The key to farming since the 1970s has been to go big with a few cash crops, search out efficiency, utilize technology and produce more from each acre.
Some young farmers want to do it their own way. They want to stay small, avoid mainstream distribution and maybe grow organic. These new farmers face different challenges from their traditional predecessors, but they can't avoid the economics. Steve Knight tackled the knotty subject of farm economics.
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“Agriculture is a low margin industry. There’s just no way around it,” said Jim Putnam of Farm Credit East, a six-state 12,000-customer bank serving farms of every size and style. “Farmers do not earn the kind of margins that the cosmetics industry or the electronics industry or many other higher-margin industries are able to earn.”
Putnam says that agriculture is a high-cash-flow, but low-profit industry. When farmers get caught short, he said they turn to banks like his for a loan.
Even with bank support, it’s the simple economics of investment and profitability that farming experts say scare off potential farmers. “There’s a lot of people who would like to be farming if they could make a living at it,” said Betsy Hodge from the Cornell Cooperative Extension.
Hodge said there is a growing group of passionate farmers who make it work despite the difficult economics. “They are getting into farming not as a livelihood though, but there’s a lot of part time farms,” she said. “Like I have a farm at home and a job here.”
Making It Work
Some North Country farmers, like Todd Asselin, reject bank involvement. They fear falling into a cycle of debt, buying more equipment to be more efficient to pay off more debt and so on.
“There’s a lot of farmers out there that unfortunately the bank pretty much owns everything that they do and dictates how much they need to produce,” Asselin said. “I disagree with that. I think that you need to be in charge of your operation and how you want to run it.”
Todd and Michelle Asselin run Harmony Hills Farmstead, an organic livestock operation quietly nestled in the Adirondack foothills. Their farm doesn’t have any huge barns, silos or machinery here.
“Working with nature. 100 percent. As it was meant to be.” Todd said. The Asselins let their hogs farrow – or nest – in the woods. The piglets wean themselves. They don’t use pesticides or growth hormones.
The Asselins say when you give the animals the opportunity, they will flourish on their own. “When the cows are over here the chickens will go up on them, climb on ‘em, pick the bugs off them. It’s amazing,” Todd said.
Harmony Hills produces pork, beef, poultry and eggs for local customers, but the farm is still a sideline for the Asselins: “We are eating for labor, our labor costs, and that’s it. And then it got a little bigger and I said well I’d like it to pay the taxes. It got a little bigger and it started paying the taxes. And now it’s going to the point where I’d like Michelle to stay home and farm full time.”
The Asselins had a head start up the ladder to farm ownership; they both retired from the military and Todd inherited land from his grandfather.
Even with the head start, the Asselins are self-proclaimed workaholics. Todd counsels war veterans and Michele is an accountant. They juggle day jobs, farm chores and product marketing.
“We put in about a hundred plus hours a week into the farm here between the two of us on top of work,” Todd said. So we don’t get much time off.
They still have a long way before they can make a living from the farm, and even then Todd says he will keep his day job.
The Search For Efficiency
Fifty miles to the west, in Chase Mills, New York is the other end of the farming spectrum. The McKnight family’s sprawling River Breeze dairy farm dates back to the 1850’s. Today it’s one of the largest in the North Country with 1,100 dairy cows.
“It’s all about efficiency,” said Travis McKnight. At 28, he’s the next generation of McKnights to run the farm.
“Every farm is different; they’re managed different. And that’s why I think you see small farms to medium to big to very big farms,” McKnight said.
Their farm’s expansion has included all the new technologies of CAFO farming. That is, they run a concentrated animal feeding operation. The cows stay in barns and sleep on waterbeds in a computer-controlled climate with fans, water misters and automatic vents.
Comfortable cows means more milk.
The problems with these large operations become clear when the price of milk drops. “Like everything else, the price of inputs is so high, driven by oil. Everything is driven by oil, everyone knows that. That tends to suck a lot of the profit up quick,” McKnight said. “The last three years were very difficult. We had to make a lot of cuts to stay here and just try to make things as efficient as we could. Right down to cents per day per cow. It all counts.”
As the McKnight family grew, it made sense to go big, but Travis says farm size and type depends on the farmer. “If the person that owns the farm is happy and can make a living at it. That’s what counts,” he said.
Food Safety and Security
Still, many farms are pushed out because they can’t turn a profit. Farming expert Betsy Hodge said consumers’ desire for low prices compounds farm problems.
“If everybody wants to shop at Walmart and get the cheapest possible food, then you got to think of that from the farmer’s point of view,” Hodge said. “They are trying hard to make a little bit of money or they aren’t going to be in business.”
Hodge said a social decline in agricultural activity threatens food safety and national food security. If we don’t produce enough food here, other countries fill the gap, but Hodge says the delivery and safety of international products is not guaranteed.
To provide for our local communities and our large metropolitan areas, Hodge says we need all kinds of farms and farmers. “I think you need a balance because you need those big high-tech guys to supply the big amounts and then you need the small guys for when, you know, like when they shut down all the airports,” Hodge said. “And that’s why we’ve been back to promoting local foods so there is some food security within the different areas.”
With huge urban areas like New York City, Hodge said local farms can’t supply food for everyone: “You need both.”
For years the federal farm bill has subsidized industrial agriculture, for corn feed especially. When Congress considers the 2012 farm bill, advocacy groups will be pushing for policies to encourage the growth of young farmers and small farms.