Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Rich in Other Ways

“One day late into my second season owning the farm, a customer walked in while I stood behind the counter spraying down bins of muddy carrots. The man asked how things were going. Financially, I mean. He held a head of lettuce in the crook of his arm, a bundle of pink radishes dangled from his hand.
I looked at the man and instead of replying with my usual “great,” I said, We’re getting by. He nodded, Well, you may not be making lots of money, but you’re rich in other ways. I opened my mouth to reply, but the man had already turned away and was gazing dreamy-eyed out at my fields, each row buttered in late-afternoon sun. I turned back to the heap of carrots, not sure what I would have said anyway.
I wanted to ask the man which “other ways” did he mean, exactly. But I knew what he meant. I heard this kind of thing all the time: You must love what you do, or not much profit in farming, but what a great lifestyle, or, well, you’re not in it for the money, right? Customers repeated these aphorisms warmly in an attempt to offer me some consolation or encouragement. But watching this man gaze out at my fields, I couldn’t help wondering if it was the customer who was the one being consoled.
Surely many farmers enjoy what they do, as I often find pleasure in my daily tasks, but 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.”
                                                   -Jaclyn Moyer “what nobody told me- I can’t make a living farming”

And so goes the article that recently appeared in Salon magazine.  Read it here.

This is the kind of article that makes conventional farmers go…SEE…told ya those idealistic, small farmers couldn’t make it! All the while making some small farmers lament the fact that they don’t qualify for all the programs and salvations that are apparently available to “agribusiness”. Consumers and activists read it and say…SEE…Monsanto, GMOs and subsidies will be the death of all small farms!  And, any of the younger generation who is potentially interested in the future of small agriculture is dismayed and discouraged by the defeatist tone.

a few fall farm offerings

And, me…I’m sitting here thinking…seriously, lady?  You couldn’t make an organic vegetable farm work in California? How is that even possible?

While it is not my intention to dismiss the article or discredit the author, I must say that this type of article bothers me to no end. This short-sighted, callous essay dismisses all those other farmers who find contentment and purpose (and profitability) in what they do, cheapening their efforts while giving a false sense of despair based on very limited experience.

Anybody who knows anything about farming knows you don’t get into it for the money. Because, Lord knows, nobody ever got rich farming (just farming). But, I know it is possible for a small farm to “make a living”, perhaps not the standard to which some might wish to attain, but still…WE do really make a living from the fruits of our labors on this little plot of land.  So, just what is this woman’s problem? 

Maybe she’s a bad manager, or a bad marketer, or seriously dissatisfied with life. Maybe she was just having a really bad day. Actually, I feel more than a little sorry for her (when I got over being truly annoyed at her tone)

summer gardens
-Tony Giammarino image

Because while her customers see “the big picture”, the abundant, delicious food bathed in the beautiful California sun, she just wants to winge away about “agri-business” and the evils of subsidies and “corporate farms”. Society, Monsanto and GMOs are somehow to blame as well. She wants to say that it’s a disgrace that small farmers (as in all small farmers) can’t make a living, based on her own experience. But, in all her complaining, she misses entirely the lovely intangibles that make up the landscape of her world.

The lovely intangibles (beautiful surrounding, the wonders of nature, the quality of life and so on) and the satisfaction of coaxing life from the earth have to count for something! And, the food.  Oh my goodness…the FOOD! There is nothing like growing your own food. Each morsel is sweeter because we know the labor that went into the planting and the growing and the harvest.

There is NOTHING like a vine-ripened tomato!

I know there are weeds and pests and we fight a daily battle with death at times. I know that inputs cost money. And, long hours are a given. But “making a living” is not all about dollars and cents.  It can’t be.

You must, absolutely MUST, take into consideration the quality of your life.

And, I don’t write this as some starry-eyed dreamer full of romantic ideals and no experience. I write this as a 51-year old woman who has put in more than her fair share of seemingly endless days only to endure sleepless nights. I have the aches and pains and scars to prove it. This place holds the evidence of our blood, sweat and tears.  I write this as someone who started with nothing, who scrimped and scratched and worried through the hard times without the benefit of grants or subsidies or crowdfunding. And, I have battled the demons of despair and discouragement more than once.  (Read more of our story here.) 

market stand in August

It’s taken years (and years) of effort, but we consistently earn well above the national average for Farmers’ Market vendors. (for that matter, we earn more than some entire Markets) Eight years ago, we established a venue to market year-round, making our farm products available even in the "off-season".  We enjoy the fruits of our labor, too, daily partaking of gourmet-quality foodstuffs.Our diet alone is worth a pretty penny.  I make note of these points not to brag, but to verify my credibility.

When the hard times come, and they will, you have to figure out a way to weather the storm…not just give up and give in all the while complaining that it’s just not fair that it is so hard. You must find some positive amidst the difficulties or you will indeed give up. When you choose not to see the beauty around you, not to enjoy the goodness of the life you live, and not to share the wonder and abundance with others, you can’t help but fail. And, that is just too sad.

We live in a world where our daily experience enrich our lives far more than a paycheck ever would. I’m certain we could work harder, hire employees and have an impressive bottom line.  We choose not to. I never want to get so busy making a living that I forget (or don’t have time) to LIVE. (and thankfully, neither does the Boss)

another beautiful sunrise

Each gorgeous sunrise symbolizes the great possibilities of each new day. Each sunset gives us pause to reflect on our accomplishments.  We are surrounded by new life and growing things, fresh food and abundant harvests. There is indeed beauty all around us. We get a special feeling of accomplishment when a consumer thanks us for our efforts. And, there is a certain satisfaction to be had from the soreness that comes at the end of a productive day. (just be sure to pass me the Ben-Gay and the heating pad) 

sheep at sunset

The author saw this, too, (she even mentions her fleeting thought) but chose not to focus on it.  And, when given the opportunity, she didn’t share that wonder, she instead shared the sad fact that her farm only made a tiny sum of money for the year.  Far less than some teenagers make during a summer vacation. (missing entirely that a new venture actually showed a profit!)  She chose to focus on the fact that internships (one way to get into agriculture) are essentially forced labor camps without any hope for advancement. And, that farmers had to put in long, hard hours for very little monetary gain. What a sad, sad commentary. 

We’ve done this for 18 years now, I know what it’s like to see a disappointing bottom-line figure at the end of the year.  Believe me, I know!  But, that can be rectified…that doesn’t have to be the norm.  Over the years we have re-invented our product line and the farm has evolved in countless ways.  Because if something isn’t must change. Otherwise it's like hitting yourself in the head with a hammer and saying DR, DR it hurts when I do this…and the punchline to that old saw is…”well, quit doing it!” I know about long hours, crop failures and horrible disappointments…  I’ve written more than once about the sad and ugly side of farming. But, you have to look beyond that and look for the good.

I know we could make more doing something else, making far more money.  We have been told on various occasions that we should get a REAL job.  And, quite honestly, there have been years when we really could have made more by flipping burgers somewhere off the farm . There have been times when it has been beyond depressing to look at the bank balance. I’m no stranger to sleepless, worried nights. And, I’m quite thankful that good manners dictate that one doesn’t have to discuss income with the odd and random person. But, at tax time, we actually don’t want to see a big number in the profit column. There’s a fine line between profitability and a really big tax bill.  To operate “in the black” at all is positive, really.

This is perhaps my all-time favorite photo
we had very little at the time...
but, we felt rich in other ways

In the long run, the bills were paid, the children fed and clothed and we were all together, finding new and inventive ways to face the troubles that life sometimes had to offer. Our children learned amazing life lessons about resiliency and creative thinking.  They, in turn, encouraged and stimulated our thinking. All that has to count for something!

Can small farms be sustainable?  Yes.  Absolutely.  Are all small farms sustainable? No. Absolutely not.  But, then, it’s not because they’re small.  Or because…well, Monsanto and GMOs…or the lack of societal support. Personally, I think that sustainability has a great deal to do with adaptability and creative problem solving. (and perseverance in the face of adversity) And, while I agree that farming demands more of you than perhaps any other occupation, that is not to say it is a bad thing.  I do not mis-speak when I say that this is not just my livelihood, it is my life.

In the end, it’s not just the amount of earnings that dictate if a farming operation is sustainable. Although, profitability is a key factor.  But without satisfaction and fulfillment in the lifestyle we have chosen, depression, despair and burn-out are sure to happen.

Farming (of any size) most definitely is NOT the way to make a lot of money…but, I am most happy to say that yes, 

         YES indeed, 
                       you can make a living farming!

But, that being said,

We must never forget that we are indeed incredibly RICH in many other ways.            


  1. Yes Barbara, as a farmer's wife I do agree about that 'rich in other ways' - but by golly, although the farmer is semi retired he works jolly hard in all weathers and can never contemplate a day indoors - there are always stock to feed and bed down.

  2. Excellent post. A very good reminder. She could stand to read YOUR post. :)

  3. Beautifully written! Thank you for the's easy to get lost in all the other details if let ourselves! (Beautiful photos, BTW :-) )

    1. Thanks for taking the time to write such a nice comment, Melissa!

  4. Barbara,

    What a heartfelt, life- affirming response to a choice that you and Tom have made to live your life and raise a family on a beautiful, profitable farm that raises delicious food for many people. Too bad the readers of Salon don't have your perspective to ponder. Please know what an inspiration you are to those of us who are still trying to figure out this farming thing. (And yes, we've had our share of naysayers!) There's a Chinese proverb I keep on my desk: "Those who say it cannot be done should not interrupt those who are doing it."

    Farm on!

    1. Thanks, Deirdre!
      I love the proverb and have a whole file of similar quotes on my computer for inspiration.
      ...and I'm pretty sure y'all have this farming thing figured out. (I think your chef-clients would attest to this, too)