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.