Family Farms: The Good, the Bad, and the Hopeful

Nathan and Simone Brett inspecting pumpkin seedlings. Photo by me.

Nathan and Simone Brett inspecting pumpkin seedlings. Photo by me.

UPDATED: This post has been updated with an added response at the end.

Crop Stories: Winter Squash, the second issue of our food and farming zine, becomes an officially tangible thing as of this week. It is being birthed into print, all glossy and full-color, and I really, really, mean it this time.

As I've explained before, we tell a rather in-depth farmer story in each issue, in addition to all the recipes and ag knowledge we deliver. Our focus this time around was the Brett family of DaySpring Farms, a group of newish farmers comprised of a spiritual and steadfast aging father figure, the eldest scion, his wife, and guest appearances by the rest of the progeny. Their farm is beautiful, and their dedication unquestioned. But given the rather difficult business that is farming, one can't help but worry.

Murray Brett, father of the farming Brett board. Photo by me.

Murray Brett, father of the farming Brett board. Photo by me.

Here's a little nugget of my writing from the zine that touches on the trouble of family farming:

"I often say that I'm a pretty good gardener, but I'm not a good farmer yet," Nathan said. "The difference is a gardener is able to tend crops well; a farmer is able to run a business well. That's where most of the change and growth for me personally as a business operator has come. It's to be a better farmer, a better steward of the resources available to me and to make the absolute most out of the least. That's a philosophy we have carried through."

This philosophy, though, carries with it much sacrifice.

Simone and Nathan live above the packing house. They never leave, or so they say, and that space will be a little more cramped once the baby arrives in November. Soon they'll build a small house somewhere on their acreage. They wake up and see farm. They go to sleep with the farm in their dreams. Nathan estimates there are 250 days straight during which farming is the one and only task. Nothing else. But despite this typical farmer devotion, success is always one season away. Nathan said they've turned a corner, but stresses still loom, mostly in the form of loan payments.

"We are at the end of our financial tether. We've borrowed to the max of what we can borrow. We're at the point where things have to turn around or we'll have to reevaluate some things. If for some reason this doesn't work, we are going to find a way to do something similar. We believe there is value and worth to living sustainably, living a life that you do something that is productive."

The pressure is palpable, but Nathan is confident: "We wouldn't get into this as involved as we are if we didn't think we could make it."

And there's this little bit, too:

Working hard as kids steeled the Brett children for the present hard work of farming, especially the interpersonal problems.

"With all the challenges that it presents, parents and children working side by side with each other is an incredibly rare and extremely healthy thing for development and growth," Nathan said. "This is even more important to us as we expect our first child."

Adds Murray,"When we have a conflict, we get reflective and we move forward."

I'm reminded of this after spending an evening with the eldest generation of a Western family farm, one that experienced a family-member suicide that was directly related to the business. The family wondered, not necessarily seriously, if I'd come and write about their family and its struggle. Whether or not they meant it, I'm really considering it as my next long project. What I did point them to was this interesting Fast Company article that was circulated among the more social media-savvy farming community about two weeks ago when it went live. It's rather brutal, and here are some choice paragraphs:

"I’m sure he thinks his dad let him down for selling out, and maybe it is my fault," Tony says, pedaling the shag carpet in front of his recliner. "But I’d like to cock him one too."

When I ask Tony what advice he might have for other dairy farmers in business with their kids, he aims his fingers at his head like a pistol and shoots.

It’s a gesture loaded with the frustration felt in many family businesses. Roughly 30% of American firms are family-owned, including top companies like Walmart, Mars, Inc. and Cargill. As parents reach retirement the transition of control and property to their children is so notoriously difficult that some families now call in professional "succession planners" to help avoid an all-out war. In family businesses across the country, it’s not uncommon for children to sue parents or for parents to write children out of the will.

In the Azevedos’s case, the pressures of a historic drought and a dairy industry dominated by much larger players quickened the drama between father and son. But the bitterness they hold for each other is nothing if not personal. As Adam Azevedo tells me when I meet him, "The thing with a family farm is you can’t fire people or get the best guys to work for you. Family farms are only great if you have the farm paid for and you’re the one in charge."

"Those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God," 

Thomas Jefferson once wrote . And so began the mythologizing of the American family farm. If Europe was ruled by feudal estates, then America was a democracy of farms. It was here that a couple and their children could make their way on their own piece of earth. It was here that the family farmer watched over his own destiny. Even today, advocacy groups like Farm Aid call independent family farmers the "pillars of their communities."

Almost all American farms are still owned by families and slightly fewer, 87%, rely primarily on family labor. But family firms dominate other sectors too, like construction,manufacturing, and automobiles.

"Run well, family businesses can be some of the best," says Ted Clark of the Northeastern University Center for Family Businesses. "They invest for the long haul, offer long-term employment, and contribute to their communities." Clark points out that families often succeed in industries with high capital costs and low-profit margins (e.g., grocery stores and hotels). They can be more patient with profits and pay off expenses, like land, in the first generation.

I don't bring these things up to cast doubt on the continued success and highly possible growth of DaySpring Farms. The Bretts have become friends of sorts and I only wish them well. These thoughts are only to further bolster the importance of the work farmers do, their struggle, and the great need, felt at least by the Crop Stories crew and I, to keep highlighting the lives of farmers. 

In other news, get your copies of Crop Stories here

UPDATE: I received this tweet on Tuesday morning from South Georgia pastured poultry farmer Brandon Chonko in response to this post. I think it gets at something quickly that I'm really working to expand on.

Part of my journalistic interest in writing and editing Crop Stories, other than the pure fun of recipe testing and food photography, is getting detailed and honest about the lives of farmers. It's something we've done somewhat over two issue, and I'm certain we'll go further in the future. When Chonko says too many people think that everyone can farm, he's very right. Even those who spend their money with small farmers aren't totally aware of the risk, debt and struggle that each head of broccoli or pastured chicken requires. I used to work on a farm, and have definitely considered farming as a profession, but then I was all like, NOPE. (<-- that's an older post you might like if you're into this one.) 

I think Crop Stories is getting at that truth, little by little, without the sort of editorializing I'm bonking you over the head with here. Respect farmers, pay a fair price for your food. Maybe ask why that kale costs what it does. Ask the same question of your supermarket.