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Improving Farm Income
Improving Farm Income

Improving Farm Income

by Lynn R. Miller of Singing Horse Ranch

“We think of life as a solid and are haunted when time tells us it is fluid.” – Jim Harrison, The Road Home

Ever notice that when you blow in a dog’s face he gets mad at you, but when you put him in the car or pickup and take him for a ride, he joyfully sticks his nose in the wind?

why are we this way?

Many of us are good farmers (at least with the growing part) yet we fail at our business adventure because we are somehow crippled when it comes to seeing how our produce fits in the world. And seeing how our produce fits in the world is the front porch to feeling better about ourselves and realizing greater farm income.

Some things we just don’t talk about. How much we charge, how many we sell, what it costs us to produce, how much money we have left over, how much money you have in the bank, how well we’re doing, what our farm is worth on the market?

Many of us, me included, are mixed up idiots when it comes to questions of income and finance. We prefer to keep our money affairs to ourselves. We don’t tell (or teach) our children about it. We frequently keep such matters from our spouses. And we darn sure don’t want the neighbors to know the truth. That goes for success, failure, and the in-betweens.

In many parts of the country, in many of our regional sub-cultures (for example up-state New York, Chicano southwest, Louisiana bayou, Ohio coal country, Seattle suburbs, southern Indiana Amish country, Maine woods, Vermont interior, North Dakota exterior, etc.), these questions of farm income and personal wealth are left to speculation and the unspoken consensual assumptive measurement of external vestiges; new pickup, acres in tomatoes, number of cattle and horses, new house, painted fences, number of laborers, new clothes, haughty attitude. Together, we at some point in the distant past agreed that we should take these things to be clear proof of success. But we should know better. These things may be as much an indication of debt or flaunted inherited wealth or clever natural style or a short-lived self-destructive mind-set. It may be important to you that you appear successful, so you consciously or subconsciously adorn yourself to convey success. It may be important to you that you appear socially conscious and progressive, so you dress down for the party. How you are situated in life may be the result of a low self esteem which insists constantly that you not rise above your place in life, so your appearance becomes an apology. These are factors which gum up the works for us when we decide to work at increasing our farm income. These things are important to us, they do go a long ways to defining us. In so far as they might be debilitating and counterproductive, I need to believe we can change how we see ourselves because it may be essential to success.

It’s a values thing. Not the often hypocritical family/religion/values thing which we saw bought and sold in the last national election. It’s a truer indication of what we care most about, closer to the bone. And it works coming and going. How we see ourselves and how others see us. No amount of talk to the contrary will erase the obvious. If the president of a non-profit humanitarian aid organization lives in a million dollar home and drives luxury cars, whether he’s up to his eyeballs in debt or not, it does cast a pompous tone over any notion of his having any unselfish posture of service to mankind. And vice versa, the crusty old coot who drives a broken down rusty pickup truck but has a net worth of several million dollars will be hard pressed to break out of the class assessment which comes with his appearance.

We kick it around so much that is has definitely become a thorny cliché, but it is still no less true that outlook and attitude can have a greater affect on the assessment of success and wealth than the actual measured pile of dough. It goes right to the heart of the formulaic holistic approach, where all things are measured. Whether inside a theoretical grid or not, farmers need to understand their needs structure and the effect of imagined goals. The most successful farmers usually extend such thinking to inquiries about what potential consumers need and wish for. Putting the two together can result in a powerful formula for success. That said, we still have to be realistic about the balance of wealth and how it affects who farms and who doesn’t. We need to understand that there are forces out there poised to take from us any gain.

Most agribusiness, inextricably tied as it is to an unapologetic savage capitalism, cannot afford a concern for individual independent farmers, their families, their communities, food health and safety. And the long-term future of farming doesn’t even show up on the radar for corporate-ruled agricultural industrialists except where market and resource control comes to play.

Bill Moyer warns us not to disregard the very real tension between the haves and the have-nots. He goes on to say, “Civilization happens because we don’t leave things to other people.” In that direction I am keenly interested in what I know to be the civilizing effect of creative marketing coupled with a humanitarian value structure. I believe that when we, each of us, succeeds at marketing our good, clean farm produce we become a civilizing influence on our society.

I have friends who get all itchy and uncomfortable when they hear me talk like this. “You gonna pull up that old ‘class’ thing again, the haves versus the have-nots?” Nope, that’s not what this is about, not this time anyway. This is about food and farm income, and the crazy existential notion that we don’t need to take anything away from anybody in order to balance the scales.

This is about recognizing that some excellent farmers are failing to realize the income available (not owed, not promised, but available) to them. And it’s about breaking through some difficult and downright dangerous barriers to do the talking. This is a look at possibilities, it is not a formula, not a promise, not a road map. There is no guarantee that following a certain plan, any plan, will result in a measured increase or success.

In the privacy of your moment reading these words, it won’t seem so threatening to hear that your position in the world needs a lift, needs affirming, needs jazzing up some. But truth is farmers are generally held in low regard. Out in the open, the so-called real world will throw on you a flush of embarrassment and ridicule if you hazard to present yourself as an example of worthy vocation. And we need a lift in our self-assessment because there is a place for influence in the design of market approach. We do not sell or project our influence well if we accept a low measure of our vocational identity. How do we, as farmers, position ourselves to have maximum influence on or over the marketplace, the decision makers, etc.? We do it, in part, by believing in our value to society. For God’s sake, we grow food and care for the earth! Does it get any better than that!?

what do we want?

We make a clear distinction between industrial agriculture and farming, between agribusiness and agrarianism. Agribusiness is about the extractive production of commodities. Farming is about the craft of growing and replenishment. We favor farming.

On the farm front, if frequency of query is any indication, the largest concerns folks have shake out this way:

  1. How can we make a decent living farming?
  2. How can we afford a farm of our own?
  3. How do we learn all that we need to know about successful farming?
  4. How do we afford converting to an all organic operation?
  5. How do we guarantee that what we have built here, on this farm, has the best chance of continuing beyond our tenure?

Though these are typically personal concerns expressed by individuals and/or families, they are perhaps more importantly seen as true community concerns which go to the heart of the health of food and of the countryside.

And these questions do seem to circle around the one subject of farm income. We need the farm income to realize a decent living. Good farm income prospects will answer question number two, and direct priorities regarding number three. Good farm income would beg of question number four that better returns are not only a prime basis for conversion but make it possible to begin with. And question number five answers itself as well: an attractively profitable farm will be inviting to those who might carry her forward.

It is my contention that just as important as individual commitment to improved farm income, rural communities MUST work to see their farms succeed and do well. There is no other long term solution to the health and vitality of the countryside, small towns and their institutions. Without a healthy fabric of independent farms and ranches there is little to keep small town North America alive. Sure, a handful of mining and logging concerns might glue together a few communities, but the larger share of the rural countryside is obviously empty without its farmers.

fitting in

Not too long ago, I was at a social gathering and met some folks who spoke fondly of several years of past experiences they had enjoyed operating a small mixed farm. It centered on a highly successful CSA (or subscriptions sales club) of produce and meat buyers. They had quit the enterprise and “moved on” to more profitable, if less enjoyable, 9-5 jobs. Their CSA customers, after a few years, still lament the loss of the farm. And this lovely, sincere, intelligent couple obviously missed the whole of the farm. But, as they said, they couldn’t make a go of it, not enough income.

I asked what they produced and was surprised at the wide array of organic fruits and vegetables they made available over a long growing season. And in addition, they also raised meat chickens, eggs, lamb, wool and assorted other items. How much money did you make in a good year? I asked. No immediate answer. A mutual friend who sat in on the conversation offered, in their embarrassed presence, the observation that theirs is a beautiful farm and, when they were operating it, it was highly productive and obviously very successful, everybody thought so. Except for the operating couple.

I interrupted, you said their farm IS beautiful, I turned to them, do you still own it? Oh, yes, they said, we live there now. All we have growing at the time is an asparagus bed and some flowers. There followed assorted conversational reminiscences surrounding the information that they had inherited that farm, and that it was free and clear of debt. It was obvious they loved the place and their recent memories as full-time farmers. The adding machine in my journalist head was clicking away at what were interpretive numbers: x number of chickens, x number of eggs, x pounds of cut and wrapped lamb, x number of CSA customers each receiving x number of baskets of fresh produce, wool, fruit. I had to press on with questions.

“Do you ever think of going back to the farming?”

She looks over at him, he at her, she leans towards him and smiles, he looks down at his folded hands.

“No, well not really, it just wouldn’t be realistic,” she offers. When they quit farming, they both took lucrative jobs, she at a government position. Coincidently she had just lost that job the other day, lack of funding for the project, but was not thinking about going back to farming, much as she loved it. She would find another similar position. And he is locked on to a career path and, much as he also misses the farm, can’t imagine quitting the lucrative and secure post.

“Do you like the work you do?” I asked him.

“It’s okay, it’s what I went to school for, I’m good at it. But, if you’re asking how it compares to the farming we did, it doesn’t. It can’t. But that doesn’t matter because we simply could not make a go of it.”

At this evening gathering we had all shared a meal. Fabulous organic pastured chicken had been served at dinner which was produce of our host and hostess’ own separate farming operation. In defense of the young couple who I was questioning, our hostess offered, “It really is no different for us. We wouldn’t be doing this farming if we didn’t believe in it. Because we aren’t making any money. When we butcher chickens we have a regular bunch of customers who come and buy every one we have to offer. But we don’t cover our costs.”

“Then you must raise the price,” I offered.

“We can’t do that. We’d price ourselves right out of the market. Besides we have good friends as customers who couldn’t afford an increase.”

“How long will you be doing the chickens like this?” I asked.

“I don’t know, we talk about it, we may have to quit doing it.”

Others in the room chimed in ‘you can’t do that!’

I turned to the former farmers and asked straight out, “How much were you making with your farm?” After hemming and hawing they finally offered that in a good year they made a gross total of $40,000 and kept $24,000. It was not enough money for them to stay with it.

“By raising your prices, you could have been making twice to three times that much,” I observed.

They didn’t argue that point. Maybe they could have raised their prices but they wouldn’t because, in their view, it would not be right. They weren’t talking about temporarily keeping their prices low so that they could attract customers and build up a market base. They were talking about having lots of devoted customers and a waiting list of people who wanted to buy from them. And yet, out of that curious guilt of the new progressive American farmer, feeling that they had to sacrifice themselves at the altar of neo-communal capitalism, they gave away their beloved produce and ultimately, as a consequence, the farming way of life they loved. It was another example of selfless generosity as both strength and weakness, but in this case weakness won out.

Leaving names and locations out of the narrative, let’s say that these folks owned and farmed 65 acres with ten acres in cane fruit, orchard, and market garden. The balance in pasture for sheep and chickens. I have to agree that, in their case, as successful highly productive farmers with an established “hungry” group of customers, 40 thousand is wholly inadequate by the standards of the last ten years. By USDA extension service standards they should have been realizing at least $75,000 gross from this model. And by “our” standards, their income might, or should, have been between $100 thousand and $300 thousand gross per year. What was the problem? Where is the missing link?

I suggest that, first and foremost, their prices were too low, and that they were giving away much of what they produced. Also that there were missed opportunities to add aspects and value which would have put product into an entirely different realm. (I am reminded of a conversation with Eliot Coleman of Maine and how he and Barbara have selected mixtures of vegetables suitable for stir-fry and gathered them together into sealed plastic bags of convenient portions. This relatively simple way of altering how the product is offered allows for a substantial increase in price and, with freshness and top quality, an ever increasing demand.)

But I must hazard a guess that, for our good and intelligent, now former farmers, had they been making three or four times more income off their farm, an issue of inadequacy would have persisted. In this day and age, how we fit into the wider society has greater weight than we are sometimes willing to admit. Construction workers, union and otherwise, are frequently paid more than government issue bureaucrats and white collar managers, yet the prestige in our society is usually afforded to those who are perceived to be in control. People regularly take lower paying jobs because they want to trade up to higher prestige. Perhaps, where it applies to farmers, this is something we bring upon ourselves by allowing and even encouraging a certain pigeon-holing. For example, the generally held public notion that any individual interested, today, in farming as a vocation can’t be too bright because it’s all hard work – low pay and even lower prestige. Once again I say they got it wrong. It is hard work, good hard work (that’s a positive) and the pay can be outstanding. Plus, it doesn’t get any better than being able to work at what you love, producing good food and fiber and all the while helping to keep your part of the world healthy and vibrant.

So, I am frequently asked, after I once again suggest that prices need to be raised, if I’m not encouraging small farmers to become greedy capitalists like the big boys. I am not suggesting that we abandon the humanitarian streak which seems to come so naturally to the independent farmer. To the contrary, we must protect it. Robin Hood was right. We have exceptional produce in high demand, but well-hidden by our low self-esteem. We need to let everyone know we have this valuable stuff for sale. We should sell it for all its worth and then apply some of the profits to return in the form of food to those unable to purchase that produce. If someone is truly unable to afford the pasture-raised poultry, that person should have an easy and honorable opportunity to trade for the food. If someone is able to afford the poultry and complains about the price being too high, we should scratch that one off our list of customers with a ‘thank you very much, sorry it didn’t work out, check with us later’.

Before we go too far in that direction, something needs to be said about community economics and character. When this couple quit their farming venture, the immediate community suffered a loss: a loss of income, a loss of a piece of the local self-reliance, a loss of some of the invisible and intangible bracings that hold together folks who might otherwise not interact, and most of all loss through the diminishment of character. When they shut down, their community shrank. The loss was all the more pronounced because what they did with their farming was loved, appreciated, needed, identified with, influential, and beautiful. All this is to say that any community which stands by and watches while these farms, their islands of self-sufficiency, hope, flavor, heritage, and beneficial works, walk off for lack of support, is short-sighted at least and, in my view, doomed to a vacancy of spirit. The flip side is that those communities, and they are out there, who rally around their farmers and find creative ways to keep them in service and hold them as cherished, those communities large or small have vitality. And that’s what it is all about, having vitality.

The measurements of success go in several directions. It is a trap to measure, in linear fashion, one income against another, especially when one of those incomes is derived from a working life which affords a vast array of wonderfully difficult to measure benefits. Each of us must come to grips with our own take on the difference between having good health and affording health care, of being happy in our work and working to be able to afford happiness. “Affordability” is the grand modern economic bugaboo. Vitality should be the goal.

who decides what the price is?

It’s a broad subject with endless argument, but suffice it to say that how food is generally priced and, in a perverted way, how food is valued, does not derive from edict or law. Because your local supermarket chain sells its often dangerously stale, poisonous chicken at such and such a price does not make it worth that much or that little. It is as much the result of wholesale industrial contracts, temporary marketing incentives, distance to market, corporate parlance, and dumping. Yes, it is true that people can keep shopping and eventually find any food item priced at rock bottom. But that is not the person, regardless of personal income level, who prizes freshness, cleanliness, taste, safety, and personal connection with his or her food. Who says a 5 pound pasture-raised organic chicken must sell at a certain price? What is it truly worth on the open market where people struggle to find clean, healthy food of true freshness?

It used to be a question of supply and demand, pure and simple. Not so any more. It’s gotten complicated and disconnected.

Irony of ironies: in parts of the California interior, where thousands of acres of monoculturally produced fruits and vegetables are grown, large segments of that nearby rural population suffers from a malnutrition so advanced as to cause many preventable conditions and diseases. Good fresh fruits and vegetables are not available even at retail market prices. The produce is all shipped out to wholesalers around the country and world. And whatever remains in the field after harvest is guarded until it is plowed under. In the not so distant past, this area was the proverbial horn of plenty with a diverse array of small farms mixed in with the larger operations. Milk, cheese, meat, eggs, and produce were all readily available. Our society traded that, all in order to rip out the fences and produce a handful of crops by chemically intense methods. Imagine, people in California’s land of plenty go hungry for lack of access to food.

Today, at risk of criminal charges and arrest, people are smuggling into New York City, raw milk and raw milk yogurt. Farmers are sneaking in to Manhattan at night with coolers packed with this contraband. They are lugging their product upstairs into apartments where they are meeting secretive groups of mothers and fathers anxious to trade fists full of money for what they consider to be pure gold. The going rate today in this black market trade, is just under $5 a gallon for raw milk (not including deposits on the glass bottles). Such a scene of the black-marketeering of banned foodstuffs you might expect of the old USSR, not today’s US. But alas, under the disingenuous mantra of food safety, in my view a set of officially sanctioned lies as laws, more and more fresh fruits, herbs, meats, dairy products, etc. are being denied the public. We know that the practical realities of the industrial food storage/ distribution/handling system which results in fast food, regularly poisons thousands of people, but NO effort is under foot to close down ANY aspect of that infrastructure. However, if one lady gets caught selling raw milk to human beings in New York City, the entire weight of the federal government comes crashing down to squash mode. Ah, but you see, this can be seen from a different angle as opportunity.

As reported in a recent New Yorker magazine issue, a very popular and successful Manhattan cheese shop, uniquely offering a vast array of obscure and magnificent cheeses from all over the U.S. and the world, advertised that they were interested in finding a dairy farmer, within commuting distance of New York city, who might be able to supply the store with an artisan grade of butter. They received NO replies. Their detective work indicated that there were no longer any small dairies within commuting distance of New York City legally making and selling real butter!

In such a world, I repeat, we should sell our farm products for more money and at the same time make sure they are available to anyone who wants them. We can and must do both.

how do we change things?

These are our challenges: first we must come to the successful growth of farm commodities. Next we need to identify our market universe and commodity pricing possibilities. We must never lose sight of destructive competition and always work intelligently to insure against encroachment and downright theft. It is part of our job to keep it alive. Then comes actual marketing: we must communicate with our customers about the safety of our food, the true amazing freshness, the available conveniences we are able and willing to offer, the exhilaration of the farming experience and how we might share slices of that with them. We need to make our products and farms more accessible: each farm needs to have its printed list of products and services with pricing, ready on demand. Wherever possible, we need to stay away from most conventional wholesale marketing and that includes brokers of organic foods. We must never steal from our enjoyment of the farming process and always build towards the future: plant and animal breeding – tree planting – perennials – farm design and evolution – all these things and more will eventually add to the profitability. We need to think creatively about converting expenses to assets and income. For example, think about allowing for work parties as a way to get customers to touch and feel the farm. Understand that the potential customer is wooed as much by the grace and beauty of the operation as they are by the food itself. The best customers will be those who are candidates for strong personal identification with farming. Don’t rule out those who insist on convenience; they will pay for it.

Learn to think about your prices with a core charge, or base line, and allow for ways to add value and thereby additional income. For example determine what you need to have for a flat of eggs. Price it according to your costs, plus a reasonable return to you. Think retail, not wholesale. Now, if customers want to purchase a traditional carton of 12 eggs of a certain size ADD those aspects to the price. If they want to purchase a half dozen, ADD that aspect as an option. Allow your customers to read where they may be able to purchase the flat of eggs at a reduced price per egg and the additional cost for the convenience will be theirs to accept or reject. Write this all down on a sheet or brochure that you can give to the prospective customer. Make sure the brochure includes clear statements as to your farming methods, the quality of the produce, and the FRESHNESS! Think about including in that literature that, for cash strapped folks, you accept trades and are willing to offer special deals.

For many of us, these direct marketing ideas don’t help much, but I want to argue that they do point towards an attitude and approach that may be customized to fit many situations. And keep in mind that wherever we are able to back off the industrial model of farming; the model that has us produce a lot of a few things and sell it in bulk to middle men, wherever we can back off that and find ways to sell direct to our community and region, our chances for profitability soar. And better yet, our own sense of place in our immediate world turns to gold.

In our computerized world there are myriad ways to get the word out about our farm produce. I want to offer a caution that we don’t make the mistake of accepting the dangerous illusion of it being a small world and that our market universe can include Tasmania, Brazil, East Cameroon, and South Korea. We need to keep our own local community and region in clear focus. Belonging here does pay dividends to family, spirit, land, and history. It is a big world, vast and terrible and exciting and unknowable. We are small pieces in that world. Keeping it in close to home, holding focus on who we are and what we do, that is the way to success and vitality. It is about improving our farm income but never at the expense of who we are. Because who we are may be the thing that saves this beautiful planet.

For God’s sake, we grow food and care for the earth! Vitality! Does it get any better than that!?