We sat down with sea farmer and food visionary Bren Smith—the man behind Thimble Island Oyster Company and pioneer of 3-D ocean farming—to talk about the financials of being a farmer in 2015, and how he sees the industry changing.
Besides nursing, farming is one of the highest social-good jobs out there, and I believe that farmers should get paid really well for their value to society. But nobody gets paid for being good. We have to get serious about capturing the value chain. It’s nothing new, but we have to get serious about it.
I think society demands an incredible amount from farmers—who are as overtaxed as people get. They need to be able to grow their product and be storytellers and logistics people. Logistics are hell; there are global companies that do this, and you’re asking farmers to do it? Prices go up and down. There are different kinds of storage to worry about, different regulations—it’s hell. Getting carrots out of the ground and to a farmers’ market is no mean feat. And then if you want to have any kind of reach, you have to do marketing and social media. That’s what it means to be a modern farmer.
I think the challenge is to stabilize each farm financially. My approach with my farm is to break things up into quadrants: a quarter food, a quarter education, a quarter doing ecosystem services, and a quarter doing science.
Now “food” is obvious—that’s what we think of when we think of the farm business. But if you have more than a quarter of your business dedicated to it, you can get wiped out by something as volatile as weather. I speak from experience here.
“Education” may be easy for me, because I’m here in New Haven and there’s Yale. But even if it can’t be a full quarter of a farm’s earnings, farmers should be actively looking for paid education opportunities, where they can share their knowledge and experiences. Those things are valuable, and when you make as little as most farmers, it’s not hard to see how giving a few more talks and tours than you already do can improve your bottom line.
By “ecosystem services,” I mean capturing benefits from all of these positive externalities that we have out in the world—whether it’s oxygen or nitrogen or improving soil. The great dream of carbon credits is to reward (or punish) these externalities that the market is not representing. The Nature Conservancy, for example, will pay farmers to have bird sanctuaries on their farms. I think that farmers can find a way to benefit financially from the good they’re doing, but they need to be smart and organized about it.
By “doing science,” I mean doing experiments. Farmers already have data that they should be able to collect on a regular, controlled basis and sell to scientists. It’s expensive for scientists to set up labs; this is way cheaper for them. The guy who manages my farm is out there with Secchi disks, taking water readings, and doing research for Woods Hole and the University of Connecticut. That’s not going to change the food system, but it’s another income stream that can help my farm survive.
The whole idea is to cover the overhead. If a farmer can reduce his or her yearly risk, it will change the game, because these different, somewhat-stable income streams provide a chance to pursue real profit: not just year-in, year-out fluctuations, but sustainable income that will make farming a business worth being in.