Farm Fresh Perpectives: Why bother farming?

“Why would you want to farm? Go out and get a real job.” So many potential farmers have heard this at some point in their lives, whether it was at age 5 or at age 25. It’s hard to tell how many of them were talked out of farming and persuaded to pursue other things by the same people who uttered this phrase.

I recently gave a Career Day presentation about the opportunities in organic farming to several groups of middle school-aged kids in Kendall County, Illinois. Out of 60-plus kids, I only encountered one who was seriously considering farming as a career and a lifestyle. Still, I guess I should be encouraged, because even one out of 60 isn’t bad, considering there are nearly 300 million people in the United States, and, according to the 2002 U.S. Census of Agriculture, only 1.2 million of those consider farming their primary occupation.

Nonetheless, there is certainly room for growth; enrollment in new farmer training programs in a number of government and non-profit agencies is on the rise. People need to know that the decision to farm is not one to be arrived at lightly, but that there are still perfectly good reasons to choose farming as a vocation and a lifestyle.

People who know little about farming and people who know a lot about farming both understand it is a hard life in that farmers work long hours outdoors, no matter what the conditions, and only a fraction of them get much of a chance for time off. It takes a huge amount of responsibility and diligence to keep crops and livestock alive and healthy, let alone flourishing and profitable. And even when all of the requisite steps are taken and obligations met, a farmer can still lose his shirt with an ill-timed flood, hail storm, drought or pestilence. Barring any such natural disasters, low commodity market prices can still make even a large harvest feel like a break-even proposition.

There is rarely such a thing as an “average” growing season as far as Mother Nature and the Board of Trade are concerned, so farmers must weather these ebbs and flows of productivity and profitability with the resolve to try it all over again the next year, tweaking their system as they gain experience and keeping their heads above water. And farming is generally not going to make a person rich, at least not in the monetary sense.

All of these are risks few folks in this day and age are willing to take. Yet, those who know of these risks and still feel drawn to the life take to agriculture like a calling. They are able to look beyond the uncertainty and see fulfillment in the work and in the lifestyle. Farmers have the luxury to live a peaceful, rural life in close communion with the land that sustains them and in stewardship of the resources that we all share.

Farmers gain a vast array of skill sets in their work; they must be competent in biology, botany, genetics, reproductive physiology, chemistry, mechanics, accounting, finance and marketing, making them some of our country’s most talented labor.

Farmers get to be their own bosses, with few but themselves and their partners to oversee or criticize their work. But there is great responsibility with such independence, considering that failures cannot be blamed on anyone else.

Farmers perform manual labor that helps keep them sturdy, physically resilient and sleeping soundly at night. Hopefully, the knowledge they are maintaining a centuries-old tradition and contributing to the food security of their families, their region and our country helps them to sleep a little better, too.

And, in addition to plants and animals, farmers get to raise their families in a setting where their children play freely, learn a strong work ethic, and are separated from many negative influences. Farmers and their families live the connection to the countryside for which so many people can only wish; not everybody gets it, but not everybody has to.

I am not overly concerned about a mass exodus from the farming lifestyle at this point in time; the number of farmers in America has not dropped precipitously over the last few decades, but has probably even grown a bit since the late 1980s and early 1990s. Still, I think we need to stop discouraging those few who have a natural inclination toward this difficult, yet rewarding vocation.

The age of the average American farmer continues to increase, so we are going to need an infusion of strong backs and open minds open to pursuing some of the valuable new niche and specialty markets that have grown around alternative enterprises.

So the next time you encounter someone who knows the risks of farming, but can only really see the riches the lifestyle has to offer, wish them well in the hopes their ambitions will result in an even more profitable, beautiful and sustainable food future for us all.

Andy Larson works with the Initiative for the Development of Entrepreneurs in Agriculture in University of Illinois Extension. He can be reached at (815) 397-7714 or

From the June 14-20, 2006, issue

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