Eking out a living

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Tuesday, April 08, 2014
04.08.14 ourtable-coopfarms 
 Photo Courtesy: Our Table Farm


It may be obvious, but most farmers don’t make a lot of money. According to preliminary data from the 2012 Agriculture Census, 52% of America’s 2.1 million principal farm-operators don’t call farming their primary occupation. Presumably, that’s because they need off-farm income and/or health care benefits to survive.

Curious to know a little bit more about how farmers make a living in Oregon—particularly on small and medium-sized farms—I called up a farmer I’d bumped into recently at the Farmer-Chef Connection conference, Josh Volk. Volk, who worked at Sauvie Island Organics for seven years before launching his own organic vegetable farm, Slow Hand Farm, is now farming at Our Table Cooperative in Sherwood.

When he was at Sauvie Island Organics, Volk averaged 40 hours a week and received a monthly salary. But Volk wanted to spend less time farming and more time sharing his wisdom about farming. When he left to start Slow Hand Farm, he kept it small enough—.15 acres—so that he could get all his production, harvesting, planting, cultivating, and deliveries done in two days—and devote the remaining three to teaching, consulting, and writing.

As sole proprietor of Slow Hand Farm, Volk was able to turn a profit and pay himself a salary, though a meager one. “It varied from season to season. I think my worst year was something like $7.50 an hour. My best year was $10 an hour,” says Volk, who posted the figures on his blog. Fortunately, Volk—like over half of American farmers—had “off-farm” income coming in to supplement his farming income.

One of his consulting projects was helping former Microsoft program manager Narendra Varma and his wife Machelle develop Our Table Cooperative, a multi-stakeholder cooperative in Sherwood. When Varma asked Volk to join his team of vegetable farmers, Volk initially hesitated because Our Table was so far from his St. John’s home. But many elements of the project appealed to Volk, so he ultimately agreed to fold Slow Hand Farm’s CSA into Our Table.

Now Volk—who works at Our Table three days a week— makes more than he did at his own farm, and he no longer has to market or distribute his vegetables—other staffers perform these jobs. (One of the benefits of Our Table’s model is a shared infrastructure including marketing, selling, and distribution—not to mention farm equipment, tools, and land. The farmer is freed up to do what he or she does best: farm.)  That said, Volk, an avid biker, is committed to dropping off Our Table CSA shares via his cargo bike at Wieden+Kennedy, a yoga studio in Northeast, and his own front porch in St. John’s.   

During a year-long trial period, Volk and five other farmers have been working as regular employees, but now they’re faced with a decision: will they financially invest in the co-op and be partial owners? Or leave?  If Volk decides to be a partial owner, he, along with other farmer-owners, will not only be eligible for profit-sharing, he’ll be able to make decisions about what to grow and what to do with the profit. For example, if farmer-owners choose to, they could vote to provide themselves with health insurance.

At first glance, the cooperative model seems to offer farmers a more stable income. Rather than being reliant on the weather, or how much you sell at the farmers’ market each week, you get an agreed-upon salary. (Though Volk works part-time, the other five farmers at Our Table are full time. An additional two part-time farmers were hired last week.)  But as Volk points out, a worker-owned co-op isn’t all that different than any other business, it’s just that a group makes decisions instead of a CEO. “If you don’t make the budget, like in any budget, you either have to decide to shut something down or take out debt,” notes Volk.

But there are other benefits to working in a cooperative farm. Shari Sirkin at Dancing Roots Farms and her husband Bryan Dickerson are sole proprietors of a 10-acre farm in Troutdale that has a popular CSA and supplies some of Portland’s top restaurants including Ned Ludd, Genoa, and Navarre. But even after farming full-time since 1997 (with one year off to fix up the old farmhouse on the Troutdale property) Sirkin still doesn’t make enough money to take an annual vacation. (And only recently were she and Bryan able to leave the farm with a trusted employee so they could take a weekend getaway.)

Though she pays her workers good hourly wages (anywhere from $9.10-$11) she hasn’t been able to offer health insurance and is convinced that she and Bryan only make ends meet because they live a frugal farmer’s lifestyle. “I don’t really know how we do it,” Sirkin says, a note of wonderment in her voice. “We rarely eat out—though we love it and we want to support the restaurants that love us. I’m not into clothes or jewelry, we never take vacations, our cars are old and used, we don’t have cell phones. Hell, we don’t even have a T.V.!”

Volk acknowledges that one of the main benefits of the cooperative model is that it allows him—and other Our Table farmers—to take time off.  Because the Varmas have capital, Volk has also been able to scale up quicker than he could’ve done on his own. The Varmas bought farming equipment and the land—which came with a blueberry farm—and are building a farm stand on site as well as commercial kitchen, where a new prepared foods manager (yet to be hired) will create value-added products like stews, soups, pies, and jam.  It’s too soon to know if the investments that Varma and others are making will pay off, but many are curious to see if this innovative model will bear fruit.

Meanwhile, risk-averse farmers with a social bent may want to work at an “agrihood,” a planned community built around a working farm. According to a recent New York Times article, agrihoods are the next big thing in residential developments, from Fort Collins, Colorado to Northlake, Texas. Riffing on the term CSAs (community-supported agriculture), farmer and consultant Daron “Farmer D” Joffe calls them “DSAs” or “development supported agriculture.” Joffe, who has consulted on several DSAs including Serenbe in Chattahoochee, Georgia, says that farmer managers at these developments can make anywhere from $30,000-$100,000 a year, and they and their families often get tax-free housing, to boot.

Joffe, who ran his own CSA for years and calls the workload-to-pay ratio “brutal,” says that farmers’ low and often unpredictable salaries are the biggest challenge in the industry.

“I’m not saying DSAs are THE solution,” says Joffe. “There’s still this huge question of how to make a living as a farmer. But there’s no doubt that these developments can create more stable job opportunities for beginning farmers. They provide capital, land, and equipment, up front—these are some of the biggest obstacles for new farmers.”

Hannah Wallace blogs on food and farms for Oregon Business.


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