Rachel Scirbona, owner of Beet of My Heart farm, also teaches aerial yoga and walks dogs.
Farmers are hustling. They always have. But now, as the behemoth farms get ever bigger, little growers are having a harder time than ever competing. Some rely on pensions or social security to make ends meet, but more small farmers every year are living with one foot in a farm boot and another in some other kind of shoe.
And they’re making it work. The average American farming household is actually doing pretty well – but not because their farms are making money. “In recent years, slightly more than half of farm households have lost money on their farming operations each year,” says the USDA’s Economic Research Service. That’s right, lost money. But their off-farm income keeps on growing, subsidizing this farming habit they can’t seem to kick.
They wouldn’t have it any other way.
By Becca Tucker
[Aerial yoga instructor, dog walker]
‘I’m not expecting to make money from the farm for at least the first few seasons’
“I wouldn’t necessarily say I wanted to have so many side jobs,” said Rachel Scirbona, a dog-walking, aerial-yoga-instructing farmer. “Farming isn’t a big money maker, and there are still bills. New York is an expensive place to live.”
But teaching aerial yoga feels more like play than work, more like a circus act than a yoga class. Scirbota started taking classes at Chester’s Flexibility in Flight three years ago, and last summer got into teaching.
“It’s a great way to stay in shape and work on flexibility while just having fun,” she said. Teaching once a week is “a way to offset an expensive hobby.”
Scirbona spends about 90 percent of her working life farming: as a famhand at two different farms in Cornwall, where she grew up, and as the owner of the farm she just launched, Beet of My Heart, in Chester’s black dirt. The dog walking-and-petsitting gig provides a good chunk of her income. It’s a nice complement to farming because it picks up in the winter; people are less keen to walk their dogs when it’s snowing. Hour for hour, dog walking is much more lucrative than growing food.
Two years ago, when the Chester Agricultural Project made it possible to lease some land and start off on her own, Scirbona couldn’t pass up the opportunity. “I hadn’t planned for it to happen, but I went for it,” she said.
The first year on your own farm is always tricky. Between learning the land, and getting a crash course in business 101, there’s a steep learning curve. Scirbona, with help from her retired dad, grew produce, flowers and herbs, which she sold produce to a health food store and had a small CSA. She “definitely lost money,” what with the upfront costs of equipment and seeds. “I’m not really expecting to make money from the farm for at least the first few seasons,” she said. Next season she hopes to add restaurants to her customer base. “We love to grow things, we’re maybe not so in tune with the business side. That’s something we need to work on,” she said.
How does it feel to realize that busting your tail to grow clean food isn’t going to bring in enough to earn a living? “I do wish that we placed more value on the thing that literally keeps you alive,” said Scirbona, “but it’s not how society works.” Some people simply can’t afford to pay the prices that she needs to set, Scirbona said.
Knowing what she knows now, would she do still become a farmer? Or maybe keep studying conservation biology, go get that PhD she once considered?
“I ask myself that a lot,” she said. “Some days the answer is yes, some days it’s no. I think mostly I love what I do. I wish I had maybe had a better plan going into it. But I don’t think I’d change too much.”
‘The margins are thin in agriculture. You have to be a problem solver.’
Brian Browne’s mom grew up on a farm in Ireland. His dad was a New York City fireman. Browne, 47, has followed in both parents’ footsteps.
No two weeks are alike, but usually Browne is in the city for about between 48 and 72 hours per week, working as a New York City firefighter on Rescue Company 3, a special operations team that responds to anything from a car accident to a six-story building collapse in upper Manhattan and the Bronx.
But those hours often include overnights, “so that leaves me a lot of daytime where I can do farming and just stuff around here, just trying to keep up, whether I’m going to pick up cows, bringing ‘em to the processor, or selling hay. I sell a lot of hay, so there’s always a lot of people coming in and out.” Easy!
Browne’s Longview Farm has 14 beef cows and farms about 225 acres in Warwick, most of it in hay. He also has a wife and three daughters.
“It’s a lot, but I usually try and do the farm related stuff during the week and have it done before they get home from school, because then I’m going into the city overnight. I gotta balance it out so I’m not like a phantom around here,” he said. He has been doing this dual-gigging since 1998, when he bought the farm, and over the years he’s struck a good balance. He hasn’t missed one of his daughter’s travel soccer games.
He was tapped for the special operations company partly because of his experience with heavy machinery (once upon a time he owned an excavating business). Those skills come in handy around the farm, too. “If you have to pay someone to do things you don’t know how to do, the margins are so thin in agriculture, you’re going to be out of business pretty quick,” he said. “You have to be a problem solver. That goes along with both of my occupations.”
About 80 percent of Browne’s income comes from firefighting, along with benefits like health insurance and the pension that will kick in a few years from now, when he plans to become a full-time farmer. Browne sells a lot of his grass-fed beef to other firemen, who are into working out and looking to eat better. Someone’s usually willing to switch shifts, too, if it looks like rain and Browne has to finishing getting hay up.
“If I had a very rigid schedule where I had to leave hay in the field, I wouldn’t last too long,” he said.
The off-farm income has allowed him to keep his farm small enough that he can enjoy it. “I think if I was going to rely on farming itself, I would have to get bigger,” he said. “I rely on a lot of farmers around here for information. Everybody’s great, but they don’t have that safety net.”
‘We’re taking a gamble, but life is a gamble’
Rose Hubbert started farming three years ago, in her late 50s. “I feel like I’m 100, I’m pushing 60, but I think like I’m 20,” said Hubbert, of Back to the Future Farm in Westtown, NY. “So I gotta live the way I think, you know?”
She’s also the bookkeeper and part-owner, along with her husband, of Lee’s Quality Tire in Middletown. “I’ve been known to get under a car and take tires off, start an oil change when they’re busy, run the counter, sweep the floors,” she said. But these days, she spends 90 percent of her time on the farm, and her heart lives there full-time. Just talking about her Jersey cows makes her smile.
“I’ve got the most beautiful view. For me to go into Middletown anymore, God I hate it. But we do it all because we have to do it, you know.”
It all started about five years ago, when Rose’s husband Lee gave her a few bull calves to raise for beef. Rose fell in love.
The Hubberts are out to prove that you can still support a family dairy farming in this state. The job is not obsolete – you’ve just got to find your niche. They sell their lightly pasteurized milk, eggs and roasters to some of the best restaurants in the city, like 11 Madison Park, Agern, and Greecologies, a grass-fed Greek yogurt shop in SoHo. With a few employees, the Hubberts do a dozen farmers’ markets in the city, and are looking to add more.
“My husband is so good to me. He got me a vat for Christmas so I can now start doing my own yogurt,” said Rose. “I’ll be starting cheese production. I just spoke to someone to rent out space in their cave to start doing hard cheese. We’re experimenting with different cultures. We’re playing, you know? We’re playing. And we’re enjoying it.”
The tire and automotive repair business has been “phenomenal” to Rose and her husband Lee, who’s 55, allowing them to travel. But “we’re just at the point at our life when it’s time for us to do what we want to do,” she said. “Isn’t that what retirement is about? This farm is our retirement business.”
This life isn’t actually what most people would think of as retirement: Hubbert gets up at three a.m. every morning, and twelve-year-old son Joshua joins his parents in the barn at 4:30 a.m. and, if he doesn’t have sports, again after school. The Hubberts are “both workaholics. We could never do nothing – my god I would go insane.”
They’re planning to take the plunge and become full-time farmers in the next few years. Sure it’s risky: the couple is old enough that Rose is petrified of what a fall on the ice might do, but young enough that social security is a ways away.
“You know our whole lives we have worked and worked and worked for everything, and damn is it time for us to do what we want to do. We’ve taken care of so many other people. It’s our time now, you know?”
[Fuel oil deliveryman]
‘Mother Nature can be a mean gal, or she can be kind’
Vinny D’Attolico objects to the wording of the message I left on his voicemail, and rightly so. He’s not a “part-time farmer.” He’s a full-time farmer with a seasonal side job, which means in the winter he works six, sometimes seven days a week.
As soon as their daughter, Clarice, gets on the bus at 7 a.m., it’s “on your mark, get set, go,” said D’Attolico. In the winter, Vinny’s wife Denise does most of the farming: tending the pea and sunflower shoots, the Chinese bean sprouts that the couple will cut on Friday and sell at the Union Square Greenmarket on Saturdays. Vinny, meanwhile, drives a Quinn Oil fuel truck Mondays through Thursdays from December until early March.
“Oh it’s fun,” he said. “You see a lot of things while you’re driving all the roads. You go to different places, different houses, you meet nice people, you meet people who need help.” His boss gives his drivers free heating oil, too.
Vinny grew up helping his parents farm, and after his dad passed, he took over his parents’ spot at the Union Square Greenmarket in 1998. “In the beginning of the markets, it was the big heyday, it was like the gold rush,” said D’Attolico. “When farmers markets started in the city, it was so intense, people would be there at 6 a.m. to help unload your truck and you’d be done by lunchtime. Nowadays, there’s markets everywhere you turn, every day, so unless you have specialties… you always have to be one-up on somebody to keep it going.”
The D’Attolicos decided to specialize in organic sprouts and to scale down, letting go their employees. And in 2003, Vinny asked Mike Quinn, as he was delivering Vinny’s heating oil: “Not for nothing, I’m sure you got a lot of people call you up, but…” Did he need a driver?
Two weeks later, Vinny got his commercial driver’s license. “Not only do I get a paycheck, I also get the oil for my house, and my mom, he gives oil for her just above cost,” said Vinny. On Sundays Vinny does his best not to do anything except spend time with Clarice and Denise: maybe a snowmobile ride, movie night or game night.
“It’s not that [farming’s] not enough to make a living,” he said. “You can make a living the very first year you do it. It all depends on Mother Nature. She can be a mean gal, or she can be kind.” D’Attolico Organic Farm got hit hard by the triple-whammy: Hurricane Irene in 2011, which turned Pine Island into a lake; Tropical Lee that same year; then Hurricane Sandy crushing greenhouses in 2012.
“My mom and dad had the most wonderful year one year: they paid their mortgage, went to Italy, and they were able to invest. I’m waiting for that.”
If they won the lottery, Vinny and Denise would keep doing just what they’re doing. “We can’t quit. Too many people depend on us,” he said, and related a story: he and Denise got married at noon outside the Florida library, then went to dinner, came home, changed, and went out to the field to see if the seeds they planted were coming up. “We was curious,” said Vinny. “It’s just what we do.”
‘I think of it as we’re both healing in different ways’
Like many an English major, Madeleine Banulski thought she might like to be a farmer. She signed up for a two-year stint volunteering for Americore on a farm for adults with disabilities. One day in the middle of July, she was crawling along in the dirt, weeding, and found herself wondering, “Could I lie in the shade of these carrots?”
Banulski liked the community aspect of farming, not to mention the food. She ended up marrying farmer Simon Ziegler, whom she met at the farm where they both volunteered. But she suffers in the heat. That July day she had an epiphany: “Maybe I don’t need to do this every day ever.”
She went back to school and got her nursing degree, while Ziegler got his degree in organic farming degree and became a farm manager. Last year, the couple moved to Chester to launch their own organic farm in the black dirt. Ziegler took the reins at Sun Sprout Farm. Banulski, 33, worked in the field while she looked for her first nursing job.
She didn’t have to look long. Horizon Family Medical Group in Goshen hired her, maybe in part because she was a farmer. “I think it helped me get the job,” she said. They wanted someone who lived close by, who would commit long-term. “I told them I’m never moving. My land is here, and I’m going to live here forever,” she said. Also, the whole office is “pretty into health” – not just medication – with a focus on first-line therapy like lifestyle modifications and dietary therapy. “They like the idea of an organic farmer,” said Banulski.
She works 40 hours a week as a nurse, and in the evening she does the farm bookkeeping or helps harvest. “I’m valuable because I’m unpaid labor,” she laughed. This summer she will be manning a Saturday farmers’ market. Once in awhile she’ll get to the farm at 6am and harvest before work. In the summer, she puts in eight to 10 hours a week. She is, after all, the farm’s co-owner.
Her steady, non-seasonal salary – in addition to money Ziegler saved from working on other farms – has been indispensable to starting their farm on a serious scale. They were able to lease 20 acres and buy a tractor and heavy duty weeding equipment, before they’d sold their first piece of produce.
“It’s been a really good balance for us, the farm and the nursing,” she said. “I always think of it as we’re both healing in different ways.”