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Plowing It Alone: The Difficulties of Farming in the Modern Age

With the locavore movement rapidly expanding, many urbanites are seeking a farming lifestyle. But as Whitney Light points out in her Monday Narratively feature [1], these aspiring agrarians may find their new vocation harder than anticipated. She tells the story of married couple Dan and Kate Marsiglio, who left their teaching jobs in 2005 to start an organic farm. The couple has made great improvements over the years—but like many, they’ve found the idyllic pastoral life more evasive than hoped:

In mainstream food magazines and agricultural journals alike, tales of city kids and hedge fund managers trading suits and ties for overalls have many forecasting a future of yeomanry in America. To be sure, new farmers remain hopeful that moment will come. But they’re also the first to report that in beginning farming, the honeymoon period is brief. It is almost a matter of course that regardless of how mentally and physically prepared a new farmer is for long, sweaty days of toil and winters of debt, farming will deliver more stress and heartache than expected.

Eight years after they launched their farm, the Marsiglios now have 30 cows, 25 sheep, 150 chickens, four pigs, a vegetable garden and greenhouse—but they’re still barely breaking even, and all thought of retirement remains in the murky unknown. Meanwhile, the gritty everyday work of farming grows more wearing with every year.

Out of all the young people and urbanites seeking out agricultural lifestyles, many will probably become disillusioned with the trade. The work is long, grueling, and often unprofitable (at least for a time). Those who hope to make a profit must, as a retired farmer tells Light, have “a sound business plan.”

But even more difficult, our age’s individualism greatly decreases a farm’s chance of long-term success. In historical America, the farm was a family-run enterprise. It was more of a generational lifestyle than a “full-time job.” Land was a highly coveted commodity, and a farmer’s children were expected to carry on the work after their father or mother was too tired or old to continue.

But today, children are no longer expected—nor are they usually encouraged—to follow in their parents’ footsteps. Children are not, modernism tells us, to be saddled with the burdens of their forbears. What does this mean for modern farmers? Simply that, unless one of their children takes a liking to the tedium of farm work, today’s agrarians are on their own. They must conjure up a successful, fruitful farm in their few decades of limber life, or else content themselves with a frugal, arduous future.

Of course, some farmers solve this problem by making their farms into large, capitalistic ventures. Wendell Berry wrote of these types in books like Remembering [2] or Jayber Crow [3]: he believed these individuals spoiled the land through their swelling greed, and poisoned small communities with their insatiable thirst for expansion. Small farmers, in his books, needed the next generations to survive: thus the old and wizened farmer Athey Keith in Jayber Crow tries to teach his farming methods to his son-in-law and grandson. While his son-in-law rejects such old-fashioned methods, Athey’s grandson Jimmy respects and loves his grandfather. It is Jimmy who cares for his grandparents when they grow too old and frail to care for themselves. He’s the one who tends their land and animals. Without him, they would not be able to survive.

What of the Marsiglios? They’re making do; they have combined their traditional farming with urbanite-catered events, and are thus diversifying and expanding their business. Perhaps these sort of ventures will help other modern farmers survive: by building up various sorts of modern salesmanship, they can make the old-fashioned art of farming profitable enough to live on. But if plans fail and retirement funds dissipate, there will always have to be a Plan B. Perhaps they will find a Jimmy.

Follow @gracyolmstead [4]

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#1 Comment By Johann On December 10, 2013 @ 10:29 am

Although almost all farms here in ND are still family owned, they are getting bigger and bigger. Those whose children do not wish to continue the farm sell out to their neighbors and retire. My off-the-wall estimate for the average farm in ND is about 3000 acres. Most farmers both farm and have about 200-300 beef cows. The farms are typically operated with a father and one or two sons(or daughters/son-in-law), or one son and a hired hand. Its all about massive equipment. Its massive in size and cost. The 1980s pretty much eliminated the farmers without a strong business acumen. Even in the 60s when I was a child, most farms were 1/2 to 1 section (640 acres). And most farms, my grandfather and uncle’s included, still had chickens, maybe some pigs, and a couple of milk cows to feed the family. They were the stereotypical farms we all knew and loved as kids. A farm today like that is very rare and is called a hobby farm, typically run by new farmers as described in the article.

#2 Comment By steve in ohio On December 10, 2013 @ 10:39 am

Making a living from farming is difficult and probably not possible unless you inherit a family farm. People who have this dream would be wise to start out small and keep the day job. Laura Ingalls Wilder (of “Little House on the Prairie” fame) wrote in the 30’s or 40’s that future farms should only be about 5 acres–large enough for a family to be self sufficient.

#3 Comment By Court Merrigan On December 10, 2013 @ 11:24 am

Confirming what Johann said is true also in Nebraska and Wyoming. Farming is so massively capital-intensive these days, that most owner/operators “own” (i.e., are making payments on) hundreds of thousands, even millions of dollars of equipment. Land itself still resides mostly in the hands of the older generations (although this is slowly changing), who typically don’t retire at all, but farm till they die. This is made easier by the mechanization; the amount of brute physical strength required to farm is probably about a tenth of what it was even when I was growing up on a farm in the 80s, and even then it was pretty mechanized.

I know of farmers who do not actually own any land – they rent land or sharecrop with the owners. Typically, however, they own a bevy of massive machines. Their capital is sunk into those machines and even when land comes up for sale a combination of high prices and the fact they are already leveraged out on equipment means they can rarely afford to put a bid in.

I’m not sure who gets through this bottleneck. Who will own all this farmland when the baby boomers and their parents – many of them still active in their 80s – pass on. The vast majority of their children won’t be interested in running the farm. Some of them may see it as a wise investment – as have I, with the farm I inherited along with my siblings – but many will also want to sell. Who will buy? Who will actually run the farms?

The corporate model has never taken hold where I live (Wyobraska); it’s still all family-run farms. I just don’t know who those families will continue to be in the future.

#4 Comment By Sean Scallon On December 10, 2013 @ 12:44 pm

The farmers I know where I live in western Wisconsin would chuckle at anyone who thinks of a farm as a “hobby.” The sad thing is there are technologies, especially in dairy industry to make such small-scale farming possible economically but they’re not getting to the farmers that need them.

#5 Comment By rebecca On December 10, 2013 @ 1:14 pm

The Amish still have profitable small farms. How do they do it? Not much spent in machinery there. I am only a gardener with a day job, but I would think a small farmer who didn’t want to be in hock to the banks for loads of machinery would look into animal power, or at least a combination of animal and machine power: [5]. While this wouldn’t work on a large factory farm, it could and does work on many small farms, including some of the new small farms in this country. The FAO recommends it as well: [6].

#6 Comment By Revcant On December 10, 2013 @ 1:36 pm

I farm just outside of Washington, D.C. on land that has been in our family since 1690. I’m busy teaching others to farm the “old ways” and have several interns each year. It is not an easy life; some would say not even a proper life for one with an education. But it is a chosen life and a good way to raise a family. Our story is on our website.
Thanks for the article. Good to see someone publishing honest stories of how hard it is to make the small farm go.

#7 Comment By bmj On December 10, 2013 @ 4:27 pm

I would recommend taking a look at the film [7], which is set for release in 2014. The farmer who runs my CSA (Margaret Schlass of One Woman Farm) is one of the featured farmers.

#8 Comment By philadelphialawyer On December 11, 2013 @ 3:57 pm

“…unless one of their children takes a liking to the tedium of farm work, today’s agrarians are on their own. They must conjure up a successful, fruitful farm in their few decades of limber life, or else content themselves with a frugal, arduous future.”

Just like every other small business owner. Boo hoo.

#9 Comment By Don Lowrance On December 15, 2013 @ 2:04 pm

Nice article showing how the Progressive subsidies and government programs have reduced the farmer/rancher to servitude; whether it be to banks or government price supports. There is little to do with conservatives values in this article except to lament the loss of old agrarian values. The modern “back to the land” farmer does it not for money but for family and an inner satisfaction of being self sufficient.
As a dentist, I see small practices giving way to big clinics that depend on insurance contacts and patient volume. This with the loss of quality and personal care (over long periods of time). There is also a loss here of conservative values in exchange for money.

#10 Comment By mrscracker On December 16, 2013 @ 11:56 am

Outside of large scale sugarcane farmers-who rent much of the land they grow cane on- and dairy farmers,most folks I know have at least one job off the farm to supplement income.
Trying to farm profitably is problematic, but you can certainly raise enough to feed your family & have a bit to share/sell on the side.Once you go beyond that, it becomes precarious.

#11 Comment By david helveticka On December 17, 2013 @ 1:03 pm

Came from a farming family…my Dad decided to go to college and move to government job. But the rest of his brothers and sisters continued the “farm tradition”…

Two brothers died of cancer early in life from all the chemicals and poisons it takes to make it in modern farming. The sister married and died early deaths from bad marriages and failed farming.

Of all my cousins in farming, the only two surviving inherited their Dad’s land and equipment…and one is dying of cancer like his Dad, the other is harassed constantly by his school teacher wife to sell off the land, to give to his kids for college educations.

And let’s not forget the booms and busts nature of farming, a business producing a commodity like food is at the mercy of the nature of the “free market” booms and busts.

And let’s not forget the most important part of the new difficulty in making it as a farmer—the sweeping away of government interference in the marketplace by Neuter Gingrich and his Republican Congress in the ironically named “Freedom to Farm Act”, which removed government intervention in the agricultural commodities markets to smooth out the cyclical nature of farming.

Of course, a couple of years later, this so-called “free market reform” hit the reality when the boom burst, and the Republican Congress passed direct subsidies to farmers to keep them in business. And, guess what? These subsidies to farmers are really subsidies to the Agri-business conglomerates, whose market manipulation of agricultural commodities is what causes the instability in the marketplace.

Look, “conservative” doesn’t mean that you ignore the realities of the marketplace, and like Commies, refer to some ideological textbook like “Human Action” every time a economic reform is contemplated.

FREEDOM TO FARM ACT resulted in direct subsidies to farmers–subsidies that only apply to corn and soy beans—and nothing else. Ideoloques are not conservatives, either of the Marxist or Ayn Rand varieties.

True “free markets” are as much a myth as pure communism was…both create the opposite of what they say they stand for.

#12 Comment By david helveticka On December 17, 2013 @ 1:15 pm

Don Lawrence sed: “Nice article showing how the Progressive subsidies and government programs have reduced the farmer/rancher to servitude; whether it be to banks or government price supports. There is little to do with conservatives values in this article except to lament the loss of old agrarian values.”

You are really ignorant of the history of agricultural economics in the United States to make a statement as silly as this.

Government intervention in the agricultural commodities marketplace started in the 1930’s up until the early 1950’s created the 50 years of agricultural abundance and low prices for consumers. Not to mention the government subsidies for agricultural research and development in the State college system.

And along comes the ideologue Neuter Gingrich and his Republican Congress with their ironically named “Freedom to Farm Act”, which of course created a disaster a few years later, when the same Republican passed a series of outright subsidies to farmers.

Of course, the subsidies mostly are for corn and soybeans, so this transformed the US agricultural economy into these commodities, which subsidize the Agri-business conglomerates and the fast food industry.

“Progressive” values are destroying the “Farm Lifestyle”. NO–people like you who don’t understand the reality of economics, and like the Communist ideologues whom you resemble, go running to your political economy books, like Communists running to Das Capital every time there is a problem.

You need to understand that conservative doesn’t mean “ideologue” either of the libertarian or socialist variety.

#13 Comment By Ken On December 23, 2013 @ 12:16 pm

Left unstated is the fact that successful family farms that last for generations require the intent to have more than the average number of children. something many environmentalist foodies would find abhorrent.