Burning Question: Is It Bad To Have Off-Farm Income?

Keeping your budding farm business afloat with an on-farm income isn’t something to be ashamed of—in fact, it could even help your business.

by Jesse Frost

The first five years you spend farming are some of the most absurd. You are working hard to establish your farm, your market, your gardens and your barns, while at the same time trying to make a living. Oftentimes, this leads to you needing a second job. I’m here to tell you, there’s no shame in that. In fact, six years into farming full-time and I still keep a second job—and not necessarily because I need it but because I’ve grown to love it.

That said, when I first decided to find more work to help sustain our farm, I did need it, which left me a little embarrassed. Somewhere upstream, someone was feeding me the idea that if you weren’t making your entire living off the farm, you weren’t actually farming, which I now realize is immaculate nonsense.

For one, a second job can be a great way to improve upon skills that behoove you as a farmer. Carpentry, for instance, can pay well both monetarily and educationally. Or perhaps your job is at a local restaurant or grocery store where you can observe what people are buying, meet new customers, and get to know what cooks and chefs are looking for. In other words, a second job doesn’t have to be an obstacle between you and your dream. It can just as easily be vehicle through which you achieve that dream, enhance your skills and enrich your perspective as a farmer. Heck, there are even many farms who hire seasonal employees—if you don’t have much experience, go there, learn from them and get paid in the process.

A second job may also help ensure that you don’t have to stop farming down the road because you’re out of cash. That easing-in process is a good thing for certain people, especially those with debt or with limited farming experience. Too many young farmers jump in head first, only to find themselves hitting the shallow bottom or running out with no clothes on. I think it’s always smarter, safer and more effective—especially if you don’t yet know how deep the water is or what’s in it—to wade in slowly than to dive.

Holding a second job is even more important if you have debt. Don’t get yourself and your family in financial trouble just because you feel like you’re not a successful farmer unless that’s all you’re doing. It’s silly and unnecessary. If you’re starting from scratch, you’re at a major financial disadvantage to people inheriting land or taking over the family farming business. They probably already have the tools, the soil and the savoir faire that may take you years to acquire.

Sure, there are plenty of young farmers who have made it without a second job, and there will be thousands more after I write this. But if you are not one of those farmers, and you really feel like a second job is what you and your family needs, there is no shame in that. Down the road, when you can quit that job and farm full time if you so choose, you won’t regret it. It’s having to quit the farm to get a different job entirely that would be a shame.

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