I’ve been thinking all week about something I heard an African farmer on an NPR story last week about the challenges facing him and other farmers in his country: “Farmers, our heads are full of sawdust: we work so hard and then lose everything, but instead of giving up we start all over again”.
This weekend I attended a harvest festival nearby and visited with several of my organic farmer colleagues that I don’t get to see very often. One after another, they repeated the same question that has been on all our minds lately: “Why are we doing this?”.
These are not a bunch of crotchety old farmers, but rather, “new agrarians” like myself who for years felt they had signed a tough but fair contract: work like crazy, achieve reasonable success in the brave new world of organic, direct market agriculture. Demand seemed to always keep going up for the products we grew, and prices were covering our costs and allowing for enough profit to invest back into our businesses. Meanwhile, we were doing something good for the planet. Mother Nature seemed to be on our side.
That contract was broken in the fall of 2010, not by the recession, but by the weather. Since the big freeze of December 2010, farms in our area have suffered almost continuous weather related disasters. At Terra Firma, our sales income — and profit — peaked in 2008 at a level we have not seen since. In the years since, we have planted and tended the same amount of crops. But due to the weather, we have lost one or more of those crops each year since. Meanwhile, our expenses have continued to rise with inflation.
Last year, 2011, was by far the most catastrophic for us: we lost almost as much money that year as we made in 2008. Because we are farmers and not Wall Street bankers, we had saved all that profit “for a rainy day”. By June of this year, that savings was gone, but we were highly optimistic about being able to rebuild it this summer. That hasn’t happened. And as I found out last weekend, we are not the only local organic farm in this position.
By now everyone is probably familiar with the term “underwater on your mortgage” — the phenomena whereby millions of people borrowed more against their home equity than they could ever pay back. Farmers have a longer history of doing this; after all, we are famously “land rich and cash poor”. Across the U.S. right now, livestock growers by the thousands are borrowing money against their land and herds in order to purchase grain at record high prices. Dairy farmers are going bankrupt right now at the rate of several hundred per week.
Here at Terra Firma, we are not “underwater” yet. For years we struggled to build our farm with borrowed money, but it’s been years since have used a loan, and we’re not eager to start again. The last few years have hammered home to us a message that most farmers have always known: we are not in control and hard work is not always rewarded in agriculture.
Or maybe I am just seeing the state of the world through the lens of our farm. All over the world, two of the main themes of life these last three years seem to be the same: weather disasters and economic struggles. Like everyone else, we had high hopes that this year we would see the light at the end of the tunnel, but it has turned out to just a mirror at a turn and the light is still a ways off. We’ll keep chugging along for a while, keeping an eye on the fuel gauge.