Part-timers Do Most of the Farming



​I don’t know how the idea got started that real farmers are full time farmers. We tend to think of part-timers as hobby farmers or beginners who will not be successful until or unless they get to be full time. Lots of part timers think that themselves. They think the advantage of getting bigger is to be free of the off-farm work hassle. But it mostly tain’t so. Even in pioneer days and during the high tide of agrarianism in the generation or two that followed, farmers invariably worked other jobs to bring in a little cash, or had another skill from which to earn money right on the farm. My favorite example I wrote about long ago, and Tim Henslee, one of the responders to this blog, reminded me of it recently. The hero in that story was an Amishman, whom we tend to think of as particularly full-time farmers. But like many Amish farmers, he had another skill, making homemade bent hickory chairs which provided extra income. That enabled him to make a comfortable living on a very small farm, milking only 26 cows, very good ones which brought in extra cash too when he sold their highly prized offspring. He also grew about an acre of strawberries and a plot of tobacco, both high-value cash crops, plus a few hogs and a flock of chickens.

​I know two farmers personally, both deceased now, who made and sold moonshine to help pay for their farms. One of them was my father-in-law. He liked to tell me about how his cows came to the barn one evening very frisky from drinking water from the creek that had seeped through some spent mash he had dumped in a sinkhole. ​

​Even when a farmer inherits his land he often takes on outside work. One of them, a good friend of mine now deceased, inherited, with two sisters, 4000 acres which he farmed all his life with his sons. He also was mayor of our town for awhile, operated a tractor dealership for awhile, and for about the last half of his life, owned and operated a golf course. Since he used his own land for the course, I guess I could say his main crop was golfers.

​Another very extraordinary farmer, a cousin, farms about 8000 acres now. He started out with no land of his own, working the home farm with his father, started a little blacksmith shop in town, then drove trucks for awhile, eventually owned a restaurant, then a motel and finally a stone quarry— all while building up his farming business without any inherited money to speak of.

​Many farmers operate a machinery repair business as an adjunct to their farming. Others sell seed corn, build barns for other farmers, or operate fence building and chemical application services on the side. Many more work in factories. Many, many more have spouses who work in town, mostly for the health insurance that is very high for an independent farmer. Ralph Rice has just published a book about his farming, Cultivating Memories. He also is a timber buyer and butcher plus holding down a town job. He says he is not a writer who farms, but a farmer who writes.

​I do know one farmer who has never worked off the farm where he was born. He is now retired, but in his working days he was first of all a master grower and husbandman. His crops were as perfect as the weather would allow. When his steers went to market, the auctioneer would pause and tell the buyers where they came from. He did not marry until he was in his forties, did not have children, and saved every penny possible from the small salary his father paid and then the relatively small profit from the his relatively few acres (about 200) after he took over the farm. He never had any debt, did not expand, rented his siblings’ shares of the farm until old age, and then bought the whole farm with cash from his savings. Today, with the high price of land, he is an embarrassed millionaire. He never had that in mind. Yet he was not really a full time farmer either. He didn’t work off the farm, but his money sure did.

​The bottom line here is that farming is a biological process that can’t respond well to an artificial industrial economy. The money comes in too slow even with good weather and then overproduction invariably takes away the profit. The solution has always been to have another source of income, even if just a small one.


Guess it gets back to the old saying “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket”That will always be excellent advice no matter what one does.

I’ve long thought that, having a single income stream, be it farming or a desk job or blue-collar, was “fiscal monoculture.”

In the coming hard times, the survivors will be the ones with three jobs — who can survive on any one of them.

cow bones (I have a lot of those) and acid… can you please tell more?

Thank you, I needed to read this. I have chewed on this post and spat out the guilt that I seemed to be harbouring on not being able to make a living out of my own patch of land despite the fact that I fully know about the current economic parameters, that I farm 4.8 acres, that I have only two arms and also two children to finish raising too, that I was never in it or in anything I do for the money. Hang on… make a living, what does that mean actually? Farming does keep me alive, sane, excited, inventive, learning, connected to myself and to mother earth and all the other creatures and organisms I depend on.

Dancinghairwoman you to me are just as much a farmer as the guys with 10,000 acres. It’s not the size of the farm you’re on ,it’s the size of the farm in you! Kind of like the car companies that make 100,000 cheap disposable cars or the one that makes 10,000 ones that will last 10 years.

What a great post. And the comments have been fascinating to read also. We have a small garden and hope to add a greenhouse this year for four season harvesting. Thanks so much Gene and also to all who take the time to comment. I always learn so much.

Oh yes, Beth. During the years I wrote for New Farm magazine, Booker Whatley was one of our favorite heroes, models and teachers. Gene

I feel nothing but awe and respect for every one of you folks that commented. Thanks, to your love of land and beast and downright hard work. Your commitment to long hours of dirty, hard work no matter the weather supports and feeds the rest of us. It’s heartening to know that your love of it satisfies and sustains you and that you feel you have the best of it because you get to do it every day.
For myself on my less than one acre we get what we can out of it and I have a small notion of what you do. Whether it’s fifty or five pigs the shit’s the same if you fall in it and my little garden that feeds us and the few others that frequent our “honor” system extras keep things going. We have to get up and feed the chickens, collect the eggs and take care of business and it’s hard to imagine things any bigger. You can call me small but at the end of the day I feel big and satisfied.
Hats off to you!

Times have surely changed…but I was raised by my ‘full-time’ farmer Grandparents in the mid 60’s and through the 70’s. A typical family dairy farm, we had roughly 30 milk cows and grew most of the feed crops to sustain them. It was a very self-sufficient farm, and my Grandparents were both farmers and nothing more their entire lives. (until their late 70’s)

Aside from all of the cherished skills I have gleaned from them, the greatest lesson was happiness. Joy is not found in things or the latest gadgets. Those things own you. It was knowing you did an honest day’s work, shared any over abundance with friends or neighbors, (which we always had!) and the time to relax at the end of the day to read or ponder, even if it meant sitting outside as the sun set whilst you swatted mosquitoes with a hand towel! We lived among antiques not because they were nostalgic decorations, but because there was no need to replace them. They still were in working condition and that is what we used. No need to drum up more cash to buy newer models.

The current plight of farming is a very distressing one indeed, but we do need to know that farming CAN BE a real and total career (job), if one aligns their head with the understanding life’s bottom line is not measured by money and what unnecessary things it can buy. Farming allows you to feed yourself, a place to live, (often with extended family), and aligns you to the world’s mysteries. What more do we really need?

Dear Gene, as I was reading just the first sentence, I thought it was interesting that over in the old country I never thought of or used the terms ‘homesteader’, ‘full-time farmer’, ‘part-time farmer’. Over there, we labeled folks as country folk and city folk. If you were in the country, you had land, and more or less supported yourself off the land (and your whole extended family that lived in cities!), no matter whether you held other jobs or not. If you had excess, you sold it.
My grandparents lived on their lands and would sell extra produce, but also grandma was a village tailor, so she would get extra income from sewing dresses for the ladies of the village. My grandpa was a village vet, and would get paid or barter with those he helped. Almost everyone in the village had a ‘specialty’ that they were good at and they would use it. Much of it was passed around in the form of barter. Of course, there were no big farms either. Such thing as full-time just did not exist. Farms had grown since then. My uncle runs a largest organic farm in the region, but even still, they also run a specialty cake bakery for extra income.

I guess this essay is why I call what I do homesteading. My homestead’s garden, bees, goats and hens feed me first. I sell a few extra goats and a bit of honey and beeswax, not enough to live on but enough to travel to see the kids once a year. I never count on that extra money, which is a good thing with the way the bees have struggled the past few years.

I was a nurse AND a medical copy editor AND a mother AND a homesteader until I retired (on social security but without a pension because even tho I often worked 2 jobs, I never worked for one employer long enough to accrue one). My homestead allows me the luxury of not working now–it provides most of my food, heating, entertainment, and exercise. I am so very grateful for these 12 acres and the life I have. Homesteading also allows me to be generous with friends and family in sharing extra food and eggs. If I lived in town in an apartment or condo, everything I did would cost money and would not be as satisfying as what I do now. I plan to be buzzard bait before that happens!

Even for younger people who homestead for the love of the lifestyle and the good quality food it brings to the table, providing for so many of their own needs can also buy more freedom and choice in where and how many hours to work if they’re willing to live with less stuff.

Brian, I read the same article. As someone who has just abandoned full time farming for a job in town I should have commented on the original article.
I think a better discussion would be on the idea that in the “old” days an average family could live on a farm and grow up on a farm and live a good life.
My job provided financial planning for me. The planner asked me how much I lived on and he was completely amazed. I am apparently poor.
It appears to me that even Amish people can’t completely make it on subsistence farming in the same way that they did in years gone by.
The article you mentioned didn’t really address this issue.
It is a different way of thinking.
I’m not sure I am really making sense. Just trying to raise this idea which I think Gene touches on.
You can’t live on a farm today with out a cash source of some sort because it is no longer a closed system. You are not going to make superphosphate on the barn floor with cow bones and acid, You have to buy inputs.
Stress levels and frustration levels rise. Saving money is very hard when you are surrounded by wonderful toys and great opportunities.

I’ve been part time farming for years.
We do have a farm but,
I have baled and stacked other people’s hay for years.
For the past decade I have no-tilled thousands of acres for my neighbors.
I have been on just about every piece of land within 15 miles of our home farm.
For the past couple years I have been living off the no-till planting, hay sales, and making non GMO feed for people who are worried about such things.
This fall I got a change to be a groundskeeper at a local private college. This will give my daughter entry to the privileged classes and something for us to argue about when she is in her 20’s.
I am still attempting to farm.
It is nice to have a regular paycheck even though I have found out it is not all that much, insurance, retirement, and free college for my daughter.
I have no idea how this will all work out.
You do what think you need to do. You learn that from farming.

I think Farmer should be considered a state of mind rather than a career goal. Living on your own acreage, however small, where you are familiar with every square foot in all seasons and weather is uniquely satisfying. I think what separates Farmers from people with big back yards is the humbling realization that you really are not in control. A suburbanite with enough fertilizer and herbicide can fool themselves into thinking they have conquered mother nature and forced her to their will. Anyone with enough acreage to have a weedpatch, a wood lot or a boggy lowland has to eventually bow to the inevitability that the tough old bitch will conquer you when you are too old to chop weeds or cut back sprouts. Short of paving the whole place (and even then grass springs up from the cracks), you will not conquer her. You can poison her, degrade her and waste her, but she comes back. When you can accept that, you reach a different philosophical plane and acceptance of your eventual deterioration and death become part of your being. How can you possibly think otherwise, when all around you is decay, death and rebirth?

Look at any “successful” farmer interview in a farm magazine. Most of them are successful because their wife has a $50,000 a year job as a teacher, nurse, or postal worker.

Gene I almost forgot about the other great example. I think his name was Bob Frey? he worked as a mechanic in town and had about 40-50 acres where he farmed with machinery he had fixed up and even made his own tractor with parts from an old one and some junkers. He ran lambs in his corn before harvest to eat the weeds and grasses that love to come along after the corn is too tall to cultivate any more. He sold about a lamb and a hog per acre with mostly homegrown feeds and was in no hurry to get them to market.I remember trying to make my figures like the rest of the guys who make th e magazine covers with the hogs that got to market the fastest or the highest yields reguardless of the cost. Him and your cousin Dave were two other great stories that fascinated me because of the scale of the farms and the techniques used.

I definitly fit that description. having done everything from mowing lawns,loading manure spreaders the old fashioned way. Worked for millionaires, and everyone in between doing it so i could have my own farm. Driven semis, worked on a total confinement hog farm doing everything.Now i am retired and taking care of my parents who are in their 70s all the while buying a small farm and paying it almost all the way off now plus debts i ran up with just one goal in mind. My own little farm to farm as I see fit.I’ve made almost every mistake one can make but am hopefully in the home stretch.It doesnt matter how much I much i farm or what i grow or how much i make. As long as I am content and not starving then i am happy. While I thought I would be farming full time on a much bigger farm , I am reminded that I always loved doing things on a small scale.THe silly childish ego trips and ideas of farming hundreds or thousands of acres and having huge equipment and numbers of animals are gone. I can finally focus on what I enjoy doing at at a scale and speed that i enjoy.I have no control of the world and it’s foolish ideas and sadistic games but I can control myself and be happy.Why handle hundreds of thousands of dollars and get to keep little if any ,while someone else gets rich?I find myself having to keep from having the tail wag the dog.

I guess if you define “making a living” as being able to afford all the latest tech, designer jeans, weekly mall trips and daily lattes, you’re probably better off joining the office rat race. Based on what I see, however, I would submit that there are darned few jobs of any sort these days that will let most folks make that kind of living (and in most cases, that money is spent servicing the debt you accumulate). And I would add, most of them seem pretty soul-destroying. I pointed out to the oldest granddaughter (17, and Nana’s right-hand ranch hand) a while back that our “office” includes wildflowers and rainbows and lambs playing tag instead of phones and cubicles and cranky coworkers. Of course, in fairness, I added, it also includes mosquitoes and mud and hail and pig shit. I’ve done the corporate world, but only to finance my ranch habit. I always worked in health care (now I do consulting and freelance writing), while hubby worked construction, logged, worked as a mechanic and went to the South Pole three years running as a heavy equipment operator, leaving me to manage the place and a 24-mare Quarter Horse breeding operation with a six-year-old kid. If you love it you will find a way.
Gene, do you remember Booker T. Whatley ( Seems to me his precepts are still valid: stay small, build the land, diversify, sell value-added products and build relationships with your customers.

Gene this is one of the best blog posts I’ve read since I don’t know when. Very timely too. I keep reading stuff by young people who are becoming discouraged because they can’t make a “full-time” living farming. Maybe the definition of “making a living” needs to change 😉 ?

Gene, your essay is most timely. Someone just forwarded me an essay about why farmers quit and walk away from their farms. The short answer being, according to this piece, they weren’t able to make all their income from farming so they decided to abandon their homestead for work in the city. Not too dissimilar to what happened in the past but the difference being, this article was mainly about first generation farmers new to the land.

I think one of the problems is, our society is so fixated on money that identity is wholly (and wrongly) tied to how one pays one’s bills. The article even reference’s Wendell Berry’s quote about why farmers farm being that “they must do it for love” and the writer expresses disdain for this fact, saying that a farmer cannot survive simply on love. In my humble opinion, the writer of the essay is sadly off the mark.

Making an income off of farming is a nice perk but it’s not a good reason on its own to farm. There’s value in the immutable. Being greeted by your animals at sunrise when you first walk into the barn. Smelling the freshly tilled earth. Realizing you are closer to a small piece of earth than you ever thought possible.

Many of your readership, I will trust, agree with these sentiments. But it seems that small farming is at a crossroads. Now that a return to the land has begun, are people doing so for what, in my mind at least, are the right reasons? When I see rock star farmers traveling the globe to teach how you too can earn Six Figures Farming for Small Plots (and no, I’m not making this up) I can’t help but fear this teaches the wrong mindset and only sets up 99% for “failure.”

Farming is hard. Farming is dirty. Farming is monetarily a low wage earner. But as Mr. Berry has also said, it depends on affection. I love my farm and my animals and the life it gives me. If it requires a day job or even two, so be it. If things become so dire I needed to give up this farm I currently call home, I would find a smaller one. My point being, I will farm and will do whatever I need to allow me to continue to do so. I know there are many others who feel this way and to me, they are all fine examples of farmers.

Great article Gene.
This year, due to healthcare costs, I had to get a part time off farm job. As all the livestock are out of the fields, in the barn, I only had to modify my daily chores a little.
While the job has been fun at times, and I have good co-workers, I am eager for the weather to change from winter to spring, to get the livestock back out in the fields, transplant the seedlings and more.
I miss the sweat, the dirt, smelling like a gym locker after a full days of work. I miss working from sun up till sun down, eating dinner at 9:30pm. I miss watching the livestock clear a paddock, then moving to the next.
I also look forward to seeing how the previous years efforts improved the land.
Hurry up and get here Spring!

I need to find a additional source of income I can do here on the farm, but my attempts at woodworking have been less than stellar. Probably closer to “What is that supposed to be?”
Still looking.

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