A few days ago, a visitor to Headwaters was asking several of us farmers what we were growing there and where we were planning to sell it. After we'd gone around the circle, he smiled and said, "Living the dream, huh?" We all laughed and shuffled our feet awkwardly.
For many small farmers, making a living at farming is still a dream. It took four seasons of working on farms before I finally earned a paycheck equivalent to minimum wage. I know farmers--good farmers, with intelligence and passion and muscle and courage--who still haven't figured out how to afford their own piece of land, maintain reasonable work hours, or even pay themselves a living wage. Sure, most of us would agree that part of our compensation includes the satisfying work, healthy food, and independence that the farming profession offers. But these things don't help us buy land, raise a family, or plan for retirement.
The picture isn't rosy when it comes to farms in this country. Most of you have heard the statistics: the average age of farmers keeps going
up, and the number of farms keeps going down. Even here in Oregon, a
seeming paradise for foodies and the farmers who grow for them, the news is not good. The most recent agricultural census found the
aging trend for Oregon farmers even worse than the national average. The
number of small farms, young farmers, and women farmers, all of which
had sharply increased here in the 2007 census, took a dive in 2012. In particular, the
number of female farmers in Oregon dropped by a shocking 15%. (You can
read a nice article about farming trends in Oregon and the great work that Zenger Farm is doing to change that here.)
Here are some questions that I and many of my colleagues knock around
all the time, as we plant and weed and harvest and sell and eat: How can we making a living growing food when food is viewed as a cheap commodity? How can we fight for fair pricing for our goods when, for many Americans, just putting a meal on the table is a constant battle? How can we call ourselves "sustainable" when true sustainability--including long-term business stability--seems always just out of reach?
I don't have answers to these questions yet. But I do know that after six years of working on other farms, I'm excited to be trying to tackle them from a place that is mine. The land isn't mine, but the farm is. And in a few months, when I have food to show for it, that will be mine too--my work, to share with you.
So am I living the dream? Well, no. Not exactly. But am I dreaming the dream? You bet.