Labor of Love: Small-Scale Farmers in Alternative Food Networks

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Beth Gehres in her garden at Herbal Habitats near Hillsboro Ohio. / Analena Bruce


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By Analena Bruce

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It’s a cloudless Saturday morning at the farmers market, perfect for strolling past stands overflowing with tomatoes, summer squash and melons. Filling your bag with fresh grown goodness, you feel the satisfaction of feeding your family the best and knowing that your choice is helping a small farmer steward the land in the best way possible while making a living, right? Not exactly…

Here’s a day at the market from the perspective of Sue, a small-scale alternative farmer:

And then you go there, you’ve spent five or six hours preparing, getting your linens together, baskets and harvesting and packing and getting the coolers, the trailer and all that crap.

You get there. You stand around for five or six hours. You listen to people come up “Oh, yeah I have tomatoes. I have blah blah blah.” And they comparison shop. So these guys that are buying at the auction are undercutting you. Then you come home, and you have to unpack all this stuff. And it’s not worth it.

The problem is that many small-scale alternative farmers have trouble making a living from farming. Research suggests that many only manage to ‘get by’ if they have some off-farm wealth or outside income that enables them to operate the farm without earning sufficient income from it. If sustainable agriculture is only feasible for those who can afford a paltry income, the likelihood that it will transform the larger agricultural system seems low.

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Ida and Kellen Prendergast and Rowan Bruce-Page enjoying an evening on the grass farm where their dad is farm manager in Cynthiana, Ohio. / Analena Bruce

Small-scale, alternative farmers practice a more environmentally sustainable, or more organic agriculture, meaning they avoid synthetic pesticides and genetically engineered crops, while building the organic matter in their soils, which provides greater resilience in drought and flood conditions. They grow a greater variety of fruits, vegetables and small livestock, selling their products in alternative food networks such as farmers’ markets, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) and farm-to-table restaurants.

THE DECLINE OF AMERICAN AGRARIANISM

As Americans, we place an almost religious value on small, family farms, and for good reason. Going back to Thomas Jefferson’s American agrarianism is the notion that family farms possess virtue and independence that is essential to our republic.  Small-scale alternative farms of today capture the imagination of what farming should look like because they grow foods that people actually eat, rather than large-scale farms that typically produce one or two commodity crops for animal feed, biofuel or processed food fillers.

Traditional small-scale farms around the world produce a greater variety of crops more efficiently on less land with far less fossil fuel and chemical pesticides, by relying on intensive cultivation and careful management of complex, ecologically adaptive systems. Small-scale farmers provide important ecological services to society, growing a greater diversity of crops and planting locally adapted varieties, thus preserving genetic traits that may become essential in a changing climate.

Despite the apparent benefits, it’s disheartening that small and mid-sized farms are still going out of business in the U.S., while the number of large farms is steadily increasing. Large and very large farms now account for 30 and 47 percent of American agricultural production respectively, despite representing just 9 percent of the total farms in the U.S.

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Paul Dorrance leading a farm tour on “Pastured Providence”, a diverse livestock farm in Chillicothe, Ohio. / Analena Bruce

In general, farmers have been caught in a cost-price squeeze driven by their loss of control over production and marketing processes. Proximity to urban markets is important for alternative farmers’ ability to market their products directly to consumers, but the price of farmland, particularly on the urban fringe, has increased significantly. National farmland values doubled from $1,090 per acre to $2,140 per acre between 2000 and 2010.

Given the prohibitive cost of farmland and the increase of rented land (up to 38 percent of farmland in the U.S. is rented), many new farmers search for long-term lease agreements. However, these arrangements are very difficult to establish, given the high rental prices, reluctance of absentee landowners to take risks with new farming practices and the difficulty that beginning and alternative farmers have in accessing credit.

FIELDWORK IN THE ALT-FARMER FIELDS

To better understand how small-scale alternative farmers make a living, I did extensive fieldwork including participant observation on 25 farm tours, numerous food and farm events and working as a caretaker on a small organic farm in Southern Ohio. I did 45 interviews with farmers in Southern Ohio and founding members of the Ohio Ecological Food & Farm Association and professionals who work with farmers. The farmers also completed a survey about their land access, the percentage of their household income that comes from their farm, non-farm revenue and off-farm jobs and socioeconomic information. I spoke with farmers from a range of backgrounds and farming experience, from organic grains and dairy and small livestock to vegetables and cut flowers. With this data I identified three pathways into alternative agriculture:

  • nontraditional first-generation farmers who are inspired by the food movement,
  • experienced farmers who adopt organic practices to improve their financial standing,
  • and returning farmers who are a generation or more removed from agriculture, yet find new opportunities via alternative food networks.

My research revealed that one of the main reasons small-scale alternative farmers struggle is that growing food more sustainably is much more labor intensive. Small-scale alternative farmers are forgoing the synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, monoculture-based system, and economies of scale that industrial farming practices rely on. They are substituting their labor power for fossil fuels by investing significantly more time in the health of their soils. Making long-term investments in their soils with extended crop rotations, cover crops and amending with compost or manure requires a lot of work. In addition, many of them market their products directly to consumers, which is logistically challenging and time-consuming.

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Brendan Prendergast showing Remy Page the grass-based livestock farm he manages in Cynthiana, Ohio. / Analena Bruce

Thus, while they achieve more profit per unit of production, these farms are logistically complex, highly labor-intensive operations. Organic price premiums are not high enough to compensate for these differences, so sustainable agriculture is an economically precarious enterprise. Beth described it this way:

Well, it’s way more hard work than you could ever imagine. Bob and I were just talking     about that the other night and I was even crying about it. I was reading an article in Farming Magazine and this couple had just moved back to the land. It was a young couple and they had young children, and they were all idealistic. They had bought a cow that they were going to milk and had chickens. I was happy for them but it made me cry because I thought, they have no idea of what’s coming.

Half of the farmers I interviewed work more than 65 hours a week, and the rest work more than 40 hours a week on their farms or maintain full time or part time jobs off the farm. Diversifying their income by patching together different revenue streams enables them to offset the precariousness that defines small-scale farming. Keeping up with farm work in the evenings and weekends, often working into the dark, is common. For example, Sue works in commercial real estate and still manages her farm on the side:

Yeah, I do it… I’m working two full time jobs… I get up at 4:30 or 5 every morning and work the real estate part of it until usually my girls come, in the summertime they come around 8 o’clock, and we work til about 2. Then I go back to doing real estate until the evening. Then I go back out and work until dark. As my son says, ‘Mom, you have no life.’

Because managing their farms is so time-consuming, many small-scale alternative farmers find themselves caught in what Jeffrey Jacob called the time-money dilemma.

This dilemma is that alternative farming requires a lot of work, but because much of the work is unpaid, it leaves farmers without sufficient income to support their efforts. Farmers with a time-money dilemma either lack adequate time or hired labor to develop sustainable systems because they are working off-farm to support their operations, or they lack the capital to invest in them. Richard describes it as:

Labor. Even though it seems like we’ve got it all together, we grow and then we hit this wall where we’re not making enough money yet to hire another person, but we know we need another person.

A consequence of the time-money dilemma is that it’s much easier for wealthy people or those with substantial off-farm income to practice this type of farming.

COMPETITION ON THE LAND

Small-scale alternative farmers also struggle to compete with highly capitalized industrial organic producers who use economies of scale to drive down the premium in organic prices through what Julie Guthman calls “organic lite practices.” Organic lite hamstrings small-scale farmers who practice a more comprehensive form of organic farming.

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