Future of Farms

I have blogged at length on the future of farming. I see it vividly every week at the Madison Farmers Market and at our local CSA. I saw it in depth at Michael Field’s Institute when I worked there a few summers back. The future of farming is smaller and more intimate-I think of a well run organic micro farm as a den lined with well thumbed tomes to Con Agra’s multimedia room with its 72″ flat screen. That ‘future’ is happening now all across the coasts and in the upper Midwest. But the farms it is happening on are run by established farmers who have either ‘seen the light’ or never stepped into the darkness in the first place.

But what about the rest of the farms-the remaining good ones? Last week Mia, the kids and I were invited out to tour a local sheep farm that is run by an older couple that is attending the Natural Step study group I am in. The farm is breathtaking-like an agricultural time capsule from 1940. Turning into their gravel lane we were greeted by a mated pair of Sandhill cranes feeding not 20 yards off to our right. Then our eyes drifted up to the barnyard: not a single metal building-all red painted wood plank barns and sheds with field stone foundations-freshly painted with solid roofs. A working farm, and it looks like a Vermont postcard. The farmhouse is smallish-probably under 1400sq ft, and is nestled against an east facing hillside to protect it from winter winds. We climbed that hill behind the house to get a look around. The farm itself is divided into 3 “40’s” with another 25 or so broke off for the pond which is set aside for the cranes and migrating birds-the sheep are not allowed access. The first and second 40 use the ridge line of the hill as a dividing line, with the 3rd 40 divided off by a 20 yard thick mature windbreak that also borders the preimeterof the property. From the barnyard you can see neither road nor house. The first two 40’s are dotted with bleating white puff balls that surge over as we approach-each a herd of 50 sheep-the lambs in one and the ewe’s in the other. From the crest of the hill we can see the second pair of Sandhills that trusts the farm enough to raise their young on it as well as a hundred or so waterfowl in the distant pond.

Our friends are not young people, though I doubt I could keep up with him for a day-in-the-life. Having worked in the factories of Milwaukee for over 40 years before retiring to run a farm for another 18, they deserve their rest, but will need income or at least liquidation to achieve it. It does not appear that their children are interested, so this farm could be on the market within a matter of years. This area is becoming less rural by the month-my backyard was farmed 30 months ago. There aren’t a whole lot of comps up right now, but I figure $5-6k per acre-and they have 143. Round it down to an even $750,000-but this is not including the structures. Current income for the land is about $20k plus whatever they are getting for the 70 acres they rent out. Mortgage on $750k is roughly $6k per month. Granted the land is underutilized now, but I am fairly sure it could not support a herd of 500 sheep-and a herd that big would mean hiring help-cutting into margins. An organic dairy operation would work, but most likely it would be sold to one of the large local corn/bean farmers who will cut the windbreaks, plow under the pasture and plant corn up to the EPA limit on the pond despite the fact that the small (50 head) dairy operation would be more profitable.

We live in a hub of organic agriculture-within an hours drive of a critically acclaimed Biodynamic Farming Institute that seeds the state with a few dozen new graduates a year. These kids work hard, have amazing ideas…and no money. Try talking a bank into loaning you $750k for a biodynamic farm and you will be thrown out on your biodynamic ass. Plus it took 10-20 workers to keep the 30 acre CSA I worked on running. A 140 acre CSA would be a Big Business employing dozens and taking millions in capital. Not within the scope of your average 23 yr old hippie. The dairy would work, but again the loan is the stopping point. The Farmer will have to hit the ground running a business capable of grossing $100k the first year, and repeat that every year for 30 more or they will literally “lose the farm”. I can here the dirge of “Corn on Beans! Corn on Beans!” looming patiently in the background until I quit whining about biodynamic dreams so it can set in with fiscal reality.

I don’t know what options that this generation of small farmers have, but the reality of our shrinking rural landscape is testament to the results of the more common solutions.
I am an optimist. There has to be a better way-a Land Trust would be a good start but there isn’t enough money in them to save them all.

Anyone want to start a Co-op? I’ll drive the tractor and you can brew the biodiesel.

2 Responses

  1. Yeah, I think a combination of artificially low prices for agricultural products, artificially high prices for land, killer inheritance tax, and disinterested kids make it really hard to make a living on a family farm. For reasons you pointed out, the more acres, the harder it gets to pull it off at today’s land prices.

  2. The kicker is that the municipality that this farm is in wants to keep it rural (downtown is 2 bars and a softball field), but they can’t control the land prices. There is a good Land Trust in this county, but as the land is not really at risk of going out of agricultural production I am not sure they would be interested.

    I plan on helping out on this farm a few times a month with some of the chores-hopefully it will end well.

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