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Is Becoming a Grazier an Economically Viable Option?

By   /  February 27, 2017  /  Comments Off on Is Becoming a Grazier an Economically Viable Option?

We need your input on this conversation about making grazing a viable option for new and beginning farmers and ranchers.

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Back in December, John Marble began a periodic series of articles on how to become a grazier. He started with the question, “Why would you want to pursue this profession?” and offered this short quiz:

Graham Unangst-Rufenacht made a good comment on that article. We are reprinting it here because is brings up an important conversation we can have as a community. We hope that by discussing this, we can identify problems and share possible solutions and resources.

You can comment below, or if you have a longer response and would like it to appear in article form, please send it to Kathy and we’ll work with you to publish it. Here is Graham’s response. 

I do not contest this author’s experience, but I do contest the accessibility of achieving number 1 on his quiz. Economic viability may vary highly based on geographic location (size of land parcels available, marketing options, proximity to major concentrations of population and wealth, competition, access to processing facilities, regulations by State), access to land, access to finances (you have to have money or land, to make money or acquire land – and if you’re trying to make money by farming to acquire land… this is extremely challenging), the color of your skin (98% of farmland owned in the US is owned by people identifying as white), and other factors.

We need to have a real conversation globally and in this country (and in my State of Vermont) about the viability of farming, of producing food and ecological services in an economic and political model which literally values neither in comparison with other products and professions (and which doesn’t value equity or social and ecological well being, which are key principlies of ecological farming and grazing – in fact, it manufactures poverty for the vast majority of the population, and concentrates wealth in a very narrow minority).

Graham Unangst-Rufenacht and Aaron Guman run Robinson Hill Beef and graze cattle on Robinson Hill Rd. in Calais, Vermont in the eastern foothills of the Green Mountains. The land is part of a larger 500 acre parcel in the Vermont Land Trust and is owned by multiple parties who allow them to keep animals on the land.

I am a landless grazier in a State with one of the highest public interests in locally and ecologically grown food – yet land values and housing are prohibitively expensive, the ecological values we produce are not accounted for (neither are the costs of more destructive farming practices), and land parcel size is too small in most areas to profitably lease and contract graze or seasonally graze to name only a few barriers to economic success. There is not a week that goes by that we don’t question whether it would be easier to just get a 40 hr/wk job so that we can actually finance getting land, having families, and otherwise (and have this conversation with other farmers). We work at at least 20 hrs./wk off farm, seasonally graze, and work 2 or more days a week doing agroecology design/install. We have been enrolled in Farm Viability (a program working with farmers on their economic viability) in Vermont for a year and this is very helpful – but it doesn’t change the fact that we are living in an unjust economic system which is out of touch with ecological, social, and human health. We are not the outlier – we are the common narrative in Vermont from people we talk to (and we talk to a lot – I am the Chair of the Board of Rural VT, a grass roots small farmer advocacy organization).

I write this not to dissuade anybody from becoming a grazier or ecological farmer – I love grazing, I love the relationships with cattle and the land, I love teaching these practices, I love feeding people nutrient dense foods… I’m writing because I don’t want any reader who is not a grazier or farmer to get the picture that grazing or ecologically farming is accessibly economically viable. It is more viable than many other forms of farming, but most farmers are losing money, and then their land; multinational ag. conglomerates are concentrating their shares of the organic and conventional markets (and the land)…

We need to have a real conversation about organizing, resisting, and challenging the systems of economic and political injustice which hold us all captive.

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About the author

Graham grew up in East Montpelier and currently lives in Plainfield, VT. He has grazed and raised grass fed and finished beef cattle in different parts of central Vermont for almost 10 years. This will be the third season that Graham has been operating Robinson Hill Beef in Calais, VT. Graham works with Aaron Guman providing home-to-farm scale agroecology design / build services as Walking Onion LLC. Graham works as a mentor with youth ages 6-18 at EarthWalk Vermont, the ROOTS School, and by private arrangement. He is an herbalist and educator of adults in the community as well. Graham has served on the board of Rural Vermont - a small farm and economic justice advocacy organization - since 2014, and since 2015 as its Chair. Graham graduated from UVM with a degree in Religious Studies and Plant and Soil Science; has a Permaculture Design Certificate from Yestermorrow Design / Build School; and attended the 3 year clinical herbal training program at the Vermont Center for Integrative Herbalism.

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