Is Farming the New ‘It’ Profession?

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Photo: iStockphoto.com

Butchering isn’t the only food-industry profession that’s gotten sexier — a Huffington Post article wonders: “Is Becoming a Farmer the New American Dream?” Author Makenna Goodman points out that “there is a growing number of young people opting out of school altogether, or on the flip side, actually up and leaving the corporate world after years to start farms, collectives, co-operatives, and even communes.” But she's at a loss to explain it: “Some might say it's a passing trend, like flannel shirts in Williamsburg. Some might say it's because there's a dearth of ‘real’ jobs, and farming is a good interim experience until the economy perks up. But perhaps it's something more profound.” Our guess is that, just like butchering, it has something to do with the new focus that restaurants place on purveyors, as well as the media attention well-spoken farmers like Joel Salatin now get via documentaries like Food, Inc. While it has become next to impossible to sell your poetry to a book publisher, much less make your name as a poet, at least you can start a farm and get your name on menus across town! If only it were that easy.

The HuffPo article mentions a “friend who worked at the #1 restaurant in NYC, and now picks squash blossoms in South Royalton, VT,” but for a more sobering view of the state of Vermont farming, check out an article in Gourmet about the closing of a 144-year-old dairy farm in the Northeast Kingdom (one of 33 farms to close in that state this year).

The math is stark. Prices paid to farmers per hundredweight (about twelve gallons) have fallen from nearly $20 a year ago to less than $11 in June. Earlier this month, the Federal government raised the support price by $1.25, but that is only a drop in the proverbial bucket. It costs a farmer about $18 to produce a hundredweight of milk. In Vermont, where I live, that translates to a loss of $100 per cow per month. So far this year, 33 farms have ceased operation in this one tiny state.

Meanwhile, the price you and I pay for milk in the grocery store has stayed about the same. Someone is clearly pocketing the difference. Perhaps that explains why profits at Dean Foods — the nation’s largest processor and shipper of dairy products, with more than 50 regional brands — have skyrocketed.

Before newbies get too excited about the idea of being a “hipster farmer,” they may want to heed Carol Borden, who tells Gourmet: “The reality of farming is that as a parent, even if you’d like to and they want to, you can’t encourage a child to go into something where he won’t be able to earn a decent living.”