Thoughtful Food

Can you make a living as a small farmer? by Leda
August 7, 2010, 4:59 pm
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A little over midway through our internship experience, this is the question that Matt, Stephanie, and I are all wrestling with. I think that each of us has confirmed our initial suspicions that small-scale farming is a very satisfying and worthwhile pursuit. However, at the end of the day, we must decide whether or not making a career out of farming is economically feasible.

Currently, there seems to be no monetary incentive to become a small farmer. The reality that I have heard over and over again from small farmers is that they are worried about making it financially. These farmers seem to belong to two different groups: those who are financially independent from their farming endeavors (i.e., do not need to make money farming because of inheritance or previous earnings in another career field) and those who are struggling to support themselves. The USDA reports that 85-90% of the income brought in by farming households is earned off the farm. Thus, in their words, “for the majority of U.S. farm households, the availability of off-farm income is a more significant factor for financial well-being than are returns on farm production,” (

Despite these pessimistic reports, there are those people who contend that it is possible to earn enough on a small farm to support a family. Two of these people are Eliot Coleman, a successful and respected organic farmer in Maine, and John Ikerd, Professor Emeritus of Agricultural Economics at the University of Missouri Columbia. Eliot Coleman, in his book, “The New Organic Grower,” suggests that a family (or couple) can successfully farm on 5 acres if they can limit purchased equipment and maximize their efficiency of labor. Ikerd also supports the notion that small farms can be successful. However, he does not predict an easy path and cautions against borrowing too much money or trying to expand to quickly.

Maybe the single largest hurdle a young farmer faces financially is the start up cost of farming. The costs of land and infrastructure (i.e., tractor, implements, irrigation, greenhouse, etc.) are often prohibitive unless one has access to family land/money or decides to take out a small business loan. In speaking with other young farm interns in this area (Nevada County, CA) about our collective futures in farming, I can say that the problem of finding land is the first topic discussed. Certain young farmers I have talked with have parents or friends with land that they are considering farming. For the rest of us, finding land to farm remains a huge first step in pursuing this lifestyle.

Unfortunately, there is no easy answer to the question of whether farming can support me financially until I start looking into the specifics of land cost (to lease or own) and infrastructure/equipment appropriate to that land. I think that for now the best I can do is to focus on improving my farming skills and knowledge every day and remain optimistic about my ability to make a living as a small farmer.

-Farmer Leda