“I don’t have any great ambition. I just want to be an organic vegetable farmer.”
– Todd McDonald, 2001
My husband Todd and I were –are– first generation farmers. This means we started our operation from scratch. Starting in 2007 we slowly built up equipment, knowledge, and infrastructure that included systems for growing, harvesting, and selling. Each season we supplied 100–250 CSA members with a weekly share of our crop, harvesting twice a week June through October. Last season (2015), one that the federal government officially declared a Disaster in our county, we decided we had to stop.
We were out of money and energy and had forgotten why we started farming to begin with. For years we had lived in a state of constant stress that comes with the unpredictability of farm expense, seasonal labor, and weather.
In more hopeful times, I’ve called this business of organic farming gratifying, because we supplied our members with organic food and were part of a movement that felt –feels– big and important. As a Community Supported Agriculture farmer, I felt like a grassroots activist. I hosted “awareness-spreading” events in the city, spoke about the significance of CSA in interviews, and even cofounded a CSA Coalition. I am still a fan of both CSA and organic food production. The ongoing issues of chemical pollution, the state of organic seed, and global corporate control of food are still big concerns of ours. We have just realized that martyring ourselves is not the way to go.
“I was living my dream. And it was a nightmare.”
–Todd McDonald, 2016
I will now let you in on a dirty little secret among first generation [organic] vegetable farmers. I think it should be made public. The secret is this: This is not an idyllic life. We are not making money to sustain our families. In fact, we are losing money year after year, investing our own savings or using money generously donated by other family members only to discover we may not be able to wait long enough for those investments to pay off. Many of us receive Medicaid. We will be paying off debt for years to come.
SO, as farmers, is it “sustainable” if not one of us says out loud, “This sucks. This isn’t working”? In our silence do we perpetuate the myth of the idyllic family farm? Picture a wholesome couple working side by side along smiling goats and baskets of perfect heirloom tomatoes in trim, abundant rows. Their white farmhouse gleams while a rooster crows in the gentle breeze. With this beautiful picture firmly in place in the minds of new farmers, the cycle begins afresh. New farmers begin their businesses, struggle to convey the picture of idyllic farm life for the sake of their customers, run out of money, use up all their credit, and finally quit. Just in time another new farmer steps up – having been told only of the beautiful myth – and falls into the same trap. Again and again until the system appears to be working. But it’s not. I know a lot of farmers like us. I am not making this up.
Why did our farm lose money? Did we not love it enough? Are we not skilled or smart or tough enough? Is the problem in our country so deep it is unfixable? Is it a question of reorganizing farm subsidies? Controlling monopoly within the food industry? Educating consumers? Educating farmers? Is it just a regional problem? Climate change?
My husband and I are smart. We wrote a business plan. We went to Farm Beginnings classes. Between the two of us you’ve got a high school valedictorian, a college graduate, an experienced gardener, a Master Gardener, a self-made fine woodworker, a mechanic, a carpenter with experience building houses, two creative problem solvers, an extrovert, an introvert, a good planner, a fast reactor, and the former captain of an award-winning flag corps. We have an extraordinary tolerance for chaos, dirt, and debt. We are also these things: an artist, a musician, a snowboarder, yoga teacher, massage therapist, husband, wife, father, brother, sister, daughter, son, and two people that want a little basic comfort in life.
We are looking for answers to the question of how to keep being farmers without losing all the other pieces of ourselves. Personally I still can’t talk about kale without my eye twitching, but I do want this conversation. Farmer friends, what is your reaction? Can we stop what I perceive as a cycle of martyrdom while continuing to farm? Or…am I wrong in my perception?
In the meantime, here is what happens when we put down our hoes. Labor Day Weekend 2016: