Ode to Being a Part-time Farmer [Opinion]

I work with many grape growers in Virginia. Some of them work full time at a single vineyard operation. Many of them farm smaller vineyards and have jobs off the farm. I fall in the latter group, I work off the farm with my university role, but moonlight at my family farm. Individuals in both of these groups work hard and impress me with their resourcefulness and work ethic.

Many of these part-time farmers, myself included, sometimes feel that life might just be easier if one could “farm full time,” and not work “off the farm.” Perhaps balancing obligations might be less complicated, but perhaps that would not be the case. I remind myself of the saying “the job takes as long as the time allowed to do the job. All who work in agriculture deal with serious time constraints, many that are dependent on the weather. To a point, this is one of the factors that makes agriculture fun. These constraints are difficult for all of us, not just the part-time farmers and not just the full-time farmers.

In many cases, we are deluding ourselves to think “life will be easier if I were to farm full time.” I suspect the challenges would be no different, and we would not find ourselves with a surplus of free time if we were to work full time on the farm.

The profit margins in agriculture are slim and the risk is high. In many cases, to have a non-farm related income source is a great way to diversify one’s livelihood. Similarly, many off-farm jobs have benefits such as health insurance programs, retirement savings, as well as professional development that may not be available on small agricultural enterprises.

Opportunities Outside The Farm
Working off the farm provides opportunities to learn and for advancement that working on a small farm may not. There is always something to learn and skills to gain from the organization and individuals with which you work.

Working off the farm at a bigger farm could help a grower figure out efficiency, the economies of scale, and labor management skills that may not be the same on a smaller farm. If the other job is not related to agriculture at all, there may be organizational behavior and management experience that would be useful to bring back to the home farm.

For example, I work and moonlight in the same general industry. My work with the university is focused on providing Extension resources and recommendations to Virginia grape growers, while my moonlight farm role is that of a Virginia grape grower.

My experience on the home farm helps me stay grounded and aware of seasonal and persistent challenges that growers face. My role with the university allows me to use research-based information to provide recommendations and resources, keeping me up to date with the viticulture research. Putting it all together, I believe my work with the university makes me a better farmer, and my work with my farm makes me a better at providing Extension information to grape growers.

Those that balance multiple obligations will refine their time management and ability to prioritize an endless to-do list. These will always be important skills in agriculture.

Be resourceful and I suspect that working off the farm can serve as a great training tool if the opportunity to farm full time presents itself. That farmer will be prepared and energetic to meet that opportunity. And if it doesn’t, well, that will be fine too.

 

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