by Lindsay Arbuckle
At a recent farming conference, a farmer from Canada said that when they have conferences where he lives, they talk about how they can copy Vermont. In essence, Vermont is on the cutting edge of small-scale agriculture. Farmers are extending the season in innovative ways, and we have the country’s highest direct sales per capita, meaning that food moves directly from the farmer to the eater with no middlemen.
At lunch that day, a farmer who I greatly admire sat next to me. After we caught up about farm happenings, the conversation meandered to a topic that so often consumes many of us: money. Should Canadians really be trying to copy Vermonters, she posed, with an indeterminable amount of Vermont farmers actually turning a profit? So often at farming conferences and workshops, we share our ideas with each other, but rarely do we talk about the bottom line. Even more of a concern to her was the fact that we all want to weave a story about our idyllic farms, yet people need to hear the truth: that many farmers earn less than minimum wage, and most of us should raise our prices in order to become truly profitable.
I can say with certainty that few farmers in our region are making millions through farming. Many are struggling to end up “in the black” at the end of the year. But many are netting at least a small profit, hopefully enough to pay the bills that come along with a simple lifestyle.
Barely any farmers get into the business for the money, but our lives are made rich in many ways that money can’t buy. Since less than 1% of the U.S. population are farmers today, I thought folks might want a glimpse into a modern small-scale vegetable farmer’s life. Here are some ways that farming has made me rich. I believe many of my farmer friends might relate to these benefits as well.
–We get to work outside and are active every day: As farmers, we spend the majority of our time outdoors, rain or shine. We’re in touch with the weather and the seasons. Even more exciting for a food lover like me, our active lifestyle allows us to partake in life’s pleasures (bacon, farmstead cheese, sourdough bread, endless veggies) with little concern about our waistline.
–We grow our own medicine: Vitamins and minerals that our body needs to perform its myriad biological processes are in the rainbow of vegetables that we grow. Why take a multivitamin when you can get your calcium, selenium, iron and more through locally raised, organic food? On our farm, you’ll also find medicinal herbs like echinacea and calendula. Thomas Edison once wrote, “The doctor of the future will give no medicine but will interest his patients in the care of the human frame, in diet and in the cause and prevention of disease.” We fully believe this and rarely need to see the doctor, let alone take medicines made by pharmaceutical companies.
–We nourish our communities: This Thanksgiving, a friend’s family bought nearly $100 worth of vegetables from us for their holiday dinner. We felt so grateful knowing that their family would be eating our veggies on that special day. This is a feeling we get every week at the farmers’ market when a young mother stops to tell us that her daughters loved our carrots, or when an elderly man tells us about the gardens he had as a child. Whether it’s providing the actual food, or bringing back memories of times past, we feel that we are nourishing our community, and it feels great.
–We teach people how to grow and cook food: It wasn’t that long ago that parsnips were foreign to me and butternut squash came pre-chopped in a bag from Trader Joe’s. Now, I love to cook and to share recipes with customers and friends as much as possible. You can’t beat opening a child’s taste buds to the delights of kale chips or a fresh off the vine tomato. And helping folks to grow their own creates a tangible connection to where their food comes from: a tiny seed goes into the soil, and with proper care, it becomes enough tomatoes for a winter of tomato sauce. We are constantly amazed by this alchemy, and love to share this with people of all ages.
Beyond anything else, our wealth as farmers is in the form of delicious food, which is exciting in itself. I can’t deny that in this day and age, money is a necessity. But Vermont farmers prove that you can be rich in other ways too.
Lindsay Arbuckle & Scott Courcelle own Alchemy Gardens, a farm business growing vegetables and herbs in West Rutland. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Originally published in the Rutland Herald.