Sunday, May 25, 2014

Family Farms: Get Big or Leave Home

Last week I was invited to speak at the Eastern Shore Local Government Exchange on the topic of agricultural diversification. The title of my talk was "Family Farms: Get Big or Leave Home" and actually was equal parts agricultural diversification versus farm succession to the next generation.

Our family farm is probably one of the most diversified, large farm in the State of Maryland. We grow a variety of grains, seeds, hay, processing vegetables, and of course, winegrapes.

The picture you see here is our "Board of Directors", as we are an incorporated farm, which simply means we have a business structure for tax and liability purposes. The picture is about 7 years old so the four kids are now all teenagers, one in college, the rest in high school.

Our challenge as a farm family is 2 fold:

1) How to interest the kids who will be the 4th generation to want to farm.

2) How to diversify enough that there would be enough work and enough income to support them and their eventual families should all 4 decide to return to the family farm.

As we as a family have talked about farm succession, we've agreed that the 4 kids (2 are mine, 2 are my brother in laws) need to have at least 2 years of post high school education. That can be college, military, or technical school. They also need to work full time off the farm for 2 years for someone else, not necessarily on a farm, so that they gain an understanding and an appreciation about what employment for someone else is like. Lastly, and most importantly, they have to want to farm. Our family farm is not their fall back position in the event that they cannot find other work. The farm does not have the obligation to employ them simply because they're family. They need to have the skills and interest to return to the farm and the the farm has to need those skills and have the financial wherewithal to provide them with full time employment. Despite our current size and diversity, the farm does not currently have that capacity.

So back to my presentation title "Go Big or Leave Home". Currently, the farm employs myself, husband, brother in law, parents in law, 1 full time non-family member, and a crew of part time and seasonal workers including the 4 kids. With our current size, structure, and diversification, we do not have full time work or year round work for additional family members. To do so, we need to add more acres to the operation in order to add more work so that we can then, add more employees. We need to "get bigger" to support additional family members on the family farm.

Family farms are businesses and need to be profitable in order to make a living for the entire family. With multi-generational farms, this includes the oldest living generation to the youngest working-age generation.

Thus the premise of my presentation title "Get Big or Leave Home", the reality is to take on additional family members, there needs to be work for them to do, and income to support their payroll. Its just the reality of running any business, farm or nonfarm.

We will always need farmers. Diversification is only one part of the solution. Size plays a major role in the ability of a family farm to support multiple generations, so that the kids have the option of not leaving home.