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Compelled to Farm

A Facebook friend recently posted a link to the following article: http://www.denverpost.com/athome/ci_21967690/feeling-grateful-yet-teenage-poultry-farmer-dishes-straight

As a farmer who has struggled with the economics of our operation, and as a direct marketer who has heard many of the same questions and comments from customers has this young lady, the article struck a chord with me.  I subsequently shared the article with my own Facebook community.

My friend Marcie Rosenzweig, who used to farm in Placer County but who now lives in Oregon, posted the following comment:
"I've often said that farmers farm for the same reasons painters paint or writers write - because they are compelled to do it.  However, if we want the fresh, organic sustainable food we ask for, we must be willing to support it financially."
As Marcie suggests, I am compelled to farm.  I love the work of raising sheep like nothing else I've ever done.  Because it's an avocation for me, I think I've improved my husbandry skills immensely over the years that we've raised sheep.  The work itself has become easier.

Unfortunately, the economics of farming have not become easier.  I've discussed the economic challenges we face in previous posts; what I hope to do here is to discuss the emotional impact of not being able to farm full time, and to suggest some ways for us to talk about the type of farming we'd like to see as a community.

The recognition that I cannot make my living solely from raising sheep (at least at the scale at which I can currently operate) is discouraging.  Imagine a doctor who loves his work having to seek a part-time job outside of the medical field in order to continue doctoring.  I'm certain there are examples of this, but I'm finding this realization to be painful at times.  I'm good at what I do, but I can't make a living doing it.

That being said, I don't wish to dwell on my own frustration - a frustration that is shared by Miss Grebenc in the article above, and by other small farmers in our own community.  We need to have a conversation about what a truly sustainable local food system looks like.  Surely economic sustainability needs to be part of the equation - if we want our food produced on smaller-scale, local farms that take care of their environment, their animals and their neighbors, we need to make sure that these farmers can make a living doing so.  Americans spend the lowest percentage of their disposable income on food of any "developed" country - but the REAL costs of a cheap food system are much greater than our monthly grocery bill.  As Marcie suggests, we must be willing to support such a system financially.

As a farmer, I must also recognize that my customers face economic challenges similar to my own.  I should also be willing to share the reality of producing food with my community.  Instead of complaining when a customer expects me to be able to provide any cut of grass-fed lamb they'd like year-round, I should invite that customer to spend a day (or a week!) with me.  Not only would my customer learn something - I'd benefit from seeing my farm through a different set of eyes.

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