Why You Don’t Want to Be a Farmer in America

(Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

(Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

It’s no secret that the local food movement has become more mainstream in recent years. Everywhere you look it seems there is another reverent article about a new, farm-to-table restaurant in which the chef has perfected some amazingly creative feat with kohlrabi or heirloom carrots, golden beets or pasture-raised pork belly. And though buzzwords circling the sustainable agriculture movement abound, “small-scale farmer” is perhaps one of the movement’s most ubiquitous and cherished, while small farmers themselves, it seems, are its most celebrated poster-children.

Yet among all the quaint editorial spreads of lush hillsides, dirt-smudged, grassy-kneed, bright-eyed young farmers and rooftop local food dinners à la Martha Stewart, there is, according to small farmer Bren Smith — whose August op-ed in The New York Times created quite a stir — a darker, gloomier reality hiding beneath the optimism.

Smith is a shellfish and seaweed farmer based on Long Island Sound who says that the reality of farming is often overlooked in favor of the happier, brighter vision of colorful farmers’ market displays, or the manicured gardens at institutions like Stone Barns, a non-profit farm that has been featured in The New York Times several times. “The dirty secret of the food movement is that the much-celebrated small-scale farmer isn’t making a living,” Smith writes. The glamorized vision most consumers have of the modern, small family farm simply isn’t accurate, he opines.

Smith notes that 91% of all farm households rely on multiple sources of income, with most finding it impossible to survive solely on a farming income, meaning that most of those bright-eyed and bushy-tailed farmers’ market vendors are often office drones by day or waitresses on the weekends.