Small-farm income depends on non-farm income

October 26, 2003|by LYN WIDMER

My husband Ron is a fourth-generation dairy farmer. Even though we have been married for 20 years, I still do not know how to operate a tractor. I have no idea of the difference between spring oats and fall wheat. I have only helped in the dairy parlor under duress (I wonder if Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm endured facial swipes from manure soaked cow tails?)

Once at the Jefferson County Fair, I was urged to enter a drawing for free canning supplies. I resisted. "But you might win," pressed the booth manager. "That's what I am afraid of," I replied, shuddering at the thought of preserving endless jars of tomato pulp.

Despite my lack of mechanical and livestock skills and my total disinterest in canning, I am essential to our farm's operation.

I am the off farm income.

Thanks to my job as a county land-use planner, our family has health insurance, a steady income (independent of the weather and national farming policy) and a pension plan. My husband had a farm pension program but was forced to empty its modest reserves to cover farm debt after a dry summer.


I grew up in the suburbs and actually thought cows just started producing milk when they turned 2 years old. Who knew they first had to have calves? When I married Ron, his father Leo was amazed at the number of wedding gifts featuring cows - all from my city friends. We received platters painted with cows, cow imprinted water glasses, cow-shaped towel racks and even an ice cream scoop that mooed. Leo just shook his head. "I don't get it," he said. After a lifetime of backbreaking work running a dairy farm, Leo had no interest in bovine dcor.

I understand Leo's reaction after being married to a full-time farmer. I have seen Ron work 16 hours a day planting corn only to have the entire crop wiped out by too many days of scorching heat.

I have watched him dump 1,000 gallons of milk down the drain because a tired dairy worker mistakenly added the milk from a single cow on antibiotics to the holding tank.

Once I commented on the nice rain we were enjoying. Ron informed me the $10,000 worth of corn seed he had just planted would probably wash away. Only a miracle saved Ron from being killed when his pants cuff got caught in the header of a combine and 18 inch metal spikes started rotating through his leg.

He drove himself to the emergency room. Ron and his plaster encased leg had to be hoisted into the combine, but he finished the harvest that fall.

Off-farm income and off-farm health benefits helped us weather these mishaps.

Sometimes I wish the image of family farms was something less appealing than herds of cows and fields of corn. Such pastoral views fail to convey that agriculture is an industry, not an open-space category. The industrial policy for farming is set at the national level and emphasizes providing cheap food and lots of it. Most Americans, including Ron, support this objective but it has been the death knell for small farms. Large corporate operations can make money on the slimmest of profit margins simply due to the huge harvests they produce. Family farms like ours cannot compete.

So it falls to off-farm-income spouses like me to help keep family farms in operation. I don't mind. I like my job even if I have to commute 100 miles a day to work.

It sure beats canning tomatoes.

Lyn Widmyer is a Charles Town, W.Va., resident who writes for The Herald-Mail.

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