We love to farm, but love doesn’t pay the mortgage

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by brenda on June 20, 2013

 

 

Yesterday, on the way home from our first farmer’s market experience, my husband, The Farmer, said that if things keep going the way they have been, he will have to take on a part time job, come fall. My husband quit his full time job in mid-March. He had a good paying job. He always has had good paying, stable jobs, since we got married. So why did he quit? Because he’s had a passion, ever since I met him, to “do something that makes a difference.” He is an easy going guy and stays pretty even tempered even when he doesn’t like a situation…but he was having a hard time staying motivated at a desk job with lots of meaningless bureaucracy and red tape. He never met the end user of the product he worked on–so he never knew if what he was doing made any difference to anybody. That’s one reason he quit.

Another reason? A passion for real food. For 3 years now, we’ve been producing awesome food for our family and a small base of customers. He and I both wanted to expand that reach and make sure lots of people are getting good, healthy, farm-fresh food!

Before we jumped into this full-time farming thing, we pencilled out how much it would cost to do everything–what we’d need to invest in equipment, animals, etc., and what the profit would be. It all pencilled out….but we have not had nearly as many sales as we projected. It’s discouraging for us.

I write posts about the cost of raising real food, like this post about the cost of producing raw milk, and I get people saying that they think we should just do this because we love it, and that “everyone knows” that farmers don’t farm for the money….We do love it. But at the end of the day, we have to pay the mortgage, just like the rest of you. And a mortgage on a farm is often times more than the typical mortgage. Plus farmers often take out debt for large equipment, like $25,000 tractors (I had NO CLUE that tractors cost that much until we moved here and suddenly needed one! And every implement for a different job costs $500 to thousands more!). Do people expect that farmers are debt-free and rich and can just give away food, below cost? Or that farmers can survive at or below the poverty level, and that they just should because of the type of career that they’ve chosen?

I really appreciated this comment, from Small Footprint Family:

“I love how people think farmers, teacher and other people who do important, necessary work for society should just “do it for the love” and not for money. Would you ask a doctor or lawyer or computer programmer or a great winery to lower their prices, and just do it for the love? Would you forgo a salary at your job or business and just do it for the love?

Why should a doctor make $200 an hour, while the farmer goes out of business, unable to make ends meet? Arguably the farmer’s job is much more important, since the quality of her food will most likely keep you from needing the doctor in the first place!”

It’s true. It’s amazing, when we think about it, how much my husband got paid for a desk job, testing software and running meetings, telling other people to test software….And now he works SO hard  (it is 10:20 pm and he just came in…he had the tractor going, moving feed, because the feed couldn’t be delivered until late tonight…He will wake up at 5 am and get ready to go milk and do animal chores…), and this is an IMPORTANT JOB and he makes so little.

I understand the complaints about the cost of food, from the consumer perspective. Our food is expensive….but we also don’t use any government subsidized feeds, at all. I replied to one complaint about my raw milk post with this:

“I think $30 per gallon is a lot, too, but there is a real cost to producing food that most consumers don’t even realize. All of the chicken, pork and turkey at the grocery store is fed government subsidized soy and corn–not healthy or even natural feeds for these animals–and yet very, very cheap. So the consumer has no clue what the real cost of meat is. The milk is the same way. We are capped at having 2 producing cows in Oregon. That’s all we can have, unless we pasteurize and become a commercial dairy operation. There are crazy laws that real-food-farmers have to deal with, and most consumers aren’t even aware how hard it is to produce and sell really good food. We do sell chicken and pork and turkey and duck and goose and beef. But this is part of what our farm offers, and it takes more than 2 hours every day out of our day, so it needs to make an income. Most farmers who raise food “right” are having to take on part time or even full time jobs and make farming a second priority. I think that is just *wrong* and so sad, and so I am trying to be a voice for those farmers. The fact of the matter is, a $3 gallon of milk isn’t sustainable for anyone. If consumers are going to complain about growth hormones, and feedlot operations, and icky food being fed to cows (as they should), they should also realize that $3 per gallon will put any farmer–no matter how big his operation is–in the hole, financially. Government subsidized soy and corn have ruined the consumer’s understanding of food costs. People who shop in grocery stores regularly do not have a realistic picture of how much food *actually* costs to raise, and unfortunately, farmers who are doing it right take a lot of flack for trying to make an income that’s even near or above the poverty level. Our bacon costs $11 per pound, and people think that is a lot–but my husband made $1 for every day he raised those pigs–that’s it. If he was making a decent wage raising hogs, nobody would buy our bacon. Either consumers decided that they’re going to pay real prices for real food, or we will all be stuck with the factory-farm model and a country that goes deeper in debt because of how much we “pretend” food costs.”

Note, our milk is not $30 per gallon, it’s $10. 🙂 But at $10, the wage my husband makes per hour for his labor is below the poverty line. We sell our chickens for $5.50 per pound, and with the non-gmo, soy-free, corn-free feed that we buy, and the fact that we don’t medicate our chickens with low doses of antibiotics to make them grow faster (while creating super-bugs in humans), we don’t make a ton of profit on those chickens, either.

I apologize if this just seems like a big, complain-y post. 🙂 I know that there are people who believe in real food, it’s just that they’re not willing to prioritize it in their budget. And that’s frustrating for the people who jumped in, fully, to produce real food. We gave it all up–a big fancy house, a super nice black suburban with black leather seats (for a big red 12 passenger van that leaks rain on me and smells like hay, y’all!), stock options that were for retirement, a comfy, easy life, a job with good, steady pay, health insurance, a retirement plan, etc..and we have more debt than we’ve ever had in our life (and a home that is smaller/less beautiful than our last one)…and we did it because we are passionate about real food. We made sacrifices–BIG ones….So it’s just discouraging, seeing how hard it is to make a living at farming–in light of the sacrifices and hard work. That’s all.

Hi, my name is Brenda, and I’m a real food farmer….please come buy my food! 🙂

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{ 27 comments… read them below or add one }

Shawna Kinsman June 20, 2013 at 11:36 pm

This is why our food supply has dwindled. Many farmers have had to rely on government subsidies, thus requiring them to plant certain crops (GMO) to qualify for this assistance. Don’t give up, keep your head down and keep foraging on. Nothing good in life comes easy. You can do it. Nothing better than pursuing your dream and coming out on top. You’re just starting, keep on trucking and give it more time. I wish you much success!

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LibertyL August 3, 2013 at 9:30 am

Actually, most of the subsidies don’t even go to big farmers that may need them. They go to companies like Monsanto and Cargill, even though they are making a profit already and are not what we would consider a farming operation.

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Megan Alton June 20, 2013 at 11:37 pm

Brenda, this post is touching and honest. I so appreciate that you’re willing to share the struggle that it can be to farm real food. Surely with the passion that you and your husband have, you will overcome the obstacles you’re facing now, in the beginning.

As a real foodie who writes a blog and seeks out others who share my intense beliefs in real food I think it can be easy for me to believe that the world and my community is changing faster than it really might be. In a time when so many wants are so easily obtainable, or at least the perception of that, it can be depressing to realize that the slow food movement is slow in more ways than just production.

I’m not a farmer. I have only a small veggie garden in my backyard and no animals other than my 2 cats, but I’m near devastated that my cauliflower isn’t producing and the earwigs are binging on my leafy greens. I can only imagine what your family must be feeling right now.

I hope you continue on your path and continue to learn about how to be the best real food farmers in Beaverton, and become so successful that you can write a follow up post in the future about how you turned the tables on big ag and government farm subsidies. I purchase my pastured meat and eggs from an Oregon based farm (who sells at the Boise Farmer’s Market) and they are kind and wonderful people. I’m sure if you wanted to talk with them they would be glad to share their stories with you. All the best and with all my support! ~Megan

Here’s the link to Malheur River Meats if you’re interested: http://www.malheurrivermeats.com/index.html

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Denise June 21, 2013 at 12:43 am

As I read your post, I was nodding in agreement through it all.

We have a small farm operation in Alaska of all places, and we do many of the same things you do. We have a tractor and a bunch of implements, we are trying to remineralize and improve the soil for our 15 acres of hay using raw milk and fish meal and sea minerals – it’s crazy expensive! We just bought 200 meat chicks to raise for butchering, and customers are aghast at being asked to pay $5/pound. We feed the same as you – non GMO no corn, no soy feed, which costs $27 for a 50-pound bag. We mix it with locally grown whole barley, and we use an herbal blend to deal with cocci. We started doing the chickens just for ourselves, but then friends wanted to buy a few, and it grew from there by word of mouth. But it is quite disheartening to know that we will do the hard work of tending these birds for 8 weeks – plus a grueling several days of butchering – and it seems folks will just shrug their shoulders and buy their meat at the grocery store because it’s on sale for less than $1/pound.

Don’t even get me started on meat and dairy goats! We have some very nice purebreds and some good quality crossbreeds. I advertise the kids for sale, and I have a tough time selling them for what I need to get out of them. So disappointing! Yet I keep at it, because I love knowing where my milk comes from and exactly what goes into it!

My husband works full time, I work part time, and we have one teenager left at home to help. We wish we could afford to hire help for big jobs, but it just isn’t feasible financially. I share your pain and frustration. I don’t know what it will take to turn things around, but until then, I hope you keep doing what you’re doing, because it IS important and it DOES make a difference!D

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Jennifer June 21, 2013 at 3:54 pm

I would love to know where in Alaska you are. Do you sell at any farmer’s market?

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Denise June 22, 2013 at 11:35 pm

Jennifer, I’m in the Interior. We don’t sell at any farmers markets. You can contact me at deniseakwof at gmail dot com if you like. 🙂

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Leanne June 21, 2013 at 7:02 am

But this is how much food costs! The problem isn’t with your production or prices, the problem is with all the cheap food flooding the market and lowering people’s expectations.

Also it’s harder to do things organically now than in previous years because organic feed and so forth are not the norm.

If cheap industrialised food wasn’t available people would certainly be able to afford your wonderful food.

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Kelly in Oregon June 21, 2013 at 7:53 am

I just wanted to say thank you for what you do! 🙂 Also – are you really in Beaverton? What farmers market do you go to? I live in Hillsboro and I’d love to come support you!

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Anonymous June 21, 2013 at 11:25 am

I’d come buy your food but I live in Los Angeles 🙂
We currently pay $15 a gallon for raw milk or $9.55 a half gallon (from the same producer… go figure). I have a farmer friend who is about to purchase a milk cow and I’ll be getting dairy shares from her (very excited about that). We’re also getting a pig share from her. $450 for half a pig and it’ll take 8 months to finish and be ready for butcher. I know for a fact she’s not getting rich off of my $450.
I live in a typical suburban neighborhood. I have 8 laying hens.I feed them fermented feed and add unpasturized ACV and oregano oil to their water daily. They free range. I do not use medications. I sell my eggs for $3.50 a dozen. In no way am I making a profit, but my eggs are a dollar less than the “organic” ones sold at Wal Mart and I have a couple customers who like knowing where their eggs come from and they truly appreciate the freshness. But yeah, no money is actually being made here.
You get what you pay for with food. Pay higher prices upfront for health or pay much higher prices later when you lose your health.
Hope things pick up for you and your family 🙂

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Jan June 21, 2013 at 2:56 pm

It’s not a moan, it’s making people aware that real food costs money. That’s the reality of the situation and most people because they shop just at a supermarket only, have no concept of what they are eating. How many children know that eggs come in the main from chickens or that pork comes from a pig. I’ve recently heard of a survey of school children over here in the UK and it’s shameful but a lot of children don’t even though the basics of what food comes from what animal. It’s a shame I live so far away otherwise I would certainly shop with you. Hope things improve.

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Heather Anderson June 21, 2013 at 7:12 pm

There is no doubt that real food is very expensive to produce. I really hear your pain. Please also try to understand that for some of us it is not just a matter of prioritizing, it is a matter of surviving. My husband and I totally believe in real food, but are ourselves barely getting by. We get the best we possibly can. We buy raw milk, eat a lot of beans, try support local producers we can and grow what we can. But the reality is that our family of eight would only be able to eat 1 chicken a month if we had to pay $5.50/lb. because of our current financial situation. That doesn’t mean that we don’t believe that real food isn’t worth the cost being asked. It’s the reality I am faced with every time I go to buy food and I hate it. I pray that you will be able to find the niche of those that are both willing and able buy your incredible products.

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Melanie Christner June 22, 2013 at 5:07 am

Great post, Brenda. Its a needed conversation.

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CG Zelasko June 22, 2013 at 7:14 am

Great post! My husband and I are on a students income right now, but we still prioritize good, quality food as our number one priority. With two kids to raise, it’s not cheap. But we feel the quality of the food we eat is paramount to our staying healthy. I want to say a great big THANK YOU to you and your husband and others like you who have made great sacrifice for something they believe in. I do my best to shop locally (farmers markets, co-ops and the like), and some of my friends cringe when I tell them how much we spend on food every month. But I feel its worth every last cent. May God bless you in your efforts to provide awesome, healthful food!

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Gabrielle June 22, 2013 at 9:07 am

If more people bought REAL FOOD, you would be able to profit more, and the laws regarding two (TWO?) dairy cows would change. Much is driven by market demand. Demand real food and it will be there. Quit buying meat and milk fed with subsidized feed and there will no longer be subsidized beef and the market will level out. I support the small farmer. It is how human health will survive this crazy world.

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LibertyL August 3, 2013 at 9:39 am

That’s right, the market dollar dictates what happens within the food market! Good point!

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R June 24, 2013 at 12:23 pm

The farmers market plan never worked for me. There is a new business model started in Georgia where people order on the internet from an availability that you post and then pick up the orders once a week. It is called locallygrown.net. Then you don’t cart all that stuff, only sell some of it and then have to try to process the leftovers when you get home. Good luck!

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NWB June 24, 2013 at 2:37 pm

For small producers, it is virtually impossible to break even. The cost of inputs is excessive. In the past, items such as feed were originally raised on the family farm, and the cost was much lower. Every farm was virtually self contained, providing almost all the inputs the farmer needed to be productive. Now, that is almost impossible to do. Due to government subsidies for industrial farms, the consumer expects food to be cheap, and as the author noted it doesn’t reflect the real cost of production. I have been a teacher and am now a full time organic grower. The public expects both jobs to be done for “love”, but it will not pay the mortgage.

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Tania June 24, 2013 at 6:35 pm

My heart went out to you as I read this post. Without ever having tasted it, I am confident that your high-quality foods are worth every penny. At the same time, like many others, my budget is currently so tight that I can buy the “good” food only in very limited quantities. As I read, I found myself brainstorming, trying to come up with ideas for increasing your income without needing a job. I’ve been pondering this for days now, so brace yourself: I’ve got a couple of ideas to share and this will be a long post. 🙂

First, I see that you have several e-books. Terrific! Are they available on Amazon.com? If not, I strongly suggest you self-publish there, because they make it easy and profitable. And if you do, I also suggest (don’t shoot me!) that you lower your prices. It may sound counterintuitive, but you will probably sell more (especially on Amazon) with lower prices. Customers know that e-books don’t have the same overhead costs as hardcopies, and so can be priced much lower (and you’ll still make more profit per book than you would have with a traditional publisher). You can also do promotions in which a book is free for a limited time (say, 3 days, a week, or a month), because the more books you sell (even if you “sell” for 0 dollars), the higher your ratings will be, which will bring in more (paying) customers. You can also sell books in “bundles,” like two of your books sold together at a slightly lower price than if they’d been purchased separately. The more products you offer (individual books and bundles), the more chances you have for customers to find you. I learned all this by reading J.A. Konrath’s blog for writers. I find his self-publishing experience and opinions very insightful, but I must warn you that his language and attitudes are a bit, um, “rough around the edges” to say the least. He’s at http://jakonrath.blogspot.com/. Look for some of his older posts, as he’s currently hosting a series of guest posters.

And another writing idea: if you haven’t written a book sharing your experiences in raising children with special dietary needs, and in running a farm, I hope you will. Surely, it can be done in a sensitive manner that protects your family’s privacy while also sharing what you’ve learned along the way. I’d enjoy that personal perspective, that feeling of walking along with you as you encountered each obstacle, then devised strategies for overcoming it. And it would add credibility to the nutritional principles and/or recipes you’d also be sharing in that same book. 🙂 It’s just a thought, but I can say I’d consider buying such a book, especially if it were moderately priced.

I also liked the idea someone posted about having subscribers (I hope I’m remembering correctly); if you can get a good number of subscribers, that should help you out immensely. Also, I’m hoping your discouraging experience at the Farmer’s Market was due only to the earliness of the season and the bad weather that day. If you can hang in there long enough for the “regulars” to recognize you, surely they’ll begin looking for you and buying your products.

I wonder if it would be feasible for you to host a “dinner party” every so often, in which guests would pay for a seat at the table to enjoy your farm’s products and your good cooking. Of course, this only works if you’re a really good cook. 😉 Or if you don’t feel comfortable taking that on, perhaps you could partner with a local chef. You could host a limited-seating-only dinner party on your property, featuring products from your farm as prepared by this chef. Since you would be providing the food and location, perhaps you can find a chef who would be willing to be “paid” with good PR. Or if you can generate enough buzz around the event(s), perhaps you can charge enough to pay the chef as well as repay your own expenses. Either way, the real point is to draw attention to your farm and to the chef, so that investing the expenses up front would eventually pay for itself with new customers. The event doesn’t have to be fancy, or even indoors. It can be a rustic table outside, just make it attractive and delicious. Do this regularly, whether monthly, annually, whatever, so word can spread and people can begin to look forward to it.

And have you considered offering classes or workshops of some sort? Maybe a tour of the farm, or parts of it? I know people who own an organic plant nursery (in a large city); I’ve noticed from their website that they’ve changed directions, and their “market” is now open only a couple of days a week. The other days, they book weddings, showers, birthday parties to be held on their property, in the rustic beauty of their urban farm. They also host “farm school” to teach city kids about permaculture, caring for small livestock (like chickens or rabbits), growing/cooking with various produce, etc. Perhaps you could do something similar, with a farm school on a Saturday morning, or daily for one week, or whatever you set it up to be. You’d be sparking the next generation’s awareness of and enthusiasm for good food, while also generating an additional stream of income. Again, you don’t even have to do this ongoing; just set a time, say one week out of the summer, or one week out of the month during the spring, etc. I’ve also heard of organic farms hosting “interns” who actually pay to come volunteer for a week on the farm; in exchange, they learn about sustainable practices. (See http://www.bluerockstation.com for example.) Of course, there are the upfront costs of providing places for these interns to live during their time on your farm. If you have hotels nearby, that could be an option (with the interns paying for that, of course); and if not, perhaps you could get some friends/neighbors to help you build low-cost sleeping quarters such as straw-bale or cob houses.

Just generating ideas, here, hoping one of them might be helpful. 🙂 I’m hoping you can tweak some of these ideas to make them work for your situation. I agree that most shoppers have no idea how expensive food really is because of the government subsidies to large-scale producers. I believe the winds of change are blowing, but it’s hardest on forerunners like yourself. Which somehow reminds me of Jer. 29:11, so I’ll throw that in for you to ponder on your own. 🙂 Blessings to you! I pray things will go very well for you.

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Andrea June 26, 2013 at 9:43 pm

The problem is when wages are so low that people can’t afford the real cost of real food, government subsidizes cheap junk they call food so people can eat. If you want people to be able to buy real food, then advocate for real wages. I am a single mom with two kids–for years my income was less than $8,000 a year. Yes, I and my son lived on that–less for a while. We are still well below the poverty level. There’s no way I could afford to buy much at the prices you quote. It’s not a matter of priorities, it’s just reality. Have you tried the CSA model?

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LibertyL August 3, 2013 at 9:37 am

it sounds like a good idea in principal, but when the cost of minimum wage goes up, it becomes even more difficult for small businesses to hire people they need, or even to give young people a chance at their first job! As a small sustainable farmer and a small business owner, I have first-hand experience with this.
Better to call for changes to the Farm Bill and the ridiculously bloated subsidy programs that are out there right now. Bureaucrats do NOT know how to be involved in farming and the food system! When subsidies pay out MILLIONS of dollars a year to DEAD farmers, for example, you know there is a huge problem with the entire subsidy program as run by Big Fed.
Get rid of these useless programs, and then there will be more of your tax dollars going to work programs, student employment programs and the like. Don’t hit the pockets of small businesses any more as that is simply not feasible or sustainable.

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Ashley June 30, 2013 at 2:26 pm

Hi Brenda! I’m a real food farmer too and my family and I have made BIG sacrifices too….retirement $, health insurance, and security all in the name of FOOD! Hooray to you! Keep up the good rewarding work! Thank you for saying all this and more!

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Sheree Martin June 30, 2013 at 3:37 pm

I totally get where you’re coming from. I’m in year one of a 5-year plan to make Shine Springs Farm a viable, self-sustaining organic farm that will allow me to pursue farming on a full-time basis. So far, the sales are nowhere near what it takes to support a local, organic farm. I don’t have farm debt and will only pursue what I can pay for out of my current salary and farm income, but I’m barely selling enough to break even. Can’t imagine expanding or buying a tractor.

Trying to figure out how to explain that organic food will pay for itself in long-term savings in healthcare and energy and community self-sufficiency, not to mention all the ecological benefits that come.

I guess (for now) the externalization of costs of industrial food will continue to cloud the reality of our food system.

Best to you at the Well Fed Homestead!

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Piers & Sherrie July 4, 2013 at 2:28 am

Great post Brenda. It certinaly sounds like the regulations and system you have in place over there in the US is somewhat crazy. Good food costs more and we should all push for a more organic and non GMO attitude.

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Sheila July 13, 2013 at 6:09 am

You’re completely right. But you have to remember that all of us are PAYING, through our taxes, for the corn and soy you aren’t using. So when we would like our money to go to you, it’s going to giant farms instead because we don’t have a choice about where our taxes go. The same for health insurance — I am healthy and eat reasonably well; I’d like to go without health insurance but the law doesn’t let me, not even if I have a savings account to pay expenses. I would like for my dollars to go to food, but instead they are going to debt payment and mortgage and so many other expenses, because each dollar is worth less every year as the government prints more.

The economy is really suffering right now, and it’s not your fault OR mine that you can’t make much of a living. I need to call my congressman YET AGAIN about the farm bill. If they would just stay the heck out of it, farmers would be doing better than they are. But there’s so much lobbying power in these giant farms!

At least you are able to eat your own produce, right? That is saving you a lot of money right there, and getting you better food than we can afford. Gene Logsdon (if you haven’t read his books, you definitely should — he has some very good advice about saving money on tractors, too) says that you should count the money you would have spent on food, as income. It may help you feel better about what you are making.

The fact is, though, that starting out with farming is difficult and risky. If the first few years you are below the poverty line, that’s to be expected. We don’t even farm and we were below the poverty line our first few years out of college, trying to live on one income with kids. The life you gave up, the nice car and all that, is more the exception than the rule in this country and this day and age.

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Anonymous September 27, 2013 at 10:34 pm

Try no till gardening and taking a more natural route.

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Stephanie December 24, 2016 at 2:00 pm

I don’t want to come off as judgy or preachy, but I think it really needs to be said: we simply eat way too much meat in this country. Instead of viewing it as the luxury it is, we’ve decided that it’s our God-given right to consume enormous quantities of meat at every meal. The vast majority of us really don’t need the extra calories and could afford to buy better if we indulged less often and/or used meat as more of a flavoring than the main event. There, I said it.

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brenda January 9, 2017 at 1:23 pm

Hi Stephanie, I respect your opinion, but I happen to believe that at least some regular consumption of meat is necessary for humans to thrive. If you look at the poorest countries, where people eat hardly any meat (check out the book What the World Eats), those people are dying of colds, child birth, etc. People who don’t eat any meat typically have more dental issues, an dental disease is a sign of overall health being bad. Many vitamins and minerals are fat soluble and only available in meat.

I agree that, for example, a McDonalds meal of a Big Mac + fries isn’t healthy, and some of that beef should be exchanged for some fresh greens. However–in that type of meal, I don’t think the beef is the biggest culprit for declining health issues–it’s the bun, the fry oil, the preservatives…And people getting full on SO.MANY.CARBS and not eating greens. That’s my 2 cents. Thank yo for weighing in with yours! 🙂

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