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Farmers offset tough times with side gigs

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

China’s vow to stop buying U.S. agricultural goods comes at a dire time for farmers, who have been cutting costs and picking up side-hustles — like hosting pizza nights for agri-tourists — to make ends meet.

Why it matters: Adverse weather conditions, slumping commodity prices and trade wars are threatening farmers' already-dwindling incomes, in the midst of the worst economic downturn for the sector since the 1980s.

Driving the news: China said it would halt purchases of U.S. agricultural products, a response to President Trump’s threat to slap a 10% tariff on the remainder of Chinese imports — previously untaxed — on Sept. 1.

  • “China’s announcement that it will not buy any agricultural products from the United States is a body blow to thousands of farmers and ranchers who are already struggling to get by," Zippy Duvall, head of the American Farm Bureau Federation, said in a statement.

What they’re doing: Enter agritourism, which gives paying visitors a look inside farm life — and farmers an extra way to make money. 

  • Tourist entertainments include traditional corn mazes, fruit and vegetable picking, goat yoga, and pizza nights on the farm — with toppings drawn from the freshest of ingredients.
  • Some farms are opening their doors to Airbnb guests, who get to visit with cows, chickens and even llamas.
  • Taylor Huffman, a 3rd generation farmer who runs Lawyer's Winterbrook Farm in Maryland, says half her income now comes from the range of activities the farm offers, which include pumpkin-picking, Ziplining and a petting zoo. “Hands down we would not be able to pay our bills without it,” Huffman tells Axios.
  • Yes, but: Some of the issues that plague the farming business can also hurt foot traffic. For instance, wet weather that wreaked havoc on crops also brought visits to Huffman’s farm to a near-halt for a stretch of time.

“Pizza farms” are an ongoing trend, according to PMQ Pizza Magazine. What was “once a niche” is now a more established tourism staple, with farms “serving hundreds of pizzas” during growing season, the publication says.

  • In a nod to how much the craze has picked up, Colorado State University will offer a class this fall for farmers who want to learn more about agritourism.
  • In Colorado, adding a tourism component to a farm can bring in up to $36,000 per year, as the Denver Post reports. But of course that’s revenue, not profit — and it can be expensive to get agritourism off the ground.

Some farmers are also looking to cash in on hemp, which is used to make CBD oil, the trendy "wellness" product. The crop’s federal legalization last year opened the doors for farmers to profit from the booming industry — but regulations are still murky.

  • States like New York and Ohio let farmers grow hemp for commercial use.
  • “The level of interest [in hemp] I get is an exact reflection of the farm economy,” Todd Van Hoose, CEO of the Farm Credit Council, tells Axios. “People are desperately trying to figure out, is there something else they can do to make a little money out here?”

Between the lines: Even as they seek side hustles, farmers are finding ways to trim expenses wherever they can.

  • “Most of the stories we hear are farmers who are just trying to get creative in cutting costs,” Rob Larew, head of public policy and communications at the National Farmers Union, tells Axios. “They’re not paying for any extras, not getting any new equipment and even putting off repairs and so forth.”
  • Gary Wertish, the head of Minnesota’s Farm Union who grows corn and soybeans with his son, tells Axios his son has taken an off-the-farm job at a seed company to support their income — something more and more farmers are doing, both to bring in cash and get health insurance.

The bottom line: Agritourism and other side-hustles may stem the pain but aren't likely to make up for losses from slumping exports and too much rain.

  • The Trump administration has sought to compensate farmers with bailouts — though half of the dollars of the federal aid went to the biggest and richest farms, one study found.

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