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Is Farming a Sustainable Option for Farmers?

Farming offers benefits beyond the paycheck, but is that enough?

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Stephen Clark wanted to “do the city thing,” he tells me on a rainy day at his family farm in Escondido. Presently, Clark is the fourth-generation market manager for JD Organics, one of the oldest organic farms in San Diego County. They’re doing well (finally profitable and in 20 farmers’ markets), and although there’s some anxiety about labor and land, the immediate future looks bright for them.

Clark wanted to give it all up.

“In middle school, people would say I’m just a farmer, called us poor, made fun of us for it. I wanted that big city life. I got an opportunity to sell cars and was like, ‘This is it, I’m going to make a lot of money—farming’s done,’” he relates, shifting his Tacoma to a lower gear.

But that wasn’t what happened. He realized he loathed his boss, loathed the illusion of a luxurious lifestyle, and loathed making money for the machine.

“It got worse and worse, but then I came back and fell in love with everything that was happening out here. It seemed like every week customers would tell us how much they relied on us. I thought, OK, it’s done for me. I need to do this.”

“If it wasn’t for the farm, mentally I’d be dead by now,” says Stepheni Norton of W.D. Dickinson farm in National City. Image by Olivia Hayo.

Nan Sterman, host and coproducer of A Growing Passion on PBS, has her finger on the pulse of our food sector. She’s proud of Southern California’s farm scene. To her, nowhere else in the country has the variety and quality of produce that we come across on a daily basis. At present, the county is home to 5,700 farms, 69% of which are under 10 acres (Clark’s is 80). Although the agricultural industry ranks 12th largest in the state, it’s the fifth largest contributor to our economy, employing over 12,300 workers and impacting the economy to the tune of $3 billion dollars. With around 360 organic producers producing 160 crops, and 400 different varieties of crops being grown, San Diego County is first in the nation for organic farms, and we all benefit from this extremely vibrant and productive farming sector—especially for how urban it is.

Sterman worries this will all collapse because there aren’t many Stephen Clarks left. First and foremost on her list of concerns is the rapidly aging farming demographic. “The average age is skewing,” she says. “So, what does that mean for our future? I’m struggling to think of maybe two farmers I know under 80.”

Simply put, young farmers aren’t replacing older ones. Our food future, in other words, is in peril. But why?

According to the California Young Farmers Report, there’s a host of reasons for this, from predatory capital-backed companies like Amazon (the literal money machine) to residential and urban encroachment, water cost, myopic and often baffling regulation, and structural racism. Compensation, perceived and real, is the chief reason, however, because small farm revenues are not keeping up with the skyrocketing costs of operations.

 The common narrative is that local produce at farmers’ markets and grocers is more expensive and that farming doesn’t pay—but is this true?

This is all a mechanism of price, quality, and convenience in order to affect demand, growth, and profit. The machine rarely accounts for what’s most important, because those things are intrinsic and not easily quantifiable.

If we were to value the intrinsic and tertiary benefits that the money machine rarely does willingly, would that change our habits? Countless studies show us that small farms, local markets, local businesses, and strong social relationships not only contribute significantly more to the local economy than chain and big-box competitors (often by a factor of more than double according to one recent UC Davis study), but they also increase diversity, quality of life, health, and even mood. Working in the dirt does the same. What’s that worth?

“New farmers only look at paychecks,” Stepheni Norton of W.D. Dickinson farm in National City explains, “But do they look at the total quality of life?... If you farm your land, gas (expenses) drop. Groceries are cut in half. Working outside in the dirt, it’s amazing for your health.” The outdoor, mission-oriented lifestyle of farming is a perfect fit for veterans. As a previously deployed veteran with PTSD and Lyme disease, her story is remarkable. Farming practically saved her life.

“If it wasn’t for the farm, mentally I’d be dead by now,” Norton says. She’s helping to spread that awareness with classes, and thankfully, other veterans are noticing her success and becoming interested.

Still, will that be enough?

Not until we examine and change the stories we tell ourselves about money and value, noting the worth of intrinsic benefits as we would price and convenience. It might surprise you to know I didn’t frequent my local market before starting research on this article. The more I examined my beliefs and the unquantifiable benefits of supporting local, the more I recognized like Clark and Norton, what I actually value.

Photo by Heather Gill on Unsplash
ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTORS
Theodore R. Niekras
Theodore is a San Diego-based writer.
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