What does running a small farm really look like from a business perspective?
How much money can you make, how much work is it, and what does your lifestyle look like?
This episode was inspired by an Instagram post put up by Taylor Mendell who talks to us about answering these questions.
“Can you make a living on a small farm? Honestly…I’m not so sure. I sat on a panel yesterday and spoke to a room packed full of the movers and shakers in Vermont’s food system and said just that. Our farm is looked at as “successful”. Sure, we’re technically profitable, but at what cost? The stress and uncertainty is more than many people can handle, and I’d argue that even profitable small farms are not always sustainable or replicable. I sat on a panel with two dairy farmers, a new American farmer, and a second-generation veg farmer. I was the token non-Vermonter first-generation farmer, but our stories were all the same. Our panel sobered the entire gathering in a way that I hope was constructive. It sure got me thinking. I’m going to be doing some moving and shaking in the coming weeks, and I want to share it with you all. Because the truth is that we’re losing our family farms and it’s time to rethink our local economies. Stay tuned.”
Taylor runs a small roughly one-acre farm in Vermont with her husband, selling through a CSA and farmers’ markets.
It’s December now, how does the 2019 farm year look when you reflect on it? (2:40)
It was a productive season – we made more than we ever have, and hit our income goals. But at the same time, this is the first season I ever used the word burn-out. I felt like I didn’t want to do it anymore. There was a point where I was cooking and I couldn’t get back up from the floor to stir the pot.
We’ve been farming for 9 years, 7 of it on our own. I thought that by year seven it would stop feeling this way. This year we tried to see all that we could do with our small farm and it didn’t go as far as I thought.
Do you think burn-out can be avoided on a small farm? (6:05)
I think everyone experiences it at least once. It’s what you do with it that’s important. I hope next year it feels different. For us, it centered around storage carrots – and we have to focus on figuring out what happened with them, why they were so stressful, and do it differently next year.
Do you feel like the winter months will bring the needed recovery? (8:10)
I don’t think so. We are trying to stretch our seasons out and so we only take one month off in December. Even though things are slower in the winter we are still thinking about farming and the stress never leaves.
Since you live on the farm and can never really get away from it, do you feel like that compounds the stress? (10:00)
We actually feel like it’s reduced our stress. We just moved on the farm 2 years ago and now it’s so much easier to check on it, especially during the winter. We built our home on top of our wash/pack setup, and we make it so there is a transition from that farm space to visually vary it from our home. No farm clothing, boots and so on come upstairs so that we can turn off. It’s nice to be able to harvest kale whenever we like as well.
What about mentally separating yourself from the farm? (13:00)
I’m pretty intense about the farm, but lately, I’ve felt good about being able to separate it when we get to Sunday because we go off the farm or change into different clothing. We can talk about it a lot, but we are making an effort to decide when not to around a meal for an hour for example.
Do you find having a partner that you work with helps – do you queue each other to stop talking about it sometimes or help the other relax about it? (15:00)
Yes, we do help each other deal with the stress a lot. If one person is worried about a situation the other often talks them through it. On the flip side, your partner can push you to work when you are trying to take time off. Sometimes we have different expectations of what that means. We are trying to talk about it more to make the best of those breaks.
There’s been an effort for us to also communicate a lot about what we need now during the winter as we reflect on the year. For example, I found when I was able to have dedicated lunchtimes for a break that helped me a lot. Leaving the farm just for a few hours felt good to me. With the carrot situation, we were also trying to pick overall goals and match tasks to those goals and ask if they fit. The storage carrots didn’t really match those goals so they kept getting put off. But that’s also when that task will sit at the back of your mind nagging you when it’s not getting done.
Do you take time off during stressful times? Do you break away when you find yourself burning out so that when you come back you are more effective? (20:30)
It’s important to notice when you are getting so tired that your productivity is starting to drop off. During traditional workdays, I can’t take that time off because we have to harvest five days a week and so from 7-3 I can’t take any time off. At the end of the day, there’s the temptation to keep working, but now I ask myself; if I take the time off now to go do some yoga will I be all the better off to work on it tomorrow?
It’s been important for me to learn what is truly rejuvenating. Sometimes I don’t know what to do with that time off – and I get this time off paralysis. I’ve got better at it this year by making plans before I get to that time, and also because I’ve learned to make that time about me. Before I would center my time around other motivations, but it feels a lot better when I take the time for myself.
How important has it been to manage the mental aspect of managing a farm? (25:00)
It’s been the most important aspect of farming. I love books on productivity and systems. You have to be able to organize and clear your mind. It’s been crucial to pass off tasks and delegate. It can get overwhelming thinking about the details of every task but if you take the time to step back and organize it in your mind that can give you at least some mental space.
Can anybody manage all the aspects of a small farm – from the production through all of the business aspects? I say no. (28:00)
I say no, too. I think a lot of people look at farming as a romantic way of life, but I think that’s homesteading they’re considering, or gardening. It’s quite different to be feeding people.
You wrote an Instagram post 6 weeks ago (see below). What are your thoughts hearing it back now? (30:00)
“Can you make a living on a small farm? Honestly, I’m not sure. Our farm is looked at as “successful”. Sure we’re technically profitable, but at what cost? The stress and uncertainty is more than many people can handle and I’d argue that profitable small farms are not always sustainable or replicable.”
I think everyone should read that! Hearing that read back to me makes me think I wish I’d heard that on a podcast somewhere. I was sitting on a panel of farmers and we were asked to talk honestly and bluntly to a room full of people who can change things in our state. I had people come to me afterward and they are saying they’ve never heard that before.
They’ve been meeting like this for years and no one is actually sharing the numbers of their farms. What does it take to make a farm work? I haven’t been able to get that number from these conferences and it’s frustrating.
Do you feel like today your farm is financially successful? (36:30)
Yes. We farmed on an acre outdoors, ¼ acre cover crop, ¼ acre unheated high tunnels. We grossed $175k. Our net is hard to express since our farm pays our mortgage and our light bill. We brought home enough money that we took care of ourselves during the season, we paid our employees well, we have enough leftover that we can make some significant investments for the farm, plus some money to put in our Roth IRAs.
However, we got to burn-out this year. Next year we are going to hire another employee to prevent burn out. I’m curious what’s going to happen if we had a kid?
I write myself a check for $1,500 each month for paperpot, which I believe is important for myself – and I tell other farmers to do this so at least they know they’re getting paid for what they do. What do you do? (40:00)
We do write ourselves a check. We base our business on how much we need to make monthly. We ask what we need to survive to pay our bills, etc. and then how much we need to thrive. It has been growing each year. Next year we’ll be paying ourselves $1,800 a month. It feels good we are prioritizing ourselves.
How do you feel the predictability of your market streams, the farmers market and CSAs, are? (43:00)
It’s been tricky. We add our personal budget to the farm expenses and get a total we need to make. Last year that number was $147k, which is more than we’d ever made in the past.
Then we look at our market streams and the most reliable is our CSA. We work hard on our CSA retention rate, it’s at 87% right now. But we knew where we would need to make that increased income would be at the farmers’ market. We concentrated on that and it worked. We made close to $2k per market.
So, we do know what we make generally per market stream, but what’s more important is knowing how much we need to grow and where we want to increase sales and that’s where we put all of our intentions.
How do the next 20 years play out? What is the long term plan? (49:30)
We know the number that we need to take in from the farm is going to continue to go up. That might mean I need to get another job. We think about what it would look like for me to go back to work.
We’ve only started saving now and that means we don’t have the value of saving from when we were young. I get all my employees to read The Broke Millennial, which stresses the importance of saving from the time they’re in their 20s instead of their 40s because of how the savings can compound.
I’m not sure we can sell the assets of our business either. A lot of farmers talk about the investment in the land and equipment but I don’t know that someone else would look at what we’ve done with this home and property and see it as valuable the way we have.
Diego – I see a part of the equity in a small business of any kind in being the name of the brand. You don’t have to sell the business when you retire, you can keep it running but with employees and you collect a small part of that income.
Are small scale farms financially viable – can they be a 30-year business model? (56:00)
I think the profitability needs to go up. The price of food needs to go up since it hasn’t in 15 years. I had dinner with a financial advisor recently who helps advise farms and he said he thinks the small scale owner-operator farm is the most viable since you are the most in touch with the market and your business and you know what needs to be done to make a profit.
Most small farms I know of have off-farm income, and that’s fine, but that’s something people need to be aware of getting into it.
Could you increase your income by another $50k gross if you needed to for a new expense, like a child for example? (1:00:00)
No – but part of that is our land base. We only have 2.5 acres to work with, and so we’d have to get more land. That would mean moving equipment – which we don’t think is viable for us. In our situation, if we needed another $50k it would come down to me getting new work. If you are considering increasing income you need to look at; what does your land base look like and what does the consumer base look like.
If you had a 20-year-old from Vermont looking to start a farm what would you tell them to do? (1:06:40)
I’d want them to know how much money they need to make. When we started we just grew crops and asked how much did we make at the end of the year, but when we knew what we were trying to make things shifted for us.
I would ask someone – what does it mean to make a living on a small farm for you? Do you have a willingness to not go out to eat for 10 years at a time and max out credit card debt sometimes? What do you need to live? What making a living means to me and to someone else can mean such different things.
Taylor has recently started an Instagram account that you can find @HabitFarming and a blog that covers farm business topics and her reflections on what’s happening in her farm life.
Please reach out to Taylor on these platforms to thank her for taking the time to share her thoughts on this episode and check out what she’s been writing.