Agriculture Moonlighting farmers More farmers work away from fields to pay bills

By Olivia Munoz

For The Associated Press

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.

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.

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."

Published: Mon, Dec 13, 2010