From boardroom to barnyard: Why most American farmers farm part-time

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America is a nation of part-time farmers. According to the U.S. Census of Agriculture, over 52 percent of farmers have a primary occupation other than farming. Sixty-one percent worked some days off the farm (NASS USDA, 2012).

Part-time farming doesn’t mean farming fewer than 40 hours a week. It means putting in long, hard hours of farm labor around 9-to-5 jobs. For many of us, it means getting up extra early to do chores before work, and heading back to the barn after a day at the office.

Part-time farming is challenging but offers big benefits, especially for young farmers beginning a farm business. It boosts household income, provides access to health and life insurance and offers economic stability. Off-farm income looks good to lenders, and can help new farmers finance a farm. It gives new farmers an opportunity to learn from mistakes as they grow their operation. Part-time farmers bring specialized skills and knowledge to other career fields like education, sales and maintenance.

Farming part-time isn’t for everyone. Limited time, reduced access to markets, stress, poor performance and lack of commitment make it tough to run a profitable farm business on the side. Here are lessons learned from my personal experience and the experience of part-time farmer friends.

Why part-time farming works

Boosts household income. Many farmers operate at a loss, or minimal profit — 1.5 million American farmers have agricultural sales less than $50,000 annually; 1.2 million farmers have agricultural sales less than $10,000. Only 46 percent of farmers had a positive net cash income in 2012 (Census of Agriculture, NASS USDA).

Off-farm employment helps farmers provide for their family and still practice their passion for farming. A farmer friend agreed, “I want to raise my children on a farm, even if it means working double duty.”

Health coverage and life insurance. Farming and ranching are dangerous jobs. Working with large animals and heavy equipment in physically challenging environments makes good coverage critically important for farmers and their families.

Off-farm employment can provide access to healthcare and other benefits at a reasonable rate. Many full-time farmers have a spouse that works in town to provide the family with health coverage and insurance.

Economic stability. Prices fluctuate from year to year, resulting in unstable farm income. Farmers have difficulty making sound financial decisions, such as investing in growth with new equipment or land, based on volatile markets. Income from off-farm employment offers farmers a degree of certainty and financial security to help grow their operations with less risk.

Financing a farm. Young beginning farmers have trouble securing financing for land and equipment. Many Ag lenders require a 20 to 30 percent down payment to purchase farmland. Most young beginning farmers don’t have that kind of cash on-hand. They also don’t have assets, equity or collateral to encourage lenders to invest. Off-farm income can be used to make a down-payment on a farm, and serve as operating income the first few years of start-up.

Learn from mistakes and grow. Off-farm income allows new farmers to make mistakes and learn as they grow. In the five years I have been farming, I’ve pivoted my business multiple times as I’ve found more profitable niches and better markets. Off-farm income gave me the flexibility to fail and adapt without going out of business. Off-farm income has helped me bounce back from unexpected problems like livestock deaths, crop losses and expensive equipment repairs.

Complementing occupations. Part-time farmers bring specialized knowledge and skills to other career fields. Part-time farmers are Ag teachers, Extension educators, machinery salesmen and maintenance technicians. They work for Farm Credit, Farm Bureau and other Ag friendly organizations. They have keen insight into what it takes to run a farm business. They establish strong relationships within the agricultural community that benefits their work on- and off-farm.

Why part-time farming doesn’t work

Limited time. There are only 24 hours in a day; each hour spent working off-farm is one less hour a farmer can spend building the farm business. “It’s especially challenging during the summer,” a part-time vegetable grower told me, “I lose a lot of sleep picking and packing produce.”

Reduced access to markets. Working a 9-to-5 job during the week limits marketing opportunities. Weekday farmers’ markets are out of the question. Farm to school is also a problem. Restaurants and wholesalers make food purchases and accept deliveries during normal business hours. Livestock auction barns operate on weekdays.

Stress. Farming part-time alongside off-farm employment leaves farmers with little time for family or leisure. Farmers struggle to keep up with changing regulations, required food safety and applicator certifications and licensure. They worry about falling prices and revenue. Livestock diseases, biosecurity and other health issues are cause for concern. All this in addition to off-farm job stress is more than many farmers can handle.

Poor performance. Off-farm income provides a safety net that allows poor performance. If I don’t meet production and sales goals I can still make my tractor payment and keep the roof over my head. Without a safety net of off-farm income I might take bigger risks, hustle harder and innovate more on the farm.

Lack of commitment. As a part-time farmer I constantly struggle to commit myself 100 percent to my farm and 100 percent to my career. When something has got to give it is always the farm because my job in town generates more income.

Some people are naturally better at managing multiple commitments. Others find they need to focus on one thing to push it to full potential. A farm friend told me, “I’m all in or all out. I left my job in town to farm full-time because it was the only way I’d truly commit to making my dream a reality.”

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