Sunday, November 13, 2011

"young farmers", subsidies and enabling

The new york times has an article today about the difficulties of young farmers; particularly the difficulty they have in getting land to farm. 

It's not just young farmers. Land, which is what farms are made out of, is expensive to people of all ages.   I'd much rather they said "new farmers" and not focus on the "young" part. 

I think that struck me about the article is the feeling that someone should, by virtue of a desire to farm, be helped to farm.  Now while I'm generally for people getting into farming, I also get the echo of the housing bubble we just went through.   The desire to own a big house isn't reason enough to loan you the money.

I feel that you also have to have the experience and commitment to farm.  The article points out that apprenticeships are valuable to young farmers, and that's great, but it comes in many forms.   One way that it works is that you go out and make a living doing something else while you save up the money to start your farm.  A fellow I know worked as an electrical engineer to put himself through medical school.  Took him 10 years, but he came out a new resident with ZERO student loans. 

Oh yea.  He had to earn a degree as an electrical engineer first.   I'll let you imagine how he paid for that.  Amazingly talented guy. 

Most of the farm blogs that I read are written by people who made enough with off-farm jobs to be able to afford to farm -- because, as the old joke goes, to make a small fortune farming, you start with a large fortune.  I feel like you have to be able to afford to farm; and that's something that the "people should be able to farm if they want to with a lot of help" crowd hates. 

Most American farmers farm as their second job.  The "town" job provides the health insurance and a steady income, and covers the bills when the farm doesn't, and makes the mortgage payments. 

In their example they cite a couple who grossed $60,000 by their third season.  By small business standards, that's below tiny.  And they do that on 49 acres that were subsidized by two conservation groups. 

What I find most wrong about that is that the conservation groups are, in effect, enabling this couple to lead a life that, based on that gross, is probably below the poverty level.  I certainly don't want to have to compete against them. 

How about we work with the couple to come up with a plan to make market rate land pay a living wage?  Because when we can do that, we won't have to pay people via subsidies to farm.  It'll be a way of life and living, like any other occupation choice.

You'll find the new york times article here


Bill Gauch said...

In my part of the country (North East), small farmers are turning land wealth into actual wealth. A family farm (3+ generations) across the street from me was dying. The latest generation was only halfheartedly thinking about farming. They would plant squash in mid-July. They would plant tomatoes and then just leave them to rot. etc. They really had quit farming. Headed toward financial distress, they threatened to sell the 80+ acres as R-40 house lots. Conservation groups, land trusts, water boards and the town purchased half the land outright, and purchased permanent conservation rights to the rest to continue farming. They got $3M for the land and rights. Now they use the cash to buy land and build overly large hotels in residential areas. Oh, and they still don't really farm. They hayed the field back in July, bailing 25 round bales. They are still out there now, rotting.

Lee said...

I'm not in favor of subsidizing small farmers, but it seems like the onus lies in the fact that we do subsidize most of the big farms. In 2004, the U.S. dumped almost $3 billion into corn subsidizes, and artificially drove up demand by mandating ethanol and then subsidizing it by another $0.51/gal. The American consumer expects food to be cheap because their tax dollars go to keeping a few feedstocks cheap.