Singing the “I-can’t-make-my-farm-pay” blues

I had a great idea for a blog post, but it got hijacked by Salon, which published an article on Monday that has kept me ruminating and obsessing for days: Jaclyn Moyer’s “What Nobody Told Me About Small Farming: I Can’t Make a Living.”

It’s long, heartfelt, filled with lovely passages of writing…

In the heat of summer, my fields cover the bronzed landscape like a green quilt spread over sand. Ten acres of certified organic vegetables trace the contours of a small valley floor. Tomatoes glow crimson. Flowers bloom: zinnias, lavender, daisies. Watermelons grow fat, littering the ground like beach balls…

(See? Nice!)

But it’s also filled with enough self-pity, logical fallacies, and information gaps (you’re surprised you’re only netting $18K from 10 acres of vegetables in NoCal? did you consider, perhaps, Google to find out average farm incomes for your region?) that, five days after the article first posted online, the comments are still steadily trickling in to the Salon website and Facebook’s “Food and Farm Discussion Lab.”

This is kind of what my farm fantasy would look like, if I owned land in NoCal--lots of flowers and space for events like weddings or dinners. How about yours?

This is kind of what my farm fantasy would look like, if I owned land in NoCal–lots of flowers and space for events like weddings or dinners. How about yours?

I’ve participated in a bunch of these comments threads–shoving in my two cents about the importance of business planning, the many examples of folks who have “made it,” multiple income streams, value-added products, blah-blah. But even as my fingers have flown, my heart has ached for this young woman, because I don’t want her to give up! Even more importantly, I don’t want one (possibly dumb?) article to make others give up!

What is it? Why can’t I just make like Elsa and let this girl go?

There’s a lot to be said about realism–and how desperately it needs to be injected into the conversation about food and farming reform. Jaclyn’s article is, in large part, addressed to and essential reading for her customers–so misty-eyed, so very well-heeled–who romanticize her lifestyle while haggling over the price of her heirloom tomatoes. Anyone who’s followed my blog knows I’ve had my share of run-ins with the yuppie hordes who tend to be the core customer base at markets like the one I loved so much and the McVicker lived for back in Charlottesville.

But while I’m fully on board with honesty about one’s financial struggles–if nothing else, it’s a great way of soliciting ideas and advice–I’m also … bothered… She seems rather unaccountably unaware that rural folks have been singing the “I-can’t-make-my-farm-pay” blues for … oh, I don’t know… centuries?

And did she just happen to not notice that she was launching her enterprise in the teeth of a bruising worldwide recession?

Gosh, when I think of what we went through post-2008… Hiring freezes were keeping newly minted Ph.D.’s like me mired in part-time, benefits-free positions with fast-food pay, while the McVicker’s field, ornamental horticulture, simply cratered. It was a national catastrophe whose outlines we didn’t fully grasp until the worst of it was over. Plummeting plant sales, hundreds of nurseries closing their doors while the survivors slashed production by 50% or more. The simultaneous rise in popularity–and sales–for edible plants, the CSA share, and farmer’s market fare has been the one rosy indicator in a world of pain.

Is that what’s bugging me about Jaclyn’s story? Is this a kind of reverse schadenfreude? Am I the “geezer” resentfully grumbling “you-don’t-know-how-good-you’ve-had-it-whippersnapper”? Because here’s the kicker–so dim were the prospects in my field that they paradoxically heightened my interest in living off the land. I might be broke, my thinking went, but I’d rather be a broke farmer than a broke adjunct professor. I might be a broke farmer, my thinking went, but I wouldn’t have to put up with condescending jerks on the tenure track, I could put my fingers in the soil every single day, and I’d never ever eat crappy food. Such were the thoughts I used to comfort myself when weeping over my W2s.

Sigh, I just don’t know. I relate to this article on so many levels. I relate to the fact that Jaclyn had passion–a vision–and also to her frustrations, her apparent failures (I say apparent because even an internet “longread” can’t provide much in the way of context or detail.)

She’s mad about subsidies going to Big Ag rather than small family farms. (Her and generations of farm families). She implies a longing for family land. (She’s right. It can help. A lot.) I get these frustrations. I share them to an extent, though I absolutely do not understand her feeling that taking an off-farm job, or having an off-farm source of income, represents some form of capitulation, of failure. Indeed, the most stringent application of that rule would preclude her writing for Salon!

But having read this piece, several times, I’m thinking what this young woman needs, most of all, might be someone with some “farm sense” in her life. Farm sense? Well, it’s a lot like common sense–think of it as the collective wisdom that comes of having a network of family and/or peers who know farming and can teach you what you don’t know.

I can’t claim to have farm sense–mama had it, of course, but the day she shook the red clay of the piedmont off her shoes, she never looked back. The McVicker has it, in abundance–and so does my Cousin Curtis, the extension agent who learned cattle farming as a little boy riding a tractor on his daddy’s lap.

I hope Jaclyn’s got some folks like that in her life–and I so hope they can stiffen the spine of that (dwindling) passion and help her make a plan, make her dreams come true. As for me? I guess I’ll just keep grading papers, ’cause now that I have a real job, a tenure-track job, that particular off-farm activity is going to be a part of my lifestyle for many years to come.