Non profits in farming

Recently the Columbia Tribune published a story on a struggling non-profit farm in the area, Jefferson Farm & Garden. Despite receiving almost $2 million in Federal grants and private donations, the educational farm hasn’t opened to visitors in several years. It claims to be doing almost exactly the same thing we are, only for “educational” purposes. It really irks me that so much money is available to non-commercial enterprises when real businesses have to scratch for a living; I could sure hire a lot of workers and expand our production with seven figures of free money. For the record, here’s the response I posted on the Tribune’s web site. I’ve had people come up to me at the market and thank me for saying what I said, so I figured it’s worth re-posting here:

The following is not meant as a comment directly on JF&G, but more on the general pattern of how our society treats non-profits and actual businesses. As the co-owner (with my wife) of a small, direct-market certified organic vegetable farm in Boone County, I am somewhat bemused by the resources and budget available to a non-profit doing essentially the same thing we are.
We grow over 200 varieties of produce, fruit, beans, and small grains, along with poultry and meat & dairy goats. Over the last 4 years, we’ve invested most of our resources in our farm (including our private residence), the total sum of which is considerably less than the initial federal earmark for JF&G. Our business continues to grow and now has four (very) part-time employees. We sell our products at the Columbia Farmers Market, generating and remitting sales tax revenue. We pay property taxes on our land and home, and income taxes on our profits. We happily offer tours of our diversified operation, at $8/head to cover our basic time expenditure to do so. From what I’ve read, there is little one could learn from touring JF&G that could not be learned from touring private farms like ours.

We work very hard at our business and are proud of our success so far, though our long term economic success is by no means guaranteed. We do not apply for or receive any grants, subsidies, or handouts for our farm. The only government money we’ve ever taken is the Missouri cost-share program for our Organic certification, which pays up to 75% of certification costs (capped at $750; ours was under $400 last year).

So I am bemused to read that a non-profit farm can receive millions of dollars of tax-free money, use volunteer labor (technically illegal for a private business like ours), pay no taxes itself, and still be $3 million short. I know multiple good folks in Boone County who have the skills, experience, work ethic, and active desire to start small market/CSA farms, but who do not have the capital to do so because it is very difficult to get a loan for such a business. $500,000 would buy five of these folks 10 acres each, even at an inflated Boone County price of $10,000/acre, enabling them to start five new tax-generating businesses that would diversify our rural economy.

I have nothing really personal against JF&G, it’s a nice idea which could become a good tourist attraction if done well. But I do resent our society’s and government’s general assumption that non-profits are always preferable and more knowledgeable than private entrepreneurs doing the same thing on their own bootstraps. It’s frustrating to see money showered on anything that doesn’t commit the cardinal sin of actually trying to earn money. It’s also frustrating to know that we could earn a better salary working for a non-profit farm than for ourselves; the only volunteers allowed a for-profit business are the owners.

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