More Farmers Working Away From Fields to Pay Bills

By Olivia Munoz | December 10, 2010 | 5:57 AM EST

Fresno, Calif. (AP) - More than half of America's farmers work a job off the farm to make ends meet, according to figures from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

In California and throughout the country, farmers open up their land to tourists, set up roadside stands and travel the farmers market circuit, but they also moonlight as mechanics, pool cleaners and even authors. They make jam and paint landscapes, work at banks and own businesses in order for the farm to survive.

Farmers such as John Mesrobian, 62, who grows grapes near Fresno, Calif., said he'd like to farm full time but still must spend much of his time at his document shredding business.

"The plan was to slowly let go of my business and farm full time but, financially, that's not possible," Mesrobian said.

And so he became one of many moonlighting farmers, working an outside job in the day and spending the evenings and weekends clearing the rows, applying fertilizer and spraying for weeds.

The trend of farmers taking on other jobs to help pay the bills is hardly new -- Mesrobian remembers his farmer father working as a tailor for Sears -- but the figure has grown from 55 percent in 2002 to 65 percent in 2007. In California, it has remained a bit steadier, at about 50 percent in both 2002 and 2007, according the latest figures from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Census of Agriculture.

The frequency of working off the farm has also grown substantially over the last 75 years, according to a report by the USDA's Economic Research Service, which conducts the farm survey every five years.

In 1929, only one in 16 farmers in the nation reported working 200 days or more off the farm. By 1947, one in six farmers reported that much off-farm work, and by 1997, the ratio was one in three farmers. The 2007 survey reported that almost 900,000 farmers worked more than 200 days a year in other jobs.

"I'm not the exception. It's the norm now for a lot of small-scale farmers to have full-time jobs off the ranch," said Steve Spate, 50, who grows raisin grapes on 200 acres south of Fresno. He also works as a representative for the Raisin Bargaining Association, a job that has him out meeting and recruiting other growers to the group.

Most farms in the United States are small operations, with 60 percent of all farms reporting less than $10,000 in sales of agricultural products. Of the 2.2 million farms nationwide, less than half show profit from their farms. The remaining 1.2 million depend on non-farm income to cover farm expenses.

"It's difficult to pay yourself, as a farmer, the money you deserve," Spate said. "And the money you do make, you put back into the farm."

Farmers said another job adds stability as well as cash flow.

"As a farmer, you have to worry about the weather and how your crops are going to price that year," Mesrobian said. "At least working a full-time job helps with insurance and benefits, helps cover your family."

It's a difficult balancing act, Mesrobian acknowledged,.

"How do you do both and still spend the time you need to with your family? There's no price on that," he said.

For farmer Dino Petrucci, trying to balance both proved to be too much.

Petrucci used to farm grapes in Madera, Calif., and run a catering business but now leases his land for pomegranate production and has scaled down to barbecuing on the weekends.

Others have found creative ways to add income from home.

David Mas Masumoto writes columns for his local paper and detailed his struggles with his organic farm in "Epitaph for a Peach: Four Seasons on My Family Farm," published by HarperCollins.

Paul Buxman taught art to keep his Sweet Home Ranch going, where 30 varieties of peaches, plums and nectarines grow in Fresno County. The 63-year-old now paints portraits and landscapes of farmland, which sell in area galleries.

Even though it can be tough going, Spate said he does it for the love of farming.

Spate is a fourth generation farmer and his 22-year-old son, who helps on the farm, will likely become the fifth generation following the same tired footsteps, he said.

"We don't think about it like any other business. Maybe we should," Spate said. "But it's not. For a lot of us it's more of a passion, I guess. It's a love."

And Mesrobian, whose 80 acres haven't turned a profit in two or three years, said he remains hopeful.

"Farmers as a group are generally optimistic people," he said. "We're always looking forward to the next year to be a good year."