On a cool November evening, my son and I stand watching over our lower fields. I point out the San Pedro River, marked by a line of cottonwood trees. Below us, our farm dogs charge through the fallow fields, their tails moving above the amaranth like white flags. Eli’s mouth is an “o” as he tracks the dogs with his eyes. These are the moments when I can see brand new worlds cracking open for him like precious stones. Standing on the hill together, we are both 2-year-olds. We shriek at the breeze that creeps inside the collars of our jackets, we listen to the coyotes on the ridge, and as the light turns to dusty gray, we watch as our harvest crew returns from the field.
As a mother and a farmer, I am consumed by the realities of small-scale food production. There are, of course, thousands of starkly beautiful moments. They come in the form of abundant harvests, summer flowers, babies learning to toddle in the greenhouse, and the most beautiful sunsets I’ve ever seen. And then there are the more difficult times—when production costs seem to forever outweigh the profits, when our own exhaustion meets a string of bad luck, when failure seems imminent.
Today’s family farmers are faced with challenges that not only endanger our operations, but strike at the health and well-being of our families. The sustainability of our local food supply depends on farmers being able to continue producing food. As such, the physical and economic well-being of our family farmers is essential to the sustainable food conversation.
In 2006, Paul and Sarah Schwennesen returned to the Schwennesen family’s Double Check Ranch in Dudleyville. Their first child, Katherine, was just 2 months old, and the couple dreamed of giving her a life outside of the chaos and pollution of the city. Paul and Sarah were at the end of demanding Harvard graduate school programs and felt staleness and a disinterest in their Air Force careers. Though returning to the ranch meant giving up the stability of regular paychecks, it also meant that Paul and Sarah could live the life they had been dreaming of. Paul says they found peace in knowing their children would be exposed to “grass, sunlight, and soil, instead of smog and daycare.”
“Moving to the ranch was absolutely the best thing for our family and for our kids,” Sarah says emphatically. Though a major adjustment in itself, ranch life gave Sarah precious time to bond with her new baby and to learn the ropes of motherhood without the pressures of a job outside the home.
Though Paul knew well the rigors of ranch life from growing up on a ranch in Willcox, they both admit to arriving with a romantic vision of what their life would be. Having left a two-story house in Cambridge, the family settled into a modest doublewide trailer in the small mining town of Dudleyville. They had been eager to join a community of other young farm families for support and friendship, but were disappointed upon finding no such community.
Sarah says, “I had—and still have—fantasies about a time when there were more agrarian families. I imagined there would be other women to grow, learn, and share experiences with. Mothers talking to each other and sharing the challenges of raising children on the farm.”
The isolation experienced by the Schwennesens is just one of the unique challenges experienced by farm families. There may also be limited access to schools, play groups, sports teams, grocery stores, or libraries. In addition, frequent power outages, broken water lines, limited phone and internet services, lack of trash collection, poor road conditions, and limited mail delivery are all constraints that affect the daily lives of rural families.
For farmers, these constraints have meant learning to be as self-sufficient as possible. The vast amount of skillsets that are required to be a successful farmer is seemingly infinite, for they must also be competent welders, carpenters, plumbers, mechanics, electricians, veterinarians, masons, and so on.
Tina Bartsch and Jim McManus, owners and operators of Walking J Farm, know well the isolation of rural life. For over a decade, the family lived on a remote two hundred acres of the San Rafael Valley, outside of Patagonia.
“There were times when I literally wouldn’t see another human being for two or three weeks,” Tina recalls. “It was just us—just our little family.”
When their daughter, Maggie, was 4, and their son, Colm, was 2, the family decided to move. The move to Amado not only gave the family the ability to put their polyculture farm ambitions into practice, but it gave them access to a marketplace for their farm products. Still, the Amado property was over an hour from Tucson, where Tina was teaching and the kids were attending school. The distance meant that Tina and the kids had to leave before dawn, spend all day in school, and often finish the day with a slew of errands for the farm. Often, they would arrive back to the farm after dark, still with homework and lesson plans to finish. After an exhausting two years of commuting, Tina quit her teaching job, and the family opted to homeschool.
Even though Tina was trained as a teacher, the transition to homeschooling was challenging. Tina and the kids navigated printed curriculums, rigid online programs, and looser experiential lessons based around the farm’s many cycles and tasks. But eventually, the farm grew to a size that demanded more of Tina’s help in the garden, caring for the animals, hiring staff, attending farmers markets, and keeping the books. As such, Maggie and Colm went back to school in Tubac.
The Schwennesens faced many of the same issues as their children grew older. When Katherine was 5 years old, it became clear to the Schwennesens that their daughter was craving social interactions beyond their small rural community. Sarah was about to have her third child, and she greatly desired access to a community of mothers. Because Sarah was already commuting to Davis-Monthan for her military job, the family chose to move into Tucson.
“Moving to the ranch was absolutely the best thing for our family and for our kids”
Though it alleviated some of the challenges the Schwennesens had faced, the move put a different kind of strain on the family. Paul now commutes to the ranch, or spends days on the road driving cattle. And though Sarah is grateful for the Tucson community she and kids are now able to enjoy, she misses the time they shared as a family when they lived on the ranch.
There is a strong matter-of-factness when talking to fellow farmers about the economic insecurities of farming. Everyone agrees that the burden of financial stress takes a toll on the overall happiness, health, and cohesion of their family unit. Everyone worries about their children, about their dwindling savings accounts, or if the market will continue to support local producers.
Money is a huge stressor for farmers globally. When vegetables or animals are raised on a small and relatively unmechanized scale, the quality of product is higher, as animals and plants are harvested at the ideal weight, age, or ripeness. On our farm, hands nurture our vegetables at every step from seed to table. But this means that our production costs are higher per unit than on an industrial farm. Heirloom seed is more expensive, as are organic soil amendments and pest controls. Labor costs are exorbitant, because nearly everything is done by hand.
For direct-market farmers, the market can be economically undependable. Poor weather, competing events, holidays, or too many markets diluting the overall sales potential, can mean frustrating farmers markets for those of us who depend on a certain amount of direct sales to pay our bills. For a farmer, poorly performing markets translate to a waste of labor and fuel, product sitting unsold on the table, and a scramble to make up the difference through other sales avenues.
“Moving to the ranch was absolutely the best thing for our family and for our kids.”
Jessie Deelo, Farmer Resource Specialist for national organization Farm Aid, knows firsthand about the economic uncertainties in direct-market farming. A farmer herself, Deelo was forced to leave the Massachusetts farm she started after four years of trying to make the finances balance out. After her son was born last Thanksgiving, she and her husband made the decision to leave the operation.
“We couldn’t raise a family on our farm income,” Deelo says.
In her work at Farm Aid, Deelo sees firsthand the connection between the insecurity of a farming livelihood and farmer stress. “I see a lot of people starting farms and then getting burned out after a few years. Clearly, that’s not a sustainable system. They’re saying ‘I have to cut my losses. This isn’t working financially, and I can’t continue to risk my family’s security.’ ”
The Schwennesens remember working the numbers over for months before making the decision to move back to the ranch. Not wanting to make an unfounded decision, they needed a sure bet that the ranch would generate a steady income for their growing family.
“We were running business model projections, and we were starry-eyed. We were thinking we could make as much as we could make with State Department jobs if we were really good at selling beef,” Paul says.
“And what have you found?” I ask.
He laughs. “That has proven to be absolutely untrue.”
In their early days on the ranch, the Schwennesen family purchased high-deductible, temporary insurance for themselves, but the cost was outrageous, and the coverage was limited.
“I remember watching Paul drive off on the tractor and crossing my fingers,” Sarah says.
According to the University of Vermont Extension Service, tractor rollovers are the leading cause of death on farms nationwide. Sarah lists the potential for accident as one of her biggest stressors, and access to affordable quality insurance as the primary reason she chose to return to a part-time position with the military. Kirsten Workman, a Vermont extension agent, says that this model is widely used by farmers in order to access health care.
“I’m working with eighth generation dairy farmers, who milk a thousand cows a day,” Workman notes. “And the women will milk in the morning, and then go off to work for twelve-hour nursing shifts. And nine times out of ten, it’s not to supplement income. It’s for the health benefits.”
It’s easy to understand this as a priority, as any farming town in America will have sobering accounts of farm accidents. These accidents become emotional reminders of our vulnerability as farmers, and can be responsible for crumbling entire families and their farm enterprises. Tina Bartsch recalls such stories from her farming childhood in rural Saskatchewan: her grandfather getting stuck in an auger, a woman sucked into a combine, and an aunt whose brothers were all killed in accidents, most of them farm-related.
According to a U.S. Department of Labor study, a farmer is 800 percent more likely to die while working than are individuals in other professions. In fact, the National Safety Council ranks farming and mining as the two most dangerous occupations in the United States.
In addition to accidents, farmers and ranchers are at an incredibly high risk for stress-related illnesses, depression, and even suicide. Robert Fetsch, professor emeritus at the University of Colorado, has been studying the effects of stress on family farmers for over 30 years. Fetsch credits a farmer’s self-reliance with his or her ability to overcome potential setbacks, but also makes a point that it’s the same attribute that keeps them from asking for help when things get tough.
And things do get tough. The uncertain variables inherent in farming are enough to wind us into tight-lipped, white-knuckled balls of stress—and stress can have dire consequences. As such, farm owners and laborers were the two occupations with the highest incidences of death due to stress-related illnesses, such as heart attack, hypertension, or nervous disorders, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
For Walking J Farm, unforeseen setbacks and disasters seem a regular occurrence: the fall freeze turns benign grasses into a toxic pasture for cattle, cows die of bloat, vegetables freeze, and trucks break down over and over again. Two years ago, four Walking J pigs died from a condition called Glässer’s Disease, an unpreventable condition caused by a sleeper spore in the pig’s environment. Jim and Tina estimate that a single pig costs them $1,325 to raise and slaughter, not including labor costs. At market, that same pig can be sold for a meager $1,650, which generates a mere $325 back to the farm. To lose four pigs in one day was a substantial setback, requiring Jim and Tina to recalculate their season’s margins and market plans.
Paul Schwennesen blames the majority of his farm disasters on mechanical failures. “So much of what we do is based on vehicles, refrigeration, and walk-in freezers,” he explains. “A big storm will come in, power will go out, and the power company won’t be able to get to us because the river is too high.” This sets in motion a panic, requiring Paul and his crew to ford the river for dry ice to prevent losing thousands of dollars worth of product.
For vegetable and fruit farmers, cold weather brings a collective holding of breath. This past October, nighttime temperatures plummeted into the 30s, and our fields began showing signs of winter burn. One early morning, a damaging frost unexpectedly reached the pumpkin field. We had just harvested our winter squash and piled them in the field before shuttling them to storage. I remember holding my son and watching out the kitchen window as the crew filled truckloads of butternut squash. They could not move fast enough. I remember the sinking feeling in my stomach when my husband called to me over the radio.
“Farmers are resilient,” says Fetsch, the farm stress researcher at the University of Colorado. There is admiration in his voice. “They’ve learned from their dads and moms and grandparents that you just keep on keeping on. You get up the next day and keep going.”
“We’re picking them up as fast as we can,” he said “But they’re literally freezing before our eyes.”
It is a feeling that Dwight and Karla English, of English Family Orchards, know all too well. The English family has been growing fruit in Willcox for 33 years. For the couple and their grown son, Paul, the insecurity of shifting weather patterns has them questioning their future as fruit growers.
Dwight regards the last five years as the worst stretch of luck since they began their business in 1980. Two of the last five years saw the orchard losing 80 to 90 percent of their entire crop, despite the $30,000 purchase of two wind machines, which the English family had hoped would fight a hard freeze in the orchard. And recent years have been just bad enough that the English Family Orchards has been officially dropped by their crop insurance company until their production averages come back up, which may be two to four years away.
“As weather patterns continue shifting for the worse, the risk factor isn’t shared by the insurance company,” Dwight says. “Instead, [the insurance company] figures out a way to slowly disengage or completely disappear when a farmer needs them the most.”
As a result, for the first year in many, the English family will have to cross their fingers and hedge their bets against Mother Nature. And the family is no stranger to weather catastrophes. Dwight remembers a particularly devastating hailstorm just eight or nine years after they had moved to Willcox.
“We had the prettiest crop of Golden Delicious apples,” Dwight says, “We babied them. We did everything right. We spent so much on labor to thin them so the fruit would be nice and big, and those apples were beautiful. We said we were going to pick them on Monday. And on Saturday afternoon, a storm came up and brought hail the size of marbles.”
He pauses, thinking.
“I remember turning and looking at my kids and at Karla. And Karla was looking out the window with tears rolling down her eyes. We didn’t say anything to each other, and I’ll never forget that.”
The English family guesses that, in that span of 15 minutes, they lost 100,000 pounds of “high-priced, premium-quality, store-grade” apples. It is a loss that still makes their heads spin.
“We want to keep farming,” says Paul English, “But how many times can a farmer take such a loss and continue to stay in business? [Small-scale] farmers carry an unfair amount of risk compared to most other types of businesses.”
Farmers are resilient,” says Fetsch, the farm stress researcher at the University of Colorado. There is admiration in his voice. “They’ve learned from their dads and moms and grandparents that you just keep on keeping on. You get up the next day and keep going.”
And indeed, that is what we do.
Light first appears as grayness through the window. Always, there is the space between sleep and awake where my husband and I hover until the alarm goes off. It is a space for slow waking, for thinking through the day’s priorities, for listening to our children breathing deeply in their sleep, for making wishes. Across the yard, the goats call out and the chickens begin their chatter. We note the air—did it freeze last night? Is the wind whipping? As we climb out of bed, a small piece of moon still hangs boldly in the sky.
With the increasing popularity of the sustainable foods movement, we champion practices such as crop rotation, pastured poultry, heirloom vegetable production, and seedsaving. And while these are surely important pieces of sustainable food production, the wellbeing of the people who grow our food is the unvisited chapter of the conversation.
As weather patterns shift, markets crash, and small-scale farmers continue to fight the uphill battle against industrial food, the only guarantee is that there are no guarantees. But as our community continues its passionate building of a vibrant local food system, let us also remember the health and wellbeing of our region’s farmers. Without programs and infrastructure that prioritizes our farm families, we are facing a possible reality that sustainable food production is not in fact sustainable for our farmers. ✜
Debbie Weingarten is a mother, writer, co-owner of Sleeping Frog Farms, and is the Southern Arizona organizer for the National Young Farmers Coalition. She never peels her vegetables and is too scattered to follow complicated recipes.
There are ways to support small producers beyond the farmers’ market. If you want to get involved, consider joining some of the following local initiatives:
In October of 2013, a group of Southern Arizona farmers launched the Southern Arizona Young Farmers Coalition. A chapter of the National Young Farmers Coalition, the group was developed in order to support, connect, and celebrate young, beginning, and innovative farmers in our desert region. One of the first SAYFC projects aims to seek out legal and medical professionals willing to provide low-cost or free services to Southern Arizona farmers.
If you’re a legal or medical professional or for more information about how to support this project, contact SouthernArizonaYoungFarmers@gmail.com.
Slow Money, a personal investing concept developed by Woody Tasch, has become a sweeping movement for individuals wishing to invest their dollars in grassroots projects contributing to soil fertility and small-scale food production. Local food producers are ideal recipients for low-interest loans from individuals who believe in supporting farmland preservation, community food security, and community health. Money invested in our community stays in our community. For more information about this inspiring movement, visit SlowMoney.org.
The future of local food depends on supporting new and existing generations of food producers. As such, farmland must be accessible and affordable. The Farm Education Resource Network (FERN) is beginning a new project to link Southern Arizona farmers with land owners. If you own farmland—of any acreage and with access to water—and are interested in seeing your land preserved as farmland through a lease, sale, or other creative means, contact FERN at info@FernSchool.org to be included in an upcoming LandLink directory.