My day nearly always starts with a reluctant rise into consciousness triggered by my churning gut. I can feel the adrenaline pumping before I open my eyes and when I finally wake up fully, I’m filled with a nagging anxiousness.

Farm team with their harvest

It’s the farm finances that cause my stress. Six years ago, my husband and I bought a small ‘family’ farm of 23 acres and we have a thriving business on it growing organic, local veg – year on year, our turnover has grown. But despite this, we still live well in the red and my freelance income as a writer and consultant is critical to keeping us afloat. It is a deeply precarious existence, running a farm and working freelance – subject both to the weather and the vagaries of casual labour. This was recently brought home to me when one of my freelance contracts tanked unexpectedly and I realised in 8 weeks time, half my income would disappear. I felt relieved that I got a little warning.

So, it was kind of nice – and kind of disturbing – to last week read the New York Times piece, ‘Don’t let your children grow up to be farmers‘. It turns the spotlight onto a subject that most of us want to keep in the dark – that sustainable farmers aren’t making any money. The economic viability of small-scale farming is next to nil. Everyone is dependent on outside income to make ends meet, and the idea of having a college fund for kids, or money for retirement is such a pipe dream we laugh at it. We all intend to work until we die. Or at least until we can sell the farm, which may be never.  Read this bittersweet story of perseverance and drought posted on the National Young Farmers Coalition that was written up in the Washington Post. It doesn’t paint an encouraging picture of farm life.

Vegetable box scheme

There are a lot of reasons that small-scale farming is a difficult business. For us, it’s because we bought land rather than renting it. We wanted stability because we were in our mid-forties and we had some capital to invest. But our business loan was vast – I can remember bursting into tears and sobbing when it was confirmed, partly from relief and partly from terror. I’d never been so far out of my financial comfort zone. Raised in a stable middle-class family, where we always had enough and never too much, I’ve worked since I was fifteen and, until we bought the farm, I always knew where my next pay check was coming from. Now, we live in a delicate balancing act, trying to keep within the overdraft limits of both our personal and business bank accounts. The people I work for freelance are used to my consistent request to be paid today, if at all possible, when I submit my invoices.

Sustainable and small-scale farming operates on an uneven economic playing field. Farming subsidies are linked to size and long favoured industrial farming. There is little financial support for the environmental and social value of sustainable growers. The so-called ‘greening’ of the Common Agricultural Policy was so watered down by the NFU and other agricultural lobbying organisations loathed to make any concessions to sound environmental practice in farming, that it became pretty meaningless to those working sustainably. Despite all this, policy makers are increasingly arguing that small-scale sustainable farming already feeds far more people than industrial, and that is how we need to think about the future of our food. The UN’s 2011 Agroecology and the Right to Food Report, argues that we need to decentralise our food production so that crop failures in one part of the world – say rice in southeast Asia – don’t cause a price spike on the commodities market. Small-scale farming also uses far fewer resources, emits far less in the way of greenhouse gases and causes vastly less environmental destruction. But the engine of Big-Ag continues to make all the money.

Frog among the crops

So why is there a small but growing movement of people going back to the land (realising that there are still many that never left it)? It’s sometimes seen as an upper middle-class lifestyle choice and while there are those who come into farming with money, most of us find that any money we had has been sunk into our operations. We persevere, hoping year on year, we’ll finally turn a genuine profit that provides a living, so that we can stop and focus on what we do rather than running out the door to that second job. I keep thinking we’re getting closer, but the bills just keep rolling in…

Earlier this summer, we made hay. It’s a generally unpleasant job that leaves you exhausted and aching from lifting, sneezy from the dust and hay, and itchy all over, but there is something elemental about it. As I rode back on the trailer to the barn, the late afternoon sun shone down and I felt good. My husband likes to tease me about the list of things I didn’t sign up for when we bought the farm – I’m not shooting the bunny rabbits that are feeding in our polytunnels; I’m not running the muck spreader and getting covered in manure; I’m not having tomato seedlings in the bedroom (I lost this battle). But really, this is exactly what I signed up for. Because when I think about the environmental legacy that the 20th century is leaving to the children of the 21st century, I want to be able to say that in my own small and very localised way, I did what I could to change it. I just hope we last the distance, and don’t lose the farm in the meantime.

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  • auntiegrav

    Thanks for the forthright article. I feel your pain.
    I’m curious about why you chose the NFU as being against your interest (as opposed to the Farm Bureau, etc). I find that the NFU and my state farmers union are trying to be friendly to small farms (including vegetable farmers). Unfortunately, in my particular case, I’m miffed at the state branch for their geographic bias toward the opposite side of my state (none of the activities they organize are within reasonable driving distance for me).

    • Alicia Miller

      Hi Auntiegrav, here in the UK, the NFU is a potent lobbying agency and it had a big influence on the reform of the Common Agricultural Policy. Most of the NFU’s members are conventional farmers, so it’s not surprising that it did much to argue for business as usual rather than for the many proposed ‘green’ measures that were being tied in with CAP subsidies. Their lobbying power, along with other organisations, went a long way in watering down the robustness of the greening proposals in the CAP. Many in the sustainable farming sector felt let down by this.

      • auntiegrav

        Sorry, I didn’t reply earlier. I tend to ignore my Disqus notifications because they are usually negative….I tend to say things that are not commonly considered appropriate in a mindless world.
        I mistook your NFU for the U.S. NFU when I read the article. I didn’t really pay attention to it being the UK. My mistake.
        My impression is that the UK version is like the U.S. American Farm Bureau, which used to be a cooperative, farmer-led organization but turned into an insurance corporation, lobbying for whatever brings in more premiums. Small farmers don’t buy as much insurance, so they are coerced into becoming big farmers or left out.

  • City Farm Systems

    It strikes me there is a bit of disconnection here. All farms need to aim at being sustainable… but to be sustainable requires them to be economically viable – the two are fundamentally connected. There are plenty of farming operations that are viable on smaller areas and without CAP payments – they rely on greenhouses. In this case maybe the farm would be a bit more viable if the rabbits eating the produce were collected and sold to a local butcher!

    As far as I am concerned the CAP needs getting rid of completely. It does nothing to help farming – all it does is add to a supermarket’s bargaining power to demand lower prices. Take dairy farming – milk prices are controlled by the big milk companies like Arla. They have staff dedicated to costing farm operations and then offer a price so that a farmer must use best practice to make a profit. They are very well aware of the amount of subsidy their suppliers get and take account of this when calculating the price they are prepared to offer.

  • Alicia Miller

    I very much agree that all farms need to aim at being economically sustainable but that’s not easy – the cost of land, if you buy, is significant so we need to develop ways that allow new farmers to enter the profession without the tremendous debt of buying land, yet with the long term security of owning it – land trusts are one model for that, long term leases with rent control (just as with residential) could be another. Relying on greenhouses to turn a profit is not the answer either – greenhouses run on sustainable energy aren’t the norm. If we are to move to a more sustainable system of agriculture on a global level, a lot must change, most importantly that there are clear financial benefits in farming sustainably and clear financial impacts for farming that damages the soil and wider environment. Why should organic farmers have to pay significant certification fees to prove they are farming well? Shouldn’t it really be that if your farming practice is damaging the environment, you should have to pay for the damage you do to waterways, biodiversity and the degradation of the soil? That would certainly shift the power dynamic and make it easier for sustainable farmers to stay in the black.

  • Emma Blount

    Dear Alicia,
    Thank you for writing this article. I have quoted you in a letter to several governmental bodies asking them to subsidize organic farming. I may inherit a Big-Ag farm and I couldn’t go organic unless they do. It’s so frustrating the powers that be not doing something about this.
    Kind regards.