The word’s been out for some time: they’re all gone, not a functioning one left. Statistics coming down from on high in the 1970’s “proved” that the small farm—defined as that with a total income of less than $20,000 annually—was about shot. This came as something of a surprise to those still living and working small farms.
What a “small farm” actually is has been a confusing issue for at least a century. The 1862 Homestead Act considered the 160-acre farm a small operation, worked by a single extended family with livestock-powered technology. By the 1940’s, a small farm was synonymous with “part-time farm,” “retirement farm,” and “subsistence farm.” It was the family farm that remained the backbone of the nation, one that required the work of a family and gave back a decent living.
After 1950, the “small farm” designation no longer applied to the physical size of the place, but instead to its gross income. In the 1960’s, a small farm was any farming unit that sold less than $10,000 in produced goods. By the 70’s, courtesy of an unstable economy and befuddled policies, the small farm was defined as selling less than $20,000. That twenty-grand number was supposed to be the break-even point—20G put in, 20G taken out. You had to make more than that to live.
By 1981, the definition of small had become so vague you could get included by selling apples grown on a backyard suburban tree, if you met these three requirements: the family provides most of the labor and management; farming provides a “significant portion,” though not necessarily a majority, of family income; and the total family income from all sources is below the median nonmetropolitan family income for the state.
Here in the Ozark Mountains of southern Missouri, that’s just about everybody. Historically, the Ozarks have been virtually all “small farms,” by anybody’s definition. Timber-covered rugged hillsides dominate the region, and the soil is of a type that grows rocks better than any other crop. Most people on small farms around here raise livestock, and that is generally the variety that their daddy raised before them. Hogs are still king, with beef cattle coming in close behind. The “farm wife” generally works a full-time job in a nearby town.
One look at the University of Missouri’s 1987 figures for farm profits will explain why that farmer’s wife needs another job. To produce a single 600-pound calf, one that gets shipped somewhere else to be fattened for market, it will cost this farm $158 for feed, $273 for variable expenses including vet bills, and $56 for fixed expenses like operating equipment. That’s a total cost of $329 to raise this hypothetical average calf The same farmer could expect to sell that calf for $373, for a profit of $44.
Forty-four dollars cash profit per head. Let’s see. How many calves would I have to produce each year to earn a poverty level net income? Roughly 250 calves. That means, first, I’d have to have the investment capital to be able to buy the initial 250 cows, and pasture land to handle them annually. If I bought cheap, cross-bred older cows at $500 a head, I’d spend $125,000 that first year on livestock alone (not counting feeding the blasted things), just to make my $11,000. Provided that sale prices remain stable and don’t drop again, and every cow produces a live calf, and there are no increases in feed or variable costs, it would only take me a little over 11 years to make back my investment. I could then go on making a poverty level income indefinitely, provided I keep buying new cows as the old ones die off. My neighbor, who has a large spread (by Ozark standards) of 600 acres, can only produce 100 head yearly, and it’s hard, full-time labor. His wife works in town, too.
Hogs are a much better bet. The University of Missouri indicates that if I had a big operation with around 87 sows, and I was raising them from birth to slaughter, I could make a 36.1 percent return on my investment . . . providing I had a $53,506 capital base. Here’s the interesting part, though. The same figures show that I’d make a 21.9 percent return on my labor—which works out to $7.31 per hour.
Now, farmers are not stupid people. They’re independent-minded, and stubborn sometimes, but not stupid. Farmers like to watch movies on the VCR, to go out to dinner occasionally, to take a vacation now and then. You just can’t do that, and support a family, on $7.31 an hour; farmers know this.
As a result, something very interesting is happening. Farmers, here and there, are buying “exotic” livestock. One man spent $15,000 for a trio of lamas, a male and two females. A year later, he sold the two baby lamas that were produced for $10,000. The year after that, he sold two more for the same sum. Lamas don’t eat any more than a cow, and also produce a secondary “crop” of valuable wool. This man is now making money. Real money.
There are farmers who specialize in buffalo, in elk, in fallow deer, in ostriches, and in wild cats. There are farmers who have stopped raising commercial white-fleeced sheep and switched to a “rare” breed. The exotic Jacob Sheep, for example, sports four dramatic horns. Registered animals sell for twice what a commercial sheep would, around $250 each.
Other farmers have found a market in “pet stock.” A single purebred female Persian cat, for example, can produce five kittens, twice a year, that sell for $100 each to pet brokers. That’s $1,000 annual gross to keep a cat (and her purebred boyfriend, of course), which costs the farmer about $300 in feed and related costs. He gets a pleasant set of housepets—and a much higher return than on cattle or hogs.
Of course, these exotics are not subject to government “protection” through subsidies. Across the nation, 82 cents of every farm dollar comes from government subsidies, and is it any wonder, with $44 calves, and bovine growth hormones turning dairy cows into veritable hydrants of milk in a nation that is already drowning in the stuff? Farmers who raise exotics keep a low profile and hope that the federal ag people won’t notice what’s going on.
Meantime, the truck-crop producers are not to be outdone. With the farm wife working away from home, and the farm husband busy with his $7.3 l-per-hour hogs, there’s nobody at home to plant or tend a garden. Producing your own food has been the farmer’s traditional way to cut his own costs—but who can afford the time nowadays? Mrs. Farmer, more often than not, shops at the same supermarket as her city-bred counterpart, buying lettuce and corn and carrots grown out-of-state on a huge monocrop estate.
These former farm wives remember what real food once tasted like, and they prefer to buy locally produced goods, from friends and neighbors. Once they could go to a “farmer’s market” to trade, but these are no longer the hub of rural life, if they’re held at all. Like the changes that have occurred with livestock, something new has replaced this open-air shopping.
Again, it’s happening in a small way—but catching on in out-of-the-way places. In Maine, one vegetable-growing family is feeding a hundred families off of six acres, producing cabbage, tomatoes, corn, peas, turnips, and a host of other traditional garden crops. That this produce is of the “organic” persuasion should be no surprise—the surprise is that it will cost each family of consumers about $320 for a full spring/summer/fall array of vegetables. In the supermarket, comparable crops would cost about $550. Hence the farm family has an instant market for whatever they grow, sales are guaranteed, no one is exposed to chemical pesticides, they can stay at home, work at their own pace, have plenty to eat—and have an “automatic” income of $32,000. Expenses would include the cost of seeds and maintenance of any garden tools, but that’s it. In depressed rural areas like parts of Maine, the farmer is making a veritable fortune—and the consumers are getting top quality produce for one-third less than the best supermarkets can offer.
It’s small-scale back in Missouri, as well. One farm wife here with an entrepreneurial bent went from shop to shop in one small town with a list of the crops she’d have available. People signed up for this “subscription vegetable” list, 15 families in all. Every couple of weeks she’ll be delivering about ten to twenty pounds of just-picked vegetables to the families on her round, and taking home about $15 from each stop . . . that’s $450 per month, not including extra sales when her customers want to load up their freezers. She’s doing this on just two acres, with a hand-hoe. By next year, she’ll have four acres under cultivation, and will probably pick up a dozen new subscribers.
Ron Macher, the affable publisher of Missouri Farm, picked up on this trend early. He was the first to use a descriptive term for these new farmers—he calls them “agripreneurs.” Agripreneurship, whether in the guise of exotic animal production, or the humble act of growing zucchini, is the solution to the death of the family farm. No federal agency has stepped in and offered free advice or tax money; the agripreneurs are doing the thinking and planning and customer development on their own. More important, each of these enterprising souls continues to tailor his product to fit his market . . . be it in Maine or Missouri or Podunk.