Farming, especially on a small scale, has always felt to me like a financially precarious vocation. Most folks get into farming for the love of the work and a desire to feed their communities. Earning potential is rarely on the short list of reasons to start a farm business, though the lack of income is usually offset by an abundance of delicious food and a whirlwind lifestyle that, once embraced, is hard to relinquish. In this current economic climate however, farming for a livelihood suddenly feels to me like a fool’s errand.
My farm, Bright Ide Acres, has never existed without the support of at least one partial outside income. Even with those extra funds to ensure our success, the farm rarely turns much profit. I struggle with this, not just because the work we contribute to our business is exhausting, extensive, and all-encompassing, but because the price to purchase our products is already cost-prohibitive for less affluent members of our community. Despite charging the highest prices around, we still just barely break even. These are problems that have plagued us from the beginning – but things are about to get a whole lot worse.
The labor shortages that are occurring all over the nation extend to small farms, which already often struggle to hire and retain a workforce. Farming is hard physical work, and (see above) does not typically pay very well. In today’s job market, folks are demanding better pay and better working environments. On my own farm we gave all of our returning employees a $2/hour raise this season. This is money that we are eager to spend; our farm is only as good as the staff we have and their efforts need to be fairly compensated. But where does this money come from? It’s discouraging but should be noted that neither my husband or I have ever taken home a reasonable living wage from our own farm business.
The surge in fuel prices has hit our farm particularly hard. During the pandemic we pivoted to shipping orders throughout WA State. This was a steep learning curve, but worth it as it gave our customers the convenience and safety they craved while keeping us on the farm and allowing FedEx to do some of the leg work. This year, however, the fuel surcharge per package has doubled from 8% to 16%, and I expect it to continue to climb with the recent announcement of diesel fuel shortages. The dry ice we use to keep our products frozen in transit has also increased by 40% – I recently learned that dry ice is a byproduct of the oil and gas industry. Due to inflation and supply chain shortages, the costs of cardboard boxes and recyclable insulated liners we use to ship our products have also risen. We are now losing money on every box we send off the farm, so it’s time to raise our shipping prices, which will further limit our customer base.
As a meat farm, our second biggest cost after wages is feed. The heat dome the Pacific Northwest experienced last year damaged crops and reduced the availability of local grains, which raised our feed costs by 12.5%. That was before the expected global shortage of wheat that is being predicted due to the war in Ukraine. Very few grains are available on the west side of Washington, so we have non-GMO feed hauled to our farm from Spokane. The cost to ship a pallet of feed went up by 24% in the past year. I have every expectation that feed and freight costs will go up again this season as grain growers assess their meager inventories. Hay prices are also skyrocketing in response to reduced availability and the high costs required to run the diesel-hungry equipment that cuts and bales it.
Farmers are nothing if not nimble, and so we navigate these cost increases with the same tenacity and determination with which we face inclement weather, animal illness, or unexpected loss on the farm. Where can we cut corners? What grants are available? How can we add value to the products our farm is already producing? What waste items can be turned into something marketable? We’ve added services on our farm like poultry processing for other commercial growers. We make rabbit tail keychains, soap from pig’s lard, and broth from poultry bones. We ship lamb and rabbit hides out for tanning, and dehydrate chicken feet into dog treats. Some of this is ethics – we endeavor to use as much of each animal as we can to honor their sacrifice – but it is also economics. We need to squeeze every penny out of this operation as we can in order to survive.
One silver lining from the pandemic has been an increased demand for local food. My great hope is that folks with disposable income will continue to seek out and support small farmers through the inevitable price hikes that are coming. For those that are bound to be priced out, know that some farms and most farmers markets accept SNAP/EBT, while other farms offer scholarships and cost-sharing initiatives to help reduce financial burden and increase access to nutritious foods. The WA Food & Farm Finder can connect you to a local farm to support, whatever your financial situation may be. This is a critical time for many small businesses, but with strong local support I have hope that we will make it through these tough times together.