Dave Pratt, who runs Ranching for Profit schools all over the world, says "Profit is to business as breathing is to life." In other words, profit isn't the reason we're in business, but it's essential to accomplishing the purposes (short- and long-term) of our business.
When thinking about small-scale farming, however, profit can sometimes seem to be a dirty word - both to farmers and to their customers. As a small-scale farmer myself, I admit that I struggle with the idea of profit at times. I think that this struggle, at least in part, comes from my periodic inability to separate profit from the purpose of my business. The purpose of Flying Mule Farm, as I see it, is to provide wholesome food to my community, to leave the land that we manage in better condition than we found it, and to provide my children with opportunities to work outdoors with animals (and to see their father doing something he loves). Reality requires that Flying Mule Farm also provide enough income to cover its own expenses and to support my family's living expenses - minor things like a mortgage, health insurance, groceries (we don't yet grow everything we eat).
Profit, at least in part, is related to scale - but perhaps not in the way most of us think. Big farms aren't necessarily more profitable than my own small-scale operation. However, the scale at which I operate impacts my pricing decisions. Because I only process 20 or so lambs at a time, my transportation and processing costs per lamb are significantly higher than a business that processes thousands of lambs in a day. Consequently, my prices must reflect these higher costs. I think most customers who are committed to supporting a local food system get this - they place greater value on quality and community commitment than they do on convenience or cheap food. Some don't get it, however; these are the folks that tell me that Costco lamb is much cheaper than mine.
Wendell Berry writes, "Are we failing to consider that a family might farm a small acreage, take excellent care of it, make a decent, honorable and independent living from it and yet fail to make what the rest of us would consider a profit?" How does this compare to Dave Pratt's perspective on profit? How do we answer Berry's question in a region where farmland is priced beyond it's productive capacity? Does a farm need to be profitable in an era when a visit to the emergency room costs $700 - even with health insurance?
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