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The (Sad) Truth About Farming

So let’s be real for a moment.

Iowa is beautiful. The land is some of the most fertile on earth. Water is plentiful (unlike here in California) and in the south, hills roll green and alive like waves of pure life.

But farming - even in a place like Iowa - is a profession that doesn’t pay. Not “doesn’t pay” like teachers should be paid more or cooks make so much less than waiters. No, farming at small scale like we are talking about doing on the farm literally does not make any money. In fact, farmers often pay to farm.

Look at this chart for example (and sorry - this blog template doesn't allow the photo to pop out):

See that first grouping of little, teeny-tiny bars on the far left? The ones that go below the zero line? Those which show that the “median farm income” (according to the USDA) is in the red, year after year?

Most farm families - 90% of them in fact - have roofs over their heads because of off farm income. Meaning that farming in practice is a full time hobby, something that people do with all of their time, but don’t actually get paid to do.

It is only farms which make over $350,000 a year that bring in a majority of their income from farming.

And, adding insult to injury (see chart below), only 12% of the farming population actually makes over $250,000 (the other USDA chart made the cut off at $350,000). The rest "make" less than $250,000, which as we learned above, is not actually income made from the farm. It means almost 90% of all the farms out there rely almost entirely on income made from other jobs, NOT from their farms.

As a result most small farmers simply don’t succeed, especially if they come into it with rosy glasses on, thinking farming is a romantic way to get back to the land, grow some kale, and sell their way to stability at the farmers market.

So what does this mean for us? For two soon-to-be 50 year olds with big ideas, land controlled by the family patriarch, and full lives in the big city?

I am betting the farm (pun intended) on the idea that the farms who make it plan for farming as a business. We will hopefully inherit land someday so we spend all our money leasing it. Maybe we can share equipment with other farms and find innovative ways of selling our products while still sleeping at night. And we are going to try our best to have many different revenue streams on the same land at the same time.

This all takes a lot of work, however. A lot of time we don't have while working our full time jobs in expensive San Francisco.

So the short answer to what it means for us is that I am scared about it all the time. It all feels distant, and I wonder constantly about all I don't know now and am not even aware of it. How so many decisions we will make today are based on a future we do not know and likely can't conceive of. How little do we know, even with more than 20 years of talking about and working in the industry?

But the long answer is that, although I grew up and have lived in suburbia and city most of my life, sitting at a computer typing as I am right now - being outside, working with my body, feels good. It is as cliche as it gets - but some days I feel excited just by the idea of seeing the sun all day, or arriving home tired - not because I slogged around all day on concrete and in buildings, riding cars and buses and trains - but because I worked. Worked and sweated until my body was tired.

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