This story originally appeared in Oregon Business Magazine
It may be obvious, but most farmers don’t make a lot of money. According to preliminary data from the 2012 Agriculture Census, 52% of America’s 2.1 million principal farm-operators don’t call farming their primary occupation. Presumably, that’s because they need off-farm income and/or health care benefits to survive.
Curious to know a little bit more about how farmers make a living in Oregon—particularly on small and medium-sized farms—I called up a farmer I’d bumped into recently at the Farmer-Chef Connection conference, Josh Volk. Volk, who worked at Sauvie Island Organics for seven years before launching his own organic vegetable farm, Slow Hand Farm, is now farming at Our Table Cooperative in Sherwood.
Farmer Josh Volk at Our Table Cooperative
(photo by Shawn Linehan)
When he was at Sauvie Island Organics, Volk averaged 40 hours a week and received a monthly salary. But Volk wanted to spend less time farming and more time sharing his wisdom about farming. When he left to start Slow Hand Farm, he kept it small enough—.15 acres—so that he could get all his production, harvesting, planting, cultivating, and deliveries done in two days—and devote the remaining three to teaching, consulting, and writing.
As sole proprietor of Slow Hand Farm, Volk was able to turn a profit and pay himself a salary, though a meager one. “It varied from season to season. I think my worst year was something like $7.50 an hour. My best year was $10 an hour,” says Volk, who posted the figures on his blog. Fortunately, Volk—like over half of American farmers—had “off-farm” income coming in to supplement his farming income.
One of his consulting projects was helping former Microsoft program manager Narendra Varma and his wife Machelle develop Our Table Cooperative Farm, a multi-stakeholder cooperative in Sherwood. When Varma asked Volk to join his team of vegetable farmers, Volk initially hesitated because Our Table was so far from his St. John’s home. But many elements of the project appealed to Volk, so he ultimately agreed to fold Slow Hand Farm’s CSA into Our Table.
Now Volk—who works at Our Table three days a week— makes more than he did at his own farm, and he no longer has to market or distribute his vegetables—other staffers perform these jobs. (One of the benefits of Our Table’s model is a shared infrastructure including marketing, selling, and distribution—not to mention farm equipment, tools, and land. The farmer is freed up to do what he or she does best: farm.) That said, Volk, an avid biker, is committed to dropping off Our Table CSA shares via his cargo bike at Wieden+Kennedy, a yoga studio in Northeast, and his own front porch in St. John’s.
A veggie share from Our Table Cooperative Farm
During a year-long trial period, Volk and five other farmers have been working as regular employees, but now they’re faced with a decision: will they financially invest in the co-op and be partial owners? Or leave? If Volk decides to be a partial owner, he, along with other farmer-owners, will not only be eligible for profit-sharing, he’ll be able to make decisions about what to grow and what to do with the profit. For example, if farmer-owners choose to, they could vote to provide themselves with health insurance.
At first glance, the cooperative model seems to offer farmers a more stable income. Rather than being reliant on the weather, or how much you sell at the farmers’ market each week, you get an agreed-upon salary. (Though Volk works part-time, the other five farmers at Our Table are full time. An additional two part-time farmers were hired last week.) But as Volk points out, a worker-owned co-op isn’t all that different than any other business, it’s just that a group makes decisions instead of a CEO. “If you don’t make the budget, like in any budget, you either have to decide to shut something down or take out debt,” notes Volk.
Continue reading at Oregon Business Magazine.