Farmers making a decent living

In a August 17, 2011 New York Times article, Mark Bittman paints a hopeful picture of the boom in small, family-run, sustainable farms in one part of America.  His piece on the return of farming to Maine makes the case that sustainable farming is a vibrant, growing industry that, in that state, has grown by 50% since 1992.  People are making the decision to return to farming for many reasons:  increasing demand for high quality produce, the freedom that comes from running one’s own business, and the quality of life that can be found on a small sustainable farm seem to the most commonly cited.

One motivation that is decidedly missing from this list is the desire to make a lot of money.  Independent farming has always been a hard job that pays little more than a minimum wage.  Like running a small, independent restaurant, which provides a decent living and a lot of satisfaction but will never make you rich, sustainable farming is more about the lifestyle than the remunerative benefits.  In fact, Mr. Bittman notes near the end of his article that it is common for sustainable farmers to have a second occupation to supplement their farm’s income.  Farm tourism, farming classes and farm dinners are only a few of the activities that help make ends meet on the farm, where income can fall prey to the whims of nature and that of  market for farm products.

The article finishes by suggesting that the way to make sustainable farming a more secure enterprise for farm families is to increase the price of high quality farm produce.  Mr. Bittman argues that the reason that sustainable food products seem expensive is that industrial food products are artificially cheap due to government subsidies to big agro-business.  He also notes that the cost of cheap industrial food does not reflect the cost to repair the  damage that poor quality food does to our physical well being and the well being of our environment.  Once these factors are taken in to account, high quality sustainably produced food seems much cheaper.

Although I agree wholeheartedly with Mr. Bittman’s conclusions, I can’t help but wonder if they make any difference to the vast majority of Americans.  If a person can afford $4 bunches of radishes, $8 dozens of eggs or pork chops at $18 a pound, certainly the quality of sustainably farmed products speak for themselves.  I wouldn’t chose anything else.  But if you belong to the growing majority of Americans for whom these prices are an uncrossable barrier, the choice becomes that of either eating poorly or being hungry.  In an America that is increasingly less interested in the plight of those who have less, the price of food risks becoming an new form of segregation, a segregation  between those who can afford to eat well, and those who can’t.

Tagged ,

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top