WHY FARM SMALL?
COMPACT VALUES AND STRATEGIES Compact farms are human-scale, approachable, and easily manageable. I enjoy being able to walk the entire production space, checking in with all of the plants, animals, and structures in the course of a few minutes each morning. Other benefits are not exclusive to compact farms but are characteristic of them:
Hands-on farming. Compact farms can and frequently do utilize machines, but the nature of small spaces means that many tasks are far better suited to hand tools (or even just hands) than to tractors. I'm mechanically inclined, but I don't want to be a full-time driver or mechanic, spending my days working on big machines. I enjoy working with hand tools, which are quiet, fume-free, and relatively easy to maintain.
Community magnet. Compact farms build a sense of community centered around food. It's much easier for most of us to relate to small local farms than to large distant ones.
Partnering with natural systems. Compact farms almost always rely on a diversity of crops instead of a suite of synthetic sprays and fertilizers. Small plantings of diverse crops have the potential, through myriad natural symbioses, to reduce pest and disease pressures. Some of those natural symbioses also provide fertility, increasing production and changing "waste" products, potential environmental pollutants, into soil-building amendments. It may appear easier to manage a big monoculture (the planting of a single variety, which is typical of large farms) and become an expert on the needs of just one crop rather than thirty. In fact, those single-crop plantings can require more intense management of nutrients, pests, and diseases precisely because they are working against, not with, natural and diverse systems.
Limiting outside costs. Since large monocultures are easily mechanized, they appear less costly to run than more labor-intensive, small, diverse farms that are better suited to the incredible flexibility of hand labor. In fact, many of the actual costs of large monocultures, such as groundwater pollution and soil erosion, are externalized and are not included in the price of the produce. Further, repetitive stress injuries during field work are more common in larger enterprises than on small farms, and those injuries externalize the costs to workers in another way.
Variety in plantings also means variety in tasks, and from personal experience I can say this definitely helps reduce physical wear and tear.
Limiting startup costs. For farmers just starting out, one of the obvious benefits of starting small is lower initial costs. This is often amplified because, as mentioned above, compact farms typically use more labor and less machinery. Both labor and machines can be expensive, but machines typically require cash up front, whereas labor on a very small operation can often be paid for in sweat equity.
Adding value. In a time when land prices are relatively high and food prices relatively low, it can be tricky to make the jump into a business requiring lots of land and equipment to produce a low-value product. Compact farms reverse this equation, reducing the land needed and increasing the value of the produce. In the long run, of course, you reach success by keeping expenses lower than gross revenue, a difficult task no matter the size of your outfit.
KEYS TO SUCCESS FOR COMPACT FARMS
In this book, I've profiled 15 farms from different parts of the United States and Canada, a small sampling of the many folks farming very small acreages. This group showcases the range of approaches, geographic areas, crop selections, production techniques, and markets available to small-scale farmers — and even the way the farms were started. I've visited countless farms and I've had the good fortune to meet a lot of really fantastic farmers — not only good growers, but good and generous people. I'm continuously reminded on these visits that there isn't just one way to farm well.
Good farmers pay attention to their land and to their markets; through the filter of their own unique personalities, experiences, and resources, they then create productive systems and continuously improve them. Farms are incredibly complex and dynamic places, a mix of physical elements — minerals, water, and organic materials of all sorts — combined with a stunning array of biological elements, all continuously interacting, changing, and reacting to weather and even the movement of the earth, moon, and stars. You can learn from books how to grow crops, but there is no substitute for the physical, experiential learning that happens with season after season of planting, nurturing, and harvesting crops, caring for livestock, and dealing with the innumerable factors that contribute to the harvest.
Good farmers pay attention to the land, which means they pay attention to everything connected to it: the soil, the plants, the animals and insects, the microbiology, the water, the weather, the sun and the seasons, and on and on. Curiosity and observational skills are key traits for learning to farm, and learning to farm well is a lifelong pursuit.
Good farmers also pay attention to markets; it's a skill that separates compact farms from oversized backyard gardens. As a farmer, simply producing good yields of high-quality product is not enough; you must also be able to make a living — or some semblance of a living — from it. The farmers profiled in this book all not only produce food, they also sell it. Many use multiple channels, diversifying their customer bases as well as their crops. Diversity in marketing, or in crop production, may appear to complicate the tasks of selling and growing. The benefit may not initially be clear, but that diversity adds resilience, reducing the farm's reliance on any one buyer or the success of any one crop.
SETTING YOURSELF APART
Creative marketing approaches allow farmers to set themselves up as "price makers" as opposed to "price takers": sellers who have the ability to sell their produce at a price they set, versus sellers who must accept the price the market offers them. By selecting appropriate crops, connecting with customers, and adding value in all sorts of small ways, these small-scale growers set themselves apart from their larger counterparts.
DEVELOPING SYSTEMS THAT WORK
The ability to systematize the daily tasks on a farm is another way to distinguish between most home gardeners and farmers. On all of the farms in this book, systems of production and marketing are constantly evolving. Farmers all have systems in place, but those systems are always in flux and are hard to pin down. Ask a farmer about one aspect of their operation, such as bed preparation, and you'll get a long discourse about how they are preparing beds, only to be interrupted with an explanation of how they used to do it, followed by an outline of how they are planning to improve it in the future.
Most farms are, however, well thought out, with relatively stable systems refined over the years. In many cases, the individual systems are tied into other systems: for example, some farmers' planting methods might be connected to how they prepare their beds, or how they want eventually to harvest the crop. All of these things are almost certainly tied to the soil type, climate, equipment availability, and personality of the farmer. The individual elements aren't necessarily "drag and drop," or universally interchangeable. By summarizing each profiled farm's full set of systems, I hope that I can give you a better view of the big picture for each operation, and a sense of how all of the elements interrelate.
SUSTAINABILITY AS A CORE GOAL
The farm profiles in this book focus on a group of farmers who tend toward organic methods, favoring ecological approaches over sterile synthetics. Many of us take this for granted, so much so that we can forget that most of the food in this country is still produced using synthetic fertilizers and chemicals to control weeds, pests, and diseases. Many of those same synthetics are available not only to "trained" applicators on farms but to the general gardening public as well, and both use them for the reason for which they were ostensibly developed: to make growing crops easier.
On the face of it, these synthetics may seem to have simplified problem solving on the farm, but now that the more complex, longer-term negative impacts of systems that rely on synthetics are more widely understood, it astounds me that we aren't prioritizing the development of alternative methods. There are many examples of food production systems that work with complex biological processes, without synthetics, to produce more food per space and energy input, and to return more good to the producers themselves and to their communities.
DEFINING OUR TERMS
Sustainability, by definition, means employing practices that can be maintained indefinitely. In an ecological sense this is often stated another way: don't harm the environment. Sustainable agriculture uses methods that don't deplete the soil over time and don't pollute the water, air, or soil — although this last point is usually less an absolute and more a case of "relative to systems that are heavy polluters." For example, many "sustainable agriculture" projects still use tractors, and it's hard to argue that tractors don't pollute. As a society, however, we tend to see a certain level of pollution as acceptable, and in some sense, it probably is true that the environment can absorb and process, sustainably, a certain level of tractor pollution.
THREE PILLARS OF SUSTAINABILITY
Effective sustainability isn't just about ecological concerns, however; it's also about the financial stability of the farm and the social impact on both workers and the larger community. This is frequently referred to as triple-bottom-line thinking, taking into account people, planet, and profit — the three pillars of sustainability.
When thinking about sustainability on the farm, I consider the internal workings of the farm and how the practices we're using to produce food are impacting not only soil health but the habitat for all of the creatures on the farm as well — from birds and coyotes to insects, worms, and even bacteria and fungi. I also think about my own well-being and that of the folks who are helping me. And, since I do not have vast financial resources, it's impossible to ignore the need to make the farm profitable.
Here are some examples of triple-bottom-line thinking on the farm:
* I'm careful to rotate crops to avoid pest and disease problems, rather than using pesticides and fungicides that not only kill the "problem" but also destroy beneficial insects and soil organisms. This approach is more ecologically sound, saves me the expense and time of application, and doesn't subject me, farm workers, or the community to toxic chemicals.
* I'm careful to set my prices high enough that I can make a living without having to take shortcuts that harm the environment and without working excessively long hours.
CLOSED AND OPEN SYSTEMS
Focus first on what you can control on the farm. Rudolf Steiner, best known in this country for developing the Waldorf education system in the early twentieth century, also set the framework of biodynamic agriculture, a precursor to both organic agriculture and the concept of sustainability. A fundamental principle of biodynamics is to view the whole farm as a system, and as much as possible to keep that system closed, importing as little as possible. Biodynamics focuses on creating ever more productive systems — ecological, economic, and spiritual — within the farm itself.
Yet even in biodynamics, it is recognized that the system will never be fully closed. Just as produce is sold off the farm, some resources must be imported onto most farms at some point. We need to think beyond the farm boundary and ask questions: What effect do we have on how the imported tools, supplies, and raw materials are produced? What is the impact of the materials, soil, water, and produce that leave the farm? These processes must be evaluated for their ecological impacts and their social and financial outcomes.
SEEKING BEST OPTIONS
Rather than fixate on absolute numbers measuring sustainability, I find it more realistic in daily practice to pick my best options and then work to improve them. When I started my own farm I delivered my produce with a regular car, not worse than any typical commuter, but then I was able to reduce my impact by switching to a cargo bicycle with electric assist. This wasn't just an ecological improvement, but it also made my day more fun and fulfilling. Farmers are always working toward improvements, hoping they help move the leading edge of what is possible.
THE BIGGER PICTURE
Sustainability is a core value for all of the farmers profiled, and yet not one of them would say they aren't still trying to improve in that realm. For this reason, we need to go beyond the word "sustainability," which implies a static state that can be maintained indefinitely, and adopt new terminology that encompasses the intention of the sustainability movement. It's not that we seek a static state, or even that we never do anything that won't be able to be repeated sustainably, but that we leave at least as much for future generations as we had when we started.
We need to add to sustainability the concept of continual and conscientious improvement. The compact farms here illustrate that value in numerous ways. These are farms that seek to improve the places where they are, to improve their communities, to help their neighbors, and to leave more than they have taken.
The white board is an essential planning and communications tool on many small farms.CHAPTER 2
In the following pages you'll find profiles of 15 farms from across the continent. I start with the story of my own little operation, Slow Hand Farm, and what got me there. I tell my story to give you, the reader, a sense of where I'm coming from, my own particular experiences in growing, how I made my decisions, and, perhaps, my biases.
The profiles that follow my story belong to a collection of impressive and well-established farms and a few new-generation upstarts. Some of these farms have been quietly plugging along, fixtures in their own communities but little known beyond. Others are well known and much written about but worth revisiting, as they are constantly updating their methods and provide a nice framework of reference for the other farms.
These profiles are snapshots in time. The farms are continuously changing as farmers find and develop new tools and methods, making little tweaks to their markets, adjusting their crop mixes, and learning more about their piece of land, the changing climate, and the people who work with them.
These farms are all in very different parts of the country, with different climates, soil conditions, access to tools and supplies, access to markets, regional customer preferences, competition, and influences. It is a varied group, but there are commonalities, and these commonalities are the things that work well.