My husband and I are the third generation to work on his family farm. My father-in-law detailed income and expenses out on a piece of paper at the kitchen table when we talked about taking over, but it has taken us 15 years to get to a comfortable spot in our farm finances and will take us years more to create something that we want to hand down to our kids.
When we took over the farm, our goal was to have the farm “pay for itself.” My husband had the off-farm job that would support our family expenses. In fact, our 50 acres in the center of town has never fully supported the Bogli family. Grandpa worked at Pratt & Whitney, doing chores before and after work while grandma took care of the farm during the day. My father-in-law was a mechanic and farrier by trade, so part-time farming worked well for him. My mother-in-law worked a corporate job to provide necessities like health insurance and retirement income. Both generations were financially successful, providing for their families and are easily able to take care of themselves in retirement. But with increasing development pressure, this just isn’t good enough for the next generation.
Transferring ownership from farm family to farm family can be tricky. We paid for the family farm. It was the only fair way to pass the farm down. As we sometimes struggled to make the payments on the farm through the years, one of my goals became to be able to give the farm to our kids rather than have them pay. But as the years have gone on, I decided that even that wasn’t enough. Our goal now is to hand over a thriving farm business to one or more of the kids, because the business has to continue to be worth more than the farmland in order for our farm to survive.
Just growing crops and/or raising livestock used to make a farmer a good living. Increasingly, farmers have to capitalize on all the farm’s assets to make ends meet. Value-Added is an agricultural catch phrase to mean that the farmer has taken something she has grown (fruit, cucumbers, basil, grapes, barley, apples) and turned it into something more expensive that the customer wants (jam, pickles, pesto, wine, beer, cider) — taking the farm’s crops and turning them into something that has a higher profit margin for the farmer. This is how farms are staying financially sustainable in the era of processed food and meal kits.
Farmers have another huge asset: their beautiful land. An amazing backdrop for events and an opportunity to lure customers to their farm for on-farm events that are proving a necessity, especially for the smaller family farm. Agritourism allows the farmer to capitalize on even more assets of the farm: the farmer’s knowledge, the beautiful landscape, even farm accommodations. And agritourism is giving the customers what they want: a farm experience.
We are lucky to live in a supportive community. To be clear, supporting farms means supporting farm businesses. Ag businesses are, and should be, looked at as commercial enterprises. If they aren’t, it’s only a matter of time until the family farm turns into a housing development. Because when the value of the farmland is larger than the value of the farm business, the farm will eventually fail. What does support look like? Support from the community means that citizens shop regularly from their local farms. Supporting a local food system is important to food security. And with every purchase from a farm (be it tomatoes, a farm breakfast, or a pint of beer), you are helping to make sure that farmland stays farmland. Local farms are up against so much competition—with Amazon delivering organic groceries to your doorstep, why would you want to take the time to stop by your local farm shop? My answer is, because Amazon is not preserving the history of your town. They are not providing open space while at the same time paying local taxes. Your farmer neighbor is.