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Farmers Don't Make Money From Farming

Instead, they lose it.

It probably would not surprise you to hear that most profitable American farms are large industrialized operations. That's just how things work now. But it might surprise you to find out that an overwhelming majority of farmers—based on the definition of the word—are not part of those big-industry outfits. Most American farms are tiny. And nearly all tiny American farms lose money.

From the latest USDA report:

Despite high prices for many crops, 2012 was no exception, with median farm income projected to be -$2,799. Most farm households earn all of their income from off-farm sources—median off-farm income is projected to increase by 3.4 percent in 2012, to $55,229 and by 3.9 percent in 2013, to $57,378.

And that's the topic of the latest feature from our friends over at Modern Farmer: the farmer side hustle. What, exactly, do farmers hustle on the side? Well, for starters:

It can be selling food directly to consumers via farm stands, country stores, farmers’ markets, and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) boxes. Some farmer grow flowers or plants, while others create a steady stream of value-added products, which are often more shelf-stable, and cost more than raw ingredients. The list of possibilities range from jam and pickles to bath products, wool, seeds, and decorative gifts. One goat farm in Pescadero, California, supplements their cheese operation with soap and a new line of goat milk paint. Another operation in Sandy, Oregon, sells logs inoculated with Shiitake mushroom spores online.

The more-interesting part of this and what appears to be a big part of the side hustle for many farms is "agrotourism" and things like "on-farm cafes, restaurants, and dining rooms for special farm dinners ... classes, tours, U-picks, and venues for weddings and family reunions." As in: farmers are making money by having people watch them do the thing that no longer makes them any money. People want to see farmers farm or they want to get married on a farm or they want to drink freshly-squeezed (?) milk, so they go to a farm and pay for those things. But they only come because of some attraction to "the idea of the farm," which, itself, is a dying thing—except, the people also wouldn't come if it wasn't a dying/outdated/different concept because society would be radically different if the small farm was a booming business and then the nostalgia-tourism aspect wouldn't even exist. It's a weird loop, and one that probably can't last forever.

Comparing big farms to tiny ones doesn't really seem fair because they're only vaguely similar anymore. And the definition of "farmer" is clearly changing, too. They can't make a living just by farming anymore—it's losing them money—but they also wouldn't be able to make any without it. Farming: the new loss leader.