Even when you factor out the actual "hands in the dirt" physical labor, small-scale farmers in Montana face a headache-inducing maze of legal and financial obstacles in their quest to squeeze a living from their efforts.
Just to name a few: Finding adequate and affordable land, gaining access to start-up cash, navigating complex labor, land use and tax laws, dealing with constantly fluctuating prices, finding or creating a market for products, paying insurance, contracts and food safety regulations.
These are just some of the dizzying array of challenges that cause paperwork to pile up for farmers and ranchers who already have their hands full moving irrigation pipe from sunrise to sundown.
To navigate these issues successfully and still be able to turn a profit is a minor miracle, according to those who have attempted to jump through those proverbial flaming hoops.
Greg Peters, who runs a small “u-pick” berry farm and orchard called Red Hen Farm in the Target Range neighborhood of Missoula, has found that agriculture alone isn’t enough to support his family, even if his organic strawberries get bought by upscale restaurants around town as quickly as he can grow them.
“If I didn’t have a separate landscaping business, I wouldn’t be able to have this farm,” he explained.
The Community Food and Agriculture Coalition in Missoula is hosting a series of workshops and field-days aimed at giving new farmers and ranchers some insight from the crusty veterans of the industry.
Annie Heuscher, the program director at the coalition, said that finding land is probably the number one issue facing new farmers.
“There’s lots of land that looks like farmland but isn’t because it is slated for development or has a house on it that has priced it out of reach of farmers,” she explained. “As more and more of the land gets broken up into smaller pieces, the price gets higher and higher.”
Getting access to financing is another tough quandary, and was the subject of the coalition's first workshop.
“Because new farmers are trying to find a market niche, they’re typically doing things that are a bit unconventional,” Heuscher said. “Lenders tend to see ‘unconventional’ as ‘high risk,’ making it very challenging for new farmers to gain access to affordable loans, investor financing, or other start-up cash. Simultaneously, farming is a business that can be incredibly expensive to get into, making start-up cash needs higher than they are for many other types of businesses.”
Farmers have to be experts at things like controlling soil acidity and pests, but they also have to know how to buckle down and put their accountant hats on.
“There are actually a lot of benefits for farmers in the tax code, but you have to know where to find them,” Heuscher said. “Most farmers didn’t get into farming because they love the paperwork and the number-crunching. Learning how to keep good records (even if they have dirt on them) and finding an accountant who knows about farm/ranch issues are key.”
There is also the challenge of creating new markets or new products to fill the market.
“There are a lot of people in Missoula who like to buy local food, but it’s still a small community and a niche market,” she said. “When you consider that farmers in the past only needed to drive their cattle to the stockyard sales for 'marketing,' this is a whole new realm of issues and a completely new area of knowledge in which new farmers need to build expertise.”
Another grim reality that farmers have to confront is the fact that volunteers, interns and visitors are actually a legal liability. For-profit farms aren’t allowed to have volunteers, and even if a visitor signs a waiver before they tour a farm, Heuscher said past court cases have determined that that doesn’t prevent someone from suing if they get hurt.
“People love supporting small farms and they love stopping by and visiting, touring around, etc.,” she said. “Of course, for the farmer, that’s customer development, but simultaneously, it’s a risk.”
There are complex land-use regulations that sometimes prevent farmers from building or living on the land they farm. There are sales contracts and food safety issues to deal with as well. Heuscher gave hypothetical examples:
“If you sign a contract to provide tomatoes to a restaurant for example, and your tomato crop is ruined by hail, do you have to dig into your own small pockets to pay the restaurant for not fulfilling your contract? Did that person who came out to visit the farm wash their hands before they walked around touching tomatoes and feeling lettuce leaves?”
Just down the road from Greg and Julie Peters’ farm, Brad Isbell raises a specialty breed, Gotland sheep, known for its high-end fiber for hand-spinning, as well as its milk and meat.
“Labor is a pain in the ass,” he said. “I literally would hire people all the time, on a regular basis, if it wasn’t for the paperwork. I’m really good at raising sheep, I’m really bad at paperwork. I refuse the paperwork. And so I end up just not hiring people. If the government didn’t force me to do so much paperwork ... it takes as much effort to fill out the paperwork for one person who is going to work for you for one day as it does to have a permanent employee.”
Isbell said that farm labor is cyclical, meaning he requires labor in big, sporadic chunks rather than on a consistent basis.
“I’ve got a week’s worth of fencing that I’ve got to do here, well, I can’t do fencing all the time,” he said. “I’ve got lambing over here, I’ve got plowing over here, I’ve got irrigating. I need different people at different times, and it’s totally stifling my operation. Just the paperwork. I don’t have time for that. The government gets their cut, both in my taxes and a huge amount of time figuring out how much I’m going to give them.”
Heuscher said that these issues are just the tip of the iceberg.
“As you can see, the legal issues are really broad and all-encompassing,” she said. “For folks who just want to provide healthy local food to the community, it’s a huge set of issues to consider and deal with.”
For more information on upcoming workshops and field days that will focus on these issues, visit missoulacfac.org.