Thursday, July 22, 2010

What is a farm?

What is a farm? An obvious definition might be a place where you grow food (animals, vegetables, grains) with a lot of hard work and luck. But not everyone agrees with that.

A year ago, we received a letter from a government office, the Farm Service Agency, saying that since we hadn’t registered our crops for several years, they were declaring us not a farm. We actually had only registered our crops once, about fifteen years ago, when we applied for an incentive payment for having such high quality fleeces that we could sell them for $6 per pound when the wool pool was only paying $0.25 per pound.

Turns out that every year we have to make an appointment to go into the Farm Service Agency office and draw a map of our crops or the FSA won’t consider us a farm. I wonder if drawing on the map is the only criterium they require for being a farm.

The IRS has different criteria. One is that they require us to make a profit three years out of five to be a working farm. We struggle most years to meet that goal. If our lambs and fleeces sell well, and if we don’t have to buy hay, and if we don’t have any veterinary bills, we can make a profit. But if any of those things are not optimum, we don’t make a profit and we risk being audited, meaning that we have to prove to the IRS that we are a farm, receipt by receipt.

And then there is the government office that determines our property tax. If we can prove we are farming, we pay agricultural homestead rates on our land. If not, we pay for a suburban house with an eighty acre yard.

The most aggravating definition of a farm was the Federal grant program that insisted we had to be a big farm before they would help us improve our energy efficiency, before they would help us become greener. I don’t necessarily think that the government should be in the business of handing out grants to farmers, but if they do, it should be applied to any size farm, not just to the farms that are so large and successful that fifty percent of the farmer’s gross income comes from the farm.

The year we received an incentive payment for our high quality fleeces was financially the most successful year in the history of our farm. The year we raised seventy-five lambs out of thirty-five ewes was emotionally the most fulfilling year – we had surpassed all the farming goals set out by the books on how to raise sheep. The year our daughters and their boy friends and my nephew all worked for us was the most fun year in the history of our farm. Each year was best for different reasons.

So what is my definition of a farm? It’s the place where we enjoy what we’re doing, where we are emotionally fulfilled, where we raise food without degrading the land or the atmosphere, and in a good year, where we earn more money than we spend.

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