Posts Tagged farming

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 Hotbeds

Notes based on Gardening for Profit (Chapter 9) by Peter Henderson.

Hotbeds are something we don’t see a lot of, despite their simplicity and usefulness. The idea is that compost generates heat, and seeds need heat to germinate. So why not put seeds directly on the compost pile (the “hot bed”) and coax those little buggers into making their debut a little early in the season? Henderson was doing this in the 1800s, and the logic still applies today:

This is a freshly made hotbed at Singing Pig Farm. It’s about 2 feet tall, 8 feet wide, and 40 feet long. (Disclaimer: I’m terrible at judging dimensions, so give or take about 20 feet on the width and length.) It’s topped with a layer of straw to level the surface and provide additional insulation. Under the straw is a rotting pile of leaves and grass clippings, courtesy of a landscaping company that was happy to get rid of it. The temperature in the pile when it was formed was 105 degrees Fahrenheit. Read the rest of this entry »

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6 Rules of Biological Farming

Today I actually found the time to read. Gardening for Profit is buried somewhere in the moving boxes, but I did manage to bring along my copy of The Biological Farmer. I’ll finish posting notes for Gardening for Profit when I get back to Oregon, but now seems like a good time to start sharing what I’m learning from Gary Zimmer.

This author runs a sustainable agriculture consulting firm in the upper Midwest and this book was originally intended to be a primer for consultants-in-training. He also owns and operates a 500-acre organic crop and dairy farm, and manages a 240-acre livestock and crop demonstration farm. It sounds like he’s heavily influenced by Albrecht, so I’m using this book as an introduction to soil-focused agriculture.

Some of the information isn’t new to me, since I studied environmental science and ecology in school. My eyes didn’t perk up till chapter 2, when he described 6 rules essential to biological farming. By “biological” farming, he means farming to maximize productivity and profits over time by understanding and working with biological processes (whereas conventional practices focus on maximum productivity and profits ASAP, and don’t give a @#$% about biological processes). He goes a step further and describes his criteria for sustainable agriculture, which can be achieved by practicing biological agriculture properly and in the long run: zero soil loss, nutrient balance, and 25 earthworms per cubic foot of soil.

So here are the 6 basic rules essential to biological farming: Read the rest of this entry »

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Update: Moving to Oregon

I might not be posting as much over the next few weeks because I’m making a cross-country trek from New Mexico to Oregon. Here’s why:

  • I came to NM from NY just over a year ago because my boyfriend was going to grad school at New Mexico State Univ. He just finished, so we have the option of relocating.
  • While I love NM in more ways than one (the friendliness, the culture, the live-and-let-live attitude, the striking landscape, the low cost of living) I don’t want to spend the rest of my farming career squabbling over water rights so that more and more people can fill their swimming pools and water their lawns in the desert.
  • I miss trees. And the sound of a river running. And distinct seasons. Plus I have some cozy winter coats that are going to turn into moth food if I don’t use them.
  • Job prospects are not so great here for either of us. The Pacific Northwest has a lot more going on in terms of agriculture (more opportunities for me) and the three largest cities are quite close together (more opportunities for him), making it more likely that we can both pursue careers while still living together.
  • Cost of living in Oregon is reasonable. We found a two-bedroom apartment in a relatively new, well-kept complex in Salem for $550 per month. Private health insurance is affordable as well.
  • Returning to the East coast doesn’t attract either of us. After living out West, the “other side” seems too crowded, expensive, and rigid (versus dynamic, growing, taking shape). We feel we have a better chance of achieving our goals out here.

The runner up was Missouri. But Oregon won out, perhaps because of the diverse landscape (mountains, ocean, and desert) or Portland’s awesome food scene or the lure of the temperate rainforest up in Washington. Who knows? Oregon, here I come.

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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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Newsletter and Photo Album

I churned out another newsletter for my loyal subscribers (the coolest 73 people on Earth) and put together another goodie–a photo album of my farming adventures over the past year. The pictures are broken down by category. I must warn you, however, that these pictures are NOT representative of how smoothly things went this season. Since morale was a little low, we kind of neglected taking pictures of the weeds, the crop failures, and the exploded hoophouse–well actually, I think we do have some pictures of the wreck that was once a hoophouse. Those will be put up soon. Until then, just assume you’re only seeing the “bright side” of farming. It’s much more aggravating than it looks. But it’s still my favorite thing in the world (next to ice cream). Here are the highlights…

Prepping – Tilling, weeding, tomato cages, and the biggest tumbleweed you’ll ever see.

BIG tumbleweed

Planting – Seeds, transplants, tunnels, and me fiddling with an Earthway seeder: Read the rest of this entry »

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Old knowledge on new paper

OK, back to business. My plan had been to borrow a copy of The Biological Farmer by Gary Zimmer from the local university library. I’d been told it’s an excellent primer, and I’ve been looking for a source to provide me with a balanced context so I don’t get lost in the details. But before I could get my hands on a library copy, my schedule went to hell and now my “inside source” at the university has graduated. So then I was going to actually buy a copy, but tonight I came across another highly recommended book that’s available through the soil and health library nurtured by Steve Solomon (bless his heart). The book is Gardening for Profit by Peter Henderson and–get this–it was written and published in 1867! For a book to still be relevant and helpful over 200 years later [edit: 100 years later–math class, anyone?]…this I’ve got to read.

That library, by the way, it’s dangerous. There are so many goodies in there that I could easily blow a month’s paycheck in one sitting–I was so tempted to print out at least five books at once, but I practiced moderation and decided to print only one title, Gardening for Profit, at my local Fedex Kinko’s for $16. You can upload the PDF to their website and complete your order so that all you have to do is pick it up when it’s ready. I had my copy bound nicely so that it lasts a long, long time. I also paid the voluntary $15 to become a lifetime member of the soil and health library. Small price to pay for such a goldmine of knowledge!

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