With the changes we're making to our farming operation this summer and fall, I've been thinking a great deal about my reasons for farming. Farming, eventually, will be the way I make my living (for now, I'm hopeful it's a way to make some income to supplement other work). In this sense, farming is most certainly a business - and I try to treat my own farm as a business. There is, however, other compensation beyond the monetary reward I receive from selling my products. I get to work outside with animals nearly every day of the year. I'm a direct witness to the miracle of new life. I see and interact with all kinds of wildlife on a regular basis. I get to work with my daughters and see them learn to do my job - better than I can do it in some cases. I produce food - something that sustains life within my own community. I get to take direct responsibility for turning the animals I raise into the food that I (and my customers) eat.
While our farm has struggled financially, these "lifestyle" benefits of farming have sustained me. As I've written previously, Flying Mule Farm provides my family and me with a wonderful way of life but not with a living (yet). I realize now that I've chosen to continue farming (even on a part-time basis) largely because of the enjoyment I get out of my work.
That being said, our farm has to ultimately succeed as a business - I can't continue to enjoy these lifestyle benefits if it costs me money to do so. I think this is a challenge for every small farm - is there enough income to support the other benefits (to the farmer and to the community)? These questions are also tied up in the notion of sustainable agriculture. A sustainable farm, in my mind, conserves and protects natural resources and pays a living wage to its workers. None of these benefits, however, are sustainable if the farm isn't profitable over the long run.
Farming at our scale (or at any scale, really) requires hard physical work and long hours. I'll admit there are days when I wonder why I continue farming. My friend Alan Haight, who operates Riverhill Farm near Nevada City with his wife Jo, talks about the amnesia that happens to all farmers - sometime in the fall we tend to forget all of the hard work and financial struggle and start dreaming about next season. If we can just farm one more year, maybe we'll figure things out! I think the non-monetary rewards of farming are what keep me in the business. Hopefully financial compensation will follow!