It’s not easy running a family farm in the U.S. these days, and the statistics reflect that. Every week, roughly 330 farmers—including families that have farmed for generations—quit the business. In 1935, there were nearly seven million farms in the U.S.; by 2002, only around two million remained. And family farms that do stay in business have an aging workforce; today more than half of farmers are between the ages of 45 and 64, while only six percent are younger than 35. So what’s it like to run a family farm? And what does it take to keep one afloat? We posed these questions to owners of five long-running farms around the country. While all agree that the natural-foods movement helps business, they are each embracing different strategies for keeping their farms up and running. Two are actively planning for growth and expansion, enlisting other small farms to help grow crops, and thereby helping those farmers keep their way of life. Others are scaling back—or encouraging younger generations to seek other professions. Here are their stories.

Pahl’s Farm (specialty: vegetables and garden plants)

Apple Valley, Minnesota

“Who says we’re successful?” Gary Pahl, 47, says with a laugh, when asked how a fifth-generation family farm like his has succeeded through changing times. “It keeps getting tougher and tougher every year,” he says, growing more serious. “If it were up to me, when it comes time for my kids to take it over, I’d tell them to find another profession.”

In the 20 years that Pahl has been running his sustainable vegetable farm with the help of his brother Brian, he has seen vast changes, most of them for the worse: profits erode, buyers diminish (due to the growth of chain stores), and costs rise, while retail prices stay the same. What about farmers’ markets? They’re not a very big part of the equation, Pahl says. “Most of our business either goes to wholesalers or directly to chain stores.”

When Pahl came to work in the family business after finishing his college degree in agricultural business, he got the message from his parents that if he wanted to take over, he had to come up with a business plan that would generate enough revenue to support all the family members involved in the farm. Eco-friendly practices have been one way of achieving this. “The more sustainable you are, the more competitive you can stay because you aren’t applying as many pesticides and things,” he says, echoing the sentiment of other family farmers who believe that agricultural chemicals are a big expense. Introducing an on-site garden center is another way he’s helped bolster the farm’s income. “It helps to get cash flow earlier in the year, because you can start selling products in the spring while you’re waiting for fall crops to come in,” he explains.

Whatever his yearly revenues, though, Pahl believes that he’ll have to continue working on the farm until he retires. “All of my assets are tied up in it,” he explains. “You really don’t have a choice, unfortunately, because you’ve worked so hard for so many years to build a business that this is where you’re at. You want to see it succeed. My dad’s 73 years old, and he still gets on a tractor and helps out.”

While the whole family is wedded to the business in many ways, nobody has actually lived on the farm for the last few generations, and Pahl feels that is a good thing. “If you live there, you’re going to work 25 hours a day instead of just 20.”

Story by Christy Harrison. This article originally appeared in "Plenty" in April 2007.

Copyright Environ Pres 2007

Also in this series

It's a family farming affair: Minnesota
Behind the scenes of eco-conscious farms.