On the farm, life takes on a whole different pace during the winter. Yes, we still have chores to do—animals must be fed, eggs gathered and washed. My husband will make cheese almost every day. On our neighbors’ farms, the cows still get milked twice a day, every day, despite the bitter cold and snow. But our goats and sheep are not due to have their babies for a few weeks, so my January days are spent filling the woodstove and planning for the coming year.
It is easy to forget that farming is a business. The iconic image of the farmer and his family working the land and living the simple life is classic and all-American. Before we moved here and started our farm, I dreamed of life at a slower pace. Folks often remark how lucky we are—our children especially—to connect with the rhythms of nature and live life “simply.” These things are true to a certain extent, but I think to romanticize farming is ultimately unfair to farmers, consumers, and the future of our communities.
Like so many things, the truth is much more complex—and infinitely more interesting. Our own farm business has been (and will continue to be) a work in progress. We’ve had to figure out what we’re good at; what works or doesn’t work using the resources we have. How our customers respond to us and our products. Where and what we want to sell and then how we navigate the regulatory landscape. And, in the end, it has to provide a living wage for our family. I know from experience that come tax time, I will tally our sales, subtract our expenses and in the end, wonder how we managed to pay our bills. Every purchase must be agonized over, every line of business scrutinized. Our goats, for example, are our least profitable business. In a bad year, expenses can outstrip income by the thousands of dollars. That means each animal’s performance and contribution to the bottom line must be measured and hard decisions made.
Farming itself seems to be at a crossroads. The average farmer in America is a 58-year-old male. Of the farm kids we know, maybe only a third of them want to follow in their parents’ footsteps. They’ve watched their own parents struggle, working a job whose milk check often does not cover the cost of making that milk. Moreover, most farm families we know have at least one parent working an off-farm job. Imagine for one moment how tough that is. My friend Angie gets up to milk with her husband and kids, feeds the family and then goes to her nursing job. At the end of the day, she helps milk again, feeds the family, and maybe cleans the house, pays bills, and shops for groceries. An off-farm job helps make ends meet and often provides health benefits, something many farmers go without. According to the USDA, the vast majority of farm households need off-farm income to survive. Even large farms (those with greater than $250,000 in gross sales) earn 25% of their income from off-farm jobs.
Which brings me to wonder what our farm business and others like us can do in the coming year to adapt…to not only survive, but thrive. I find myself wanting every Mohawk Valley resident to care where their food comes from. Unfortunately, labels aren’t always easy to read. For example, dairy products made in New York have a plant number that starts with 36. Anything else is from another state. How could I possibly buy butter from California and then ask Angie how her day at work was? Awareness has made me more thoughtful about my food purchases.
For me, farming is not just a romantic, idyllic lifestyle. It is a business that needs constant tending. And as a business, it is an important piece of our community’s economic and social fabric. We farmers need to do a better job of reaching out and educating consumers. And we need to be willing to adapt so future generations can see their own opportunities as farmers. Government and non-profits can play a role in putting consumers in touch with farmers and heightening awareness, too. Ultimately, we are all consumers whose everyday purchases will affect our local economy and the strength of our community for generations to come.