Dollars and Sense

By Carol Ann Sayle

A  young customer once brought her New York City parents to see our farm. As I visited with the ladies, Larry took the father on a tour. It was August, and the man wasn’t appropriately attired for—or used to—such heat, but he was game to see the withering tomato vines, the crisp Bermuda grass, the struggling squash and the freshly tilled beds ready for fall-crop seeds. After they left, Larry told me that the father had asked incredulously, “Can you really make a living doing this?” His disbelief was apparent when Larry replied, “We do.”

Months later, a tricked-out van drove up to the farm stand. Out climbed two plump, middle-aged folks sporting diamond rings on nearly all 20 fingers. They wanted to look around, as they were idly thinking of farming. “Go ahead,” I encouraged them. Tour completed, the obvious question materialized again: “Are you making a living with this?” “Yes,” I responded, thinking that our “living” has a broader interpretation that includes produce of breathtaking beauty and nourishment.

The couple departed, perhaps considering that they’d have to pawn the rings, sleep in the carpet-walled van and eat only the food they were able to produce. Sweat in the summer; freeze in the winter. And, yes, bend over half the day! I doubt that they were eager to pursue the farm lifestyle.

For those who truly have the passion, perseverance, intelligence and physical ability to farm, the opportunity will come in time—perhaps not while young (unless there’s family land to be had, or a sweetheart-deal of a farm on which to practice—look for those!), but when savings are actual, when personal debts are paid and when the kids are grown. Hopefully, the aspiring farmers will be wise enough to look for farmland in unlikely places where few would want to live, and where there’s access to plenty of good water and a reasonable amount of soil. And if the price of the land is low enough, there exists hope for viability.

A farm is, after all, a business, and the biggest challenge is for it to pay its way, initially, and then, as soon as possible, provide a living for the farmer. The living may, for the first few years, require a vigilantly Spartan existence for the farmer—a wet towel at night coupled with a box fan instead of an air conditioner; eating every meal from the food produced rather than meals in restaurants; used equipment and clothing instead of new; hand tools instead of tractors. With prudence, new can be a reality if indeed it ever becomes important.

As the farm grows, help might be needed. People are eager to volunteer in exchange for vegetables and the farmer’s knowledge, but remember: volunteers may be cheaper than another tractor, but they will come and go. And employees should be cautiously hired, too. They stay awhile—for better or worse—and they have to be paid. On our farm, employee compensation averages almost 50 percent of every dollar made at the farm stand. And there are additional expenses to subtract from that income—supplies, tools, soil amendments, tractor expenses, fuel, feed, seeds, utilities, taxes, permits and more drain off another 30 percent from that same dollar.

Payroll and expenses are almost constant costs. And the farmer’s 20 percent is a constantly threatened target—it will often be pelted and diminished by weather conditions (drought, flood, hail, heat, cold), pestilence and market conditions (recessions, competition, traffic). But there’s hope! If the farmer produces quality crops that folks want, exhausts every means to bring the crops to the customers or vice versa and charges an honorable price that reflects the above costs and some profit, then there’s reason to expect success.

A good farmer must be conservative (avoid debt) and realistic (protect the money earned in good seasons, for there will surely be a bad one coming), as well as creative in marketing and making the most of the crops (add value). He or she must practice diversity in crops grown and animals tended (some will produce if others fail) and know that crop failures can be fed to chickens or pigs, become part of a nourishing compost pile or be strewn in footpaths between beds to nourish the soil. Waste nothing.

Finally, a farmer must not give up. Short-term pessimism is understandable, but in the long run the farmer must always be optimistic. And when that inevitable question comes around (and it will), we in the field think it’s fine to answer that doing the work you love, knowing the people you feed and being able to make enough money to continue doing so, is indeed considered a successful living.