Farmers have a tough time making a living. At the mercy of weather, predators, disease, markets and the government (which focuses on the big operators), farmers will tell you that money worries are common. Depending on the source, research indicates anywhere from 47 to 91 percent of farmers or farmer’s spouses have off farm jobs. These are not make-a-little-extra jobs, but can’t-make-it-without-the-money jobs. In fact, the USDA figures for 2017 indicated most farm families brought in twice as much from their off farm jobs as from farming.
The late Contrary Farmer Gene Logsdon used to recommend that people keep their farms small and supplement their income with something other than farming. Gene despised the “get big or get out” mantra, because he felt it resulted in damage to the land, fragmentation of families, overwhelming debt and government meddling. Gene noted the Amish, who operate on the principle of small single-family farms, typically have outside sources of income and also have more discretionary income than conventional farmers. The men might work part-time in an Amish factory or provide specialty services like accounting. Women make and sell quilts. Some farmers sell wood on the side, train horses or guard dogs, or repair equipment.
The ideal off farm job is one that allows you the flexibility to be late if you’re midwifing a calf or to take a day off in planting season. Teaching can work well because of the summer vacation period (which was created in the first place because an agrarian society needed the kids to help in the fields). A surprising number of farmers or their spouses hold jobs in management. Others bring in income with value-added activities such as a farm stand, growing heirlooms for the seed trade, practicing various handicrafts or making products like jam, jelly, pickles and condiments. Writing (my choice for a number of years) can be tucked into odd corners of time, especially when it’s too dark to work outside. A nurse I worked with choose the night shift because she could stop off at the lambing shed on her way home in the early morning.
Off farm jobs have benefits other than the effect on the family finances. They get you out among other people. They broaden your personal horizons. Many skills are transferable – I find that reading animals’ body language improves my ability to read people. Financial skills such as budgeting also transfer easily. An off farm job can expand your customer base for your grass fed beef or organic eggs because you can sell to the people you work with or their friends, neighbors and relatives. From a financial perspective, outside income helps smooth out the uneven cash flows typical in farming and ranching.
Combining an off farm job with farming means longer hours; one reason why the farm must be small. Time management is critical – and that’s no small task, given the vagaries of weather, balky or sick animals, and wildlife adding to your load by going through the fence. You must also take care of yourself. Being sleep-deprived is one of the best ways I know of to get hurt on heavy machinery. However, one of the key things to remember when you’re talking about ranching and farming is that if you’re doing it right, you aren’t going to get rich, anyway. Yes, you can make a comfortable living, but you still have to mind your pennies and always make sure you’re getting good value for what you spend. It’s well worth the effort in the minds of those of us with off farm jobs.