Sustain the farmer

A Farmer Leaves The Land

by Emily Palmer

A Farmer Leaves The Land

Traeger di Pietro

‘The economy of the farm requires development of infrastructure, long-term tenure on the land, an equity stake...’  

During my last season as a professional organic farmer, friends and neighbors would often ask me how my season was going. “It’s going well,” I’d say, with a weak smile, and it was true, in a way. I was managing more acreage, more sales, and more staff than ever before, the weather had been good, the markets strong. I even had a t-shirt. Customers were happy with the product, piles of cherry tomatoes, armfuls of sunflowers. I was happy too. But I knew the season was my last.

For all the well-intentioned interest in local food production our Island has benefited from, for all the steps we have taken towards a better food system, I fear that we are often having the wrong conversation. On this Island, it is nearly impossible to choose a career as an independent professional farmer, as a commercial producer of local food. And if we are not changing the food economy, we are not changing the food system. More so than education, more so than activism, this is our urgent problem. Without farmers, none of the accessory industries exist, and without new farmers, we are only a generation away from no farmers at all.

On an organic vegetable farm, there are many layers of sustainability. The one we immediately think of is the one that pertains to the land, the principle of protecting the soil and producing healthy food. But for a farm to sustain itself, it must also function successfully as a business, as an industry. The economy of the farm requires development of infrastructure, long-term tenure on the land, an equity stake in improvements, and a size sufficient to generate enough cash flow to support the farmer. An acre of well-managed, properly marketed vegetables can, in my experience, generate up to $20,000 annually in revenue. That sounds like a pretty penny until you consider the operating costs, the weather, the hungry bugs, the uncertainty of this kind of life. To mitigate all that, I’d put the minimum lot size needed to support one full-time, professional farmer at seven acres. If farmers go without access to these economic requirements, they are particularly vulnerable to failure.

Here and now on the Island, it is possible to locate an acre or so in a friend’s yard or neighbor’s field, to put up a fence and seed the soil with arugula and turnips and zinnias, to sell the harvest to your friends and neighbors, to learn from your mistakes. As the years go by, you might acquire a couple more little fields in other parts of town and start piecing together a patchwork quilt of green half-acres, your truck zipping back and forth among them. I did it; you can do it too. But I didn’t make a living, and neither will you.

I knew from the start that what I was doing: it was a stepping stone, nothing more and nothing less. I knew that I would have to jump again, to a bigger location. But to be frank, there was nothing to jump to. And in the meanwhile, I was poor. Poverty at the age of twenty-two felt edgy and authentic, tangible evidence of the deep commitment I felt to my profession, but at the age of twenty-six, it just felt like poverty. Call it the dropout’s lament if you will. But it’s the truth. Short of outright purchase of a large property to the tune of millions of dollars, a mortgage that can never be repaid via farm income, new farmers on the Vineyard are not able to access property that has the potential to become a commercial working farm. And it is this shortfall, this fundamental resource gap, that is paralyzing our food economy.

This winter I sold every last bit of farming equipment I owned, much of it to other young farmers starting their own endeavors in exactly the way I did—with a leased acre or two, a tight budget, and a huge dream—to make a life at this thing. I wanted my life to be defined by this landscape—I wanted it to watch me grow old. There is no glory in giving up, and while I stand by my choices, while I accept that the door didn’t open for me and probably never will, it is my fervent wish that Islanders look around at the skilled and committed young people who are trying and failing to become professional farmers, and start having the right conversation.