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Off Farm Work

August 3, 2011

This article was originally published in one of our favorite news sources, Daily Yonder, which deals with rural issues across the US. It isnt often people describe that the only way their farm survives is with one member of the family doing off-farm work. The USDA has generated some research on this subject as well. See the graph below or visit this link for more from their Economic Research Service initiative. 

Home Again: Working to Do Farm Work

We need $2,000 a month, pre tax, beyond what we make on the farm to break even. That means somebody has to work off the farm.

To make a farm work at the start, you need to find work off the farm. I managed to get an editing gig I can do from the house. That allowed Jacob to quit his fulltime job in town.

When we set out to start our farm, that laundry list of challenges facing beginning farmers we’d been hearing so much about became our reality. After years of studying and planning this life in theory, we got to live it.

Access to land was our first hurdle. But we found a landowner willing to give us an affordable lease and we leapt.

Land: Check.

Access to capital was a tricky one, too. But, we found a group of investors willing to put their faith in us and lend us a small amount of money to get us going. And in general, there are many programs, federal and otherwise, built just for farmers like us. Also we’ve been delighted with how eager our local Farm Services Agency and our local lenders have been in working with us.

So, capital: Check.

Two hurdles we’re still working on are equipment and knowledge, but both have been relatively easy to manage. It’s still mighty hard to find small-scale equipment, but it’s there. And we’ve been lucky to set up shop on a place where the landowners and the neighbors are generous with teaching us both the ins and outs of farming in general and the nuances of farming this particular piece of ground, both of which are invaluable. (It doesn’t hurt, either, that I grew up on a farm and my dad, former farmer and a jack-of-all-trades, lives 15 miles away.)

Also, getting a loan for a new tractor or even a grant for new seed-cleaning equipment is within our reach.

So, on the equipment and knowledge question: Still working on them, but let’s put them in the check column.

I don’t mean to make it sound like any of this has been easy to overcome. These are formidable obstacles to be sure. But, we’ve been able to find support for them, mostly because they are on the forefront of the national discussion of how to get more farmers on the land and more food in our communities.

Our real challenge has been perhaps a bit more subtle. It’s also one that is often ignored in the conversation about how to encourage beginning farmers.

It’s what we call the time/labor continuum.

Like so many farmers, we aren’t able to live off the farm income alone (Yet). We need about $2,000 (pre-tax) each month outside farm income to keep us afloat. Health insurance alone for the three of us is $500 a month.

This means finding off-farm work for one, or both, of us.

After our first year of farming, when I worked part-time to float us while Jacob devoted all his time to the farm, it was abundantly clear that we weren’t going to survive another year like that. So, when Jacob was offered a great full-time job, with a steady salary and benefits, we jumped.

I kept my part-time editing work, but devoted more time to the farm and Jacob found a balance between farming and working off the farm.

But as we expanded both our farm and our family (we welcomed a new farmhand last fall), that balance became trickier. Until finally, it became unsustainable.

Jacob’s job was an inspiring, all-consuming kind of job. Mix that with the inspiring, all-consuming job of farming and things start to fall apart.

Although financially, the job gave us the breathing room to farm, it took away our most valuable asset: time.

This winter, it became clear that with a tiny baby in my arms, my farm time was going be more limited than we expected and with Jacob’s 10-hour days and two-hour daily commute, his farm time would be nearly nonexistent.

When the farm started suffering and the family started suffering, we knew we had to make a change.

So, we began looking for other options. There were plenty of avenues for us to get money for land. Plenty of options for us to finance equipment. Even though our other challenges were just that, challenging (marketing, business planning, etc.), we were finding ample support for them.

But, when it came to the never-ending dance between bringing in enough income to live on and still having enough time to build our business, we were, and continue to be, stymied.

It’s not like we can take out a loan so we can pay our rent or apply for a grant to pay for our groceries or health insurance.

One of us had to work. The other had to farm. That was the only way to do it.

It just so happened that just about when the wheels looked like they were about to come off, I stumbled across the perfect part-time, work-from-home, fulfilling editing job with PBS MediaShift.

Prairie Heritage FarmA new iPhone and some old fashioned turkeys. That’s the farm these days.The day I accepted the position, Jacob put in his two-week notice.

We’re now two months into this arrangement and, so far, we’re managing. Money is tight and health insurance is astronomically expensive. But, lucky us, we grow food so our grocery bill (hypothetically, anyway) is lower than the average American’s. And, we have a lot of help on the childcare side. (It pays to live close to grandparents, let me tell you.)

But, it’s scary. And, these next few years — before we’re able to sustain ourselves solely off the farm — are going to get even scarier.

With two and a half seasons under our belts, we can say with surety now that we know we can farm. We also know we can make money farming.

But the big, looming question is: if we’re raising a family and needing to work off the farm, will we have enough time to farm?

The USDA’s Economic Research Service reports that in 2009 almost 45 percent of American farmers and their spouses work off the farm. Almost 45 percent of farmers claim farm or ranch work as their primary job. But, only about 15 percent of farm spouses make the same claim.

So, it’s no surprise that when we get together with other young farm couples and we go around the room introducing ourselves, nearly everyone’s story sounds like this:

“We are the X’s. We run Y head of cattle, have about Z acres of grain and my wife/husband works in town.”

I can’t assume to know why these families find themselves in this predicament, but I know for us, it’s partially me wanting to keep my off-farm career and partially us needing an income stream to, in essence, subsidize our farming. I would guess for many other farm families, that scenario sounds familiar.

For us, finding how the off-farm jobs and the farm fit together is nearly a full-time job in itself. Add to that the daily chores of a modern life and the care and feeding of a family — and it all starts to seem impossible.

I’m often struck by this irony: There is nothing more basic than growing food for a living. But, the complexity that farm families have to navigate to make that “simple” life a possibility is staggering.

I’m not saying it’s anyone’s responsibility but our own to figure this out. The whole point of our operation is to find out how to build a farm that can sustain a modern (but very frugal) family. By mixing in diversification and direct markets and high-value crops, we have hopes we’ll get there.

But, in all this, I’ve learned a simple truth: The modern American life is just unbalanced enough that either our version of “a living” is too expensive or our food system is too broken to give farmers enough money for the food they grow to sustain themselves. Or, more likely, it’s a little of both.

So, when we’re working on clearing the way for new farmers, we have to continue hammering away at the big hurdles: access to land, access to capital, access to knowledge, access to markets and the like. But, we need to look at not only how farm families sustain their farms, but also how they sustain themselves.

Courtney Lowery Cowgill is a writer, editor and farmer. She and her husband run Prairie Heritage Farm, a small farm in Central Montana where they raise vegetables, turkeys and ancient and heritage grains. Her monthly column, Home Again, is about her journey home to rural central Montana, where she is starting over, starting a family and starting a farm.

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