If you asked me whether you should become a farmer, on my worst days, I might tell you “no.”
Or, first, I might ask several questions:
- Do you know what products you will sell?
- Do you have access to land and equipment? If not, do you have access to money to purchase or lease these things?
- Do you have the knowledge to grow food and nurture your soil? If not, do you have access to gaining more knowledge?
- Do you know how to start a business, run a business, handle bookkeeping, market your business, and find and build relationships with customers?
- Do you have a mission and a vision for why you want to sell food? Do you have a story to tell?
- Do you know who you’re competing against and what makes your product special?
- Do you have access to markets? Do you even know what markets are available?
- Do you have access to processing and distribution operations to get your food into these markets?
- Are there local, state, and federal regulations in place to help you? To hinder you? To, at the very least, offer you a fair playing field?
- Do you understand food safety and how it affects your farm?
- Do you understand farm law and liabilities?
- Do you have money to learn about the things you don’t know?
- If not, do you know how to write grant applications or apply for loans to help you establish and grow your business?
I might also ask:
- Do you have time for all of this? Or do you need to also keep a full-time job while you figure this all out?
My experiences have taught me well about these issues. I served as an editor for a farm publication for five years, and, in this position, I assigned and edited stories monthly that outlined the many barriers to entry facing new and beginning farmers today. For years, I also attended conferences, completed online coursework, and sat through workshops around the Midwest. I earned certificates and took on new titles. I even became a trainer. I have written educational materials, presented webinars, participated in panel discussions, and organized events.
As I explained to a few fellow farmers recently, I now know enough about our food system to be dangerous. Or to not be dangerous, depending on how you look at it.
My husband and I started our own small farm, Dugger Family Farm, in Morristown, Indiana, some years back, and we have learned first-hand all that it takes to build out a diversified operation. Going into it, I was ahead of the curve. I had the knowledge I’d gained from my work and training to guide us. We also had another advantage: My husband knows how to fix or build anything we might need on the farm. But, still, it was—and is—difficult. What we plan to do here changes regularly. Finances, regulations, policy, and our time and energy make sure of it.
Off the farm, my work as the media and outreach director for Indiana Farmers Union and as an agriculture advisory council member and rural affairs consultant for The Humane Society of the United States has taught me about the many policies—on local, state, and federal levels—that govern our food justice (our right to grow, harvest, sell, and consume healthy food). There is much to be thankful for here in the United States. There is also much that needs our immediate attention.
Because of this work, I now know what it means to feed my body—and to feed others—well. I understand what it means to be a good neighbor, in the agricultural sense. I am cognizant of animal welfare issues, of environmental issues, of food access issues, and of how our current dominant food production systems negatively impact the health and vitality of our rural communities. These have been life lessons, which I have humbly and gratefully accepted.
So, on my worst days, I might tell you not to become a farmer. “It is too difficult,” I will reason. I will explain to you why my husband and I have made the decision to focus less on building out our farm and more on digging into farm and local food system advocacy … because it feels like we can effect more change by working off the farm than on it.
But today is not the day for me to advise you against becoming a local producer of food. If you were to ask, I would tell you that you absolutely must become a farmer. The challenges are many. The reasons not to seem to forever multiply. But the American food system is in trouble. Our land, our water, our air, our animals, and our pollinators are in trouble. These are problems we cannot ignore.
The current policies and food systems that favor agribusiness and international interests over the welfare of our lands, our people, and our animals have left this country’s food security, and, indeed, its national security at risk. Never before has it been so important to rebuild local economies and food systems by bringing fresh faces and sustainable practices to the frontlines. As soldiers have fought for this country’s freedoms for centuries, we now must see family farmers for what they truly are: as soldiers fighting for America’s food justice.