Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Hobby farms and the demise of the full time farmer

Warning: This is perhaps the most controversial post  I have ever done, and I must say I have hesitated for weeks on how to present this idea.  As you read through, please keep an open mind and  consider the points raised.  What finally prompted me to post this is a recent blog post from another small family farm that didnt survive. this one hits close to home. A family that started a small far, committed all their savings, time, and energy into making the best food possible, but in the end failed to make a living. they were forced to sell and move back into obscurity in town, leaving their customers with no where to turn.   With that tragedy in mind,  please consider my comments. 

There are 3 types of farms in America today :
  • Hobby farms
  • Family owned for profit farms
  • Corporate owned big ag

A common question is... What's the difference between the hobby farm and the family farm?  This is both a great question and the essence of this posting.

Hobby farm is (my own definition)  any farm not intended to make a profit. It is not the size that defines hobby,  but the motivation. A farmer that does not have a goal of making a living wage off the farm is a hobby farmer. A hobby farm is one that assume the need for off farm income to survive. The main goal of most hobby farms is to produce high quality nutritionally superior food for a small group of people at the lowest cost possible. 

Contrast this with a for profit family farm.  This is the farmer that does not work off farm to support the family,  but depends on the farm income. Sure sometimes things go wrong and outside income is necessary,  but the goal is to live off the farm exclusively. It is not what the family does for fun, it is what they do for food, clothing, and shelter. the main goal of a small family farm is to produce high quality nutritionally superior food for the largest number of people possible without sacrificing quality, while making a living in the process. 

The corporate farm is of course dedicated to maximum profit at all costs,  raising production and dropping quality  while consuming government handouts. Size is a factor here, because bring efficiency at the cost of quality and longevity.  the main goal of the corporate farm is profit, at all costs. 

The question of this post is this... what is the greatest competition to small family for profit farms?  the conclusion I have come to is surprising, even shocking.  But I believe it is real.  The most harmful competitor is in fact NOT big ag, not large conventional farms. It is the hobby farm... it is those good intentioned individuals with honor and high ideals.  Hobby farms are what is enabling big ag to dominate.

Before you get upset, and throw this post away, please hear me out. 

Big Ag -- primarily sold through grocery stores, is easy for small farms to compete with. They lack quality. They lack integrity. They lack personal bond with customers. They lack principles of healing the earth, being kind to nature.  there are dozens of things that big ag can not do, and has no interest in doing, because of their size and focus.  They are , in essence an easy target. the only thing they offer the public is convenience and low price, at the cost of health, nutrition, environment, etc.  Those that shop for food by price, at walmart, will not even consider buying eggs for $7 per dozen. those willing to pay $7 per dozen for decent eggs are not willing to grace the door of walmart for food. 

But, that leaves two sources to consider for the individual who cares about nutrition and environment:  hobby farms and for profit family farms.  They both offer a superior product to anything available from the grocery store. BUT there is a fundamental difference. Hobby farms often operate at a loss or break even.  I have often heard the comment" if i can just cover my feed cost with these egg prices I will be happy".  You can substitute any product in that phrase and it fits.  hobby farms just want to cover costs, and usually employ little to no labor.  Therefore their prices, for excellent food, are artificially low. It is food sold "at cost". 

This sets the bar of pricing low, so that when a small family farm tries to make a profit, their pricing must remain higher than corresponding local hobby farms.  The difference is that hte for profit farm has no other income, so must make at least minimum wage on its products to exist. the hobby farm can sell literally at cost to produce without labor.  therefore, the biggest competitor to family farms is the hobby farm. 

Why is this a problem? well.. obviously the hobby farm must have a second income to exist. the food itself does not provide income. it must be subsidized by other non farm labor.  That necessarily splits the focus of the hobby farm, and limits its production abilities. There can not be an individual dedicated to producing as much good food as possible because time and energy must be left to do things that actually make money.  therefore, quality and quantity can not be what it could be. hobby farms, by definition, are part time farmers.  
For example... Pasteurized non-organic milk from stressed unhealthy coos for $4 per gallon in the store does not compete with milk we produce.  BUT milk from local hobby farms sold for $15 per gallon does. Yet, any dairy person will tell you that $15 per gallon at best will only cover costs of producing it.  They dont make a profit, they do it because they love to, or because they want to help the world. yet, setting the price bar this low, at cost, prevents many more dairies from going into operation to provide milk to even more people at $20 per gallon at a profit.  You see, selling good food at cost of production HURTS everyone in the long run.

Now I ask you.. how does this model scale?  while I certainly agree that food should be reasonably prices, the reality is.. if you dont have small for profit farms you are left to only part time hobby farms and big ag. will that feed the world?  how are we to change the health of our nation if we are limited to part time farmers and big ag?  we NEED small family farms to produce the bulk of the food, and they need to make a living doing it. 

Where am i going with this?  I am not entirely sure.  one thing I know is this.. if hobby farms would price their food high enough to make minimum wage while producing it,  instead of making food at cost, there would be LOTS more food available to more people of high quality.   many more families would venture into the farming world full time, producing much more food at reasonable true prices. 

Am i against coops , food sharing, bartering, etc etc? no. not against. but I throw out for a discussion a warning that if we continue to produce good food at cost, we will someday ONLY be able to find good food from people willing to do it at a loss, part time, in dwindling quantities.  And that is a sad day indeed.

So, bottom line is.. good food production is not in jeopardy from big ag, they are not the enemy.  the Monsantos of the world will never take out small family farms.  but, the sad reality is, hobby farms might. Just as the previous owners of farms that have gone out of business without a second income to support it.  hear their stories. feel their heartbreak.  then go support a full time local family farm. 


  1. Dave, I think you are exactly right, and I've heard this exact thing from my friend in England. He isn't a farmer, but many of his friends are. Since they are in the Cotswolds there is no shortage of London financial types who want to play at being gentleman farmer on weekends. It makes it almost impossible for the full time farmer to survive.

    1. Interesting point that this is not a uniquely american problem. In fact, i suspect this is world wide. It is quite a paradox.. that the well intention-ed wealthy who set pricing for food at cost actually are decreasing the food supply by preventing competition.

  2. Hi Dave. I have been thinking about your post since you announced it last week. I am hugely appreciative of our local family farms and am distraught over the possibility of loosing them, but it seems to me a bit extreme to imply that hobby farms are the enemy. I would hope, especially as time goes on, that a hobby farm would be an incremental step toward to full-time farming. As you mentioned, these farms are supplying healthy food to their local communities, which is a benefit that is huge in my book. Plus they are preserving farmland by keeping it out of the hands of developers who would rather build houses, as well as big-ag corporations who would rather subject it to their destructive monoculture farming methods. Also, it seems that the hobby farm argument could be offered against home gardens, and I certainly believe that families growing part of their food cannot be construed as evil, even if this activity might temporarily depress the price that farms can charge for their produce. I don't have a solution for the problems you mentioned, but I don’t believe that blaming hobby farms (or home gardeners) is the right approach to develop the sustainability of full-time family farms. I think the pricing problem you discussed is part of the messy process of developing anything of value that goes against main-stream thinking. I am hopeful that developing more, rather than fewer, local food sources will be in everyone’s best interest in the long run, though the path will not be straight or necessarily fair at all times to all concerned. Thank you for putting your thoughts out there. I always have your family in my thoughts and prayers...WE totally appreciate everything YOU do!

    1. The back yard gardner is very different from the hobby farmer. a true hobby farm would be defined as one with a business presence, and a price list, supplying a significant quantity of goods to the local market. The back yard garnder, and very small operations of people sharing food certainly do not apply. What i am referring to as "hobby farm" are primarily as the first comment stated... professionals or wealthy people running a farming operation at some scale, but at cost instead of to make a profit. That is the different.. a hobby farm is big enough to set community prices for high quality products but set them at a "cost of production" instead of a "for profit (meaning wages paid) model . While it may seem a noble deed to produce and sell large quantities of high quality food at cost, the reality is that doing so sets pricing that prevents non-wealthy individuals from also producing food. Thereby farming is limited to the wealthy, or those that are willing to work a full time job and farm on the side. That's just the reality of economics.
      thanks for your comments!

  3. I think you are off the mark with this one. I usually enjoy reading about your adventures but I found this post to be offensive and short sited. While I am sorry to hear that your friends were not able to make it as farmers it is not due to the "hobby farmer". When we started our farm our goal was to supplement our recently diminished income while providing high quality food for ourselves and others. When it came time to sell the high quality food that we had created we found that people were simply not willing to pay what we considered to be a fair price. They didn't say I can get a better price from the hobby farmer down the street, they said I only pay $1.99 a lb for pork at the supermarket. It's the same thing with the eggs that we sell. If I tried to sell them for $7 a dozen I would have a lot of eggs going to the pigs because people can get them cheaper at the grocery store and in these tough economic times people have to weigh their options and sometimes have to settle for less than the best just to get by.

    People are just starting to understand the necessity of buying organic, GMO free foods and many of those that want to eat healthier simply can not afford to buy $7 eggs. While it was disappointing to spend as much money as we did to get into the farming business with virtually no profit to show for it, I love the lifestyle we are living and I do feel good every time I sell my "close to cost" eggs to someone who normally could not afford to buy the high quality food we produce.

    1. I should clarify... my thoughts in the original post is that there are definitely two separate markets that small farms compete with.. one is big ag, with ridiculously low prices supported by government subsidies and questionable practices. The other market is similar high quality operations selling at cost of production without including profitability. the first market, the $1.99 pork chops at walmart only appeals to the individuals that value price over quality. This will never be a market that small farms can compete with. It is only scale that can produce such low prices, but on the flip side that scale prevents high quality and humane treatment. Nevertheless, the people that choose $1.99 over a farm fresh local product will never consider paying anything close to even cost of production, so both hobby farms and small for profit farms will loose that business. It is pointless to try and compete on price, but also unnecessary since small farms can offer quality that volume operations can not offer. On the other hand, hobby farms set pricing for similar quality products, below a living wage. there is little to no difference in quality between hobby farm and small for profit family farm, so they must split the available business. This is true competition, but in a way unfair. The hobby farmer is offering a price that simply can not be matched. Granted it is out of the goodness of their heart, but still that price setting will bankrupt any non-wealthy individual that attempts to also provide quality foods. This is what i am pointing to. It is the hobby farmer, the otherwise employed part time farmer that is setting pricing at a point to prevent competition from full time farmers. the walmarts of the world will never put a family farm out of business, but a hobby farm will, and do constantly.

  4. It is nice to live near a market that is well educated about quality food and wealthy enough to pay for it. My farm is in Josephine County. We get $8.00/ gallon for milk and $3.00/dozen eggs. We make a profit, but only because we limit outside expenses and scrounge for every scrap of organic manure we can find. We grow our own hay and let the chickens follow the cows in the pasture. If the heifer took, we'll have two cows in lactation next year and things should get easier. The one thing we have going for us is that we are free of debt. Barter for everything we can and save the cash for the power bill and taxes.

    1. I would like to throw out a related thought.. that everyone is wealthy enough to pay for good quality food, it is just a matter of priority. Most anyone will spend money on cellphones, vacations, and healthcare... but will complain about the price of food which could prevent the need for healthcare. Its not a matter of income, but of priority.