Sunday, February 9, 2014

No Easy Answers

I'm helping to teach a small farm business planning short course at the moment - part of my work as a program representative with UC Cooperative Extension.  This year, four local farms are participating - we held our "farm economics boot camp" yesterday.   As we worked through the economic analysis for each farm, I was reminded again about the challenges we've faced with our own farm.  Questions of scale, market efficiency, and capitalization continue to be challenging for us - and, I think, for many small farms.  The local food movement, which emphasizes small scale production, is threatened, in my opinion, by the economic realities of farming at a micro-scale.  As a "practicing" professional farmer, I have grown more and more skeptical of those authors and others who offer recipes for successful small-scale agriculture.

I've listened to, read and been inspired by farmers like Joel Salatin, Gene Logsdon and others who offer step-by-step instructions to those of us who are trying to feed our neighbors (rather than the world).  As I struggle with the economic realities of trying to make a living from my small farm, however, I begin to question whether this advice is entirely useful.  There are times, I'll admit, when I wonder what I'm missing when I read books like "You Can Farm" or "All Flesh is Grass."  These authors are necessarily optimistic about the value of small scale farming, yet my own experience indicates that it's not quite so easy.  Sometimes I think that I simply need to work harder and smarter - that my own laziness is the reason that I can't make Salatin's model work.  Why can't I pay myself a full-time salary by raising 200 ewes?

Part of the answer, I suspect, lies in our regional perceptions of scale.  A large farm in my part of the Sierra Nevada foothills is 40 acres of vegetables and/or orchards.  A small farm in our community might consist of one to two acres of row crops.  While it's possible for someone to farm an acre of vegetables profitably (that is, for income to exceed expenses), it's probably not possible for a farm of this size to generate a full-time income for the farmer.  A small farm in Yolo County, by contrast, might be 80 acres - large enough to be viable as a full-time occupation for the farmer.

I'm also curious about how much income these farmer-authors derive from speaking fees and writing.  Part of this is probably envy on my part - I'd love to get paid for writing!  That said, I think there is probably something to my perception that the small farm movement has helped make these folks financially successful.  I don't begrude their success, but I sometimes wish they'd be up front about how much their farming operations benefit from this outside income.  In essence, it seems that their farms also depend on off-farm income to thrive.

Ultimately, the work of farming - and the business of farming - has never been easy.  We work long days, we depend upon the benevolence of Mother Nature, and we're subject to the constraints of biological processes.  Even those of us who market our products directly to consumers must face the realities of economics - we don't have total control over our prices or our expenses.  While I'll continue to read - and take inspiration from - other farmers who have apparently figured out the recipe for success, I'll read their works with a more skeptical eye.  Now that I'm 13 years into my "professional" farming career, I'm realizing that reality doesn't always sell books!


  1. As an aspiring small-farmer (a wannabe horse-farmer no less) I sometimes struggle with the notion of trying to conform our farming to an industrial model. If that is the bar by which I am to measure my achievements, can I ever be “successful” at the small/micro-scale? There are respectable advocates who stand firm in their beliefs that small-scale horse-farming can provide a living. I’ve also heard from experts whom I respect, that any person who wants to make a profit and run a “real“ business has no real business farming with horses. One may believe in-part that the joy of the work makes up for any “loss” of efficiency while using horses, while the other may think the first is doing a disservice to his fellow farmers by not charging extra for the perceived inefficiency. Making a living takes different shapes for different people, and I think we need to be careful not to toss out idealism for efficiencies’ sake. Is it realistic to expect small-farms (in all their diversity) to succeed at mimicking industrial enterprises? Assuming we agree at a basic level that a business must “make a living” (however you define that), I wonder if one of the very things that drives many of us to do what we do—smallness, independence, and self-sufficiency—is actually a hindrance to wider financial sustainability within the small-farm community. I wonder if small-farmers would not be able to realize some of the benefits of industrial-scale ag (living wage, health/retirement benefits, a little time off the farm/time for personal development) by combining resources, sharing labor, pooling crops, and advocating with and for each other in a more cooperative less competitive arrangement.

  2. I like and find provocative what Anton has said about thinking about being more of a cooperative effort, rather than being a competitive endeavor, between small farmers. I can very much appreciate Dan's comments. I've met a couple of these authors and what I've noticed is they are more interested in farming to give creditability to their book writing, where I suspect they really make their income than actually making a living from farming. I took the class Dan mentioned and since then have pondered the direction of our farm and what we hope to achieve. I am not convinced it is possible to make a living wage solely by being a small scale farmer and certainly not enough to afford health care, retirement or vacations. Right now, I'd just be happy if the income from the farm paid the expenses of the farm. It almost seems like being a small farmer is a rich man's hobby, even though none of us are rich.