Do you hope that organic farming will blossom in the US? Forget that! Small to medium farmers can't make a living here. Here's one farmer's story.

What nobody told me about small farming: I can’t make a living

My farm is located in the foothills of Northern California, 40 miles east of Sacramento on 10 acres...

A businessman once advised me never to admit my business was struggling. No one wants to climb aboard a sinking ship, know what I mean? he’d said. At the time, I agreed. I believed if a business was failing it was because the entrepreneur was not skilled enough, not savvy enough, not hardworking enough. If my farm didn’t turn enough profit, it was my own fault.

Whenever a customer asked how things were going, I replied, Great. I thought about the sinking ship, and never said, Well, we’re making ends meet, but we work 12 hour days, 6 days a week, and pay ourselves only what we need to cover food and household expenses: $100 per week. I didn’t tell anyone how, over the course of the last three years since Ryan and I had started our farm, I’d drained most of my savings. I didn’t admit that the only thing keeping the farm afloat was income Ryan and I earned through other means...

I wondered how many small farmers actually made a living. Before I set out trying to answer this question, I had to define what constitutes “a living.” I decided making a living meant three things: 1) The farmer had to pay herself a weekly wage that equaled what a person working full-time would make on minimum wage, which in my town would be $360 per week. 2) The farmer had to abide by labor laws, meaning no unpaid workers or interns doing essential farm tasks. 3) The farmer had to earn her income from farming, which meant nonprofit farms that survived on grants and donations didn’t count; neither did farms that sustained themselves on outside income sources.

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Then I looked into national statistics. According to USDA data from 2012, intermediate-size farms like mine, which gross more than $10,000 but less than $250,000, obtain only 10 percent of their household income from the farm, and 90 percent from an off-farm source. Smaller farms actually lost money farming and earned 109 percent of their household income from off-farm sources. Only the largest farms, which represent just 10 percent of farming households in the country and most of which received large government subsidies, earned the majority of their income from farm sources. So, 90 percent of farmers in this country rely on an outside job, or a spouse’s outside job, or some independent form of wealth, for their primary income.

... ultimately farming is work, an occupation, a means of making a living that must fulfill the basic function of a job: to provide an income. Does the notion that farming is lovable work excuse the fact that the entire industry relies on underpaid labor? Does it somehow make it OK that in 2014 it’s forecast to be $–1,682? I had to wonder if this notion works only to assuage a collective discomfort provoked by an unsettling fact, a fact that should enrage us, that should disgrace us as a society: the fact that the much celebrated American small farmer can’t even make a living.

... the truth: I grew 10 acres of organic vegetables, worked upward of 60 hours a week during the height of the season, and my total income last year was $2,451.

Like all the other farms I knew, my farm relied on uncompensated labor and self-exploitation.

Meanwhile, millions of dollars in federal subsidies are doled out to mono-crop farms growing high-input GMO corn and soybeans. Meanwhile, the EPA continues to approve the use of pesticides such as Atrazine, which have been linked to birth defects, infertility and cancer. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court rules in favor of Monsanto, allowing the corporation to sue farmers whose fields are inadvertently contaminated with GMO seeds.

... I rifle the Internet in search of a new opportunity, one that can provide us with enough income to purchase health insurance or see the dentist,...

... the truth is, no matter ... how many hip new restaurants declare themselves farm-to-fork, none of these things address the policies that dictate how our country’s food system works, policies that have created a society in which the small farmer can’t even earn a living. [emphasis mine]

<sigh> Apparently I've been living in a dream, thinking that organic farming was sustainable. Were you aware of this?

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Replies to This Discussion

The sad reality exists that small farming may not be sustainable, even as more people want locally grown food. 

I cant imagine anyone farming on only 10 acres and making a living. That's tiny. I think I've seen reports of smaller, in places that produce year-round, but I can't picture it.

As forbe work hours, many people now work 60 and 80 hour weeks for poor return. It's bad, but that's the modern economy. It sucks.

Meanwhile, millions of dollars in federal subsidies [i.e. OUR TAX DOLLARS] are doled out to mono-crop farms growing high-input GMO corn and soybeans. Meanwhile, the EPA continues to approve the use of pesticides such as Atrazine.... Meanwhile, the Supreme Court rules in favor of Monsanto....

Disgusting. This needs to be framed as corporate socialism, for the wealthy.

If farming needs to be subsidized to be sustainable, there are far more just ways to do it.

(I'm "liking" this discussion not for what it represents, but in appreciation of Ruth sharing the topic and us discussing it.)

If farming needs to be subsidized to be sustainable, there are far more just ways to do it.


I agree and I appreciate Ruth for "sharing the topic and us discussing it'.)


As a land owner and father to a daughter and son-in-law (ages 38 and 39), I can attest to the validity of this "confession". My kids struggle mightally. If it weren't for their dogged determination, 16 hour days, and considerable debt, they'd be out of business. Emily also works as a dental hygienist to make ends meet. Plus, they have 3 young children. I have personally poured in much of my savings to help them get and keep going. Yes, I have turned over valuable Indiana farm land to a new cause. We remain hopeful that success will occur--but at what cost? The stress is overwhelming sometimes. This article speaks volumes.

Thanks, Ruth, for bringing the real story to everyone's attention.  




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