I had a call yesterday from a very well-intentioned and enthusiastic man who wants to get started with goats. While he said that he was calling to seek my advice about goat breeds, marketing and the use of dogs (guardian and herding dogs), he seemed to already have most of the answers (or at least he didn't agree with my answers). During the course of our discussion, he told me that making a profit from his goat enterprise wasn't a motivating factor - he simply wanted to have dairy goats as a service to his family and to his community.
I found myself becoming increasingly annoyed with this perspective. Without profit as a motivating factor, was this aspiring farmer going to accurately analyze his enterprises? I like to think that I farm for many reasons (making a profit is one of them, but so is love of the land, love for the work, the opportunity to provide my community with food and fiber, and the chance to work with my family).
All business people (including small-scale farmers), I think, have a need and a responsibility to understand the economics of their business. Profit is just one piece of this, obviously. While profit (or loss) is not the only (or even most important) yardstick of success in farming, it should be part of the equation. Indeed, as a farmer I have an obligation to my fellow farmers to look carefully at my own economics. If profit doesn't enter into my consideration, there's a very real chance that I'll undercut the rest of the farm community by charging less for my products than it costs to produce them. This puts severe pressure on other farms who need profit for their owners and workers to make a living.
I was surprised at the intensity of my reaction to the phone call last night. I want to help new farmers get started, but I also want all of us to succeed economically. Profit is one measure of this success.