Editor’s Note: This interview first appeared in Path Finders, an email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each week, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Like what you see here? You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article and receive more conversations like this in your inbox each week.
Sarah Mock, the author of Farm (and other F words), describes her first job out of college as a quest for adventure. Instead of seeking a traditional rental unit, she decided to trade her labor for room and board through a program called World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF). By her account, the small organic vegetable farmer she worked for scraped by on the $300 he made each week at the local farmer’s market by feeding his volunteer workers bologna sandwiches and housing them in a junky RV.
Like many driftless undergrads at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, I unwittingly followed in Mock’s footsteps. A couple of weeks cooped up with my Zoom classes sent me out into the world seeking something I, embarrassingly, called “tangible.” Unlike Mock, my accommodations were exactly what I signed up for (nothin’ more tangible than a charley horse from foot pumping an air mattress) and my host farmers were kind and knowledgeable. I fell asleep to the sound of the creek, ate fully ripe strawberries in April, and experienced for the first time the particular pleasure of wielding a nail gun.
But that doesn’t mean I disagree with Mock’s broadest takeaway, that farms entirely reliant on volunteer or informal labor are unsustainable, and in many cases immoral. While small veggie farms with tiny profits trying to reduce overhead costs are inarguably less abhorrent than larger, more profitable farms relying on the exploitation of undocumented workers, they exist on the same spectrum of market failure.
As Mock argues in her book, “independent family farms have overwhelmingly proved themselves incapable of meeting the challenges of the past, let alone those of a hotter, dryer, and much less certain future.”
Read about her preferred alternative, the “big team farm,” below.
What’s your background in farming? How’d you come to care about it?
I grew up on a small family farm in Wyoming. I spent my childhood working in the garden, hauling water to the barn when the pipes were frozen in the winter, and milking dairy goats in the dark before school. I was also active in youth agriculture programs like 4H and FFA, which gave me the chance to gain practical experience with production as well as to become well versed in ag’s wide world of issues, from water scarcity in the West to eminent domain to urban farming. It was also in doing 4H that I first became suspicious about the economic model that underpins small family farming. When building a business plan for my dairy goat business as a teenager, I found it essentially impossible to make the numbers work, even without paying for my own labor or for rent on my parents’ property. As a kid, I dismissed my inability to square this circle by believing I just didn’t know the secret—it was only after seeing farms operating around the world and spending 10 years working in the agricultural industry that I realized that in most cases, family farms, set up as they currently are, are not capable of being profitable. And recognizing that paradox is what set me on the path to writing this book.
Throughout the book, you argue that farming is a real estate business. What do you mean by this and what is its implication for the “good farm” ideal you discuss?
It is undeniable that, though most “small family farms” in the U.S. don’t make farm income year to year (in fact, according to the IRS, the vast majority lose significant amounts of money) most people who own farmland are not in danger of losing it year to year. There are multiple reasons this is true, but most boil down to the idea that folx simply want to own farmland, and can justify losing money, because in addition to these losses creating tax write-offs, the property itself gains value over time. Farmland is an investment class (hence why billionaires like Bill Gates are all over it) and farmland owners earn money simply from holding it—not to mention the available income from rent if the owner is not the operator.
The biggest implication of this reality is that the narrative that farmers are a perpetually and near-universally impoverished class with “nothing but dirt to their name” is a big miscalculation. “Nothing but dirt” is quite a dismissive way to describe an investment class that has out-preformed the S&P 500 for most of the last 50 years. In the U.S., about two million farmland owners own about $3 trillion worth of farmland, making the average U.S. farmer a millionaire.
You write about the distinctly American narrative of farmers as victims. In what ways would you argue farmers actually have more agency than we think?
As I explained above, farmers overwhelmingly do have access to wealth. There is certainly an idea in agriculture of being “land rich, cash poor,” meaning that all of the farm’s assets are tied up in land, leaving the farm family near impoverishment in terms of having cash in the bank. But the thing is, capital intensity is not unique to agriculture. Many industries in the U.S. economy require large amounts of capital to operate, and many can only operate during some parts of the year or have to contend with the effects of weather during their operating season. Being able to manage a business’s liquidity is part of being a business leader that we expect in other industries.
On the bright side—farmers who do want to leverage their assets to gain access to tools, workers, or other resources they need don’t need to reinvent the wheel. Innovations in asset leveraging and using equity to secure resources is something that startups in other sectors have been perfecting for decades, to the point that simple and easy digital solutions are out there for farmers to use. What is required to take advantage of them is usually a mental shift. If a farmer’s goal is to build a successful farm business that makes money, creates high quality products, and doesn’t abuse its workers, leveraging farmland equity is a good tool. But if the goal is to privately hold farmland assets at all costs to further accumulate private wealth, then likely the “land rich, cash poor” complaint will persist.
In the final chapter of the book, you write about the concept of “big team farms.” What does that term mean, and how is it rooted in Black, Indigenous, and Asian-American histories and practices?
Big team farms are the inverse of small family farms. They are farm businesses seeking to grow good food, provide good jobs, and do both without damaging the environment. They do this by marshaling teams of workers and owners, rather than obsessing about family operation, and by aiming to manage large land areas, rather than small homesteads. They eschew independence in favor of collaboration.
North America’s longest farming tradition is in the big team farm realm—that is, many Indigenous American cultures practiced and continue to practice agricultural commons systems. Historically, these systems were use-based, meaning an individual or family could have the use of any amount of farmland that they could reasonably care for, and when their ability to use it effectively waned or the family moved on, control of the land would return to the community to be reallocated to another individual or family. Monica M. White in her seminal book Freedom Farmers explored the history of similar collaborative efforts among Black communities in North America, from the time that enslaved peoples were first forcibly brought to America until today. Valerie J. Matsumoto offered a similar accounting in Farming the Home Place about Asian-American farming traditions in California during the late 19th and throughout the 20th century as Asian-American farmworkers fought for land and dignity against extraordinary racism and erasure on the West Coast.
America is a land of big team farming. In the context of this history, small family farming seems much more like the aberration—a brief and relatively unsuccessful experiment.
This interview first appeared in Path Finders, a weekly email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each Monday, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Join the mailing list today, to have these illuminating conversations delivered straight to your inbox.