even considered to be agriculture at all.)
In 1976, I visited two wheat farms in North Dakota, one organic and the
other conventional. I thought at the time this was an important
distinction. Over time, I've come to believe that the more important
difference may have been how the farm families ate. I stayed and worked at
the organic farm (whose name I found on a grain bag in a Wisconsin food
co-op) for several days. I helped the farmer clean and bag a variety of
his seeds and grains (millet, flax, wheat, and more) for delivery to food
co-ops in Minnesota. Almost all the food we were served while there was
grown on the farm. (For religious reasons, the family was vegan.) I
remember it as the best-tasting food I'd ever eaten.
I also visited a neighbor who farmed four times as much land by
conventional methods, but just grew wheat. He explained that all his
storage facilities (including several new structures) were full of wheat
that he couldn't sell for what it cost him to grow it. I believe the price
back then was about 8 cents a pound. (The farmer had just flown his plane
back from a hunting trip up north.) While we were talking in the yard, his
wife came back from the store in her Cadilac. Prominent in her bags of
groceries were Wonder Bread and Wheaties. These foods were just a slightly
different form of the commodity we were surrounded with, but they cost over
one dollar a pound.
One recent post mentioned being too busy raising exotic birds for income to
grow food. We should follow the money in this case.
In order to buy a dollar's worth of food (if the farmer is in the 30
percent tax bracket), she has to make about $1.50. Of the dollar spent on
food, the farmer gets 20 cents. If the farmer lays out 75 percent of this
for inputs, it leaves 5 cents for the farmer (except for those unlucky corn
growers who will get negative cents this year from each dollar of food).
That's a 30 to 1 ratio from farmer sales to farm income. No wonder farmers
are going broke buying food!
What bizarre, aberrant economics this all is: Movie theaters make more
money from selling popcorn than from selling tickets, Ford Motors makes
more lending money than by making cars, Chrysler pays buyers an average of
$1200 per car, General Motors loses money on most of the cars it sells,
many companies with high-flying stocks have yet to turn a profit and
increasing numbers of farmers are making more money on entertainment than
they do growing either food and fiber. This is in addition to the
distortions caused by uncounted environmental, social and government
The imperative for a sound and sustainable agriculture and for local food
systems is compelling. Contemporary economics is not.
Recent reports from Texas indicate that part-time farms are more resilient
in the face of the drought than full-time ones are.
Old Solar Farm
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