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Farming Livelihoods & the Value of Farming Work

Updated: Dec 3, 2023

Writing about the livelihoods of farmers feels somehow delicate. It’s easier to talk about wages or salary levels in general than to explore the diverse ways in which small-scale farmers sustain themselves. But diverse small-scale farming is not a job; it’s a livelihood.

Livelihood, in English, refers to sustenance: the means of living, life, liveliness, keeping alive. Livelihood and making a living are words seldom used when discussing the work we do to support ourselves—essentially, when talking about providing for ourselves and our families. The conversation about livelihoods in our society has inherently narrowed down to wage labor and monetary income, even though the wage institution is relatively young in human history. Equally the value of work is measured through wages, that is, in monetary terms subordinating all type of work to this reductive measurement.

However, when considering the total value of work, i.e., the positive (and negative) outcomes that work produces for the individuals and their families, the local community, society at large, as well as local ecosystems and the natural environment, wages are often a poor metric to measure the value and the well-being produced by the work that we do. David Graeber eloquently discusses this in his book “Bullshit Jobs.” Bullshit jobs are not those of a janitor, nurse, bus driver, bricklayer, or farmer, but rather those of a business consultant, advertising agency employee, PR representative, stockbroker, or the owner of a company manufacturing goods no one actually needs. However, the value of socio-ecologically valuable jobs is rarely reflected in the wages.

Throughout human history, growing food has played a central role in earning and making a living as well as in the ways humans organize their communities. Food has been sourced through fishing, hunting, gathering, growing and farming in village communities and households. It has been processed and preserved for later use, exchanged for other goods and services, shared among family members and friends, and given as gifts. Food has brought families and friends together, as well as driven them apart; it has nourished generations as well as made them sick; it has continued traditions and shaped them; it has created unforgettable memories and suppressed them.

Only recently has food become a commodity sold by weight, shipped from one side of the world to another, and, as part of production processes, soils have become depleted, millions of animals tortured, and traditional livelihoods taken away from thousands of people.

I’ve noticed that small-scale farmers often bear a significant burden of proving the profitability of their farming work. As if, because they have chosen a path different from the norm, i.e., conventional agriculture, they must demonstrate that their cultivation method is (at least!) profitable. But (and now I’m saying aloud what few talk about), no farming / agricultural activity is profitable in financial (and as predominantly practiced, neither in ecological) terms: for instance, the majority of Finnish farmers live in debt and rely on agricultural subsidies, and food is too cheap to cover the costs of its production and the negative externalities imposed on the surrounding nature.

Kauppalehti (Finnish economic magazine) writes that the average salary of farmers is 5.4 euros per hour. In relation to the amount of work, the average salary of a farmer has, according to some calculations I’ve seen, even been negative. Also, small-scale farmers often cannot afford to pay themselves or their workers proper wages. Interestingly, however, their activities are often quite “profitable” from the perspectives of the local communities and local ecosystems. Most small-scale farmers in both the Nordic countries and here in Australia operate without significant debt or large (or any) agricultural subsidies, and in addition to this, they succeed in improving soil fertility, taking care of animal welfare, and enriching and revitalizing local communities.

Moreover, quite often, they manage to live a good life. How is this possible?

Part 2: Living a Good Life and Making a living, Having a living made, and Making livings for others

Since the work of a small-scale farmer, as I presented earlier, cannot be assessed based on salary alone, livelihood must be examined as a broader whole. Ethan Miller develops the concept of ecological livelihoods in his work “Reimagining Livelihoods,” which he defines as follows: Ecological livelihoods encompass making a living, having a living made for us by others (human and non-human), and making livings for others.

Making a living refers to the sources of livelihood, such as sales income, wages, self-sufficiency in energy, water, or food, or accumulated and accumulating capitals (such as money, social networks, skills). Having a living made for us (by human and non-human) refers to the actions of others that support the livelihood of the farmer, such as agricultural subsidies, access to land (e.g., ancestral land), infrastructure (water, energy, equipment & tools), available workforce, a living and nutrient-rich soil, and sufficient pollinators. Making livings for others, on the other hand, refers to how the farmer, through their actions, contributes to the livelihood and life of others, such as influencing the livelihood of a spouse or children, enabling the life of animals, plants, and other species (or restricting it), feeding local communities, or supporting the livelihood of shareholders in food companies, willingly or unwillingly.

When I contemplate the work of those engaged in diverse (small-scale) farming through this livelihood framework, a vast array of ‘life’ opens up to me. To quote a farmer who has been in the field for 20 years and with whom I recently had a conversation: ”the work [that we do here] is not work, it’s [definitely] not a job but… [it] is… Living”.

According to my observations the livelihoods of small-scale farmers, consist of at least the following things: direct sales, which can include the sale of food shares through a community supported agriculture (CSA) model, restaurant partnerships, school kitchens, farm shops, market sales, sales through local food collective and coops, Reko rings. Food can also change owners through labor, meaning the farmer can provide food and perhaps accommodation in exchange for labor. Farmers can also exchange their products or their labor for other goods and services, such as trading parsnips for eggs, vegetables for plowing, or car repair assistance for fence construction.

The spouses or close family members of farmers may have a job elsewhere, or the farmer themselves may receive additional monetary income from other jobs as part of their livelihood. Farmers may inherit land, rent it at a low cost or for “free,” or buy land through joint financing. Farmers may receive various subsidies or other funding (e.g., project funding) for their work and investments. The soil improvement work that farmers have done and continue to do produces soil in which life thrives, and this life enables yields and maintains a healthy bacterial population, thus contributing to the health of the farmer and their local communities.

On farms, labor, food, energy, knowledge, laughter, joys, and sorrows are exchanged, and new experiences are gained. Partners are found, and children are conceived and raised, older generations are taken care of. Farms are places of hosting friends, visitors and local community members, and places were skills are learned and cherished.

Diversified farming cannot be reduced to the framework of wage labor or valued in monetary terms. Profitability and productivity calculations following industrial agriculture, and carbon sequestration calculations quietly introduced into agriculture, cannot take into account the diversity of livelihoods that appear on farms. As I mentioned in a recent radio broadcast[3] to Ilkka Herlin, I disagree with him that carbon measurements can take into account the entire spectrum of life, i.e., farming as a livelihood: farming as making a living, having a living made, and making livings for others, as described above.

When we measure carbon, we overlook farming as living. In doing so, we also disregard the purpose, joy, and pleasure in farming. Above all, we ignore the value of farming work and the preciousness of that work. I conclude this blog post with the words of one farmer farmily with whom I’ve had honour to work:

“We really enjoy this [farming] work. We hear much of this that people think there’s a lot of [work], how can you…, so much work here… but when it comes down to it, it can’t be thought in these terms. This work, well, it’s not just a job. It’s a way of life, [a way] we’ve grown into over these seven years.”

Galina Kallio

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