Sometimes I’m asked, “Is farming profitable?” Whenever I’m asked this question I have to respond with, “What do you mean by profitable? As in, do I make a lot of money?”  The answer is no: Farming is not profitable from a monetary standpoint. No one, not even the best farmers in America make nearly as much money from farming as they could in other careers. But at the same time, if a farmer didn’t farm, no one from the hedge fund managers to the president to Joe the plumber would be very well off. 

Farming as a profession should be compared more to motherhood. It is an essential thing but cannot be properly placed within the money economy. The contrary farmer Gene Logsdon explains it this way, “The way money grows is not the way plants, animals, and humans grow. Corn or sheep grow at their own sweet rate, whether interest rates are three percent or 15 percent…The demands of exponential money growth are lethal to a pastoral economy.”

Even if farming can’t return 15 percent, it still has the potential, as Thomas Jefferson once wrote, to be a truly productive and profitable enterprise because farming can actually produce more than it consumes. A seed can become a plant, two sheep can become ten. When done well, there is no waste from the process. The grass that fed the sheep is restored and the soil that grew the plant is built up. What can be more profitable than that? 

Wendell Berry makes this point well in describing the Branch family in his novel Hannah Coulter:

“If I had ‘venture capital’ to invest, I think I would invest it in the Branches…They survive and go on because they…produce more than they consume…A junkyard is a gold mine to them…It doesn’t seem to bother them that while they are making crops and meat and timber, other people are making only money that they sometimes don’t even work for.”

The Branches exemplify a different kind of profitability—a kind of profitability that relies on resourcefulness, thrift, and creativity. That is the kind of profitability that farming can provide. The mistake is to try to make farming profitable in the same way the money economy is. We have been trying that for many years and it has resulted in huge subsidies, mounds of debt, and a commodity system of agriculture that cannot change because it is too debt-ridden to take risks. 

Many traditional agricultural communities, like those of the Amish, have tended to do well through economic thick and thin. Like the Branches, making money is only one among a large variety of productive activities. In other words, they don’t put all of their eggs in the money basket. Because of this they have resilience. If the stock market completely crashed tomorrow they would certainly be affected, but I am fairly sure they would be better off than the banker who sunk all his cash into the market and material goods. Given that most people don’t want to take the full step to become Amish, the question is how can we adopt the Amish model of prosperity and profit in our day-to-day lives? It’s an open question I am trying to answer in light of the country’s current economic woes. But I know that the key is the same as that for any good farm economy: consume less than you produce. 

Story by Ragan Sutterfield. This article originally appeared in "A Farmer's Notebook" in "Plenty" in December 2008.

Copyright Environ Press 2008

Wealth in farming
Is farming profitable?