It began gently. The rain that is. Just as I stepped outside on Tuesday morning to begin the day’s harvest for market. It continued for most of the morning with only a few moments of respite. Just after noon, with soaked clothes, dampened spirits, and running for cover, the heavens opened up. It poured. Hard and fast. Instantly our farm was transformed into a very shallow lake with waves making their way from the fields down into the pond and the streams. When it stopped, water pooled in low-lying areas, plants appeared bent-over and weather beaten, and so too our spirits. A day later we all bounced back (thankfully). Though, it reminded us that we are not in control, and left us with grateful hearts for this farming life.
It was the same day (while catching up with our Sunday newspaper) that we read a story which aptly described some of our life and concerns as food growers. In his op-ed in the New York Times, shellfish and seaweed farmer, Bren Smith, sounded an earnest warning:“Don’t let your children grow up to be farmers.” His piece boldly opens with this:
“The dirty secret of the food movement is that the much-celebrated small-scale farmer isn’t making a living. After the tools are put away, we head out to second and third jobs to keep our farms afloat. Ninety-one percent of all farm households rely on multiple sources of income. Health care, paying for our kids’ college, preparing for retirement? Not happening. With the overwhelming majority of American farmers operating at a loss — the median farm income was negative $1,453 in 2012 — farmers can barely keep the chickens fed and the lights on.”
Sometimes we have a hard time keeping the lights on, paying for our health insurance, and we have not even begun to prepare for retirement. Like Bren, you might ask the same question below:
“But what about the thousands of high-priced community-supported agriculture programs and farmers’ markets that have sprouted up around the country? Nope. These new venues were promising when they proliferated over a decade ago, but now, with so many programs to choose from, there is increasing pressure for farmers to reduce prices in cities like my hometown, New Haven. And while weekend farmers’ markets remain precious community spaces, sales volumes are often too low to translate into living wages for your much-loved small-scale farmer.”
He points to a few other valid points, but the below is a frequent frustrating topic of conversation in our household:
“And then there are the chefs. Restaurants bait their menus with homages to local food, attracting flocks of customers willing to pay 30 bucks a plate. But running a restaurant is a low-margin, cutthroat business, and chefs have to pay the bills, too. To do so, chefs often use a rule of thumb: Keep food costs to 30 percent of the price of the meal. But organic farming is an even higher-risk, higher-cost venture, so capping the farmer’s take to a small sliver of the plate ensures that working the land remains a beggar’s game.
The food movement — led by celebrity chefs, advocacy journalists, students and NGOs — is missing, ironically, the perspective of the people doing the actual work of growing food. Their platform has been largely based on how to provide good, healthy food, while it has ignored the core economic inequities and contradictions embedded in our food system.”
While it may be that Bren Smith is bemoaning his regional local food system, we find the same to be true for the Richmond metro. We often ask ourselves and other small scale food producers this: how do we remain viable in a system seemingly stacked against us? Is it about farmers finding their own voices and advocating for more effective policies, more equitable tax breaks, increased direct USDA support, or do we go boldly forth and slowly chip at away at the grass-fed veneer of the local food movement to demand fair prices for our work? Probably yes, and more. So that our children may grow up in a system where they can be food growers if they so choose.
Beyond our frustrations, doubts, and fears, we grow food (happily) and this week we have available some cantaloupe/muskmelons, bell and Chinese eggplant, fennel, red & yellow onions, jalapeño peppers, carmen & bell peppers, Padrón & poblano peppers, red & Yukon gold potatoes, Swiss chard, red/sungold & black cherry tomatoes, some heirloom tomatoes, Roma & Hanover red tomatoes, sweet red and yellow baby watermelons, and eggs.
Needless to say, the shellfish and seaweed farmer’s op-ed had the interwebs buzzing. As a response, farmer and blogger, Jenna Woginrich, penned these heartfelt words in an article in the Huffington Post, “Let your children grow up to be farmers”, of which the below is an excerpt. Happy Friday!
“Let them know what it is like to be free from fluorescent lights and laser pointer meetings. Let them challenge themselves to be forever resourceful and endlessly clever. Let them whistle and sing loud as they like without getting called into an office for “disturbing the workforce.” Let them commute down a winding path with birdsong instead of a freeway’s constant growl. Let them be bold. Let them be romantic. Let them grow up not having to ask another adult for permission to go to the dentist at 2 p.m. on a Thursday. Let them get dirty. Let them kill animals. Let them cry at the beauty of fallow earth they just signed the deed for. Let them bring animals into this world, and realize they don’t care about placenta on their shirt because they no longer care about shirts. Let them wake up during a snowstorm and fight drifts at the barn door instead of traffic. Let them learn what real work is. Let them find happiness in the understanding that success and wealth are not the same thing. Let them skip the fancy wedding. Let them forget four years of unused college. Let them go. Let them go home.”
Be well, eat healthy, and be kind to yourself and others.