The Dark Side of Agritainment

A longtime farmer worries that farming is being glorified as a lifestyle choice and source of entertainment, while the real food producers face a financial uphill battle.

Commentary, Local Eats

If you haven’t been to a dinner, a wedding, or a wine-tasting on a farm lately, you’ve probably seen photos of one. It’s a familiar scene: attractive hipsters sit under a picturesque grape arbor watching the setting sun while sipping rosé and dining on fresh ingredients picked from fields just a few hundred feet away. Even better, these events often have the appearance of a social mission; they’re designed to promote an appreciation of good, local food that has been grown with care and thoughtfully prepared.

But the narrative constructed at this type of event isn’t real—not by a long shot.

Farming is a dirty business, quite literally. From sunup to sundown, it’s a non-stop race against Mother Nature and her subversive ways of ensuring you get little return for your investment. I have bought expensive organic, heirloom seeds and then watched as only 60 percent germinate, and another percent gets eaten by cabbage moths, or taken out by “damping-off” (a disease, not a sweat lodge activity). Once your crops have been planted, farming is a full-on battle against weeds, gophers, cucumber beetles, sun-scald, and powdery mildew.

Then, if you’re lucky, there’s the harvest. Bending-from-the-hips helps when you’re harvesting, but I dare you to try it for hours. In the heat of mid-summer. Then lift multiple 30-pound crates of vegetables into the packing shed, and go out for more.

Have you heard the old adage, “If you want to make a million in the wine business, start with $10 million”? It now extends to dirt farmers. Apparently you can no longer just till the land, grow fruits and vegetables, show up at 6 a.m. at the farmers’ market, and make a living. The economics of farming just don’t match up with the costs, especially in peri-urban areas outside of cities like San Francisco.

Even in 1963 Arley D. Waldo’s Farming on the Urban Fringe lamented the land and labor costs of supporting a small farm near a big city. The issue is even more dire today, especially for the young people hoping assume ownership of the farms, as the current generation begins to retire. What was once an honorable if lonely profession has been usurped by the need to make more money to afford the land, the labor, the seed, and the water.

For this reason, many farmers (and investment bankers) are resorting to putting on a show for urban consumers hungry for the “NBT” (next big thing). Consumers want to get closer to their food and its source, so they’re shelling out big bucks for “agritainment”—farm-to-table dinners, “cooking from the field” events, farm weddings, cozy Airbnb cottages where visitors can get up close and personal with cows, and sheep, and chickens. But heaven forbid they should get their Manolo’s dirty.

In Sonoma County, California, where I live, a San Francisco-based investment banker has started a “farm” on the outskirts of one of the major tourist towns. But it appears he knows better than to do it the traditional way. Instead, it’s a lifestyle opportunity complete with yoga retreats, hammocks, and a chance to pick your own kale. Yes, he also grows some vegetables.

Meanwhile, at Disney’s Epcot Center in Orlando you can see 2.5 million square feet of indoor farming funded by Nestlé. The effort includes Mickey Mouse-shaped vegetables growing in a Styrofoam-based hydroponic system, fed by liquid micronutrients and artificial sun.

Giant pumpkin patches are another bastardization of what was once a charming outing for kids and families to get to know local farms. Charlie Brown’s “great pumpkin” now has to weigh over 400 pounds to get any attention. The Round-up-ready corn mazes, plastic jumpy houses, and expensive hayrides are a far cry from a trip to a real farm field.

One nearby dairy farm has been spending countless hours—not to mention valuable water resources—adding a pumpkin patch to their operation. Happy cows aren’t enough anymore? Surely Martha Stewart—and her endless drive to turn everything that was once deemed “authentic” into a lifestyle brand—is partly to blame.

Farmers’ markets, which have become equal parts social occasion and grocery shopping opportunity, are also not immune to this kind of Disneyfication. Millennials with Cadillac strollers in designer sundresses clog the aisles as those searching for actual produce try to navigate between people caught up in conversations.

What is wrong with all this? Nothing, if the farmer is making a living and people are eating more healthy, local foods.

But neither is exactly true. Farmers in Sonoma County—real farmers with dirt under their fingernails and aching backs—make an average of $12.21 an hour, or just under $34,000 a year. The average household income in the U.S. for small farmers (the 82 percent of U.S. farming operations that have annual sales of $100,000 or less) is $81,000. Around 85 to 95 percent of that income number comes from off-farm “day jobs.”

But everyone must be eating more fresh fruit and vegetables, right? Nope. According to the Produce for Better Health Foundation, national consumption has declined 7 percent over the past five years. Kids are eating more fresh produce, thanks to new U.S. Department of Agriculture standards for school lunches. But that doesn’t help the family farmer who can’t supply a school with 10 acres or less of local produce.

That farmer has to try something bigger and better to attract customers. So she takes out a personal loan and adds a jumpy house in the pumpkin field and music in her henhouse and a viewing window in her cheese operation. To pay the interest on her “improvements,” she raises her prices and opens the farm gates to paying guests. And next door, another farmer might add a train ride and beer garden and charge even more. Farm Disneyland, here we come.

None of this has anything to do with walking through beautiful fields of food, breathing clean country air, listening to the soft bleating of sheep, or collecting fresh eggs. Those should be the real rewards for a trip to a local farm. If that’s not enough, maybe the only place you will see vegetables growing in the future is in Orlando.

 

Deborah Walton and husband Tim Schaible have retired from Canvas Ranch to a little farmhouse in Tuscany, but will return to Sonoma County to keep an eye on things. Meanwhile, a new generation of owners from Silicon Valley is picking up Canvas Ranch where they left off. She hopes the future is still about the soil, the animals, and the food.

View Comments

  1. Chris
    Wednesday, September 21st, 2016
    We've entered a transition period where small (sub 1 acre) farms are pulling over $100,000 in sales for two people - see The Market Gardner here http://amzn.to/2d4DHcq - I've read about other 2 acre organic farms bringing in over $250,000 in sales with just a handful of workers.

    All we hear about in the media is big ag, how it is hard to make a living farming 10,000 acres of corn or soy or whatever it is. I imagine it is when you are making $50/acre of subsidized commodity crop.

    We need farms to shift with the times - Ag is going small, organic, do that. Farming is hard, so is any business, but you have be lean and nimble in your business - shift with the times - I think older farmers just want to keep it the same, its not.
    • Ben
      Wednesday, September 21st, 2016
      The 100,000 in sales for 2 people on 1 acre seems impressive until you look at it further. It is a labor intensive operation and works well as they are in a area that has enough income to support higher value pricing. Many areas can't support this model as there isn't enough economic activity. Farming has cyclical trends and boom and bust periods. Having 40 Broadfork farms in Eastern Colorado on 40 acres won't generate 4 million in sales. Location, location, location matters in retail and production.
    • Chris
      Thursday, September 22nd, 2016
      Thanks for the comment Ben. I have looked at these systems closer. working 8-5 each day during the season and having winters off to travel and surf while pulling $100k in sales seems pretty nice to me. These guys are not selling at high prices either, they are in rural Canada 2 hours outside Montreal - JM has mentioned if he was closer to NYC he could double or triple his prices. 10-20 1acre intensive farms in most regions like this is exactly what is needed to supply the local market with fresh high value crops in order to ween off of imported produce and not compete with big ag.
  2. Jennie
    Wednesday, September 21st, 2016
    My husband and I run a farm in Marshfield, MO. We would have liked to live in Sonoma CA or NW Washington, but the trouble is that it's so expensive. So we chose the Ozarks. Beautiful land, and SO much less expensive. So when we started, at least we had a chance for survival. We haven't done any Farm-to-Table dinners yet, but I see no problem with it! Farmers today have to get creative to make ends meet, and lets face it, most people are SO far from knowing about there food system that I think it's really helpful to get folks out to learn more about their local farms. And why not cash in on money they may be spending out at a restaurant somewhere anyways?
  3. Esperanza Pallana
    Wednesday, September 21st, 2016
    Thank you Ms. Walton for this insightful piece. You make a great point. I myself have felt frustrated by the glorified depictions of farming, especially the way in which farm workers get invisibilized. We rarely hear mention of them and we rarely see them in media representation about sustainable agriculture, preserving farmland, and the need to support small farmers that provide fair wages and working conditions for their labor force. So any time we pause and take a more truthful look at our farming and food industry in the U.S., we are helping engage in a much needed dialogue that will hopefully lead to transforming a terribly troubled food system.
  4. Kevin
    Wednesday, September 21st, 2016
    Jennie - We spent a summer in Marshfield a few years ago. Stayed at Biggs' Motel for part of it. I agree that it is a beautiful area, with rolling pastures, great timber and wonderful people!

    While agri-industry continues their horrible march of death as it pertains to people, soil, water & air, it seems a real transition is going on in agri-culture.

    The people want what they want, and no amount of trying to get them to appreciate what you have, even if it is what they need, is likely to be successful.

    If they want bouncy houses & wine tastings, what's the harm? Production and distribution of real value (like quality food) is not immune to the influence of consumer preference... and likely doesn't really need to be. IMHO
  5. Wednesday, September 21st, 2016
    My god what a whine-fest. If this is your life, get the hell out of farming. I own a 10 acre farm and grow herbs. I am a member of a local small farmer co op that offers those like me a chance to sell to large accounts. I love it. I am 67 and work my ass off but it is worth it. I don't make a million or plan to but the intangible rewards are huge. Fuck the millenial hipsters. Sell local to people who appreciate good food. Sell to restaurants, schools, etc. You need to move from Sonoma to a rural area near a smaller city. Make a choice about the rest of your life.
  6. Wednesday, September 21st, 2016
    Well I'm glad your poor dirt farm let you retire to Tuscany. Sounds like your really had a rough time at it. Breaking your back in Sonoma County? What a joke. If you want to trash on farmers trying to diversify their operations to survive then maybe you should at least be a farmer not sipping wine in Italy. Pumpkin patches and Epcot in the same category? I've been farming for 8 years and yes it's a struggle to survive but bringing people onto our farm has been the best way to educate the public about why it is important to buy local and support organic. Agritourism- which by the way is very big in your new country- is great for farmers and the public alike.
    • Nick J
      Thursday, September 22nd, 2016
      My thoughts exactly.
  7. John Edwards
    Thursday, September 22nd, 2016
    So let me get this straight. You bought a place in Sonoma after making a bunch of money in the city. Then farming is too hard to make a living beaucse the land gets too expensive because rich people are moving from the city to country. Give me a break. Husband is a famous artist and former 'very successful art director'. Um ok.
  8. Nancy Prebilich
    Thursday, September 22nd, 2016
    Well said, Deborah. I couldn't agree with you more.
  9. Lisa
    Thursday, September 22nd, 2016
    This rubs me the wrong way as well. Being somewhat local to your Canvas Ranch, my understanding of your career is: you came from the professional world, became a small farmer for 15 years, hung it up, went back into your old professional field, sold your farm for >$3M, and have now retired to Tuscany.
    Like someone else said, you haven't done so bad for yourself! My take is you bought into and lived the dream as so many others have done, and so many want to do. And why not...it's better than sitting in a cubicle! The rub is that not everyone who dreams of doing this has the deep-pockets to buy a lovely farm and live the life for even one year, let alone 15 years. As friends of mine say "this is a first-world problem" you complain about.
  10. Terry
    Thursday, September 22nd, 2016
    While I have faith in the idea of small farms, because I am part of a successful model, I would like to point out to Chris that I also have read J.M. fortier's book and work on a veggie farm that grosses over $250,000 and some years the farmer earns less than his labor simply because of the hours logged. I do my best to avoid supporting big ag and promote local small organic farms, but the point of the article is well made and I wish more customers recognized the forces behind the products brought to market. Fortier's book is a nice window into the function of a small market farm, but I'm sure he is grateful for th book's profits. I think other 1.5 acre farms also benefit from supplemental income unless you have a truly specialized niche
  11. Paul
    Thursday, September 22nd, 2016
    Thank you for this article. Rural areas all over California are struggling to define "agritourism" under an onslaught of investment by urbanites seeking to cash in. The wedding industry is playing a big role in this as everyone wants to get married on a "farm" these days. Farmers fighting to keep ag areas from being turned in Farm Disneyland are increasingly seen as backwards and worse. Meanwhile, the agritourism development drives farmland prices even higher than they already are; out of reach of anyone actually hoping to farm.
  12. Denise
    Friday, September 23rd, 2016
    What is wrong with people enjoying a farm without getting dirty? And why dictate what a farmer can or can't do to make an income or make their business attractive? Why look down on people who want a farm experience but not the REAL farm experience? I'm an artist and farmer and when people come over to the farm, they are coming to my home. I want them to feel special and enjoy the good life, not make them sit amongst my oil painting rags, charcoal dust , pig wallow and chicken feathers so they can experience the reality. That's not farm or art hospitality nor is it good business sense. I don't want people to see my hard labor. Why? The food itself should speak to my love and labor. My blood, sweat and tears will shine in the beauty of my fields. I want visitors to taste delicious food, drink in the sights and comfort their souls. Yes, this is giving people a fantasy, a dream. If it comes down to it, that's the joy of farming and art. What's wrong with that? On another note, your bio states that you retired from your farm. I hope you didn't sell to the kind of people you are concerned about. Then you also become part of the problem you addressed.
  13. fran
    Friday, September 23rd, 2016
    who cares why people choose to grow food? those who choose to do it based on a romanticized notion will soon find out the reality, and will either sink or swim. and if they piss away their fortune earned else-wise into the bargain, so be it. small farms need to capitalize on every revenue stream possible, whether it is selling what they grow or selling an experience. i only hope that, when they are making money, they choose to give back by making some of what they grow accessible to those that could not afford it otherwise. imho, the article reeks of bitterness and privilege, fails in terms of it's logic, and any credibility the writer might have had is lost at " little farmhouse in tuscany".
  14. Ernest Martinson
    Saturday, September 24th, 2016
    Of course dirt farmers cannot just till the soil. To compete with unsustainable farming on a level farming field, poor dirt farmers must harvest some of industrial farming’s subsidies through such useless appendages as the farm bill and the USDA.
  15. Kristen Penner
    Tuesday, September 27th, 2016
    Thank you Ginger Edwards! My sentiments exactly.
  16. Brooke
    Sunday, October 2nd, 2016
    Absolutely great point to make and I make the same point about the wine business all the time. Over past 10 years the wine industry has become a giant everyone-wants-in marketing nightmare. Rich people, movie stars, and anyone who has enough money to pay to produce a product they can't sell for 1-2 years and then market it and sell it themselves want in. Many of the people starting wine businesses, don't actually need the money to live, or are doing it because it seems cool or fun, or they want to be this 'ideal' of cool winemaker but for them it's about creating a cool bottle with a cool label and cool brand story that they can sell. Not about quality or the fruit or the land it came from or about supporting the wine community
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