What SNL Knows About Small Family Farms
Evidence that consumers do, in fact, have a good idea where food comes from
Have you ever heard the idea that “consumers don’t know where their food comes from?”
Well, that’s not true. Consumers understand farming more intuitively than they understand the inner workings of many other things in their lives.
How do I know? Because our pop culture references farming constantly (often in very subtle ways), and we do not miss these references.
From the “Farmers for America” trailer I just stumbled upon (note the troubling centrality of patriotic rhetoric, and that, you know, farming =! ‘MERICA) to some obscure lines from Designated Survivor about needing to get the government back up and running so that farmers can receive subsidies. But they where pretty overshadowed this week by the most confusing Saturday Night Live sketch I’ve seen in a while, Tiny Horse ft. Timothée Chalamet.
Tiny Horse is no where near SNL’s first foray into agricultural hot takes, and for farmers and eaters alike, I think you’ll enjoy visiting (or revisiting) this True Classic:
There’s so much gold in there, but I want to call out three particularly true but incongruent points.
“…For $45, you can take home $10 worth of apples…”
“…He’s a troubled man who came with the land, and we pay him in dentistry…”
“..Does our business make a profit? No. How do we afford to live? Simple, I wrote the screenplay for 50 First Dates…”
Pretending for a moment that this is a real farm (because these aren’t super unrealistic facts for a UPick operation), just imagine. You run an organization that sells goods for a 4x markup over competitors, splitting labor needs between your thousands of customers and someone who’s being exploited, your customers are also covering logistics/delivery, and you’re coming out the other end without a profit. For the Chickham Sister, they make it work by paying for their farm with off-farm income (as is the case with many, many small and medium-sized farms).
Despite the fact that this organization my describe itself as a business, file taxes as a business, act in many ways like a business, it is not a business. It is a hobby.
A lot of people bristle at the idea of a “hobby farm,” usually because “farming is a lot of work, and describing it as a hobby diminishes the effort.” Listen. Skiing, scuba diving, hang gliding, treasure hunting, bird watching, and sailing can all be physically, mentally, emotionally, and financially demanding. But they are *absolutely* still hobbies. No knocks on farming as a hobby, if you have the resources to do it safely and well, have at it, I guess. But the problem often becomes that people believe they *should* make money on their hobby farm no matter what (despite the fact that they’re often not putting in any of the financial or human capital investment that would actually allow them to grow over time and make that money). When hobby farmers turn to government, non-profits, consumers, etc. looking for supplements to their income, it’s hard to see how that’s different than a dedicated amateur hang glider, sailer, or scuba diver looking to be compensated for pursuing their leisure activity.
We would all love to live in a world where we get paid to do our hobbies and not work, whether or not the product is anything anyone wants. I’d love to collect a check (from whoever!) to write one of these newsletters every single day, and shove it into every inbox in America, whether people want it or not. But we know that’s not a good idea. Not everyone who inherits farmland or gains enough wealth to purchase or lease it has the skills or abilities necessary to run a successful farm business, just like not everyone with a Substack writes a good newsletter. If people don’t want to read it, or if I need everyone to pay me a prohibitive amount to cover the costs of writing it, then it’s not on the newsletter-readers of the world to “educate themselves” about the hard work of reporters and to just buck up and hand over your wallet (common ideas around “educating consumers about where their food comes from” and raising the price of food). We depend on talented entrepreneurs to make great products, and convince us that they’re worth the price. We have to hold farmers to that same expectation.
Either way, next time you hear a farmer grumbling about prices being “too damn low” remember the Chickham Sisters. Remember that somewhere out there, people are selling apples that you have to go get for yourself off the tree at a 4x markup, and people eat that S up. There’s more price flexibility in food than most farmers want to admit, but it takes a savvy farm entrepreneur to connect the dots on pricing, production, marketing, and business management. Currently, food entrepreneurs are doing much of this work (and gaining all the reward).
The future of farming belongs to farmers who remember they’re in the food business first (and the penis gourd business second).
This is just the first of many entries in the Mock Farm Museum project I’m working on. You can follow along with my weekly newsletter for this kind of fun update when you pre-order Farm (and Other F Words).