Subsidy or Subsistence?

When people ask me about EEC Forest Stewardship as a farm, they have a certain understanding of what farming means, and usually end up calling my endeavors to produce food “subsistence” farming. This term is arrived at because I state that the farm is not a money making endeavor- as in- not for profit. Farms are not usually designated as non-profit, and I explain that EEC is not an industrial production center. The definition subsistence is arrived at through what I believe is a serious misconception fueled by ignorance. Today I’d like to clear up a few things about agriculture to shift our understanding of farming and the realities of food production in this country.

It seems today that the general public believes farming is ether big business or subsistence, as though there are no other avenues or opportunities in agriculture beyond money- this trend can be traced across all aspects of our economy, profits determine productivity. Where food is concerned, this is certainly an alarming trend, because eating is a requirement for survival, and putting a price on food has always been a dangerous liaison. At EEC, our animal systems break even, and sometimes provide a little surplus in financial gain. We raise many more animals that we need to survive here, so we’re well past the “subsistence” category, by definition. But when I say the farm is not my main source of income, and more specifically, that I do not engage in industrial agriculture, it is assumed the farming is sub-whatever. How far from the truth this is.

Restoration agriculture is priceless. I’ve written a few articles about how much the livestock systems add to the fertility of the land, as well as the larder, but that’s not how agriculture is taught- if it’s taught at all. Most people see only profit status, like in their own work place, and if you say you are not producing said profits, you’re subpar- subsistence. Based on money alone as the measurement, we should then include all the subsidies that industrial farms receive for their viability. Most farms at least have a tax # which provides discounts on purchases related to agriculture. This can be anything from seed for planting, to oil for the tractor, to hay for the animals. EEC does not have a tax #, though we have filed F4 tax papers as a legitimate agricultural business, we do not take advantage of any subsidies and remain independent of government “handouts”. This is more than most for profit farms can claim.

It is a sad fact that most farming would not survive without subsidies, and I am all in favor for them while we operate in a broken Neo-liberal capitalist system which serves only one cause- making money. When your goal is producing food, you will always come out in the red, as food is not valued as it should be, considered it’s a required input for survival. Instead, the majority of crop production in this country, and many others, are labeled “soft” commodities, and traded as such. Food is group in with oil and gold- a sad state of affairs in our modern industrial complex. So when you think of a small family farm with a picturesque big red barn, you’re romanticizing the industry, which whitewashes agriculture to hide the truth of food production from the consumer. If people had to pay the actual cost of food, most could not afford it- many still can’t even now, with the subsidies.

At EEC, we produce enough eggs and lamb to sell in a small word of mouth, slow food community. This allows us to work within the unpredictability of production without hard line requirements and penalization if we can’t meet a certain number each year. This is a major sticking point in industrial agricultural- you have to meet the production numbers so there are not shortages. Consequently, most large producers overproduce and end up with a gluttony of product they then dump- literally pour out on the ground, burn, compost, or destroy in some other way, to keep prices stable. When the production fails- which can happen quite often in nature through natural disasters, disease, or climate change- farmers still get insurance payouts or more subsidies to get them through a bad year. In 2020, industrial farmers received nearly 40% of their income from government subsides. That’s a cash cow I’d like to be raising- who wouldn’t?

This land produces a reasonable amount of eggs and lamb, but also produces a few fruit trees, veggies from the kitchen garden, fertility to enhance production in the soil without chemical inputs, and hosts a small number of tenants who pay a predictable monthly rental income. When all this gets added up, EEC is certainly providing enough income to support the cost of production, taxes, and paying the bills, so are we really just subsisting? My personal expenses are not covered by these productions, so I run a consulting firm on the side to help other people setting up their land production and smart restoration systems. I use my land as a sort of demonstration space to show potential clients what these systems look like and how successful they are. Is that subsistence farming? No, but when you tell someone you don’t make money off your production, that’s what they seem to think. Yet people also forget that industrial agriculture is only profitable with government subsidies.

I think most agriculture would still be subsistence if we didn’t subsidize it. Though to be clear- my sheep reproduce well, and I sell about 6-8 animals a year. USDA considers anything less than 500 small. On a national scale, that is a tiny fraction of global production, but to a small hill farmer like me, it’s enough to pay the cost of hay and salt, as well as fencing, LGD food cost, and a little extra for when I buy new stock to improve my herd genetics. None of this is subsidized, though I could apply for some, especially in my tax filing with the F4. But I don’t like to play those money games, and think we should be paying what things are actually worth- especially food. What I ask for in payment for a lamb is about $14/lb., but you only pay about $11 at COSTCO (non-organic), but it’s $14/lb. for organic, so I’m asking what market price is. Yet I’m not getting a subsidy on top of that. Why not take a subsidy- because I am not subsistence farming!

Please take time to look into food legislation- here are some helpful sites I recommend beyond this blog:

Who Funds Agriculture? (<– wow! follow the $$$

Food Politics– Marion Nestle

How industrial farms abuse the subsidies (explicit)

Mother Earth News

Farm Programs


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