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FARM & RANCH: Off-Farm Income Keeps Families on the Farm

Sadly, there’s really nothing new about farmers or ranchers going out of business or turning to off-farm income to help keep the family on the farm.

It seems to me that off-farm income has been a fact of life since subsistence farming bit the dust.

A hundred years ago my grandfather — the last farmer in our family — farmed near Asotin, and was involved in off-farm businesses. At times, some of his off-farm income may have been more a place to put the money he was making on the farm than a necessity to keep the farm. At other times, farming wasn’t bringing in enough income.

Grandpa’s various off-farm work included being a grain buyer, a livestock dealer, proprietor of a stage line with the contract to haul the U.S. Mail, owning buildings in town, being proprietor of a hotel and manager of the Grange Supply grocery store.

Some farmers are driven off the farm by the harsh economics of agriculture. Others simply discover other business enterprises more lucrative or enjoyable.

The number of Washington farms operated by farmers who received more than half their income from farming declined six percent from 16,491 in 1992 to 15,465 in 1997. Eighty percent of Washington farms in 1997 were still classified as family farms, but 57.4 percent of farm operators work off the farm at least part of the time.

More than 34 percent worked 200 days or more off the farm each year.

“In many cases, all that keeps farms afloat is a spouse’s off-farm income,” says Doug Hasslen, state statistician, Washington Agricultural Statistics Service.

For many families, that city job is necessary to provide health and other benefits.

There are many ways to supplement farm income. Some require going to town, others involve finding new ways to produce revenue from the farm operation. Still others involve work that can be done from the farm office or shop. Some of these activities may be linked to agriculture.

Some may not be.

In ag census data, custom farming or labor for hire on other’s farms is considered off-farm income. That’s an age-old practice and still a common and viable one.

Farmers and ranchers who want to rev up the revenue engine without taking a job in town have been highly creative in harvesting a few extra bucks to meet family expenses.

Some have added a dude ranch to their livestock industry. Others have ventured into bed-and-breakfast operations. Farm vacations is a business that some find enjoyable and profitable.

Many farmers and ranchers design, build, customize or repair equipment in their shops. Others rent boat or trailer storage to city folks.

I know a couple of farmers who are part-time software engineers, writing computer programs for cash. I’ve met a number of farm wives who work as freelance writers. Likely there are some farm husbands who do the same.

Farmers who are adept at the bookish side of agriculture could set up a part-time business providing bookkeeping services that capitalize on their knowledge, skills and investment in computer systems used for agricultural records. I’m sure some who are reading this column are doing this.

Another angle would be to provide some kind of record-keeping service for other farmers, especially a service that could provide analysis and perhaps advice.

As the workplace is increasingly digitized, telecommuting opportunities will proliferate, and farmers and ranchers will be able to work “in town” without leaving the farm very often.

The opportunities for part-time work for farmers and ranchers now exists almost anywhere for those who have the need, skills and vision.

I’m sorry to say that the next few years in agriculture will see an increased need for off-farm income to keep families on the farm. Producers who can maintain a decent standard of living without off-farm income are fortunate, indeed.

I’d be interested in hearing from readers about their off-farm income ventures. I can be reached by e-mail at, or the old fashioned way at P.O. Box 646244, Washington State University, Pullman, WA 99164-6244.

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