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When we set out to start our farm, that laundry list of challenges facing beginning farmers we'd been hearing so much about became our reality. After years of studying and planning this life in theory, we got to live it. Access to land was our first hurdle. But we found a landowner willing to give us an affordable lease and we leapt.

Working to Do Farm Work

When we set out to start our farm, that laundry list of challenges facing beginning farmers we’d been hearing so much about became our reality. After years of studying and planning this life in theory, we got to live it.

Access to land was our first hurdle. But we found a landowner willing to give us an affordable lease and we leapt.

Land: check.

Access to capital was a tricky one, too. But, we found a group of investors willing to put their faith in us and lend us a small amount of money to get us going. And in general, there are many programs, federal and otherwise, built just for farmers like us. Also we’ve been delighted with how eager our local Farm Services Agency and local lenders have been in working with us.

So, capital: check.

Two hurdles we’re still working on are equipment and knowledge, but both have been relatively easy to manage. It’s still mighty hard to find small-scale equipment, but it’s there. And we’ve been lucky to set up shop on a place where the landowners and the neighbors are generous with teaching us the ins and outs of farming in general and the nuances of farming this particular piece of ground, both of which are invaluable. (It doesn’t hurt, either, that I grew up on a farm and my dad, former farmer and a jack-of-all-trades, lives 15 miles away.)

Also, getting a loan for a new tractor or even a grant for new seed-cleaning equipment is within our reach.

So, on the equipment and knowledge question: Still working on them, but let’s put them in the check column.

I don’t mean to make it sound like any of this has been easy to overcome. These are formidable obstacles, to be sure. But we’ve been able to find support for them, mostly because they are on the forefront of the national discussion of how to get more farmers on the land and more food in our communities.

Our real challenge has been perhaps a bit more subtle. It’s also one that is often ignored in the conversation about how to encourage beginning farmers.
It’s what we call the time/labor continuum.

Like so many farmers, we aren’t able to live off the farm income alone (yet). We need about $2,000 (pre-tax) each month outside farm income to keep us afloat. Health insurance alone for the three of us is $500 a month.

This means finding off-farm work for one, or both, of us.

After our first year of farming, when I worked part-time to float us while Jacob devoted all his time to the farm, it was abundantly clear that we weren’t going to survive another year like that. So, when Jacob was offered a great full-time job, with a steady salary and benefits, we jumped.

I kept my part-time editing work, but devoted more time to the farm and Jacob found a balance between farming and working off the farm.

But as we expanded both our farm and our family (we welcomed a new farmhand last fall), that balance became trickier. Until finally, it became unsustainable.

Jacob’s job was an inspiring, all-consuming kind of job. Mix that with the inspiring, all-consuming job of farming and things start to fall apart.
Although the job gave us the financial breathing room to farm, it took away our most valuable asset: time.

This winter, it became clear that with a tiny baby in my arms, my farm time was going be more limited than we expected and with Jacob’s 10-hour days and two-hour daily commute, his farm time would be nearly nonexistent.

When the farm started suffering and the family started suffering, we knew we had to make a change.

A new iPhone and some old fashioned turkeys. That's the farm these days. Photo courtesy of Courtney Lowery Cowgill.

A new iPhone and some old fashioned turkeys. That’s the farm these days. Photo courtesy of Courtney Lowery Cowgill.

So, we began looking for other options. There were plenty of avenues for us to get money for land. Plenty of options for us to finance equipment. Even though our other challenges were just that, challenging (marketing, business planning, etc.), we were finding ample support for them.

But when it came to the never-ending dance between bringing in enough income to live on and still having enough time to build our business, we were, and continue to be, stymied.

It’s not like we can take out a loan so we can pay our rent or apply for a grant to pay for our groceries or health insurance.
One of us had to work. The other had to farm. That was the only way to do it.

It so happened that just about when the wheels looked like they were about to come off, I stumbled across the perfect part-time, work-from-home, fulfilling editing job with PBS MediaShift.

The day I accepted the position, Jacob put in his two-week notice.

We’re now two months into this arrangement and, so far, we’re managing. Money is tight and health insurance is astronomically expensive. But, lucky us, we grow food so our grocery bill (hypothetically, anyway) is lower than the average American’s. And, we have a lot of help on the childcare side. (It pays to live close to grandparents, let me tell you.)

But, it’s scary. And these next few years—before we’re able to sustain ourselves solely off the farm—are going to get even scarier.

With two-and-a-half seasons under our belts, we can say with surety now that we know we can farm. We also know we can make money farming.

But the big, looming question is: if we’re raising a family and needing to work off the farm, will we have enough time to farm?

The USDA’s Economic Research Service reports that in 2009 almost 45 percent of American farmers and their spouses work off the farm. Almost 45 percent of farmers claim farm or ranch work as their primary job. But, only about 15 percent of farm spouses make the same claim.

So, it’s no surprise that when we get together with other young farm couples and we go around the room introducing ourselves, nearly everyone’s story sounds like this:

“We are the Xs. We run Y head of cattle, have about Z acres of grain and my wife/husband works in town.”

I can’t assume to know why these families find themselves in this predicament, but I know for us, it’s partially me wanting to keep my off-farm career and partially us needing an income stream to, in essence, subsidize our farming. I would guess for many other farm families, that scenario is familiar.

For us, finding how the off-farm jobs and the farm fit together is nearly a full-time job in itself. Add to that the daily chores of a modern life and the care and feeding of a family, and it all starts to seem impossible.

I’m often struck by this irony: There is nothing more basic than growing food for a living. But, the complexity that farm families have to navigate to make that “simple” life a possibility is staggering.

I’m not saying it’s anyone’s responsibility but our own to figure this out. The whole point of our operation is to find out how to build a farm that can sustain a modern (but very frugal) family. By mixing in diversification and direct markets and high-value crops, we have hopes we’ll get there.

But, in all this, I’ve learned a simple truth: The modern American life is just unbalanced enough that either our version of “a living” is too expensive or our food system is too broken to give farmers enough money for the food they grow to sustain themselves. Or, more likely, it’s a little of both.

So, when we’re working on clearing the way for new farmers, we have to continue hammering away at the big hurdles: access to land, access to capital, access to knowledge, access to markets and the like. But we need to look at not only how farm families sustain their farms, but also how they sustain themselves.

Courtney Lowery Cowgill is a writer, editor and farmer. She and her husband run Prairie Heritage Farm in central Montana, where they raise vegetables, turkeys, and ancient and heritage grains. This story was originally published in her monthly column, “Home Again,” in the Daily Yonder, and is republished with permission.

About Courtney Lowery

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  1. Question: It seems as though things really became unsustainable after the baby…the time and resources it takes to raise a child added to the narrow margin of working to work the farm…thoughts? And thanks!

  2. You mention the time/labor continuum.
    No mention of energy.
    Yes, you might have enough “time,” but how does that translate into needed sleep or physical energy to do demanding tasks?
    A century ago, young families raised their own labor force to tackle chores at young ages. Unfortunately, that practice resulted in many more widowers than widows as the women wore out. Good luck figuring this out.

  3. The people who are mentally tough enough to prevail, to survive, do so on little sleep. Just how it works out, today or a hundred years ago.

    I have a son, 42, who gets up a 2:30 am, and is choking logs at 5:30 am in the teeny glow of dawn. And gets home by 4 pm. and then he has his chores. And kids to deal with. After school sports to coach or to transport a kid to. His wife, who leaves early enough to be at work at 7 am, is home about the same time. Two kids. One a freshman and the other in 4th grade. Tough on kids and tough on parents, and life is not easy. But they ain’t on any dole, or program or whatever. Paying their way in a tough, tough recession. Keeping jobs because they work hard and are there every day. Essential employees. The kind you do all you can to retain, to keep working, because if things get better, their kind and their experience is going to be hard to find.

    The same with the farm work. You have to work until the job is done. Plants, animals, and all the pests are on a schedule of length of day and day of year and weather. There is no day off for them. And you have to spray them or cultivate them, when they are susceptible to being killed. Sprays work best at the three leaf stage, or the third instar, or when the grubs come out of the ground to feed at night. You have to be the one spraying at midnight, the one that couldn’t attend due to it was time to weed with the cultivator. Tomorrow is too late in a crop that happens once a year. Today is the day out of 365 that whatever has to be addressed. No days off. Or you go broke. You cannot farm, and do it on your schedule. This is not being an orthopedist, where you can set a saturday broken leg on monday or schedule surgery for mon, tues, thurs and fri……farms work in their schedule, not yours. And even then you get bad pitches and bad luck and bad weather and bad outcomes. But if you are not out there doing what needs to be done when it needs to be done, the outcomes will always be bad.

    Or, as the salmon trollers are wont to say “stick and stay, make it pay.”

    So I played hooky today, from the farm, as it was GAP certification inspection day. I was spraying for SWD in the dark yesterday morning, and then again in another field at dark last night, because I couldn’t spray today due to people in the fields doing the Good Agricultural Practices third party farm inspection. And I thought my time would be better spent getting a personal tour of a USFS oak savannah restoration stewardship project about to be bogged down in the aftershocks of unintentional consequences of a judge’s decision in some shotgun litigation of process in carrying out USFS projects.

    So farming is hard, and in fact so hard that government does not do it, at all. They would surely fail. And I was touring a good project about to have its basis pulled out from under it because government cannot do anything as long as Congress does not change bad laws, and the do not. Nobody loses their home or car when the USFS fails internally. Nobody goes without when the Govt. screws up internally. But off the Government Reservation, failure is failure, and you go without, might starve, and certainly lose all you once had. So if you are going to farm, you have to do it 24/7, until you get wealthy enough to hire help or feeble enough you have to quit altogether. Or fail.

    Meanwhile, SWD is waiting to break my boss if we don’t control it, and I will be in the sprayer before dawn in the morning.

  4. Ah, yes. Been there. Done that. Starting about 1975. With a few differences.
    No one would lend two “kids” in their late 20’s any money, and certainly not enough to buy a farm of any size. In the early 70’s you could get a 300 acre ranch for about $175,000. But we were making about $13,000 a year in full time and seasonal USFS and BLM jobs with an unstable future. Each of us had about 25 jobs all over the West from 1963-1976.

    We had no relatives who farmed. So we had no built in babysitter for our son or our farm. (Our son came along in 1978. We still can’t get away for even a day or two.) We had neighbors who were helpful, lending us equipment on occasion, or doing some custom work for hire. But for years it was “Sue’s hobby sheep”. No, it was not intended to be a hobby. But we’ve tried everything we can think of to make it pay – and we still need off farm income. We’re not just playing farmer. We hoped to make a living at it. But over time all of our neighbors have their places leased out. We cannot hire anything done from neighbors. We have no relatives who can help us hold the farm together.

    We found the farm credit system biased toward the sons of local well established farmers – the good ole boy network – or oddly prone to giving loans to ne’er do wells who failed time and time again. But refused to acknowledge us. We investigated cost share options with NRCS and Fish and Game. The answer was always no. You are not big enough to be taken seriously. We asked for a quote from Farm Bureau for insurance. The guy got out of his car looked around casually and said, “I don’t see anything here that we would be interested in insuring”. (Thanks for your time. How soon can you remove yourself from our property.)

    I did a homesteading class for Bozeman Adult Education. I spent one 2 hour class on land acquisition – the questions to ask, and the pitfalls. In another two hour class I discussed economic strategies for paying for it. A wide range of on farm and off farm jobs. Rural economic stategies that were common knowledge before WWII still work, but few people born after 1950 have ever heard of them. These are radically different than the conventional urban stategy of today. We learned to do both and employ whichever strategy would work depending on the circumstances.

    We built our 76 acre farm from scratch from a fallow grain field. We bought 60 irrigated acres in 1979 and an adjoining 16 irrigated acres in 1985. We moved on to the place in 1986. The down payment was my dad’s life insurance pay out saved since 1969 of $24,000. In 1982, my husband quit the Forest Service because they ordered him to take a lateral reassignment to North Dakota. Our income dropped 33%. We hung on to the land by leasing it out to cover the land payment. My post office job ($400 a month running mail up to Maudlow on Saturdays) paid the house payment ($329 a month). From 1985 – 1989 our land payments were $11,500 a year and my post office check was $27,000 a year. Can I squeeze a nickel so hard the buffalo —? You bet! My in laws assumed the remaining mortgage of $30,000 in 1989. We were free and clear by 1994. And today whatever is here – finished or unfinished is paid for. We are now of Social Security age.

    So yes, our farm is multigenerational. All develpment was done pay as you go with small short term loans for equipment. I worked as a rural route mail carrier from 1980 to 2004 – for cash, retirement, and health insurance. Cash went to materials. My husband built the barn, put in the utilites, planted the windbreak, built the corrals. Enormous amounts of sweat equity. And with that we have acquired the infrastructure (over 30 years) to raise our own hay and pasture for about 40 head of Dexter cattle. We have to have our own seeder, sprayer, chisel, harrows, mower/conditioner, baler, bale wagon, 3 wheel lines, and about 3000 feet of handline, a 800 gal a minute pump, and 3 tractors to do 100 tons of hay a year. For the cows we have to have a corral system with a loading chute, a squeeze chute, and a scale and extensive electric pasture fencing. From which we sell 8-12 grass fed steers a year and occasional sales of breeding stock. That brings in enough to cover only the propane bill for irrigation. Nothing for equipment maintenance.
    Yes, the capital investment needed to get into agriculture is just overwhelming. The risk you assume if you do it all through loans is way more than we were willing to accept.

    Keep in mind: It takes one generation (30 years) to build a farmstead. You can build it from scratch like we did or you can purchase it from someone if you have the money. But regardless, it takes 30 years to build a farmstead. Too often, people who buy or inherit a farm take that for granted.

  5. Welcome to farming and/or ranching………do you believe it is easy for all………new farmers or 5th generation?