Commentary: Where have all the young farmers gone?

By PATRICK BULTEMA CEO of FoodMaven

Any 21st century farmer knows that farming is expensive. You could easily spend more than a million dollars on equipment alone. What’s more, you need more than just one harvester and one tractor today to be a viable farmer tomorrow.

You have to finance the inputs for the crop (easily another few hundred thousand dollars) wait to see crop income, and all the while you have to live and pay your bills. You need land, human capital, personal income, and finally to play in the industrial food system as a farmer, you need scalability.

So, what are the prospects for new, young people interested in getting into farming? One alternative is micro farming.

Meet Jenn Mueller and Ryan Murray, co-owners of Yurstead Farm, a modest 10-acre patch of land on the western slope of Colorado.

In 2015, they began growing produce using organic practices and raising select quality poultry and pigs, finding customers at the local farmers’ market and selling at premium prices.

But while Jenn and Ryan’s farm has managed to overcome impossibly high entry barriers to compete with other established farmers — their farm is not particularly scalable. The inability to meet the demands of an industrialized food system is a common problem among all farmers today.

The graying farmers
For farmers, retirement isn’t really a thing. It only happens when you physically can’t work any longer. It’s not unusual to see a farmer still “at it” well into their 80s. And my family was no exception.

Growing up I could count all the direct family entities involved in our family farm; six family units and about 15 family members, a typical family-run farm. Today, we only have two family units, and two individuals for whom farming is their primary job. By the time my grandfather, let alone my father, felt he could retire us kids were long gone — physically as well as by life circumstances.

Once, on a visit to see my grandfather after he’d stopped farming, our conversation turned to one of his friends who had recently died. This farmer had been out irrigating, lost his balance, fell on his shovel and died in the field. With the tone of a eulogy my grandfather said, “He was a good man … he was a hard worker.” In part he was saying that, in his mind, being a hard worker and being a good human being are inseparably connected. But I also recognized a part of the story my grandfather envied. His friend was the epitome of an admirable farmer, and no one could deny it. After all, he’d died at an old age, in his own field, doing what he loved.

The age of “principal” farmers today has increased from 50 to 59 years of age. Juxtaposed with this, farmers over the age of 72 outnumber farmers under the age of 30 by 5 to 1.

In short, farmers are getting older, fewer young farmers are entering the ranks, and the count of farmers is falling.

This means we face two problems. First, we have an influx of aging farmers with no one to pass the torch to; and second, we have a generation of young farmers who aren’t equipped to face the entry barriers modern-day farming demands.

But how did this happen? The answer is quite simple; the development of a rigid food system.

Food for the system
By staying under U.S. Department of Agriculture limits, Jenn and Ryan have been able to raise, slaughter and process their meat without getting a full USDA processing license. Because their product is so premium, and their customers are so selective, they are able to sell at much higher than conventional prices.

However, that also means they can only sell direct to customers at places such as local farmers’ markets.

On the other hand, the industrial food system and ag policy pushed my family from diversified farming to monoculture practice. My family ended up specializing and growing only one crop: rice. Farmers face the challenge to either “go big or go home.” If you don’t “go big” you’re likely forced to sell to another family farm, or you leave farming operations and now rent your land to a bigger family farm. Unfortunately, you “go home” one way or another.

Clearly the lack of a predictable, accessible, and scalable local food system is creating a huge chasm between young farmers, like Jenn and Ryan, and today’s mainstream farming practices. Plus, the system that’s needed has to provide access for more mainstream, less specialized, and less expensive product. We need a solution that values local markets, but also allows farmers to grow product at a scale and efficiency that could be sold into the industrial food system.

Patrick Bultema is chairman, CEO and founder of FoodMaven who is known for bringing leadership and innovation to the multi-trillion-dollar U.S. food system, a system that loses hundreds of billions of dollars annually in food that ultimately ends up as waste. FoodMaven creates new pathways for food lost in the system due to oversupply, out-of-spec or local food without effective distribution channels. FoodMaven sells this food through an online marketplace to restaurants and institutions like universities and hotels and donates to hunger-relief organizations to fulfill its mission of all food used with good purpose.


Dairy Margin Coverage Program benefits small farms

USDA, American Farm Bureau and National Milk Producers Federation are all encouraging dairy producers, big and small, to take a look at the new Dairy Margin Coverage Program.

Established in the 2018 Farm Bill, the program replaces the Margin Protection Program — which most agree did not live up to expectations.

DMC is a federally subsidized program to insure dairymen’s margins between a national all-milk price and a national feed-cost calculation. Sign-up began June 17 and is open until Sept. 20.

While the program is geared for producers with 200 cows or fewer — producing 5 million pounds of milk or less annually — it can offer some benefit for larger producers.

USDA is projecting an indemnity payment of about $24,000 this year on a producer’s first 5 million pounds of annual production history insured at a $9.50 margin at a cost of $7,600.

That is likely to attract interest from larger producers who lost faith in MPP after paying substantial premiums and seeing little to no payout despite dismal margins.

Joaquin Contente, who milks 850 cows in Hanford, Calif., said MPP was a “miserable failure” but he’s going to sign up 5 million pounds of his production at the $9.50 margin level.

“It’s going to give me a little bit of insurance. The market is so cyclical, I should get something out of it,” he said.

Indemnity payments on the first 5 million pounds at the $9.50 coverage level have already been determined for the first four months of 2019. As of June 20, USDA is forecasting the program’s calculated margin will only rise above $9.50 in October and November.

Contente won’t be purchasing buy-up coverage above the no-cost, $4 insured margin for the remainder of his production, however.

DMC is an improvement over MPP, but it’s just not geared for larger producers, he said.

About 94% of California dairy farmers produce more than 5 million pounds annually, according to data from the California Department of Food and Agriculture.

That number is close to 80% in Idaho, 60% in Washington and 72% in Oregon, according to state dairy organizations.

“The last four years have been really rough for dairy farmers across the country,” Tami Kerr, executive director of Oregon Dairy Farmers Association, said.

Oregon producers will definitely be looking at new tools available to see if they make sense for them, and they are aware that DMC offers a positive return for 2019, she said.

“They’re very astute when it comes to their finances,” she said.

DMC seems to fix some of the problems that existed in MPP, making it a better and more attractive product for farmers, Scott Dilley, communications director for Washington State Dairy Federation, said.

“I’m sure our producers will take a close look at DMC to see if it will work for their operations. We are hopeful that DMC will provide the type and amount of coverage that our dairy farmers would like and need,” he said.

Western United Dairymen isn’t hearing a lot of interest from producers in California, but sign-up is just starting, Annie AcMoody, WUD director of economic analysis, said.

Rick Naerebout, CEO of Idaho Dairymen’s Association, said he suspects there is interest in DMC among IDA members but Idaho producers typically rely pretty heavily on hedging programs for risk management.


FDA reworks ‘added sugars’ label for honey, maple syrup, cranberries

The Food and Drug Administration has revised nutrition label guidance for honey, maple syrup and cranberry juice, responding to complaints that a previous proposal would sour consumers on those products.

In a statement Tuesday, the FDA said it was taking another try at conveying that pure honey and pure maple syrup add sugar to diets, without implying that producers mix in additional sugar.

The FDA also moved to inform consumers that cranberry products sweetened with sugar may still have less sugar than naturally sweet fruit products.

The honey and maple syrup industries were especially alarmed by FDA’s plan to require labels to report naturally occurring sugar as “added sugars.” Producers complained the FDA was mangling words.

Under the FDA’s new guidance, honey and maple syrup labels will still report “total sugars,” but the “added sugars” line will be stricken.

Another line will give the “daily value for added sugars” to help consumers keep daily sugar intake within dietary guidelines. The FDA suggested labels have footnotes explaining what that means.

Here’s the FDA’s example: “One serving adds 10 (grams) of sugar to your diet and represents 20% of the Daily Value for Added Sugars.”

The footnote assumes a 2,000-calorie per day diet.

Washington commercial beekeeper Tim Hiatt of Ephrata said he was a little surprised that the FDA retained any mention of “added sugars.”

“It’s a bit of a nanny state overreach,” he said. “People, if they want to, should be free to eat a lot of honey or maple syrup.”

Still, he said, “to me, as a honey producer, it’s a step in the right direction. … It’s probably something we can live with.”

Cranberry products have added sugar. But the FDA will allow nutrition facts labels to include a footnote informing consumers that the sugar was added because cranberries are naturally tart.

“Our intent with this additional information is to help American consumers more easily understand how certain sweetened cranberry products can be part of a healthy dietary pattern,” according to a statement from Susan Mayne, the director of the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.

Besieged with complaints and some mockery about about its use of the words “added sugars,” the FDA last year agreed to reconsider its nutrition label guidance. The 2018 Farm Bill further quashed the proposal by prohibiting the FDA from requiring the “added sugars” declaration on single-ingredient sugars, honey, maple syrup and agave.

The Sugar Association, a trade group, said it supported the FDA’s treatment of cranberry products. But it said other healthy products such as yogurt and high-fiber cereal also could benefit from such a disclaimer.

The association also said that “daily value for added sugars” may confuse consumers.

The FDA should have “consumer-tested” the label before finalizing the guidance, Sugar Association President and CEO Courtney Gaine said in a written statement.

“We have no idea if this information serves as a constructive tool that enables people to follow the dietary guidelines and is not information that is misleading,” Gaine stated.

The FDA said Tuesday it will push back the date that honey, maple syrup and cranberry products have to comply with the guidance by one year to July 1, 2021. The guidance is part of an overhaul of nutrition labels on foods due to take effect next year.


Dairy puts emphasis on ‘natural’

Cherry Valley Dairy, an 80-year-old farmstead in Duvall, Wash., north of Seattle was purchased in 2005 by Gretchen Garth.

She turned the 122 acres into an all-natural, grass-based dairy and creamery employing two dairy workers and three creamery employees.

Blain Hages has been the head cheesemaker since the operation opened, AnnMarie Stickney is the land manager, Jhony Padilla is the herdsman, Meghan McKenna is the assistant cheesemaker and Brianna Best is in charge of sales and marketing.

“Our dairy is unique,” says Best. “The owner cares greatly about the land, the environment and the cattle, so we have a land manager and a herd manager. We have a herd of Jerseys with 30 milking cows as well as about 20 heifers.”

Most of the milk is processed in their on-farm creamery and sold as butter.

“We do cultured European-style butter, both gray salt and unsalted varieties. Our unsalted butter won first place in the 2018 American Cheese Society awards and our Grey Salt butter was second place. Our lavender rose butter also got first place,” she says.

“We recently started making raw cheeses along with several pasteurized cheeses such as Fromage Blanc, a soft spreadable cheese made from our fresh skim milk and fresh Jersey cream. We also make many other styles of cheese as well.”

The butter and cheeses are sold directly to customers, mainly at restaurants in Seattle.

“That’s my job. I work with all our customers and chefs to deliver these products every week. We’ve also started selling to one of the largest natural food stores in the area, called PCC Community Market,” Best says.

“We’ve done a lot of work revitalizing pastures on this historic farm, and remodeled the old barn on the property. A creek runs through our pastures and we’ve done a lot of work with one of the local Native American first nation tribes as well as our county to protect this creek and now our farm is listed as salmon safe, and the salmon have returned to this creek,” she says.

The cows are pastured most of the year, but housed in the barn during winter when it’s too wet to be out on pasture.

“This has been a working farm for 87 years and it used to have 200 to 300 cows. The barn is huge so there is ample room for our small herd to be indoors during bad weather. When the cows are not on pasture they are fed alfalfa and oat hay,” she says.

This is a sustainable grass-fed dairy, with select genetics for cows that do well on pasture. The Jersey cows in this herd lean toward A2 genetics. A2 milk is produced only from cows having two copies of the A2 gene for beta casein.

Research found that people drinking milk from cows producing A2 milk were less susceptible to indigestion.

As part of the new owner’s sustainability efforts over the past decade, the herd has been reduced to fewer than 50 Jersey cows.

“This allows us to produce all the cheese and dairy products we make in-house,” says Best.

Cherry Valley Dairy does not use bovine growth hormones, and strives to keep the cows’ diets natural and free of unnecessary antibiotics, artificial additives and harmful chemicals.


Researchers use tiny wasp to control stinkbugs

CORVALLIS, Ore. — The samurai wasp may be small, but it is a mighty assassin of one of Oregon agriculture’s most detested pests — the brown marmorated stinkbug.

No bigger than a pinhead, the tiny wasp lays its eggs inside the eggs of stinkbugs, killing the host when they hatch. Stinkbugs first arrived in Oregon in 2004 and are a scourge to farmers, damaging high-value crops including wine grapes, blueberries, cherries and hazelnuts.

Researchers know the samurai wasp can be an effective biological control for stinkbugs. A new study from Oregon State University goes a step farther, describing how farmers can integrate the wasp as part of an overall management strategy.

David Lowenstein, an entomologist and postdoctoral research associate at OSU, led the study, which focuses on the impacts of different insecticides on wasp survival. His results found that some chemicals were highly lethal to the wasp, while others were more suitable.

The study was published recently in the Journal of Economic Entomology. Funding came from the Oregon Hazelnut Commission, Oregon Raspberry and Blackberry Commission and the USDA Specialty Crop Research Initiative, which is assisting more than 50 researchers across the U.S. studying ways to defeat the stinkbug.

Like the stinkbug, the samurai wasp is native to east Asia. It was discovered in 2016 in the Willamette Valley, and since then OSU has bred colonies of the wasp in Corvallis and at the North Willamette Research and Extension Center in Aurora, Ore., to distribute to commercial orchards.

“They are not available commercially,” Lowenstein said. “We’re the sole group that is rearing the parasitoid and trying to get it established in different parts of the state.”

However, Lowenstein said it does no good to distribute the wasps while farmers are spraying certain types of insecticides to control other pests.

For the study, Lowenstein tested the effects of nine insecticides on samurai wasps in lab and field trials. He said neonicotinoids and pyrethroids were “fairly toxic” to the wasps, while diamide insecticides were less toxic.

One reason for this is because diamide insecticides specifically target sucking and chewing insects such as filbertworm larvae in hazelnut trees, while neonicotinoids and pyrethroids are “broad-spectrum” insecticides, Lowenstein said.

“The application of this work is that, for someone who wants to benefit from biological control from the samurai wasp, first they’re going to have to time it around when they apply insecticides,” he said. “We don’t expect chemical insecticide use is going to go away. It’s just how can you integrate them together.”

Lowenstein also suggested that orchards maintain natural areas around the property where samurai wasps can retreat during crop spraying.

Stinkbugs are found in 24 of Oregon’s 36 counties. OSU has already distributed samurai wasps at 63 locations across the state for bio-control.

The wasps are not harmful to humans and do not sting people, Lowenstein said.

“There’s no way you are going to confuse this with a yellowjacket,” he said. “If you have a samurai wasp on your property you won’t even know it’s there unless you are seeing its effect, which is less stinkbugs.”


Registration open for the Oregon Small Farm School

Registration is open through July 11 for the Small Farm School, a collaboration between OSU Extension, Clackamas Soil and Water Conservation District, Clackamas Community College, Rogue Farm Corps and Friends of Family Farmers.

Small Farm School is a full day event with hands-on workshops and classroom sessions for beginning and small-scale commercial farmers.

It will be conducted July 18 from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. at in Clairmont Hall at Clackamas Community College, 19600 S. Molalla Ave., Oregon City.

Early Bird Registration through July 2 is $75. Registration from July 3 through July 11 is $85.

For more information about the schedule, and to register, visit the Small Farm School website.

 


Drought loosens its hold on Oregon this year

While parts of western Washington are already grappling with severe drought heading into the summer, Oregon appears to be in better shape than last year.

According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, 17% of the state is in some stage of drought, compared to more than 90% at this time a year ago.

The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service also released its final water basin outlook report for June, showing that overall precipitation in Oregon is 95% of normal dating back to October 2018. Basins in Central and Eastern Oregon are mostly above average, thanks to record-breaking February snowfall and heavy rains in April.

The driest areas statewide include the Willamette Basin, at 89% of average precipitation as of June 10, and the Hood, Sandy and Lower Deschutes basins at 80%.

It is a stark contrast to last year, when by June Oregon Gov. Kate Brown had already declared drought emergencies in Klamath, Lake, Grant, Harney and Wheeler counties. The governor would declare additional droughts through the summer in Baker, Douglas, Gilliam, Lincoln, Malheur and Morrow counties.

Drought in 2018 was fueled by below-average snowpack combined with unseasonably warm weather that melted snow up to 2 1/2 times faster than usual at higher elevations. That left farmers and ranchers to grapple with water shortages, while leaving forests and rangeland especially prone to wildfire.

Conditions are much more favorable this year. The NRCS reports that 70% of long-term snow monitoring sites melted out within a week of their normal time frame. As of June 1, 13 sites still had some snow, which is also normal for the time of year.

Farmers and ranchers are looking at mixed stream flows from east to west through the end of the irrigation season in September. Streams and rivers varied widely in average flows during May, from 30% to 80% of normal across most of Western Oregon, and 100% to 190% in Eastern Oregon.

Reservoir storage continues to be a bright spot overall, with most reservoirs holding average to well above average amounts of water, according to the state Water Resources Department.

As summer heats up, Oregon and the entire Pacific Northwest are again gearing up for another busy wildfire season, with the National Interagency Fire Center calling for a normal to above-normal potential for large fires.

Officials declared the start of fire season on June 10 in the Oregon Department of Forestry’s Central Oregon District, which includes 2.3 million acres of public and private forestland. District Forester Rob Pentzer said late May rain helped reduce fire risk, “but the recent warming trend is quickly drying fuels again and with limited moisture in the forecast it is unlikely that the risk will drop again.”

So far, one fires has been recorded in Oregon. The Taylor Butte fire was started by lightning on June 1 about 20 miles northeast of Chiloquin, Ore., and burned 293 acres before it was contained.


Chemeketa Community College breaks ground on agriculture complex

SALEM — Chemekta Community College broke ground June 11 for its new $12 million agriculture complex.

The college serves Marion, Polk and Yamhill counties, home to diverse specialty crops such as grass seed, nursery plants, wine grapes and hazelnuts. The total value of farm products sold across all three counties was more than $1.15 billion in 2017, according to the most recent USDA Census of Agriculture.

The Oregon Legislature approved matching funds the same year to build a new center for agriculture programs at Chemeketa. That includes horticulture and agribusiness management, but not wine studies, which has its own campus and vineyard in the Eola-Amity Hills wine growing area west of Salem.

Jessica Sandrock, director of agricultural sciences and wine studies at Chemeketa, said the project is a priority for the college to support current programs and plan for growth.

“Agriculture has always been a priority,” Sandrock said. “In terms of facilities, it was really time for our programs to get improved.”

Design work on the agriculture complex is nearly complete, though details are still being fine-tuned to bring the work under budget. At a community forum just before the groundbreaking, engineers with FFA Architecture and Interiors provided an update of the latest costs and layout.

Edward Running, project manager with the Portland-based agency, said construction costs have essentially doubled since planning began. Even after cutbacks, the complex remains about 15% over budget.

“That’s sort of the head-scratcher right now,” Running said.

In addition to a 15,000-square-foot classroom and office building, the facility’s design calls for a new commercial greenhouse, hoop houses, outdoor pavilion and amphitheater, demonstration gardens, head house and fields to grow organic crops and woody ornamental plants.

Running mentioned the possibility of partnering with local farm businesses and industry groups to sponsor elements of the complex. Sandrock said the school has met with leaders from the Oregon Association of Nurseries, and plans to follow up with the organization.

Val Tancredi, who works for Clearwater Irrigation Supply in Woodburn, Ore., is a member of the Chemeketa Horticulture Program’s advisory council. He agreed the school needs to market the agriculture complex to industry as an investment in their workforce.

“We need better outreach,” Tancredi said. “These people are educators. But you have to go out and sell.”

Both faculty and business leaders expressed optimism about what the new complex will ultimately offer.

Joleen Schilling, horticulture instructor and program chairwoman at Chemeketa, said the new space and facilities will give students a better learning experience and prepare them for all types of jobs.

“It will have a great impact on our students,” Schilling said. “The quality of student going into the workforce is going to be just that much greater.”

Since 2002, the horticulture program has served more than 12,000 students. The program offers both an associate degree, and beginning next fall students will also be able to earn an associate transfer degree to Oregon State University.

Phil La Vine, an instructor in the agribusiness management program, said the complex is “truly appreciated and should help us in our delivery of business professional development, workforce training, succession planning, and farm management training.” Over the past 50 years, the program has worked with more than 1,200 farm businesses in the valley.

Andrew Burleigh, general manager of West Coast Companies in Salem, said he is “definitely open to support” of the agriculture complex. West Coast Companies specializes in producing automated robotic systems for agricultural industries such as grass seed and hazelnut processing facilities.

“As technological innovations come about, you have better (employee) retention,” Burleigh said. “Here, we may be able to see more innovation that helps small businesses.”


Oregon bill would require cage-free eggs

A bill that would require eggs sold in Oregon to be produced by chickens in cage-free housing also passed the subcommittee on June 11, with no lawmakers objecting to a “do pass” recommendation.

The proposal, which mirrors laws in Washington and California, is supported by the Humane Society of the United States as well as egg producers who are part of Food Northwest, an industry group.

“It’s important to have standards that can apply across jurisdictions,” said Mike Freese, lobbyist for Food Northwest.

Under an amendment approved by the subcommittee, the cage-free standards would only apply to egg producers with more than 3,000 hens.


Working off the farm

Working off the farm can have many upsides but the underlying motivation is usually simple: Making ends meet.

A reality of life in the countryside is that most agricultural operations often don’t generate enough steady revenue for a farmer to survive without holding another job.

“There are a lot of challenges that come with farming, and stability of income definitely is one of them,” said Angi Bailey, an Oregon nursery owner who also works for an agribusiness group. “There comes a point where you just can’t pay the bills.”

Of the 2 million primary producers in the U.S. — those in charge of major decisions and day-to-day management of the farm — more than 60% work at least part of the year for another employer, according to the USDA’s recently published 2017 Census of Agriculture.

About 63% of those growers devote more than 200 days a year to off-farm work, nearly full-time employment.

“It’s tough making a living just raising cows and making mortgage payments and putting kids through school,” said Matt McElligott, an Eastern Oregon rancher who also sells livestock feed across the Northwest.

Since feed dealerships are generally separated by long stretches of rural highway, McElligott is often traveling.

Though his wife and family help juggle the responsibilities, McElligott’s two jobs do clash on occasion, such as the time 100 calves got loose when he was four hours away from his home near North Powder, Ore.

Even when things are going smoothly, there’s seldom any downtime.

“It’s early mornings and late nights and taking vacation days working on the ranch,” McElligott said. “There’s sacrifices there, but that’s what I like to do, so for me it’s not a sacrifice.”

Young and old
Not surprisingly, off-farm work is most common among young farmers who’ve yet to find their financial footing: About 80% of principal producers under 35 hold other jobs.

At age 30, Dylan Wells qualifies as a young producer, but he’s no novice at farming. He’s been operating a miniature ornamental pumpkin business, Autumn Harvest, with his family for the past 15 years.

Changed circumstances in recent years — including marriage, his father’s chronic illness and new business regulations — have prompted Wells to branch out into doing home renovations and real estate.

Wells plans to stick with farming because he relishes the hustle and bustle of running the agricultural business, which is now based near Woodburn, Ore. However, he enjoys the variety of “flipping” homes, which also lets him work as his own boss.

“It’s something new every day, it’s not the same,” Wells said. “I love problem solving.”

Off-farm work isn’t solely the province of growers who are young, beginning or small-scale. Nearly one-third of producers with farms earning more than $1 million in annual revenues also work elsewhere, as do more than a third of those whose farms encompass 2,000 acres or more.

Apart from money, off-farm jobs can provide other forms of security, such as health insurance and retirement plans.

Outside experience
Some professionals who’ve devoted years to an outside career may also be reluctant to switch their focus entirely to agriculture, said Jon Paul Driver, an industry analyst with Northwest Farm Credit Services.

“They may not want to give up some of the work they’ve been doing. It brings a diversity back to agriculture as well,” he said. “There’s room for innovation for someone who’s worked in other sectors of the economy and can bring something back to the farm.”

While off-farm work is a familiar component of rural life, USDA’s statistics don’t indicate it has become more widespread. Between 2007 and 2017, the proportion of primary producers who work off-farm has actually decreased from nearly 65% to 58%.

The decline could be a facet of the rising age of U.S. primary farm producers, which crept up from 57.1 years to 59.4 years during that decade.

“Baby boomers are still a significant portion of producers, and that’s what’s driving your off-farm income discussion,” said Driver.

Some growers may have retired from their off-farm jobs while still working in agriculture, possibly driven by the particular economic fluctuations seen during that decade, he said.

The overall U.S. economy suffered a severe recession after 2007, followed by years of a lackluster employment picture, while commodity crop prices were often solid, Driver said.

“Off-farm opportunities were not as strong, which may have contributed to fewer off-farm jobs,” he said.

Despite this shift, off-farm income has remained vital to most U.S. farm operations, many of which earn negligible revenues or lose money.

Though the average net cash income per farm is $43,000, more than half of U.S. farms are unprofitable, with an average loss of $22,000.

Lifestyle matters
Lifestyle may account for part of the reason that growers are willing to work off-farm to subsidize their agricultural operations, though they’re probably motivated by more tangible reasons as well, said Carrie Litkowski, senior economist with USDA’s Economic Research Service.

The average value of agricultural land and buildings was $1.3 million per farm in 2017, up from $790,000 in 2007.

From the grower’s perspective, hanging onto increasingly valuable farmland may be worthwhile even if the operation is barely self-sustaining, said Litkowski.

“I may be breaking even, but I have this land as an asset,” she said. “They might even see that as a net gain.”

For Matt Brechwald, working as a police officer was necessary to support his livestock and hay operation near Kuna, Idaho, but the off-farm job ultimately felt too distracting.

“The things you need to be there for, a full-time job will keep you from being there for,” he said. “The con for me is I was living two different lives.”

To supplement his income, Brechwald started a side business in gopher control that eventually became successful enough for him to quit law enforcement.

As an entrepreneur, he could be flexible enough with his schedule to pivot to farm duties when necessary.