Tuesday, August 7, 2012

What Does It Mean to be a "Small" Farm?

We currently care for approximately 250 ewes and their lambs.  About two-thirds of these animals belong to my family; the balance are owned by friends and other family members.  To provide adequate grazing land for our sheep, we rent, graze for free or get paid to graze (for vegetation management purposes) around 500 acres of annual rangeland and irrigated pasture.

I’m not certain whether the scale at which we currently operate makes us a large farm or a small farm.  We’re certainly much larger than when we started in 2005 with 27 ewes and one ram.  On the other hand, we’re much smaller than the commercial sheep operations in the Delta or the San Joaquin Valley.  Perhaps acreage and livestock number are not the best way to determine scale – perhaps we should look at income.  Based on our income from farming, we’re definitely small-scale!  In 2011, our farming business (which includes income from meat sales, live animal sales, wool sales, contract grazing, firewood sales, consulting and teaching) paid me a salary of less than $20,000. Fortunately, my wife’s business allows us to have catastrophic health insurance and other essentials.  We took a 2-night camping trip and several trips to see our extended family last year – that was the extent of our "vacation."

Our farm business provides an incredible way of life – I get to work outside with animals in partnership with nature every day.  I get to sell my products directly to my friends and neighbors.  I get to work with my family on a regular basis.  Our farm business does not, however, provide a living – at least not yet.  By my calculation, I worked approximately 2,800 hours last year (over 50 hours a week) on the farm – which earned me an income of just over $6 per hour.

A significant part of this economic pressure has to do with overhead.  I have to pay for fuel, repairs, and insurance for my truck (among other things) – whether I have 10 sheep or 300.  These overhead costs imply that a certain size is necessary to achieve profitability (and to pay the owner a salary).  Based on my analysis, this scale needs to be around 600 ewes for our operation.  At the moment, we’re too big to be part time and too small to make a full-time living.

The local food movement has raised awareness of the value of locally produced food from a nutritional and quality of life perspective.  The movement has failed, largely, to address the economic issues I've briefly discussed here.  We seem to have a romantic notion of the “modern” homesteader producing enough extra meat, fruit, vegetables, etc. to feed his or her neighbors.  We forget that “modern” homesteads usually come with a mortgage attached.  We forget that the “modern” farmer needs health insurance.  We forget that economic sustainability is critical to ecological and social sustainability.

Here in Auburn, a group of community activists is discussing the possibility of a local food cooperative (modeled after the Briar Patch Community Market in Nevada County).  One of the organizers told our local newspaper that the purpose of a cooperative would be to make cheap locally produced food more readily available.  As someone who has marketed my meat, vegetables and wool at the farmers’ market for nearly 10 years, I take exception to this statement.  It implies that my food is not cheap.  It reflects a lack of knowledge about what it takes to produce food beyond a family scale (both in terms of the work and the costs of production).  It suggests a continued devaluation of the work of producing the food and fiber that sustains life in our community.

Over the last several years we’ve sold weaned lambs to people who wanted to raise their own meat (and in at least one case, who didn’t want to pay our meat prices).  Invariably, these folks discovered that producing a quality product took a great deal more work and knowledge than they expected.  Farming at any scale takes an incredible amount of expertise, but as a society we tend to discount the work that farmers do – we assume that anyone can farm!

These questions are difficult to answer, but we must try.  Access to affordable land, access to affordable credit, access to more affordable health care – each of these is a part of the equation.  We must also decide what we mean by small-scale farming.  At least in Placer County, we probably don’t have enough arable land, water resources, and most importantly, skilled management and labor, to grow all (or even most) of our food three to five acres at a time.  We need professional farmers who operate at a scale that makes a living for them and for their families.  We need to figure out how to get there as quickly as possible.


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  2. Very ture post, we have he same problems here in New Zealand with small scale farming. Our flocks of sheep are about the same size 250 ewes, (although we only have 85 acres) and our farm income is about the same $20k. My wife and I both must work off farm to pay for the mortgage, land tax, insurances etc, etc. I live in hope that sooner or later there will be a collapse of the commercal food industry and a return to local produce, sold and traded locally.

    1. I'm always fascinated by the similarities in farming at this scale around the world - similarities in terms of the social and economic conditions we face, especially! I have a documentary movie from England in my collection - entitled "The Year of the Working Sheepdog." In the intro, the narrator makes the point that 100 years ago, it was possible for an English family to make a living from 150 ewes (and to hire outside help). Today, it takes close to 900 ewes for a family to make a living - with no outside help except for shearing. I share you're hope that we can return to an economically viable local food system!