Farming: A Not-For-Profit Enterprise? 


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From GENE LOGSDON

I am just musing now, as in a-muse, not advocating and criticizing. What if the economics of money profit and loss, under capitalism, or socialism, or a monarchy or any other system, doesn’t really work for farming. Maybe growing food is supposed to be a not-for-profit enterprise, a part of our personal duty, like bathing and brushing our teeth. Or a sport like amateur golf done for fun not for money.

The usual reaction among farmers when I bring up this notion is a chorus of snickers and joking agreement that the best to be said for farming is that you die rich so the kids have something to fight over. And there’s more than a little truth in that. So why am I considered supremely naive to just come right out and say that maybe owning land is a good investment and is the only way farming is profitable financially. Even when farms are huge and seemingly sure-fire moneymakers at least some years, they continue to rely heavily on subsidies to make ends meet.

Not-for-profit farming would be based on a different economic model for farmland. “Profit” would come from the satisfaction and enjoyment and recreational value of possessing or owning land, not squeezing it to death for money profit. Then the land and the farmer’s life on it would not be subject to money manipulation and would not need the highest yields or the biggest machinery to survive.  It would just need more not-for-profit food producers.

The major goal for successful farming would not be to reap the highest amount of money from the land but to reap the most pleasure and satisfaction that a farm can provide. For example, the not-for-profit farmer would be content to derive as much enjoyment out of fishing, ice skating, boating, swimming, and bird-watching on his pond that others derive from taking vacation trips to far off lands. Rather than seeing the farm primarily as a place to make money, the non-profit farmer would see it as a refuge from strife. They would then have to make only enough money to pay taxes and cover living costs, the latter being minimal since the farm, correctly managed, can provide many of those costs without cash outlay.  The financial reward would come from the rise in the value of the land both as property and as increasingly fertile soil. The earthworms would get so big they could be used for hamburger instead of beef.

My thinking is that few people look at life in this way because the world of money champions a philosophy of consumption using  extremely clever advertising to convince us that striving for more money to buy more stuff is the only way to happiness. Our cultural attitude helps by suggesting that living in the cheap lane is a mark of sloth, almost immoral. Some religious sects have taught outright that wealth is a sign of God’s blessings. Add to that the ignorance of those who think of farming as dirty, lowly, physically distasteful work. What emerges is a farmer whose goal is money enough to buy big farm machines that eliminate physical work so that he has the time and money to sweat profusely on an exercise machine.

When highest possible profit rules farming, the possession of the land inevitably flows into the hands of the richer people and more and more poor people are dispossessed— forced off or lured off the land. It has happened so regularly in history that it has become almost a commonplace theme of literature. Oliver Goldsmith’s poem, “The Deserted Village,” which is a commentary and condemnation of England’s Enclosure Acts, says it so well. I think I have quoted it here before. Worth doing so again.

“…A time there was, ere England’s griefs began

When every rood of ground maintained its man;

For him, light labor spread her wholesome store,

Just gave what life required but gave no more;

His best companions were innocence and health

And his best riches, ignorance of wealth…”

Today, people thinking about becoming farmers are not poor like the serfs or peasants or sharecroppers of past history who fled to the cities to escape dire poverty and brutal unrewarded work. Today’s new farmers and quite a few of the old ones are well informed and know how to enjoy life without clamoring for highest profits. They have all manner of gadgets to relieve hard labor. They have electricity at the flick of a switch, even their own home-generated power in some cases. They have all the art and entertainment treasures of civilization at the flick of another switch. They know how to enjoy a full life at lower middle class affordability. There is a good chance that they are fathering and mothering a new kind of decentralized, non-industrial agriculture. Actually, as the wave of interest in local farms and artisanal food rises higher and higher, I think maybe this new age has already begun.
~~

25 Comments

Lorenzo Levi Brown June 8, 2015 at 12:17 pm

Its non-profit since small farmers never learned the lesson’s of labor unions and we don’t demand our senators/congressmen etc do what needs to be done to make it profitable.

I have lost 6 of my dry dairy quality hay suppliers in the past 10 years as each fellow at age
80 or so bodies could not take the abuse any longer….

A better suggestion and can be done know is to become a IRS 501c3 exempt organztion
and become a tax exempt organization….has some draw backs, but can be done.

Reading the post, Gene, I’m again reminded of Wendell Berry’s understanding of a small rural town which leads me to his notion of neighborliness. The conclusion I’ve come to is that America needs to be re-ruralized.

However it would happen, I advocate the breaking up of large farm operations into smaller farms that families would own and operate (quarter section?), they would live in a small community of people who supported a localized and rural economy. We lived this way in the U.S. for decades until the advent of the Green Revolution that Berry so eloquently prophesied.

Then, in our neo-rural community, we should live with the understanding that we need to be as good a neighbor to the life in the soil as much as we need to be good neighbors to the family living next door. We must live as good neighbors to ground water as much as we need to live as good neighbors to the widow who had to move to town. We need to be as good a neighbor to area livestock and trees as we are to the ladies of the church bazar.

I’m not talking about forced ruralization we’ve witnessed in socialism or communism. I’m talking about an economic ruralization where people, similar to many of your readers, have taken to homesteads or smallholdings in order to change their lives. In order to produce the food we need in a localized economy of the village or small town, we need a bit of collaboration so we’re not all growing the same cash crops and rotate the burden of producing different foods for the local economy. This is easily handled through a food hub. Wanna trade several dozen eggs for some dairy products? No problem. This nation did this for many generations before the Green Revolution.

I’m in the process of transitioning from living in a metropolitan area of 2 million people to a town of 500 and live on 10 acres of food forest. As you pointed out, there are more like me than many of us think. However, I think a quarter section would be a great size for a family to own and manage as part of a community of people who owned and managed their quarter section piece of ground or smaller.

It is possible. We just have to not think of a macro economy and be content as a community of people to live our lives together as a village or small town and find our joy in that, rather than being focused on the provisions of the metropolitan center.

Can we feed ourselves in this manner and live a comfortable lifestyle? We can if we are all living as neighbors in the Berry understanding. Tens of thousands of us around the world achieve this through permaculture and its three ethics of: Care of Earth, Care of People, Return of Surplus (to Earth and people).

I was a school teacher for many years in an independent Christian school. We certainly worked for reasons other than profit. I loved teaching. Still do. But I have been retired since age 56.

We own a farm, live in a house that many people wouldn’t want, but we have land and the freedom to rent out part of it, raise a few cows, try out new forages, grow vegetables for ourselves and to give away. I enjoy volunteering in my retirement, including trying out new forages that other farmers can’t or won’t try unless, seemingly, there is a grant available.

The best argument I’ve ever heard for being self-employed is the same as for the type of farming you are describing, Gene: freedom. Freedom to “do it right,” free to be curious, freedom to make mistakes, freedom to restore land that has been abused or for environmental diversity, freedom to see that appreciation of our world is a large component of happiness and satisfaction.

Thank you, Gene, for your work.

    I feel you are right on about the freedom,no better feeling than to get up in the morning and be able to do whatever you want that day.No amount of $$$ can beat that!

Of course farming is non-profit; the original object of the exercise was to feed (and often clothe) the family and its animals, not make money. You sold only your excess, and the goal was not to have excess, but to have “enough.” And of course, you saved instead of spending, and took care of the farm that supplied you with your daily bread and bacon. Today, the object of the exercise seems to be to strip the land to bring in money with which you then buy your food — definitely something wrong with that picture!

We formalized what you’re saying, Gene. EcoReality Co-op is a not-for-profit co-op organic farm.

We are willing to pay ourselves for labour — sometimes, as much as $5 per hour! But more likely, a full belly of nutritious food and a warm, dry place to sleep. Unlike a corporation, we do not reward investment.

But the less-traveled road is bumpy and full of potholes, and we could use some help!

One of the first thing to do is get rid of the soft commodity markets. They drive up prices by making profit for people who add nothing to the production of food. Only agriculture has the manufacturer of a product receive the least amount of profit from it..

I love it that you quoted Goldsmith. I think the love that much of the English have for “this emerald set in a silver sea, this England” stems from the idea that land can mean so much more than a profit center. I think part of that attitude came from the aristocracy, believe it or not. Land ownership meant real wealth, and the pleasures of land ownership went far beyond how much crops could be wrung out of it. Between the beauty of landscapes, the excitement of the hunt, the traditions and ceremonies associated with the land, many of them hundreds, if not thousands of years old and the rootedness of families who lived on the land of their ancestors, the English attitude toward land ownership is only approached here in America by some of the Southerners and New Englanders. We pull up stakes and move too much here, for the most part. The New Homesteaders are trying to build that ethic toward the land however, and I hope they succeed.

I love you Gene Logsdon. And I also feel that I have lived my life in this way. Even working for someone else, minimum wage (with the right attitude from the worker) doesn’t buy you much, and I don’t mean shoddy work. I mean the ability to require me to compromise my morality, or to be a serf, or to modify my opinion to the benefit of my employer. Rather, I do what I do because I love to do it, or I love who I do it for.

Gene, thank you for this strong article. It really resonates with how I feel. Please keep on musing!

Your blog touches on the very clear problem we have in modern society, that of basing all value on money rather than the far more rewarding non- monetarized things like personal fulfillment, spiritual happiness and rewarding connections to nature and the land. The difference between knowing the cost of everything but the value of nothing. You write:

“Profit” would come from the satisfaction and enjoyment and recreational value of possessing or owning land, not squeezing it to death for money profit.’

I wonder whether it is possible to calculate the monetary value of such intangible rewards of satisfaction, enjoyment, recreational rewards to get to a profit figure? Whether it is possible to take into account the saved costs of not living the materialistic life?; How much money saved from not having to go on frequent weekend breaks and exotic holidays to get away from the miseries of modern living and to search for some meaning in life?, how much money saved by not having to go recreational shopping till you drop to get some short kick gratification from the life we live?, how much money saved on not spending lavishly on expensive meals in restaurants to feel some reward for the grinding stressful labour of modern work and urban living? etc. If the intangible spiritual values could be adequately measured in monetary terms for all people and wasteful materialistic spending taken into account, I’m sure it would support your contention that it would be the farmer who would come out the richest. It would be interesting to see a monetary figure for this calculated in a balance sheet not because I need convincing but for others not living the life you describe to see the error in their presumptions; I’m sure he who is assumed to have least (the farmer/ small holder) will be shown to have most.

I believe this because I know from personal experience that people connected to their land, their farm, their farm animals, their natural surroundings have the spiritual wealth and fulfilling satisfaction of life that means they don’t need to participate in such frivolous and wasteful activities listed above. They would come out high on real wealth (spiritual + money not wastefully spent for scant spiritual reward). I’ve lived the materialistic life and I for the last 10 years I have lived a life connected to the land, farm animals and rural community I live in. I know I can never return to my former life. I have found myself and I have found a life worth living. That’s the gift of land, small scale farming and connection with the natural world and local community. And that is why I fully agree with the sentiments your article expresses.

I believe there is a clear conspiracy or policy to keep food cheap in this country. The idea is that the less of a percentage of income average people have to spend to feed themselves or take care of the core basic needs in life, the more they have to spend on unnecessary useless stuff or consumer goods. This is exactly why I switched from food production to fiber production. At least logs and lumber have a larger window of marketability and I can get a pay check weekly for raw logs delivered. It also gives me a theater of operation that allows the horses to demonstrate and display their superior capacity as the ultimate low impact extraction power. I also don’t have to give my produce away because I can’t sell it at the farmer’s market when it all comes in at the same time and retail sales don’t allow that flexibility of supply and demand. It only took a few loads of sweet corn and bushels of apples being stolen from me by wholesalers with cold storage to stop that practice. Organic didn’t matter 20 years ago, the demand was so small that I couldn’t sell it regardless of production practices.

Meanwhile people mostly eat processed foods laced with magic by products like high fruituse corn syrup that makes them fat and constantly hungry at the same time, while they set on the couch and watch mindless, consumer inducing TV and wonder why so many are dying of cancer and other physically and mentally debilitating diseases.

The point of a not for profit is to provide services or education that is deemed for the “public good” that are not being provided by the government. That’s why they can compete with the government for revenue by giving tax deductions for donations. In that regard it’s a great thing about this country, the problem is I’m not an enthusiastic grant writer or good beggar. I operate a tiny 501c3 for exactly that “public good” purpose, see: http://healingharvestforestfoundation.org

Now I’ll get down off the stump I just made from cutting a “worst first” tree and go enjoy my garden worked with my horses, my hands and family. Gene, you’re a good’un!

    The area has a lot to do with direct marketing farm products.Here around Charlottesville VA direct marketing is doing well even a paper is published that lists the numerous farmers markets in Central VA as well as a listing of farms that sell directly to consumers.Its a business that grows every year and the farmers markets are packed with vendors and customers.Joel Salatin is just over the Blue Ridge and his operation is sort of the Gold Standard for those directly selling to the public.My wife took a Honey Bee course a couple years ago and it filled up about 2 months in advance, lots of changes in the last few years.
    Also there is a big Heirloom Food Festival up at Monticello every Fall with a really good turnout.

Great post. It reminded me of the Russian Datcha – It was estimated that in 1995 about 50% of Russian families living in large cities have dachas – basically a second home most people would have, not because they were rich, but because they needed escape from the city, or later on were cramped into Soviet apartments, so the gardens were on the outskirts of the cities, we would have a cottage there, and a garden, maybe some chickens. Not a full scale farm, but also not a money making enterprise, just for escape, to supplement family’s food, to enjoy, we would go there for vacation, we would have parties there.

And the little plots of gardens are becoming really popular here for people who live in apartments, we drove by a farm recently that rents plots and they were all taken.

And I am reading a new book by Barry Estabrook “Pig Tales”, horrors of modern pig farming…

    It seems like we read the same blogs BeeHappee. There is a researcher from Czechia, Petr Jehlicka, who has been writing about those type of gardens you mention and how they are still used today in many former Soviet countries. Of course his work is academic, but if you skip the methodology bits they are quite interesting (if you are not interested in the academic side of things that is). He writes open articles, so anyone can read them on http://oro.open.ac.uk/view/person/pj586.html

      Joanna, thank you, that is a very interesting resource, I will save the link. Thank you for sharing.
      Yes, we still have the small plots in Lithuania, that is where my parents grew and grow most of their food. My dad was always angry about the set up, he said Soviet did it on purpose, to keep the people busy running about so they have no time to complain about the government. We had Soviet apartment, then in a different part of town we had soviet garage for the car, then in the third part of town we had the garden plot. It made no sense logistically.
      In Russia though, having the country house is a deep entrenched cultural thing, it is so much more for the soul than it is for the practicality.

      That certainly came across very strongly by one young lady who did a presentation on that subject at a conference I attended.

Gary Burnett, you are my kind of farmer. As I write this, I am watching a graceful white tail deer mama going out to check on her fawn (we know it is there in our high grass). We farm, not for money, but for the intangible riches such as this one.

I do the market stall thing selling pineapples, heirloom tomatoes and whatever is seasonal. It galls me that a significant number of people think that it is reasonable to haggle with me and value my efforts so lowly. They want a two and a half kilogram pineapple for two dollars – 80 cents a kilo. They would pay five dollars for the same pineapple in the major retail chains.

The median wage in Australia is something in the order of $22-24 an hour. So the median wage earner believes that he or she has to work for 5-6 minutes in order to acquire a pineapple that was picked the day before and transported almost directly to their door – as opposed to the major retailers whose pineapple was picked, went to the packhouse, was transported to the distribution point, transported to the retail outlet and several days later was available to the consumer at twice the price that some market stall consumers felt it appropriate to pay.

In regards to the subsidies for landholders with farm assets worth over a million dollars. As it happens I receive no subsidies, but my modest landholding of 65 acres is worth well over a million dollars and my yield on that is zero if I value my labour at $20 per hour. If I put a yield on the farm of a modest 2 percent then I am working for the love of it.

Actually I did receive a subsidy – but not from the government. My dear departed Dad gave me a huge leg up into purchasing my farm – but I in turn want to pass the farm on to my children. If they have any sense they will cash it in as soon as they can.

In reading this it seems that I am embittered by farming. That is not true. There is a sense of accomplishment in producing good quality produce. But I guess the modern lament is that farmers really are undervalued, almost thought of as second class citizens, in modern society.

A somewhat contrary idea from a noted contrarian agrarian. The “small” farmers whom I know do not receive government monetary subsidies but do make use of Extension and other knowledge based offerings. They have put children through college and live a comfortable life. Hard work and keeping their customers happy still works. They are also proud of the quality of their soils.

The mega farms are the rural equivalent of the office cubical. Physical slavery has been replaced with debt slavery and it has ensnared not just our city office drones but a large number of America’s ag operations. To keep up the “get big or get out ” farm model it means borrowing two dollars to earn one. The only winners in the long run are the bankers. It has been that way since English investors sent people to settle Jamestown.

The joys of rural life are there for anyone who is willing to work diligently at growing food and even more diligently to observe all of the wonders Nature provides on the other side of the garden fence.

Time to go fetch some strawberries and asparagus from that magic space!

Actually in my opinion the Gov’t subsidies have taken the profit out of farming.If all Gov’t subsidies were done away with almost all the big mega farms would collapse under their own weight because there is no joy on those farms just miserable animals and underpaid miserable workers.
I guess my place is a combination of homesteading and for profit farming and I get a lot of satisfaction from both of course my farming part is a far cry from the typical industrial farm.
Animals pretty much do what they want and some of my favorites should have gone to market long ago but I just enjoy having them around.I let fence rows and edge of fields grow up with weeds,bushes,honeysuckle etc because I like to see the birds and other wildlife doing what they do that’s my pay back beats a $20 movie anytime.Best entertainment this year has been around the patch of sweet yellow clover I planted for my wife’s honeybees never knew there were so many different kids of bees and the rabbits love it for the cover.An old wild turkey visits each day when she gets off her nest.Life is good.

Great post, Gene. The economics of farming is so crazy and so unforgiving that without massive federal subsidies we DO have nonprofit farming already! Your idea makes too much sense to become policy—but that’s not to say that the legion of part-timers cannot take heed and comfort in your words.

Yep, a satisfying life and a whole lot more profitable and interesting than playing golf with as much or more exercise.

I think that kind of farming is also called “modern homesteading”! Lots of people, like me, have small acreages that we “farm” just to be a little more self-sustaining and for the pure enjoyment of it. I sell a little honey and a few goats each year and grow most of my own food. I have no debt and simple needs but still couldn’t make it without a bit of savings and a social security check!

As I was grubbing around in the garden this morning, weeding and cussing rabbits and voles, I wondered how market gardeners do it! My organic garden is very labor intensive and I think the fun might just go away if I had to produce for others–and I know it wouldn’t pay much. I save a lot of money by gardening and eating seasonally–but saving money and making money are two different things. A homestead may help you save money even if it doesn’t always make money, and it provides endless enjoyable ways to occupy your days. A lot of people seem to be taking it up these days. I wonder if any of them are making it profitable?

Oh, the idea of working for the good of all is a noble one. I am reminded of the 60’s TV show Star Trek where earthlings did away with money and everyone worked for the betterment of mankind. Where the pursuit of knowledge was at the core of ones existence.

I am also reminded of why that does not work too well. Governments would have to make the job of farming non-profit much as Russia did in the days of collective farms. They almost starved to death because nobody had the ability to “get ahead”. In my opinion people need to feel they can get ahead by working hard.

I am not opposed to subsidies, I just think anyone with a net worth of $1,000,000 or more should be exempt from subsidies (I know that would be most everyone in established mainstream Ag). Let the subsidies help the small farmer who is not established or at the least exempt the smaller farmer from many of the regulations that force farmers to get bigger.

I heard a story on the radio this morning where computers will not only drive us around in the future but will work our farms relieving millions from menial labor. Just think one farmer per county with an army of robots to plant, spray, harvest, and transport corn and soybeans. I only hope they are wrong.

Right on, Gene!

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