Home Money Matters Should You Let Your Children Grow Up to Be Farmers?

Should You Let Your Children Grow Up to Be Farmers?

Click to see more from the USDA ERS on this chart.

In his recent New York Times opinion piece, shellfish and seaweed farmer Bren Smith shares some facts and figures that we all wish weren’t true. The bottom line: being a farmer or rancher isn’t as profitable as we’d like it to be.  But as with all data, there’s more than one way to translate it, and, even taken at its worst, it provides a look at what we can do to make things better.

Click to see more from the USDA ERS on this chart.
Click to see more from the USDA ERS on this chart.

As Smith points out, the USDA Economic Research Service (ERS) does show that the median income of farmers in 2012 was negative $1,453, and expected to decline even more in 2014 to $2,534 in 2014.  According to the USDA ERS, “Most farm households earn all of their income from off-farm sources—median off-farm income is projected to increase by 2.9 percent in 2013 and 3.5 percent in 2014, to $62,585.”

Pretty scary stuff, eh?  But both the USDA ERS and Bren Smith point out some of the reasons that things look this bad.  The ERS dryly states, “Given the broad USDA definition of a farm, many farms are not profitable even in the best farm income years.”  Smith describes it better:

“Especially in urban areas, supporting your local farmer may actually mean buying produce from former hedge fund managers or tax lawyers who have quit the rat race to get some dirt under their fingernails. We call it hobby farming, where recreational “farms” are allowed to sell their products at the same farmers’ markets as commercial farms. It’s all about property taxes, not food production. As Forbes magazine suggested to its readers in its 2012 Investment Guide, now is the time to “farm like a billionaire,” because even a small amount of retail sales — as low as $500 a year in New Jersey — allows landowners to harvest more tax breaks than tomatoes.

“On top of that, we’re now competing with nonprofit farms. Released from the yoke of profit, farms like Growing Power in Milwaukee and Stone Barns in Pocantico Hills, N.Y., are doing some of the most innovative work in the farming sector, but neither is subject to the iron heel of the free market. Growing Power alone received over $6.8 million in grants over the last five years, and its produce is now available in Walgreens stores. Stone Barns was started with a $30 million grant from David Rockefeller. How’s a young farmer to compete with that?

As one grower told me, “When these nonprofit farms want a new tractor, they ask the board of directors, but we have to go begging to the bank.””

But even with that view of the statistics, it’s still true that many farmers and ranchers survive because of off-farm income.  It’s true that selling at farmers markets, via CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture), to restaurants, or direct marketing to consumers are all tough rows to hoe. So what’s a producer to do?


It’s one of the scarier words in any language.  It means taking the time to put things in order, to build relationships and spend time in rooms with other people to agree on a course of action, while ignoring all their little traits and ticks, and the things that make you want to run out of the room and give up.  It means spending time on things like letter writing campaigns, boycotts, or demonstrations to create visibility for your cause. But as Smith points out, organizing has often led to some pretty good conclusions.

“Unlike our current small-bore campaigns, previous food movements of the 1880s, 1930s and 1970s were led by highly organized farmers’ organizations — like the American Agricultural Movement, National Farmers Union and Colored Farmers’ National Alliance — trailblazing new paths for the economy.

The blizzard during the AAM's Tractorcade on President's Day in 1978 was an opportunity for farmers to build goodwill for their cause as they dug the nation's capital out using the tractors they'd driven in for their protest. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institute, via Modern Farmer's article "When Tractors Invaded D.C."
The blizzard during the AAM’s Tractorcade on President’s Day in 1978 was an opportunity for farmers to build goodwill for their cause as they dug the nation’s capital out using the tractors they’d driven in for their protest. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institute, via Modern Farmer’s article “When Tractors Invaded D.C.”

They went toe to toe with Big Ag: crashing shareholder meetings; building co-ops and political parties; and lobbying for price stabilization. In the late 1970s, for example, small-scale family farmers organized a series of protests under the slogan “Parity Not Charity,” demanding a moratorium on foreclosures, as well as the stabilization of crop prices to ensure that farmers could make a living wage. They mobilized thousands of fellow farmers to direct action, including the 1979 Tractorcade, where 900 tractors — some driven thousands of miles — descended on Washington to shut down the nation’s capital.”

Smith notes that the current food movement is focused on providing good, healthy food, but “has ignored the core economic inequities and contradictions embedded in our food system.”  He also has some suggestions for what we might focus on as we organize.

“We need to fight for loan forgiveness for college grads who pursue agriculture; programs to turn farmers from tenants into landowners; guaranteed affordable health care; and shifting subsidies from factory farms to family farms. We need to take the lead in shaping a new food economy by building our own production hubs and distribution systems. And we need to support workers up and down the supply chain who are fighting for better wages so that their families can afford to buy the food we grow.”

What do you think?
What are you willing to do?

Rachel and I, and your fellow On Pasture readers need your ideas and suggestions.

• Are there existing organizations producers can work with to make change?
• Are there things you’re doing in your own community that might help others, or that, with support from your fellow producers, could make a bigger difference?
• Do you have suggestions for successful organizing, or examples of successes or failures that might be useful for others getting started?

You can share your thoughts in the comments below.  Or, send us a note with ideas that could make good articles.  We can publish what you write, or  Rachel and I can track down more information and write up something for On Pasture.

Let’s see if we can help each other do that most difficult of things:  Organize to Make a Difference!

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Kathy Voth
I am the founder, editor and publisher of On Pasture, now retired. My career spanned 40 years of finding creative solutions to problems, and sharing ideas with people that encouraged them to work together and try new things. From figuring out how to teach livestock to eat weeds, to teaching range management to high schoolers, outdoor ed graduation camping trips with fifty 6th graders at a time, building firebreaks with a 130-goat herd, developing the signs and interpretation for the Storm King Fourteen Memorial trail, receiving the Conservation Service Award for my work building the 150-mile mountain bike trail from Grand Junction, Colorado to Moab, Utah...well, the list is long so I'll stop with, I've had a great time and I'm very grateful.


  1. Practical Farmers of Iowa does extensive work for farmers of all sizes, scales, and backgrounds. One of our members also drafted a response piece to the article, featured on our blog:

    The farmers in PFI’s network are open and honest – our policy is to share information as freely as possible. Sometimes this means talking about what doesn’t work. I’d encourage anyone – Iowan or not – to join, or at least check out our research reports, blog, and “farminars” (webinars) to learn more about how our folks work to be profitable farmers and good stewards.

  2. The National Young Farmers Coalition (www.youngfarmers.org) is doing excellent policy and advocacy work around many of the issues that the author discusses, including student loan forgiveness and land access.

  3. I read this article recently along with the book “40 Chances, Finding Hope in a Hungry World” by Howard G. Buffett and have glanced at the recently published stats from Feeding America. My observation is that we have many people facing food insecurity and farmers who each feed 155 people but who cannot make a living farming. This really doesn’t add up.

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