What Does It Take to Be a Farmer?

Brie Mazurek, CUESA Staff
August 29, 2014

East Coast shellfish and seaweed farmer Bren Smith recently created a stir with his provocatively titled New York Times op-ed “Don’t Let Your Children Grow Up to Be Farmers.” He made the case that, despite the efforts of the local food movement, farming is a losing game for small and beginning farmers.

The blogosphere erupted with a wide array of responses from farmers, no two quite alike. This prompted us to seek the opinions of our Ferry Plaza vendors. What does it take to be a farmer today? What keeps them going despite the many challenges? Would they let their children grow up to be farmers?

Grant Brians, Heirloom Organic Gardens

Starting out as a farmer requires three things: absolute dedication, money, and a fair amount of luck. Today, you also have to worry about payroll taxes, food safety plans, and other things like that. Are these things that should stop someone who really wants to farm? No. These things just make it harder. This is my third time in farming. The first time, I ended up losing a lot of money. After I paid it back, guess what I did? I went back to farming!

What keeps me going is passion. I encourage my sons to search for what they want to do, but not to discount what dad’s doing. The average age of a farmer in the US is 58 years old. That figure includes a lot of people who are part-time or who may not be trying to make a profit. My take is that the age of full-time farmers is probably higher than reported, and it’s because this country has done such a good job of making it hard for young people to become farmers.

Encouraging new farmers comes down to having information sources, training, and a farm workforce that is honored. Right now we literally don’t have a system in this country for that.

Stan Devoto, Devoto Gardens and Orchards

What gives me hope is meeting young people interested in farming. I’ve been a mentor for several young farmers, and I give all the advice I can. I’m really trying to encourage young growers, so they won’t make the same mistakes I’ve made. The big problem now is land. It’s totally impossible to buy land here in Sonoma County, to pay for the land, the farming costs, and your own domestic bills, and to try to make a living. I’m an optimist, but I think that’s impossible.

Today, you have some really intelligent people getting involved with farming, but the work is really hard. It’s long days and long hours. Even if they’re leasing land, they have to have equipment, a crew, seeds, and water. The expenses are phenomenal. You can do everything right and then have a rainstorm or the market goes south. If you have a lot of financial responsibilities, it’s not really a good way to make a living.

For my daughter, Jolie, we have the whole infrastructure set up. We’ve got the land, equipment, and know-how. She’s really fortunate to have that. I’m excited about what Jolie and Hunter (her husband) are doing with their cider business. That’s one way they’ll be able to help preserve the apple industry in Sonoma County. Right now, there are only 2,000 acres of apples left in our county, because it’s just not a sustainable crop to farm. My hope is that they’ll be able to buy apples from other growers and pay a fair price and keep the industry sustainable.

Jolie Devoto, Devoto Gardens and Orchards

It is true that young farmers are not making a living. I think adding value through products or agritourism experiences is the only way that farms around here can survive. Sonoma County land is increasing in value, and there is no way that a young farmer would ever be able to afford to buy land, unless they’re independently wealthy and they literally buy into the lifestyle. This industry takes a lot of capital to profit very little. 

Kenny Baker, Lonely Mountain Farm

In order to be a farmer, you have to be a little idealistic. In most small businesses, if you’re not breaking even in the first three years, they say you should probably find something else to do. But farming is a long-term investment, more so than most. Obviously you need to support the people that are helping do the work, and you’re not really pocketing anything for yourself for a while, so you have to live simply.

I can totally understand why someone would say, “Don’t let your kids grow up to be farmers.” Even when you love what you do, there are no weekends or days off for farmers. There’s a greenhouse and animals to take care of. For a small farm, there are huge challenges because of the way markets have been set up. Many larger farms get subsidized, and that makes society think that food is really cheap. People aren’t paying the true dollar amount that it costs to produce our food.

I think this year might be our first year of potentially making a little profit at our farm, but I’m not sure yet. I’m fortunate in that I have supportive parents and now own a piece of land, so I feel like it could actually be a sustainable thing. But the profit is not what makes us do it. It’s got to be something else, like a love for farming or the idea that you have a bigger purpose or a sense of how important the land is.

Tory Torosian, Tory Farms

For my grandmother and my mother, farming was so tough. My mother told me to go to college. Small farming is ruthless, just like any small business. But the emotional and psychological rewards are so great. The values that keep us going are keeping our customers happy. Hopefully we have enough to pay the bills.

My son Sarkis is at Fresno State studying viticulture. He’s going to be a winemaker. Our other son, Tory, I don’t know what he wants to do down the road. It would make me so happy if they could keep doing what we’re doing. I know that the commercial end of farming on our scale is pretty much impossible. Farmers markets allow us to make a little bit of money and have fun.

We have told them that all the hard work we’re doing is for them. It’s up to them, if they want to keep it going. I will never sell the ranch, but that’s their option. I hope that they can keep it viable, because it’s a beautiful place.