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Unbecoming a Farmer

Is there light at the end of the tunnel?

Is there light at the end of the tunnel?

By Cory Mosser

It’s weird to not be busy planting in the spring. I still have some vestigial angst about constant spring rains, but I have no grounds for that at all. I’ve set aside my plow, and I’ve moved on to greener pastures. I’m now a member of the other FFA, the Former Farmer’s of America. This is the first spring in nine years I’m not tilling, weeding and planting like a madman. I kind of like it.

I quit farming because I noticed a real problem. While excitement around responsibly produced foods is higher than ever before, somehow it keeps getting more difficult for the small to medium-sized producer to develop and grow a strong business. New food regulations, lack of access to land, and a crowded and confused marketplace stack up to make what is already a risky low margin business into pretty slim pickens’.

I gave farming a good run, and I don’t consider my efforts to have resulted in failure. I’ve sold a lot of veggies. I’ve convinced finicky kids to become raw okra fanatics. I made friends with incredible people, and I’m leaving behind a profitable farm business to my successor. I have a storehouse of useful knowledge about all things fruit and vegetable. If the zombie apocalypse ever occurs, assuming the sun still shines and the rain still falls, you’ll want to stay close to me. I know how to grow a surplus.

I have farmed in an ideal situation. I was fortunate enough to run a farm that had existing infrastructure, equipment and relatively fertile land. That, coupled with an enthusiastic owner who wanted to see the farm grow, created an environment where I could take risks and grow a successful farm business.  I also had the good fortune of being down the road from one of the most practiced diversified farmers in the state in Nicolas Donck of Crystal Organic Farm. To find out what I was doing wrong, I had to do no more than take a five minute car ride, take one look at his fields, and then proceed to eat humble pie.

This makes a sore back worthwhile.

This makes a sore back worthwhile.

Why then, did I leave? Why would I turn my back on living the bucolic existence of a farmer, being an artisan that ties people to their food? Why abandon the satisfaction of being able to live off the fruits of my labor while conserving, and hopefully improving, the land?  I’m leaving because I couldn’t crack the code needed to survive. After five years of farming someone else’s land, I leave farming with a pile of debt, no equity, and experience that will be hard to quantify in the open job market. I have learned a tremendous amount, but the lessons were costly. Through my years of farming, I have faced misfortunes of my own device, as well as those dealt from the hand of nature. I have seen near total crop losses from pests, disease and flooding. I have built and rebuilt an absurd number of hoophouses.  I have transported pigweed to almost every field. I’ve killed thousands of bees.  Make no mistake, I regret nothing. If I had it to do over again I would, albeit without the multiplicity of boneheaded moves.

As an ecologically conscious farmer, it is very easy to become unbalanced to the realities of financial sustainability. I know I would’ve been better served by adding a good dose of cold economic logic to my environmentalism. You can’t save the world if you can’t pay your light bill. Right now, profitable organic/natural farming is being practiced by only a precious few growers in Georgia, not nearly at the rate that it is happening in other parts of the country. This needs to change. We owe it to our backs and our loved ones to create systems that give us maxim leverage for what we put in to it. Too much wasted energy in this business spells death. Can you succeed in this environment? Yes. Will it be unrelentingly difficult? Yes. Will it be worth it? That depends…

Don’t let this happen.

Don’t let this happen.

In the coming months I will be detailing my most costly mistakes and sharing the insight from hard fought successes. But mostly, I will belabor the mistakes. I will discuss blunders in marketing, planning (or lack thereof), business management, overgrowing and under sleeping.  Hopefully, most of you are smarter than me and will learn from the game tape of my failures what not to do. I view my experience as another step in an experiment that we have no choice but to get right. Local food production that provides a sustainable living for the grower is critical for the success of the movement. If that doesn’t happen, the whole thing will be co-opted by slick marketing campaigns and otherwise devalued as a meaningless trend.

I’d like to finish this first post with a challenge. I’m going to do a favor to any of you thinking about farming. It is the same favor several people did for me 8 years ago when I was on the fence about growing food for a living. I’m going to tell you not to do it. It’s too hard. There’s not enough money to make a living. You’ll shoot your eye out, kid. When I was told that, I knew I would do my best to prove the naysayers wrong.  There are few things more inspiring than someone telling you that your dream is unattainable. If you can get angry, and use that anger to learn new ways to break old rules, you might have a shot. Just to be clear, I’m making the claim that farming isn’t worth it to be proven wrong. So, to those of you reading this that are jumping in headfirst to farming, I’m ready to be made a fool. You can’t do it. You don’t stand a chance…

Cory is the founder of Natural Born Tillers, a farm design and consulting company that seeks to plant new farms, grow new farmers, and cultivate new ways to produce great food.

  1. Thanks for spelling it out, speaking my heart there. The irony of it all. It’s like our farm dog. I knew she would not live forever, but I didn’t care about that. I would not have it any other way. Sometimes it’s just not worth it from a rational perspective. But it is a goodness worth losing for.

  2. Rob Samuelson says:

    Incredibly well written. Perhaps your true calling. Good luck in the future. It is never how you fall, but how pick yourself up.
    Sorry for not challenging you, but my money is on you.

  3. Cory, there must be others who are conflicted. Thank you for your honesty and insight. Georgia Organics, this is innovative and provocative, relevant to discussions of the day. Yet, there is a risk when printing such candid dialogue. I am very impressed and thank you for the intellectual stimulation that comes from considering such a worthy dilemma.

  4. Cory this is a very disappointing article. start with the fact that 90% of small businesses fail.in order to succeed you have to be creative beyond your wildest imagination you have to learn what people want and how to get it to them you have to wrangle with market managers who don’t care about your success and withmore caution than I used and at times tell them off for what they really are at times it’s very but if you don’t try you will get nowhere everyday is a struggle however life is what you make it there are two reasons that you went to this business you love it or its all you knowyour decisions are your decisions but never say to someone don’t try because sitting at a desk isn’t for everyone some people have to do things that are hard next to impossible without this drive America and quite frankly the human race will go nowhere everyday people wake up and do the almost seemingly impossible whether that’s trying to make it on 7 25 an hour at McDonalds or trying to invent a cure for cancer again don’t stop trying yes we have a lot of obstacles but don’t be one of them

  5. Cory, I too have the good fortune of having been willed the needed tools and land that would enable me to “make a go of it” but as of yet, cannot in good faith, commit to what I see as not only a want but a true need. As Kay B Lee said, “I am conflicted”
    After having been a backyard gardener/farmers market seller/consultant, I see no real way for today’s “young farmers” to make it without the outside influx of income that so often comes from entities that may or may not have a vested interest in their success.
    The idea the you can “Kickstart” or Grant yourself into or stay in this business is ludicrous Farming is just that. A business. The true farmers of today know that and many have had to work off the farm to make their dreams come true. Georgia Organics and organizations like them should make that painfully clear to those hoping to enter this field.
    To those few that can, I wish you well. Be prepared for long days, restless nights, and unbelievable bills. Oh, and by the way. there won’t be any cameras and accolades.

  6. I can only hope and pray we wake up and realize in the future other countries will run out of food and look to United States as source. Local farmers are and will be life blood of USA. Vote, plant garden in your property, support Farmers locally and nationally.

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