Big-Time, Part-Time Farmers

Written By: Tim Tesconi
Published: September 29, 2014

Rex Williams, one of Sonoma County’s leading livestock ranchers, likes to say that his day job as the maintenance supervisor at Santa Rosa’s St. Francis Winery supports his sheep ranching habit.  Rex and wife Kerry run more than 300 head of sheep and farm hay and silage crops on land that is owned and leased in western Sonoma County. They have even launched a sheep dairy to produce milk for high end cheese.  They work hard seven days a week and forego lots of life’s comforts to be real deal ranchers. The only trips they take are to the weekly farmers markets where they sell their Williams Ranches lamb.

But, like thousands of other farmers across the United States, Rex and Kerry depend on an off-farm job to provide added cash flow and benefits, like health insurance, for their family.  The Williams have two children Wyatt, who is in college, and Olivia, who is 11 and eagerly following her parents’ path in agriculture.

The Williams fit the profile of today’s American farmer. Over the last decade, according to the USDA, non-farm income has averaged 86 percent of total U.S. farm household income. The numbers show that farm families are not earning a living wage on the farm despite the growing movement that celebrates good, locally grown food and the farmers who produce it. Many farmers are forced to work in construction, hospitals, wineries, education or the local Wal-Mart to make ends meet, save enough money to put their kids through college or have a retirement nest egg.  Like Rex Williams, many dream of being a full-time farmer but can’t afford it, at least not yet.

“I leave after an eight hour shift at the winery, go home and start another eight-hour shift with the sheep. But if you love what you do, it’s not work,” said Rex, who spends weekends in barns and pastures rather than a golf course. “If we didn’t absolutely love what we do, it would be stupid because of the hours we spend doing this.”
Kerry, the full-time rancher in the family, says of their ranch life, “It’s 24-7, with no vacations.”

A recent report by the USDA Economic Research Service concludes that most American farm families need outside income to keep working on the farms that produce the food and fiber that feeds and clothes Americans and much of the world.  Over the decades, non-farm income has continuously contributed a larger and larger portion of total US farm household income, increasing from about 40 percent in the 1960’s to as high as 95 percent in the early 2000s. In 2012, it was about 80 percent nationwide, disturbing indeed disturbing considering the hard work, risks and vagaries of farming.

These statistics are not surprising to the many small-scale and part-time farmers in Sonoma County who are working overtime to produce the heirloom tomatoes, gorgeous greens, artisan cheeses and free range eggs that arrive at the dozens of farmers markets held throughout the county. Or the fruits, veggies and herbs packed in CSA boxes for distribution to weekly subscribers who like their food fresh and local.

Many of these small scale farmers have day or night jobs, part-time or full-time, so they can farm a patch of ground that yields the specialty crops that make Sonoma County such a bountiful and diversified agricultural region, enhancing the county’s reputation as an agricultural Eden.  The urge to grow and nurture something from the ground is what keeps these dedicated farmers working long hours and then traveling congested highways and byways, often during clogged commuter traffic, to sell their produce at farmers markets or the high end restaurants that, often, proudly put the farmer’s name on the menu.

It doesn’t seem right that people who work so hard growing our food can’t earn enough from farming so they don’t have to hold down a job – or two – in town.  But welcome to farming. In an opinion piece in the New York Times, headlined “Don’t Let Your Children Grow Up to be Farmers,”  East Coast farmer Bren Smith laments that the foodie movement is,  ironically, “missing the perspectives of the  people doing the actual work of growing food.”

“The dirty secret of the food movement is that the much-celebrated small-scale farmer isn’t making a living. After the tools are put away, we head out to second and third jobs to keep our farms afloat,” Smith writes in his piece published on Aug. 10.
Smith calls for our nation’s big-time, small scale farmers to unite and organize as in the farm movements of generations past to “shape a vision of a new food economy that ensures that growing good food also means making a good living.”
Amen to that.

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