Most of what you say is right on target, but I'll have to disagree with a few
> 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 notion of full time farming is not flawed, how USDA and its backers
(Agribusinesses) promote how to farm full time is: High cost inputs that
destroy the soil, air & water, single crops to feed the ADM, etc. pipelines,
expensive equip., debt load to finance all this. Not to mention the stress on
the farmers to keep from going under with the decreasing fertility, multiplied
pest problems, poor health from chemical exposure and worrying about bankruptcy
from the debt.
> 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
> obvious reasons.
By contrast, I have no debt, farm full time, market locally (retail) and retain
60-75% of gross farm income (depending on how you crunch the numbers). My gross
farm sales are less than $15,000. My wife is self employed as a part time
massage therapist and grosses less than this. So, the farm produces about 60%
of our family income- whether by net or gross. Moral of the story: statistics
can be deceiving and averages don't give you a good picture of what's going on.
(An accountant once said to me, "You don't like these numbers? I've got other
> 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.
These are the fringe benefits of farming. Too bad they're counted as
> 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.)
Exactly. And I'm not counted as a farm, except by the IRS. Because I only own 4
1/2 acres and have 1/4 acre in cultivation, I'm considered "a large gardener"
rather than a farmer. Farms here are defined by acreage (15 acre min.) rather
than by production.
> 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.
Good for them! I saw an old movie (60's vintage) of the "Modern Farm Family".
The father and son smiled and drove tractors over mono-crop fields while the
mother and daughter waved before getting into their Corvair and driving to the
supermarket to buy their food in "safe and convenient packages". I tell
everyone that it doesn't make sense to grow fresh, nutritional food and sell it
for wholesale prices and then go to a store and buy less nutritious food and
pay retail for it.
> 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.
Sounds like a mill and bakery, instead of silos and more land, would have been
a wiser investment.
> One recent post mentioned being too busy raising exotic birds for income to
> grow food. We should follow the money in this case.
As long as there are local growers to offset some of their food need.
> 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!
I don't think Henry Ford ever paid retail for a new car. Our whole economy
depends on leaving someone at the short end of the stick. In food it's farmers
and farm workers- here or in other parts of the world.
> 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
What's the definition for sanity? Anyone?
> The imperative for a sound and sustainable agriculture and for local food
> systems is compelling. Contemporary economics is not.
That's the best thing you can say about our economy- "contemporary".
> Recent reports from Texas indicate that part-time farms are more resilient
> in the face of the drought than full-time ones are.
And part time farmers include backyard (and front yard) gardeners. Gene Logsdon
once wrote that he had more in common with the backyard gardeners than with the
huge commodity farmers.
High atop Walden Ridge
near Chattanooga, TN
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