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It takes N.C. farmers more than living off the land to make ends meet

Down on the Farm

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If farming is a tough job, at least you can't beat the commute. Wake up, have your coffee and step out the door to start milking cows, right?

But in spite of the recent explosion of farmer-only markets in and around Charlotte, even those selling premium organic food face the age-old financial struggle of making a living from the soil. Already involved in a 24/7 job with no vacation days, many area growers must work away from home to make ends meet. An informal survey of a dozen farmers reveals that seven depend on at least one member of the family bringing in a paycheck from off the farm. Whether seeking supplemental income or insurance benefits, they can't earn a living from the land.

Dean and Jenifer Mullis established Laughing Owl Farm in Richfield nearly 20 years ago, when his farm-boy origins became an itch he needed to scratch. For most of that time, their five acres about an hour east of Charlotte have provided vegetables, chickens and hogs to feed their family and bring to market. Yet these days the couple wake to an early alarm like any suburban family, grabbing coffee and heading to off-site jobs — even if they do have to feed pigs and chickens before they leave.

For the past three years, Dean has worked full-time at Carolina Farms, a nonprofit residential farming program for adults with autism, managing the crops for their CSA. Aside from ensuring a regular paycheck, it offers him more affordable insurance coverage.

For her part, Jenifer picked up a part-time job, putting in 20 hours a week helping out her brother-in-law at a shipping warehouse.

After so many years supporting themselves by farming, what changed? Two things, says Jenifer. Growing kids meant growing expenses, and then the recent economic downturn arrived on their doorstep. "We had been doing better and better, and then after [2008] all of our regulars that would drop $20 and $40, $50 a week were not spending that."

Ironically, the surging interest in local food recently added to the difficulty. With more local vendors entering the Charlotte Regional Farmers Market where she sells, supportive market-goers were spreading their precious dollars thinner.

As you might imagine, managing a farm around an outside job is tricky. Although Dean does as much as he can after his 4:30 arrival home, shorter winter days limit his productivity. A part-time schedule and an understanding supervisor allow Jenifer more flexibility, and since her husband stepped back into full-time work, she's found herself the primary farm hand.

Still, dependent on his strength to work some of the heavier equipment, the couple has struggled to till and plant as weather dictated. They've cut back on their meat animals to simplify Jenifer's responsibilities but have held on to their breeding stock. "We're still really committed to growing our own food," says Jenifer. She says Dean is determined to find a way back to his own farm.

An hour in the opposite direction, in Vale, Rene and Karin Coto have also recently reassessed their employment situation. Like the Mullises, it was the husband's roots in farming that called them to start Coto Family Farms about six years ago, growing vegetables, herbs and nursery plants on nine acres.

Yet the couples have travelled opposite paths. Rene retained his full-time factory job when they started the farm, with at-home mom Karin managing much of the growing and business functions. Having started at one market, today the Cotos grow for two, along with several restaurants and CSA customers. As they expanded, they hired some help, until Rene realized most of his salary was going to pay others. Four months ago, he made the leap, leaving the factory to farm full-time.

Although the growth in business made it possible, Karin says the decision to drop the regular paycheck came down to passion. "He said, 'I think we can do it, and I can put my work into what I love.'" So far, they are making it, and Karin says her husband is both happier and healthier, focusing all his energy on one occupation. "I feel like God's providing for us," she says, but she also gives credit to the loyal customers who spend their valuable food dollars at her Atherton Market stand.

Both farming families share that appreciation of community support. "Customers supporting us makes a huge difference," Jenifer Mulis echoes Karin. They also share that overwhelming passion for farming, regardless of the challenges. "It gets in your blood," says Jenifer. "You just can't picture not doing it."

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