Profits to be made, but how?

In one of the listservs I’m signed up for, someone recently posted a link to an Ohio State University research project that strives to prove you can make $90,000 per acre with polyculture (i.e. making neighbors of fruits and vegetables). People were quick to respond that the figures shouldn’t be misinterpreted–the $90k cited in the study doesn’t account for labor costs, among other things, such as time and money spent marketing and actually selling the stuff.

There are a lot of people I’ve met, or read, who hold onto the idea that a farm can become more profitable by intensifying production on a small plot. So far, though, my personal observations and research points to the opposite conclusion. It may not be as romantic as tending to a small plot with your own two hands, but romance can get pretty expensive. Here is what I posted on the listserv:

When I visited Eliot Coleman a few years ago, he was grossing $150k from 1.5 acres. He was also quick to note that after all the staff got paid and some of the costs were accounted for, all that was left over was $20k. Also keep in mind that there are some things he doesn’t have to pay for from the farm income that most of us would, such as his land, which was practically given to him by the Nearings, or his house, which is probably funded by income from other sources (e.g. royalties) and that of his wife, and all the associated utilities (probably part of the house bill). Likewise, equipment may have been purchased through other income sources, so it’s quite possible that if you looked at true costs, he might be operating at a loss.

When I look at the previously mentioned publication, Grower to Grower (big PDF link), or other case studies like Bear Creek Farms and Groundwork Organic Farm, the pattern for profit seems to be increasing scale and selling wholesale (i.e. selling in bulk to a middleman). A CSA can also be an income stabilizer, but only if it’s a large CSA (100 members) because otherwise, the income it generates doesn’t seem to cover the additional cost of management (organizing shares, marketing, sorting, sending staff to pick-up sites, etc.). Those are just my own observations after reading about and working on a variety of farms, with the question being how a farmer can earn a full-time income from a farm. It definitely seems do-able, if you play your cards right.

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2 Comments »

  1. Relativepunk said

    I am interested to know if anyone has thought of or tried farming three dimensionally? That is to say, try to plant twice or even three times the crop on the same plot of land by going underground and above ground? This is what I am proposing to do. Have you heard of this or does it sound completely absurd?

  2. When I was in New Mexico, I did hear about a farmer who grows all of his crops above ground (maybe a foot high) in a frame of rebar (I think) to keep the plants off the ground and keep the weeds at bay more easily. Not sure how, exactly, it met that goal, but it’d be interesting to learn more about. Is that something like what you had in mind?

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