Posts Tagged farm

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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Henderson on the Business of Gardening

Notes based on Gardening for Profit by Peter Henderson.

One of the first things Henderson emphasizes in the introduction is that he’s no phony. He makes a distinction between self-made farmers–practical people who’ve “risen from the ranks”–versus people who have a little hobby garden or farm, spend a few years dabbling, and then write a book. Henderson wanted to let his readers know that he practiced what he preached. This is an interesting distinction because if I’m looking for information on how to farm profitably, I need to pay special attention to people who started off in a similar situation as mine (i.e. from scratch) and who’ve achieved goals that I’m after (sustainability and profitability). Why re-invent the wheel?

I wouldn’t have thought that this book, written in the late 1800s, would be of much value to someone like me, but Henderson must’ve really known his stuff. Sure, some things are outdated, like starting a farm for $300 per acre in the outskirts of NYC (ha!) as well as the hand tools and the horse power (i.e. horses as workers, not as pets). But other elements of the book are as relevant as ever. One example is his view on what it takes for a person to be successful as a farmer. More recent versions of this book have a handy list in the foreword that sums it up quite nicely: Read the rest of this entry »

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