Can the Family Farm Survive?

Everyone should farm once in their lives. Experience what it’s like to wake up when the sun peaks through the clouds, get your hands in the dirt, and take care of crops that will one day be someone’s dinner. It takes a lot of energy, both harnessed and put out by the farmer, to grow beautiful, nutritious food. Most of us have no idea where our food comes from, and the thought and care that goes into feeding the world. Farming is a jack of all trades profession, and many love it for the diversity that it brings to your daily life. There, however, are very few people choosing it as a permanent lifestyle. In recent years, with the help of Michael Pollan, Joel Salatin, and the food movement, there is definitely been a migration to go back to small family farming, but it is not yet a profession that can provide financial security, which is something that we as the consumer have the power to change. Last week I had the privilege of picking raspberries with a friend of mine on a family farm in beautiful Marin. It was fun putting back on my wide-brimmed hat and my arm sleeves (raspberry bushes are thorny!) and working in the fields. It was fun knowing that the raspberries I picked were going to be on someone’s plate that night.raspberry

Before picking, we washed our hands and were told to rub, rub, rub. We let our hands air dry, and were told that we could eat as many as we’d like, but to throw the raspberry in our mouth so as not to contaminate our hands. We were to pick only the best of the best, the reddest ones that came off easily with a tug.

Picking raspberries is much like treasure hunting. You are pulling back thorny branches to get a look inside the bushes. (I had to keep reminding myself not to use my bare palm…ouch!). You give a quick scan looking for the deep red color and give a tug to ones that you see. Often you tug and meet with resistance, so you leave that raspberry for another day. After looking from the top down, you squat to get a better view from the underside. During my many squats, I was feeling thankful that I had my ACL repaired a few years ago. I definitely got my leg workout in.

It was a fun-filled morning, with the novelty of it being a big factor in the amount of my enjoyment. I’m not sure if I could harvest raspberries every day. And of course, family farm life is filled with a million different tasks every day, but there is something daunting about a crop that is in full production and knowing how time-consuming it is to harvest. I filled a half pint basket about every 10-15 minutes. In my mind I was wondering what people usually pay for a half pint of raspberries….. $3.50? $4? In peak season maybe $2.50? And that’s retail. So, I would MAYBE be making $10 an hour? $8 an hour? And that’s not including the time it takes to take care of these plants throughout the year. And that weather and harvest amounts vary from year to year. It just didn’t add up.

I’m sure there are some small family farms that are successful, but I think that it is much more the norm that people who choose farming also enjoy very simple living and don’t work in farming to expect to make or even save any money. The farm manager reminded me of the saying, “to make a small fortune in farming you have to start with a large fortune.” I chuckled when I heard this, but in hindsight, I’m not laughing.

I read this in a Department of Agriculture’s article about median farm income (which means half of farms fall below the median and half fall above):

“Given the broad USDA definition of a farm, many farms are not profitable even in the best farm income years. Despite high prices for many crops, 2012 was no exception, with median farm income projected to be -$2,799. Most farm households earn all of their income from off-farm sources--median off-farm income is projected to increase by 3.4 percent in 2012, to $55,229 and by 3.9 percent in 2013, to $57,378.”

What really sticks out in this quote is the fact that most income for a family farm comes from OFF farm sources. That means a family member has another job in the community to make ends meet. This next paragraph is from the (EWG) Environmental Working Group’s article about farm subsidies:

“The ERS [Economic Research Service] data clearly show that smaller family farms depend on off-farm income to keep going. As anyone from farm country knows, family farms often rely on one member to work a different job in the community, whether for extra income, to obtain health insurance, or both. This pattern has become the norm in rural America and, unlike federal farm subsidies, it has allowed small farms to stay in business.”

So…….. bummer. EWG’s article talks more about farm subsidies and how they go mainly to corn, wheat, and soy crops AND that the majority of farm subsidies go towards large commercial farms. This, however, is another issue and another way that our government does not support small family farms.

Well, what can we do? Part of what we can do is to support our farmers markets! And support small grocery stores and companies that do their best to buy from local producers. The most important shift we can do for ourselves is to realize that good food is a good investment. It will take a larger part of your budget, but you are investing in something that you will put INSIDE your body, AND you’ll be supporting someone in the community to be making enough money to take care of their family. Pretty noble causes in my opinion.

Check out these local Bay Area markets and companies that support local food

Farmer’s Markets:

Online Grocery Companies: Both of these companies work directly with farmers and local food producers and deliver to your door!


5/12/2010. Farm Income Data Debunks Subsidy Myths. Retrieved 6/19/2013.

n.d. Farm Family Income. Retrieved 6/19/2013.

n.d. Median Farm Income up from 2012 to 2013. Retrieved 6/19/2013.