Quitting Season

The decision to walk away from a farm is not one taken lightly. So why do farmers stop farming?

July 9, 2015

FeaturesIssue 13: July/August 2015

This past February, Tina Bartsch, co-owner of Walking J Farm, sat cross-legged on the floor of my Tucson apartment. We ate lunch and watched my newly mobile baby move in curious circles around the room. For the last several years, Tina and I have provided each other with moral support as we navigated the precarious balance of farm and family. We’ve traded homeschooling curriculum and birthday party invitations; we’ve called each other in frustrated tears and celebrated yoga teacher certifications and new babies; we’ve cursed the glut of cheap redistributed produce at the farmers’ markets and spent hours together in meetings trying to solve the food system gaps in our community.

Tina Bartsch, during their last days at Walking J.

Tina Bartsch, during their last days at Walking J.

On this particular day in February, Tina told me that she and her husband, Jim McManus, had decided to stop farming. Though many of our conversations had touched on this as a potential inevitability, this time it was real. After five years of solid recordkeeping, the numbers showed the farm operating at a net loss every single year.

A month prior, Tina and Jim had traveled from Amado to Clarkdale to present their agribusiness success story at the second annual Arizona Food & Finance Forum. But over the course of a 20-minute presentation, McManus shared the farm’s sobering financial reality, hoping to spotlight the disconnect between the local food craze and farmers being able to make a living.

“What I’ve determined is that I can’t go on this way,” McManus said to the forum attendees. He explained that after calculating the full cost associated with producing a single beef cow, the farm was losing $62 per animal selling by the quarter, and averaging a mere $214 profit per animal selling retail cuts at the market. McManus announced that they had no choice but to raise their retail prices by 40 percent; the week before, a pound of Walking J ground beef had cost $8, and this week it was going to cost $11.

“Every year we’ve gone up three percent, five percent to match inflation … but that hasn’t been enough,” he said, adding that, “We are running a big test here. We don’t know if the market will bear it, or what our customers are going to say. A lot of folks are going to really swallow hard when they see that their filet went up $10 a pound. But that’s what I have to do. That’s what the numbers say.”

After calculating that their business had been operating at a net loss for five years straight, Jim McManus realized, "I can't go on this way."

After calculating that their business had been operating at a net loss for five years straight, Jim McManus realized, “I can’t go on this way.”

A month later, the results of Walking J’s experiment were in. The market was not willing to bear the increase in price, and Walking J’s last effort to save the farm by charging prices based on the true cost of meat production was a flop. Since raising their prices, the farm had lost 30 to 70 percent of their client sales. The customers had spoken loud and clear.

“It’s a no-brainer at this point,” Tina told me, as we sat together in my living room. “We have to quit.”

I have been that farmer who chose to step away from the farm, and though I chose it as surely as I chose the farm in the first place, it has been no less a loss. Barring a catastrophic event, the decision to stop farming is rarely made overnight. Depending on how you look at it, it is either a steady erosion or a slow coming-to. Farmers spend years crunching numbers, tweaking production methods, and trying to stay ahead of market trends. There may be second or third jobs, a clambering for creative financing, or a reliance on government assistance programs such as SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or state health insurance. Year after year, the decision to quit can be kept at bay by a successful season or the hope that next season will be easier. But at some point, for some of us, the scale just tips. The moment comes when continuing feels too risky, the path forward too unsure—when it makes the most sense to quit.

Fields that were once a farm return to desert scrub.

Fields that were once a farm return to desert scrub.

In the beginning, Walking J hit the ground running with a smattering of products for the local marketplace, including chicken, turkey, pork, beef, eggs, and produce. Year after year, they ticked off the microenterprises that did not pay the bills. The heritage pork did not make money, nor did the Thanksgiving turkeys. The layer hens required too much outside feed, as did the broiler chickens. The farm’s pastured poultry system demanded bimonthly slaughters of 150 birds, which required an immense amount of time, skilled labor, and freezer space.

Jim and Tina embraced a direct-market sales model, typical for a small-scale diversified operation. They started a CSA group, for community supported agriculture; built partnerships with high-end restaurants; and began vending at the Tucson farmers’ markets. But as the number of those farmers’ markets increased and the pool of customers became diluted as a result, they were forced to seek out new markets. They drove to Nogales with product, tried to establish a CSA in the nearby town of Tubac, opened up a Saturday farm stand, started an online store, and eventually made their way up to Phoenix markets. At one point, they were staffing six farmers’ markets each week. In 2012, Walking J Farm received a USDA grant—which they had to match with a private loan from family members—to cover marketing costs, meat processing, and the purchase of butcher cattle.

As they shut down operations, McManus sold off their remaining livestock, including this pig...the last one left on the farm.

As they shut down operations, McManus sold off their remaining livestock, including this pig…the last one left on the farm.

Despite their exhaustive efforts to offer a variety of sales outlets, meet product demand, and create meaningful and profitable relationships with their customers, Tina says that it became clear that the business was not making money.

What followed Walking J’s announcement was a flurry of bewilderment and a general sense of shock among friends and customers. Supporters took to social media to encourage their friends to flood Walking J’s market booth with sales. Someone suggested an emergency Kickstarter. But urgent Facebook posts and new Twitter followers do not save a farm. Jim and Tina were financially, physically, and emotionally tapped.

No one wants to think about farmers calling it quits. It muddies the heroic glow cast around our food producers. It cuts through all of the feel-good chatter about food systems and local economies. Each time a farmer quits, a little piece of our new agrarian dream dies. But however hard it is to discuss, the rate at which farmers are walking away from their farms—whether by choice or by force—may be the most important measure for whether our food systems are actually working. Because although farmers’ markets are springing up everywhere—and although heirloom kale has never been more popular—the average small-scale farmer is barely surviving.

For farmers like Jim and Tina, who believe in producing food by stewarding their land responsibly and supporting plant, animal, and microbe biodiversity, a direct-market relationship with customers who support those production values makes sense. But if our farmers cannot charge prices based on the cost of real production numbers, this model falls flat.

Consider these numbers from a 2011 study, which shows that southern Arizona farmers and ranchers on average sell a collective $300 million of food products per year, yet spend $320 million to raise those crops. The same study finds net farm income trends have been negative since 1989, which means that our farmers have consistently lost money producing food. According to the same study, southern Arizona farmers and ranchers reportedly lost $106 million in 2009, which equaled 39 percent of all sales that year. 2004 was the only recent year when southern Arizona farmers earned more than they spent producing food.

National numbers reflect our region’s numbers. According to the 2012 Census of Agriculture, farmers earned just 10 percent of their income from farm sales, while approximately 90 percent of their income came from off-farm occupations. The projected median farm income for 2015 is negative $1,558.

A harrow without a field.

A harrow without a field.

We are better local food consumers when we remember that our farmers are not just growing our food—they are human beings, who are trying to refinance their mortgages, purchase dependable health insurance, fix their teeth, send their kids to college, and take a vacation once in a while. Behind the scenes, our farmers spend hours at the computer, wearily adding up market totals and expenditures. It is here in this solitary lamp-lit space that farmers visit some very dark emotional places. It is impossible to convey the deep anxiety for everything at stake, the fear that accompanies the risk, and the wounds that this stress inflicts upon a psyche or a family.

Although the choice to stop farming is a personal one, there is a familiar narrative that repeats in quiet reverberations across our country’s farmscapes. Lisa and Ali Moussalli are the former owners of Frog Bottom Farm, a small-scale diversified farm in Appomattox County, Virginia. Having spent years apprenticing with other farmers, the Moussallis were firm in their resolve to build a business that could support their family without the reliance on off-farm income. This priority forced the couple to be absolutely diligent in their expenses and calculations.

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“There was never a day when we weren’t thinking about the financial soundness of our business,” Lisa remembers. “Can we afford a second tractor? Are we charging enough for eggs? What’s a reasonable debt burden? Should we drop this market? Are cherry tomatoes and green beans worth the labor?”

When the Moussallis purchased their land, they planned to continue farming there for many years. And while they fell deeply in love with their farm and the lifestyle that it afforded their family, Lisa says, “It was the relentlessness of our worry that eventually wore us down.”

Though Frog Bottom Farm was never technically failing, they were always just scraping by. Lisa and Ali wanted to have a second child, and like any growing family, they craved financial stability. During a conversation in the fall of 2012, the couple made the heartbreaking decision to sell the farm.

“We were sitting in the kitchen discussing our finances … and suddenly everything seemed very clear,” Lisa remembers. “Ali suddenly said, ‘Our family is more important than our farm.’ And there it was.”

Two years after their last season at Frog Bottom Farm, Lisa, Ali, and their two young children live a block away from the Delaware Bay in southern New Jersey. Ali commutes to work as a full-time manager at Beach Plum Farm, where he and his crew work to provide produce, herbs, honey, eggs, and pork for three farm-to-table restaurants in the resort town of Cape May. With the support of Lisa and the kids, Ali is still farming, and as Lisa says, “His work is still full of the problem solving and tangible results he loves.”

Though Lisa admits that the shift away from their life at Frog Bottom Farm has been hard at times, she says they don’t regret their decision to leave. Beach Plum Farm offers an alternative model of food production—not only by truly walking the walk of farm-to-table, but prioritizing the stability of its farmers by providing a salary, health insurance, and a 401k.

The echo of a farm: empty chairs, abandoned trailers, and parched fields.

The echo of a farm: empty chairs, abandoned trailers, and parched fields.

In Iowa, Shanti Sellz, the owner of Iowa City’s Muddy Miss Farm, considers farming her career and does not intend to quit. But she does question whether the small-scale direct-market model will provide her with long-term stability.

Sellz, who spent nearly a decade as an activist and farmer educator in Tucson, has been farming since she was 16 years old. In 2012, she moved back to her hometown of Iowa City, armed with a small amount of savings and a business plan for a small-scale diversified farming enterprise. Now in her fourth season of farming on her own, Sellz is cultivating a cooperative model with a fellow farmer. This model allows the farmers to share resources, such as labor, equipment, fuel, and marketing. Sellz and her cooperative partner then aggregate their products in order to create volume and to cater to a more diverse market. Like any farmer, Sellz constantly questions her farm’s specific model, but she feels strongly that sharing the risk, instead of taking it on completely as a sole proprietor, has many benefits.

Sellz reiterates that finding the right model is as much about financial sustainability as it is about human sustainability. She says, “I want to farm, and there is no reason why I shouldn’t be able to make a living if my profession is feeding people, which is one of our society’s most basic needs.”

And this is where all of the stories, told and untold, seem to collide. Like the Moussallis, like the farmers of Walking J Farm, like the hundreds of thousands of farmers producing food across our country, Sellz is simply trying to make a living by doing what she does best: feeding her community.

“I am a good farmer,” Sellz says. “I successfully grow a lot of food for a lot of people, and in a time when most people have lost connection to where their food comes from. If I don’t grow food, who will?”

Without shade; without rest.

Without shade; without rest.

Wendell Berry asks, “Why do farmers farm, given their economic adversities on top of the many frustrations and difficulties normal to farming? And always the answer is: love. They must do it for love.”

I have an immense amount of respect for Wendell Berry, but I am growing tired of this answer. Certainly it would be a mistake to become a farmer if you did not enjoy being outside, if you were not fiercely independent, if you did not enjoy the physical labor involved in food production. But a farmer cannot survive simply by loving her profession. Love does not pay the mortgage, put diesel in the tractor, or make up lost revenue after a late freeze. Love does not fix hands spent from years of milking goats or resurrect the CSA vegetables when the walk-in refrigerator goes out in the middle of a summer night.

When farmers choose to transition to alternative models of farming, or to quit altogether, they are making decisions that best support their lives, families, and careers. As Sellz says, “Farmers are inherently practical people. We have to be. If something is working, we pursue it and give it everything we have. But if it’s not working—if we are losing money, our health, or if it’s just not sustainable—we have to try something different. We get creative, find alternatives, leave enterprises that are not valuable to us. We survive.”

Although Tina and Jim can imagine Walking J’s finances stabilizing in five to 10 years, Tina explains, “That’s a long time to sit in the hole and work to get out of the red. And we just aren’t willing to do that. It doesn’t make sense.”

The rate at which farmers are walking away from their farms—whether by choice or by force—may be the most important measure for whether our food systems are actually working.

The rate at which farmers are walking away from their farms—whether by choice or by force—may be the most important measure for whether our food systems are actually working.

Of the moment that she and Jim decided to quit, Tina says, “It was emotional, but it was a relief. We had all these questions. How do you shut a business down? How do you do it? And Jim’s like, ‘You just do it. You just stop.’ He said, ‘We’ve got to stop the bleeding.’”

There is no disputing the fact that communities love their farmers. Walking J Farm has been heralded as one of the most successful and beloved farms in the region. And here is the disturbing reality at the crux of this entire issue: the fact is that Walking J Farm is so beloved in the southern Arizona local food community, that its farmers are so intelligent, so conscientious, so good at what they do—but they still cannot make a living from the farm. And this is not because they have failed—it is because our archaic food and agriculture system has failed them. One thing remains certain: if, as a society, we don’t prioritize the health, well-being, and financial solvency of our farmers, we will lose them by the droves—along with all of their precious resources, talent, and skill—and along with our food. ✜

Debbie Weingarten is a writer, mother, and former farmer. This summer, she’s on a very serious mission to find the best horchata in Tucson.

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