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Expectations and the 0.3 farm

Of all the responses to the last editorial, in which I pitched the notion of scaled subsidies for small farms, I liked two in particular. One reader called to remind me that all considerations of money are lousy concessions to the higher ideals of farming, such as care for the environment and self-sufficiency. He sounded a note somewhere between Wendell Berry’s agro-conservationism and the determined passion of Saint Simeon Stylites, with maybe a bit of 4×4 gun rack survivalism thrown in.

“We don’t farm for money,” he said.

There’s a part of me that agrees with his point about self-sufficiency. I’ve run farms of a few sizes and for a true sense of accomplishment nothing has exceeded the feeling you get when sitting down to a meal produced from your own efforts—roast chicken, vegetables, salad, berry pie.

It is good to be reminded of core values.

But for many of us there is a business component to farms as well. Our farms aren’t focused entirely on making money, but money is one measure (of many) of how we are doing. A farm that makes money or breaks even is more likely to stay operating, to take good care of soil and livestock, to pay better wages. A farm that is constantly on the wrong side of the balance sheet is less likely to do those things, and may well fold.

For his way of thinking about these kinds of issues, I especially enjoyed Adam Seys comments (see his letter on p 7). Rather than expecting to make a living from a small farm, Adam expects to work off the farm. He considers it a privilege to be able to farm. Any money it makes will be a bonus.

What Adam is talking about—and really, what a lot of agriculture policy is about—is managing expectations. If we expect small farms to yield a steady middle class income we’ll be disappointed. If we operate them with the expectation that they can yield good food, a meaningful rich lifestyle and, sometimes, a bit of extra income, then there is a much better chance of success.

For some time now I’ve thought that the financial model for small farms might be .3. .3 is approximately one third of whatever income is necessary for a home and farm to reasonably survive. So, if a household brings in $50K annually in off farm income, and the farm can add .3 income, in this case, approximately $16K, there is a reasonable monetary reward for farming efforts without the unreasonable expectation (and disillusionment) that the farm will ever produce the full income.

However we think about farms and business and expectations, it would be a great help to all those eager young people who want to get into farming, or who are into it and struggling to understand how to survive, if there was a template of sorts that helped them understand what to reasonably expect from farm life.