One of my favorite U.S. food policy wonks is Parke Wilde (@usfoodpolicy), a professor at Tufts University’s Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy. He was previously on staff at one of the most useful agencies around, the USDA’s Economic Research Service. Wilde’s background is in agricultural economics, and his research portfolio includes U.S. food and nutrition policy; consumer economics; and federal food assistance programs. (Think Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program: SNAP, aka food stamps).
Recently, two of Wilde’s colleague at Tufts – Jennifer Hashley and Samuel Anderson – wrote a commentary – A Farmer’s Double Life – based on the experience of farmers they met through a New Entry Sustainable Farming project sponsored by Tufts. (Please visit the website for some wonderful resources).
The focus of the commentary was “whether it is right or wrong that most small farmers also rely on off-farm income.”
Hashley and Anderson write:
“While they’d love to scale up to be full-time farmers someday, they know that it will take years to reach that point. In the meantime, they need to keep an off-farm job in order to maintain a livelihood, like the two New Entry graduates who farm their leased land but also work 30 or more hours a week as certified nursing assistants. Many may not have full-time farming income as a goal in the first place, instead seeking to farm parttime for supplementary income and to contribute to their local food system. Perhaps the American small-scale farmer is most often a part-time farmer—but is that necessarily a problem?”
Wilde did a quick analysis of USDA data using a specific typology (which he shares in his blog post), and concluded that those “with annual farm revenue less than $350K have it most rough.”
“Somewhat in the spirit of Hashley and Anderson’s commentary, I find this income table [included in his blog post] realistic rather than highly distressing. Many small farmers may find they need off-farm income to get by. If you want to go into farming full-time — whether organic, conventional, or something in between — it is good to contemplate your capacity for reaching close to the commercial scale in the third column.”