The constant struggle of running a family farm in 21st century America
The farm-to-table frenzy has thousands of urbanites trading in their desks for the idylls of agriculture. But that organic utopia is easier dreamed than achieved.
On a sunny fall day in 2005, Kate and Dan Marsiglio pulled their Audi A4 station wagon into the drive at Stony Creek Farmstead, three Tamworth piglets bouncing in the backseat. They had $25,000 and planned to build a second farmhouse on the old 90-acre Catskills dairy where Dan's parents had retired.
In the following weeks, Dan set up pens. Kate phoned livestock and feed suppliers. They jotted down goals, such as "feed 100 people everything they need for a year." The farm would raise organic meats and vegetables. It would become a community center. It would prove the viability of alternatives to feedlots and superstores.
That was eight years ago, when the Marsiglios left emerging careers as schoolteachers for the country life. Today the farm is more or less complete, with 30 cows, 25 sheep, 150 chickens, and four pigs. There's a vegetable garden and a greenhouse. More than 200 families buy products from the harvest each year. The Marsiglios themselves get three-quarters of their meats and vegetables from the farm, and live in the woodstove-heated farmhouse Dan built. In some ways, the farm has delivered the life they envisioned. In others, it's fallen far short.
While slaughtering chickens for five hours straight in the open-air abattoir on an icy December day, Kate felt the crack in her rubber boots but knew there wasn't enough money in her bank account to justify new ones. With the rising cost of animal feed and constant repairs to barns, tractors, electric lines and more, feeding people alone is not enough to make ends meet. About a third of the Marsiglios' income now comes from a summer business hosting "farm stays," rustic vacation packages for city slickers.
"They're a facsimile of a farm community experience," Dan jibed.
Two years ago, Kate was mulling over the compromises of the new venture when a certain Christmas present from Dan brought her to tears. Carefully wrapped in brown paper, it was a copy of The Dirty Life. The memoir of Kristin Kimball, it's about a woman who, deeply in love with a young farmer, leaves her career in New York City to help him realize the dream of building an organic farm. "It's our story," Kate said.
"We never envisioned making a lot of money," Kate said. "Maybe that's part of the problem."
Investing everything in an overgrown old farm, the couple in the book harnesses draft horses and solar power to produce a complete diet of meats, eggs, vegetables, grains, milk, flour, and maple syrup for more than 200 families. The cover depicts a fresh-faced young woman resting easily against a weathered barn, a chicken clasped under one arm and a bountiful basket of vegetables at her feet. Kate could barely bring herself to read about their success. It reminded her of all the things she hadn't done with the farm — including write a book about the struggle and make a dollar from it. But, she said, "it was given with love." She let herself indulge.
The promise of a life lived close to nature and in the service of providing communities with local and organic food has lured an increasing number of American families like the Marsiglios this past decade. More people are committed to eating locally — nationwide, the number of farmers markets jumped from 2,863 in 2000 to 7,175 in 2011 — and more people are training to farm.
"We've seen interest in apprenticeships and our Young Farmers Conference increase by leaps and bounds," said Nena Johnson, director of the Growing Farmers Initiative at Stone Barns Center, a farm education non-profit in Pocantico Hills, New York. The center began hosting an annual conference in 2005 to assess the needs of a burgeoning group of first-time farmers. The 250-seat event has sold out every year since; in 2012, tickets disappeared within 36 hours. Meanwhile, the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program, a federal fund for farmer training projects, helped educate 5,000 people in 2009 and grew to more than 30,000 in 2011. In mainstream food magazines and agricultural journals alike, tales of city kids and hedge fund managers trading suits and ties for overalls have many forecasting a future of yeomanry in America.
To be sure, new farmers remain hopeful that moment will come. But they're also the first to report that in beginning farming, the honeymoon period is brief. It is almost a matter of course that regardless of how mentally and physically prepared a new farmer is for long, sweaty days of toil and winters of debt, farming will deliver more stress and heartache than expected.
"There's a general feeling about the American Gothic picturesque today," mused Michael Duffy, an agricultural economist at Iowa State University. "There's a perception of farmers being the salt-of-the-earth, hardworking individuals, taking care of the world, fixing a bird with a broken wing. It's kind of a romantic notion of a profession. But you either make money farming, you have another income to cover your losses, or you get out."
Running a small, diversified farm has a way of sucking time and money, and no one is more acutely aware of this than Dan and Kate. Disenchanted with the prospect of becoming lifers in their teaching jobs at public schools in Ridgewood, New Jersey, the couple moved — first Kate and then Dan, a year later — to The Meeting School, a boarding school and working Quaker farm in New Hampshire. The campus comprised quaint New England farmhouses, and teachers took turns at daily chores such as milking and cooking as well as lecturing on regular subjects like math and English. Charmed by the wholesome food and community, the Marsiglios figured they could apply their new knowledge to Stony Creek, which Dan's parents had purchased from a retiring dairy farmer in 1985 for $90,000. His parents had looked forward to their own retirement — in the country among charming, but empty, barns and farmyards.
What started with a simple decision, however, quickly grew complicated. Twenty-eight and 30 years old at the outset, the young couple saw the farm as an enormous blank slate. They had money in the bank and time to make errors. Now, however, retirement looms "foggy" in the not-so-distant future, Dan says. They might like to stay on the farm, but so far it doesn't earn enough for them to afford hired hands. They haven't amassed any savings, either, since they've never paid themselves a salary from the farm. It grosses about $40,000 a year and sucks every penny back in. To make a living, Dan takes odd jobs as a carpenter and general contractor; Kate has worked part-time at a local library, on contract for a farmers' nonprofit, and as a healthy-living coach. Time seems in shorter supply now. "We've backed ourselves into a corner," Kate says.
In the beginning, the couple threw themselves with fervor at the difficult terrain. For three years, they schlepped buckets of water up a steep slope to the animal pens. They learned to treat the peculiar illnesses of livestock. One particularly damp season, Kate found maggots covering the whole backside of a sheep hit by flystrike (an infestation of larvae in a living mammal) and combed them out. Another time they let a bull stay overnight in the same pen as the sheep; the next day the bull roamed free, and a very dead sheep was mangled in the broken electric fence. "You never forget those images," Kate says.
Yet through those experiences they acquired stronger knowledge of the land and livestock. They established more efficient patterns of pasture, installed a water pump and started a vegetable share. There was a certain pride in surviving in what was, historically, one of the last settled and most difficult places to farm in New York State.
"The country is hilly and much of the soil is thin, stony and naturally infertile," wrote Ralph Tarr, a Cornell professor of physical geography, in the Bulletin of the American Geographical Society in 1909. "Even with the best agricultural education and the best connections with the markets, it is very doubtful if the American farmer can in large numbers be retained contentedly on the farms of the less desirable and less productive uplands."
Correctly, Tarr anticipated that the future of the area lay in dairying and haying, rather than intensive livestock or crop farming. Through the twentieth century, hundreds of dairy farms prospered around towns like Walton, Oneonta, and Delhi. New York developed one of the largest dairy industries in the country. But that changed.
The last two decades have brought decline. Twenty-seven percent of New York's dairy farms closed between 1998 and 2007, according to a 2010 report by the state comptroller. Half were shuttered in the past 20 years, a phenomenon that reflected rising supply costs, weakening milk prices, increasing land values and aging farmers. Second-home buyers seeking a bargain, rather than farmers, began eyeing the clapboard houses and scenic landscapes of Delaware County.
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