Growing for market, growing for self

Even after farmers left the farm after WWII,  farmers made up a fairly substantial part of the labor force. Many urban dwellers were connected to the farm through family. It was common to know a farmer; they were cousins, grandparents, or other relatives, who more often than not lived within a day’s drive of a city. Farms were diversified; they raised several animals that provided meat and milk for the family. The farms raised a bit of produce during the summer months, further diversifying the income stream as well as providing the sustenance for the family. Food was canned or preserved for the family. Excess was sold at tailgate or framers markets.

Tarheelbilly Farm doesn’t grow a ton of food for the local farmer’s market and community. We decided that it wasn’t financially workable to attempt to do so, and have focused on growing for our family and will sell the excess only after we’ve fed ourselves first. Why not feed the world? With so many going hungry in our community, why won’t we jump in and work voraciously to feed all of Southern Ohio? Why not compete?

The truth is, if we tried, we’d go broke trying to do so. An alarming small number of people who make their living as farmers (roughly 1% of the population of the US).  Most farms are no longer able to support families as the sole source of income.

Sources of household income for beginning and established family farms, 2012

Source: USDA. Note: this information is compiled based upon US Census data. 2012 is the lastest date of compilation.

Farmers who grow for the commodity market face an even more difficult series of impossible choices in order to be profitable. (Commodity farms produce products that make up the backbone of the American food supply. Corn, soybeans, and wheat are some of the major commodity crops that the US produces. Beef, pork, etc. are also considered commodities.) The profit margins are so small that many farmers, even large ones, LOSE money or barely break even. Just three companies control over two-thirds of US soybean processing. Five control 85 percent of it. The picture isn’t much better in corn. With so few options for farmers to sell their products, they are at the mercy of tightly controlled market forces and are marginalized at every phase of the production process.

From “Ag Cycles: A Crop Marketing Perspective,” by Chad Hart of Iowa State University
What does this mean in real terms? Well, it means that most farms are NOT profitable, and many of those who are remain marginally so. Efforts to recruitment will remain fruitless as long as farmers must work two jobs in order to afford to farm.
We at Tarheelbilly Farm feel the pressure, too. We pay retail prices and taxes for all costs of production– feed, fuel, tools, jars, labels– the list is endless. We sell our free range eggs for $3.00 per dozen when others sell theirs for $2.00. We have seen them for as low as $0.50 per dozen on sale at the grocery store. As it stands, we lose money on each dozen. The true cost of production is closer to $4.00 per dozen, but few around here are willing to pay that. (I won’t say ABLE– there are rivers of Mountain Dew and islands of pizza here in the Tristate, so I do believe that it comes down to a matter of personal priorities.)
There are too many broken parts to our food supply chain that they cannot possibly be covered in a blog post. Suffice to say, we hope that better policy making at the state and federal level will make it easier for farms to get good food into the hands of people who seek it. Until then, we’ll continue to be a small, diversified farm with small, artisan level goals. We’ll raise a few things well, and sell directly to those who seek quality and appreciate the care that we give the plants, animals, and land that we’ve been blessed to steward. We’ll leave feeding the world to the big boys.
-Charis

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