Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Farmer Rant

“I’m a seventh generation farmer, and it looks like I’ll probably be the last.” The man in the back of the class stated, a wry smile on his broad, sun-wrinkled face. I wanted to scream out, “No! Say it’s not so!” But it was clear by the rest of the classes solemn nods that this was truly not a unique case around here.
I am in class called “Marketing School for Growers” offered by the Cornell Cooperative Extension and funded through state grants. Powerpoint slides show us how we can better “position our product in the marketplace”, using innovative techniques to appeal to restaurants, the discerning farmers market shopper, or create value-added products. But what we’re talking about in the end is still small potatoes.
That old saying has come up several times for me lately, “How do you make a million dollars farming? Start with two million.” So the answer to my request for advice from a nearby CSA farmer about starting up a CSA of my own next year was, Get a job. You’ll need time to gradually aquire your pieces of (rusty, used) equipment at auctions, because the money isn’t there to fund major investiments from the outset.
I have just devoted the past 2 years of my life apprenticing under the trade of vegetable growing, only to be told that I needed to find a job. Oh! I had stepped out into the Real World after being in the student bubble… this was a familiar feeling! But I want to farm! I have the skills and the work ethic to create a farm! And everyone’s telling me to slow down. No I will not!
Farmers markets around here make me cry. I guess I got used to the hip urban markets in the Bay Area & Hudson Valley, where organic is super-trendy and farmers are worshipped as rock-stars. Not here, nope. Half the vendors are grey-haired, torn-plaid-shirt-wearing, well, 7th generation farmers probably (the real-deal rockstars), but they are charging a buck for a basket of giant tomatoes. You can bet that it cost way more than a buck to produce them. You see, farmers don’t count their own labor. That’s why it appears to work. You crunch the numbers, and yes, just barely, a positive profit is reached (occasionally). But what about the hours that farmer spent on his or her knees in the dirt, plucking weeds or picking peppers, all the hours spent trying to get the tractor to start, all the cracked dry hands, the sore backs, the worry.
This is obviously a hobby. Most farmers around here work other jobs, usually full-time at that, to provide enough income to raise their families and have health insurance. I just don’t get it—why work yourself overtime in the fields and then come to market to stand there in the cold and hawk the fruits of your labor for 50 cents each? These people must really love it. I must admit though that I, too, am a slave to the passion of farming; I’d do it even if no one paid me to do it. And apparently no one will, so I will take a lifetime vow of poverty, to satiate my desire to do meaningful, honest, fulfilling work instead of taking some office job with a comfy benefits package.
All for the love of the soil. Crazy.

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