You've seen the logos with the smiling cows frolicking in the flowers, the grinning (mostly white) families holding hands, the magically lit up red barn sitting on the hillside at sunset.
Americans love farms. But all these "happy cows" and glowing barns fetishize agriculture without paying much attention to what really goes into farming. Many want to meet their farmer to hear about the tasty produce and the rolling hills, not about the days spent in the mud, the sizable debt, and the enormous number of hours that go into farming regeneratively.
But if we don't acknowledge the tricky parts of agriculture, I firmly believe little can be done to change it. When we romanticize a family's "story" while ignoring the farm's challenges, we are doing them a disservice. We will continue to have beginning farmers go into agriculture excited to "simplify their lives," then promptly quit three years later, thinking they were a failure. In the end, society will not be able to create policies to support small farms and rural communities because their issues are not known or are often misunderstood.
And so, I am writing a book about the economics of farming told through our story of moving to Whippoorwill Creek Farm. The book - hopefully out in 2021 - will discuss the financial challenges of agriculture, and share ways farms can be more successful.
But here on the blog, we are also starting a video series to talk more about the costs of farming. My hope is that through these videos anyone wanting to go into agriculture or who is interested in what it takes to grow the food we eat will learn more about the daily realities of the trade. The series is called "Yeah, But How Much Does it Cost?" acknowledging that while we talk about all the great environmental benefits to be had in sustainable agriculture, we often continue to ignore the financial, social and mental health costs for farmers.
This first video in the series is about the cost of building a fence - a seemingly benign infrastructure expense that in fact takes oodles of labor, a tricky element on a new farm where it is easy to work all the time and get little financially out of it.
Fencing and similar labor-intensive tasks are in part why your grass-finished beef is so expensive (or should be) in the supermarket. The price structure adds in a host of activities essential to the farm but for which no one got directly paid, like the hours, days and weeks of preparation that go into rotating cattle each and every day (or on some ranches, multiple times a day).
In the end, when you figure your hours, the per-hour rate of pay built into a steak or turnip sold at the supermarket is often so low as to be ridiculous. Which brings us back to some important questions we will tackle in this series: Is it enough to love what you do, or should the public be more willing to shoulder more of the costs for "sustainability"? And what about those farmers who don't already own land? Does the "family farm" model allow for a diversity of land ownership? If true, long term sustainability requires caring land stewards for generations to come, how do we ensure they have access to farming?
Please let us know your thoughts on the video - particularly if you have ideas for other farm ventures you would like to understand more about financially. We love to hear from you!
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