How much should you be making as an owner/operator of a small scale farm?
Of course, context is important – but where should the center of the bell curve lay?
Heath Emerson recently made an Instagram posing this question. In this episode, he talks about that post and also discusses some of the details of the practical in the field side of managing the expenses and production on a farm in this episode.
The question that inspired this episode from @broadforkacres:
“QUESTION: what do you think a small, organic farmer’s fair, annual income should be? Let’s say we’re talking about one farmer working 48 hours a week. We were talking with some folks the other day about salaries in other careers and it got me thinking about the question. All answers are appreciated!”
You’ve been farming since your early 20’s, what got you into farming at an early age? (3:05)
Sustainability – I learned about impending environmental crises and then started growing in my yard. It was rewarding growing for myself and my family and bucking the trend here in Bakersville of watering a grass lawn. I became passionate about plants. After a winding road I wound up back with a partner here in Bakersville and she looked at me one day and asked if I wanted to start a farm.
To get experience on a like-minded farm we went to Hawaii. It worked out well and we learned permaculture theory doesn’t always align with permaculture practice. Adding in as much complexity as you can make it eventually impossible to manage. Context is also critical – it’s tough to drive home the value of small-scale deep organic farming when the market can’t accommodate it. We have to charge high prices to afford the cost of living here in California. We are only farming a third of an acre and need to be the highest value highest cost product in our market.
Can you find the customer base to pay for this premium product? (14:00)
It’s a challenge. We strive to accommodate a niche product for wealthy customers which can be difficult in a town that has a lot of blue-collar workers. We haven’t had to make sacrifices in regards to our growing method to accommodate customers because we are focusing on bringing value to them. Sometimes we have to educate more – letting people know that holes in a leafy green actually can mean bugs can visit those plants free from sprays.
We have to consider it along with the context of the Pareto principle where 20% of our customers are producing 80% of our sales.
You brought up the question recently on your Instagram – “What do you think the annual small scale farmer’s income, working 48 hrs/wk, should be?” Why did this question come up in your mind? (21:00)
People wouldn’t think twice about spending premium prices for a Starbucks coffee, or clothing, and even video games. I want to ask people what is real food worth to you? No one knows the real cost of food. The real price of a Whopper from Burger King would be astronomical if it wasn’t supported by subsidies. We are talking more about this as a society – but still have a long way to come.
What a farmer needs to make is contingent on context. Here in Bakersville California, we have to aim for six figures. We have to because of the cost of living. And it takes a long time before you can see those profits since you need to put all of the money back into the business to make it grow. You have to invest.
There’s also this resistance to people feeling like you should be making money on a small farm. The more money you make the more you can invest it back into your community, back into growing small farms. We need more people with this kind of wealth to make a difference.
You wrote recently “Complexity is the enemy of management”. This complexity is a permaculture principle. What should people be taking away from permaculture to manage a farm? (41:00)
We need to advance knowledge on growing annual crops with perennial crops. What if we planted fruit trees and herbs in hedgerows to increase yields, confuse pests, increase beneficials. I think the soil aspect of permaculture is starting to take hold in regards to no-till and deep compost.
I’ve started diving deeper into soil recently. We have started testing a lot more. I read a book by Steve Solomon called the Intelligent Gardener. It was all about soil chemistry and it explained that it doesn’t matter how much biology there is in the soil because lettuce grows faster than the biology does. By the time the biology is balanced the head of lettuce is done growing, but you can correct the chemistry before the lettuce grows and give it a better growing environment.
You can have access of minerals and alter soil pH to the point where it prevents absorption of other necessary nutrients. We realized we added too much compost. Our plants would be in stasis and then suddenly bolt to maturity. I feel like they were stunted and then going to seed when their life-cycle was over. When we corrected the soil minerals it caused our yields to go up considerably while not sacrificing principals like no-till.
How do you feel minimal-till fits into the practical side of running a farm? (48:30)
Turning a crop over can be hard to manage. We don’t have any mechanized implements on our farm. It’s a huge labor sink. We harvest the crop, tarp the bed for a week, use an oscillating-hoe, remove the residue with a rake, broad fork it, add amendments, and then use a wire rake upside down to make a fine seedbed for crops like baby greens. We don’t worry about using a rake if we are transplanting.
We use this practice to preserve soil structure and biology. We had some beds I rented a BCS to till. We have a lot of sand and sodium in our soils here which can cause a cement-like a layer to form when tilling. We want to hold nutrients and water in our soils which will build the CEC and maintain soil structure. We have a brittle soil here and need to hold on to as much fertility as we can.
You mentioned you’ve reduced your compost use – how do you view compost in your system at this point? (56:15)
It’s the icing on the cake. It’s good for adding organic matter and microbiology. But if you are not testing it this is a red flag. And they are not testing to specifications even when they do, which is concerning. I think a little bit is great, but adding up to a foot you can drive that system out of balance. You need to dive further into the soil analysis.
I’m starting to think of compost more as a weed mulch. But if you are using it that way you should still test it since you are making it your new topsoil.
Why aren’t more people planting perennial crops? (1:04:00)
We did a hedgerow of California wildflowers last year. They’ve started to seed and become weeds in other beds now. You have to plan these crop additions carefully. If you are adding a layer of complexity you have to try and anticipate the labor required and what results they can have on your system.
I’m finding interplanting is working well for us. There haven’t been any losses in yield planting lettuce along with tomatoes for example. Why not grow more crops together then, especially if you have limited space?
While it may be more work at first per bed, in beds where we’ve planted say cosmos with beets, the flower is working to suppress weeds. This means we don’t have as much labor into weeding down the line so overall it is a time savings. It can take more time to harvest baby greens, but not root crops.
You have a “what you want, when you want it” CSA model. How did you come up with it? (1:16:00)
I was listening to Ben Hartman describe spreading out work and wanted to try that. We pulled out of the farmers’ markets. We ask for a minimum investment and that’s people’s credit. We ask for $20 minimum orders. They don’t have to order every week.
Is it possible with this model for you to support your lifestyle and family? (1:20:00)
Yes. We haven’t reached our potential yet, we are still building. There’s a lot of growth still happening in this industry, and we are finding a lot of growth potential here. We are growing quickly.
I encourage anyone to get into the industry. We are doing what we love and though there are constant challenges I become more comfortable with them all the time.
If you want to follow along with what Heath Emerson is doing you can find him at BroadForkAcres.com and on Instagram @broadforkacres. If you do find them online be sure to give them a shout out and let them know you heard/read about them here on Farm Small Farm Smart.