This post is from the archive, originally published in 2012.
Some farm stats:
- We used 1,000 gallons of water per day in the summer. This was far less than most farms, and we were able to measure this because it all went into a large tank.
- It took over 2,700 man hours to build the farm, grow the food, process it and deliver it from February to September.
- Those hours did not include business management hours: advertising, marketing, accounting, and customer service. This was probably another 1,300 hours, for a total of 4,000 hours for the year.
- Our farm covered about two acres with about 6,300 square feet of ground actually planted. The rest of that space was taken up with barns, paths, compost, tanks, etc.
- We fed an estimated 225 people most of their veggies.
- We purchased 700,000 organic seeds which cost $1,800.
We had an early and relatively successful harvest up until mid-July, when an aggressive buck destroyed our deer barrier and not only ate much of our high-value long-term crops, he contaminated almost everything. According to organic certification, raw manure cannot have contact with crops because of the high risk of e-coli. This is a danger that is unique to organic farms, since conventional farmers don’t use manure as fertilizer. The manure must be composted at a high temperature or rest for 90 days in order to be safe for use on food. This meant that three months of growing was wiped out, effectively ending the CSA program for the year.
This is the kind of risk every small farmer faces. Because this buck could jump over nine feet, the fence we would need would be $4,000 or more, which was not only more than we could afford, it was investment in someone else’s land. We could shoot the buck, but the damage had already been done. Other farms in our area faced similar risks; an inundation of rain slowed germination and growth, creating a shorter growing season and very little sun, cows escaped into someone’s market garden, and plants suffered unusually high mold and diseases because of the wet season.
Here are just a few of the problems that small farmers face:
- Land is too difficult to acquire. It is too expensive, and mortgages make it impossible to make a profit. Borrowing land is expensive as well, because there is no return on investment in improvements.
- Farming without equipment is literally back-breaking. Our average unpaid intern burned out at 150 hours, working at no more than 40 hours per week. The paid labor makes minimum wage, and motivation is difficult to maintain.
- The minimum investment, without tractors and plows, is $20,000. This is for tools, processing equipment, refrigeration, etc. For young people, this is a lot.
- There is an inherent risk in every season that natural events will destroy the crop. Small farmers thrive in diversification, but there is a fine balance between diversity and specialization, and this is only found through trial and error. Education in how to manage this balance is lacking, and often a carefully guarded secret.
- Credit and grants are not available to small farmers. Federal loans are only for conventional farms growing one crop.
Some of our solutions…
We found many creative ways to solve some of the inherent small farming problems.
- We took control of distribution, creating a guaranteed income stream. Delivering to our customer’s doors cut out any middle men and put us in a position to distribute other things as well.
- We became a marketing company that sold food, not a farm that tries to create marketing. Thinking about it the other way around made it easy to define what we wanted to do as a company.
- We made our internship program as rewarding as possible. Many, many farm volunteer situations are little more than camping while working 10-12 hour days, without much education. We tried to make it as educational, and relaxed and comfortable as possible. We had no shortage of interns and they all voiced that their experience was worth the work, and meanwhile we decreased our labor costs dramatically.
When we started out, the number one concern was managing risk. We used plastic covers, greenhouses, and careful planting management to reduce loss from weather. We had very early crops because of this, and we were able to replant any loss from disease since we still had plenty of time in the year. When consulting other farms in the area, they had 5 or 6 foot fences. No one could have predicted this monster buck with the persistence of a Jedi. Risk management and prevention was my major task, and involved using at least two varieties of each type of food, planting in two different areas, and planting at least two different times. It also involved lots of compost, boosting plant immune systems.
To sum up…
Small farms are rarely profitable. They struggle with forces beyond their control. They are difficult to start. Very few young people have the ability to do so. These issues are solvable, but they need the support of people willing to provide open farm business information, open land access, and open education. Without debt, farms can be very profitable, and that is the key to preserving small farms and having a secure food supply in the future.