Sunday, January 20, 2008

Do farmers deserve a middle-class income?

I started reading Barbara Kingsolver's
"Animal, Vegetable, Miracle" last week and have been thoroughly enjoying it. However, I have noticed its critique of mainstream agriculture is not paired with empathy for average farmers, such as found in other books such as "The Omnivore's Dilemma" (post on that book to come).

Here's an example: Kingsolver's husband Steven L. Hopp steps in on page 76 to write approvingly about the supposed advantages of micro-agriculture: "Small farms less than four acres in size had an average net income of $1400 per acre. The per-acre profit declines steadily as farm size grows, to less than $40 an acre for farms above a thousand acres. Small operators have to be both grower and marketer... They're doing everything right, they just need customers..."

The thing that stands out right away is that the income from a four-acre farm makes a minimum-wage paycheck look pretty attractive. If this is the definition of a small farm, then the only people who can afford them either work other jobs, receive pensions, or are simply independently wealthy. As the USDA chart above shows, these people regularly put in hundreds of hours of unpaid work or write off the value of the land.

It's only the much maligned "big" farmers who seem to actually worry about things like paying off mortgages or earning a living. Fortunately, most of those who farm hundreds of acres or work with hundreds of animals have managed to survive on their incomes as full-time farmers. And that's good news for us: if our flour all came from four-acre wheat farms or our milk came from four-cow dairies, paying six dollars for a loaf or a gallon would suddenly become a bargain rather a guilt-assuaging indulgence.

Here in Skagit County, our organic family farms are mostly in the hundred-acre range, but they are able to sustain a respectable standard of living from the full-time work. Golden Glen Creamery on the north end of the Valley is not organic, but about 70 naturally-raised cows provide milk for a line of dairy products that support an extended family in a way that a couple of goats down the road from the Kingsolver cabin never could. Sustainable agriculture that doesn't provide a living for its farmers isn't sustainable; "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle" would have done better to celebrate farms that actually work.

In other news, we received a little more press in our local paper over the holidays when the Skagit Valley Herald made a courageous decision to annoy a large minority of its subscribers with a week-long front-page series of articles on climate change. Eventually we'll actually have enough developing that we can write a press release!

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