I don’t know how the idea got started that real farmers are full time farmers. We tend to think of part-timers as hobby farmers or beginners who will not be successful until or unless they get to be full time. Lots of part timers think that themselves. They think the advantage of getting bigger is to be free of the off-farm work hassle. But it mostly tain’t so. Even in pioneer days and during the high tide of agrarianism in the generation or two that followed, farmers invariably worked other jobs to bring in a little cash, or had another skill from which to earn money right on the farm. My favorite example I wrote about long ago, and Tim Henslee, one of the responders to this blog, reminded me of it recently. The hero in that story was an Amishman, whom we tend to think of as particularly full-time farmers. But like many Amish farmers, he had another skill, making homemade bent hickory chairs which provided extra income. That enabled him to make a comfortable living on a very small farm, milking only 26 cows, very good ones which brought in extra cash too when he sold their highly prized offspring. He also grew about an acre of strawberries and a plot of tobacco, both high-value cash crops, plus a few hogs and a flock of chickens.
I know two farmers personally, both deceased now, who made and sold moonshine to help pay for their farms. One of them was my father-in-law. He liked to tell me about how his cows came to the barn one evening very frisky from drinking water from the creek that had seeped through some spent mash he had dumped in a sinkhole.
Even when a farmer inherits his land he often takes on outside work. One of them, a good friend of mine now deceased, inherited, with two sisters, 4000 acres which he farmed all his life with his sons. He also was mayor of our town for awhile, operated a tractor dealership for awhile, and for about the last half of his life, owned and operated a golf course. Since he used his own land for the course, I guess I could say his main crop was golfers.
Another very extraordinary farmer, a cousin, farms about 8000 acres now. He started out with no land of his own, working the home farm with his father, started a little blacksmith shop in town, then drove trucks for awhile, eventually owned a restaurant, then a motel and finally a stone quarry— all while building up his farming business without any inherited money to speak of.
Many farmers operate a machinery repair business as an adjunct to their farming. Others sell seed corn, build barns for other farmers, or operate fence building and chemical application services on the side. Many more work in factories. Many, many more have spouses who work in town, mostly for the health insurance that is very high for an independent farmer. Ralph Rice has just published a book about his farming, Cultivating Memories. He also is a timber buyer and butcher plus holding down a town job. He says he is not a writer who farms, but a farmer who writes.
I do know one farmer who has never worked off the farm where he was born. He is now retired, but in his working days he was first of all a master grower and husbandman. His crops were as perfect as the weather would allow. When his steers went to market, the auctioneer would pause and tell the buyers where they came from. He did not marry until he was in his forties, did not have children, and saved every penny possible from the small salary his father paid and then the relatively small profit from the his relatively few acres (about 200) after he took over the farm. He never had any debt, did not expand, rented his siblings’ shares of the farm until old age, and then bought the whole farm with cash from his savings. Today, with the high price of land, he is an embarrassed millionaire. He never had that in mind. Yet he was not really a full time farmer either. He didn’t work off the farm, but his money sure did.
The bottom line here is that farming is a biological process that can’t respond well to an artificial industrial economy. The money comes in too slow even with good weather and then overproduction invariably takes away the profit. The solution has always been to have another source of income, even if just a small one.