I just wanted to take a moment to clear up a slight misconception people might have about the small-scale sustainable farm life. Only recently have I begun to field questions from well-meaning friends and customers about the profitability of our first year farming. So, here it goes, just so everyone knows:
No, we did not make any money the first year. In fact, we invested quite a bit of money to build infrastructure and purchase equipment, which was not outpaced by our revenue.
No, small-scale organic farming is not an extremely profitable occupation. People can make a comfortable living doing it, but it is not the way to easy money.
Yes, we do plan on continuing to farm, and we do expect to turn a profit within five years, because otherwise this would be a fundamentally unsustainable venture, which isn’t what we do.
I’m sure our farmer friends reading this are either laughing or wryly shaking their heads, because they also get asked similar questions. I don’t mean to be dismissive of the honest interest of those asking these questions, but it does strike a humorous note. Farming is extremely difficult work. From the physical demands of the kind of work where your body is your main tool, to your product being determined by the capricious weather, to the unknowable factors of wildlife, diseases, and pest irruptions, there is no certainty about how the next year will turn out. Then there are the social components of finding outlets for your product, transporting and marketing your products, and trying to communicate the value of your product in a society that forces your fresh local sustainable produce to compete with foreign-grown, nutritionally devoid, flavorless items readily available at the nearest low-price leading corporate retail outlet.
Not to mention your product is extremely perishable, vulnerable to too much heat or cold, wind, humidity, over-handling, and in the best storage environment, may still have a shelf life of 7 days or less. No wonder less than 2% of the U.S. population are involved in agriculture (this includes everyone from market gardeners to 1000-acre California lettuce farms)! We all must be at least a little mad to be in this industry.
Then why do we do it? After all that, how can people eschew jobs in climate controlled buildings with consistent pay, benefits, and obvious times where they are not at work?
Well, we all have to eat, don’t we? For me it started with the desire to control what I was putting into my body, but also to have a hand (or two) in nurturing and growing what I was eating. My desire to live a life close to the land, reducing waste, minimizing my carbon footprint, smelling the summer air and hearing the sounds of nature, the feeling of hands in the very earth itself; combined to create an inexorable pull into agriculture. But I wanted more than to get home after work and happily immerse myself in the garden- besides, here in the Midwest, we get less than half a year for our growing season! I wanted to make my passion my livelihood.
For many of us small, sustainable farmers, it is a lifestyle, a purpose, maybe even a calling. We do it because we want to produce the very best food, in the best manner possible, and share it with our local communities. How many large producers personally give the heirloom tomato or pound of hand harvested green beans to the person who will soon be eating it? The human connection is inseparable from the actual growing and harvesting of the food. The food is not merely a product, another dollar of inventory on a far away shelf. What we cultivate is alive and unique. We interact with it, touch it, talk to it, and at times plead with it. It is something that is nurtured by caring, compassionate, and humanly flawed people who will share it with others that have their own stories, their own families they will nourish with this food.
So no, we didn’t make any profit last year. But this year we are going to pick up our seeds and our trowels and we are going to go out there and do it all again. Because that is who we are and that is what we do, and hopefully one day we will be able to financially sustain this practice, as it sustains us, body and soul.