Another country living twist
From: Marganne Meyer (
Date: Sun, 15 Feb 2009 12:31:30 -0800 (PST)
I haven't kept up with the list lately, but I saw this article in the NYTimes and figured a few of you would be interested. People are focusing on developing off-farm jobs in rural areas so you can live in the country on a small farm and not commute long distances for your full time job. This could open up less expensive land for future development. Enjoy -- Marganne

February 8, 2009
The Feed
Farm Living (Subsidized by a Job Elsewhere)

EVER thought of chucking it all and moving to the country? According to the Agriculture Department, an increasing number of Americans are doing just that, by embracing a "Green Acres" lifestyle. But few of them are making a living at it: more often than not, their work in the fields is subsidized by an off-the-farm job.

The Agriculture Department came out with its Census of Agriculture last week, and the headline was that the number of farms increased by 4 percent from 2002 to 2007, with most of the new farms being small, part-time operations.

A closer look at the numbers shows that American farming is becoming a story of extremes: of really big farms and really small ones. Consider that about 900,000 of the nation's 2.2 million farms generated $2,500 or less in sales in 2007.

By contrast, 5 percent of total farms, about 125,000 operations, accounted for 75 percent of agricultural production.

The new agriculture secretary, Tom Vilsack, has acknowledged the problem and vowed to do something about it. As a former governor of Iowa, he knows firsthand that farmers with a few hundred acres are being outbid for land by farmers with a few thousand. That consolidation is fueled by farm payments that tend to benefit the largest farms.

The question is: What, if anything, can he do about it?

In an interview on Friday, Mr. Vilsack said the agency would encourage income opportunities - like energy production, carbon sequestration, conservation and ecotourism - that go beyond just crops and livestock. "You have to take a holistic approach and create the understanding that the whole thing is diversification," he said.

There's no shortage of farms that could use his help, from the midsize family farm in Iowa to part-time operations trying to eke out a profit, as the census makes clear.

While profits were robust for some farmers in recent years, attributable to steep price increases fueled by ethanol and global demand for food crops, only 1 million of the 2.2 million American farms reported positive income from agriculture. The remainder rely on nonfarm income to cover farm expenses and a rural lifestyle.

The percentage of farmers who had off-the-farm jobs increased to 65 percent in 2007, from 55 percent five years earlier.

"We try to dispel any myths that it will be easy," said Amy Bacigalupo, program organizer for the Farm Beginnings program in Minnesota, a course for new farmers. She said the costs of land and health care are major obstacles for most would-be farmers.

The agriculture census comes out every five years, providing a snapshot of rural America. The number of farms in America peaked in 1935, at 6.8 million, and declined for several decades after that. In the last two decades, however, it has plateaued between 2 million and 2.5 million.

The average farmer today is a 57-year-old white man who farms 418 acres and generates $135,000 in agricultural sales. But American farmers are becoming more diverse.

From 2002 to 2007, the number of female farmers grew nearly 30 percent, to 306,200. The number of Hispanic farmers increased 10 percent, and the number of black and Asian farmers also grew, but more modestly. The number of Native American farmers more than doubled, a jump that officials attribute in part to better reporting.

About a third of farms were residential/lifestyle farms, meaning that they generated less than $250,000 in sales and that the farmer had another job as a primary occupation. While most farms raise cattle or grow crops, a growing number are focused on niche areas of agriculture, like selling at farmers markets, creating energy and growing organics. There were about 18,200 organic farms in 2007, compared with about 12,000 in 2002.

Among the new members of the rural class is Jennifer Miller, who grew up on the outskirts of Chicago and married Andrew Miller, a mushroom expert who now works at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Three years ago, they began raising goats on a 15-acre farm in Sidney, Ill., and are now on the brink of turning a profit. They sell meat directly to consumers.

Ms. Miller, who is 35 and a veterinarian, said she takes great pride in raising the animals but acknowledges that farm life has its challenges, "The worst part right now is doing chores at 6 in the morning when it's 10 below."

Flowers are what drew Robin Moore to farming a few years out of Macalester College in Minnesota, where she studied French literature. Frustrated by a desk job, she interned at a farm one summer to consider her future and was assigned to tend the flower beds.

"I loved everything about it," she said. "I really couldn't go back to an office after that."

Ms. Moore, 35, lives in western Minnesota, where she sells flowers to people in the area and for events like weddings, tends a vineyard and does some blacksmithing to make ends meet. "I don't make a lot of money, but that's a conscious choice I made," she said.

Mr. Vilsack said he hoped his agency could link small farmers with creative new market opportunities, like institutional buyers and government nutrition programs. He said he also hoped to expand off-farm jobs in rural America. "There's real opportunities to create a new rural economy," he said.

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