43,560

It’s very difficult to make a living farming as we do.  We just raise nutritious delicious food and try to sell it to people in our community.  There’s not much money in that.

We talk a lot about “sustainable” farms, but unless a farm is economically sustainable it doesn’t matter how environmentally sustainable it is.  If the bills don’t get paid, the farm will fail.

So I’m encouraged by the work being done by Cliff Slade and his team at Virginia State University to develop an economically viable model for small-scale organic vegetable farmers. His goal is to prove that it is possible to gross $1/square foot on an acre of land, farmed intensively.  Thus he calls it the 43,560 project (there being 43,560 square feet in an acre).

I’ve heard him speak on this subject a few times and his enthusiasm is contagious. His goal is to encourage small scale farming, capable of enabling a family to make a modest living while growing quality food.  He thinks it is doable and I agree with him.

Mr. Slade estimates the cost of production at about $10,000 per acre, so the profit to the farmer, if all goes well, would be about $33,000.  That’s not a lot of money, of course, but it should enable a farmer to pay his taxes and have enough left over to live on (even though off-farm income will probably be necessary if the farmer wants things like health insurance or retirement savings). His model does not take into account the initial capital expense of the land/tractor/greenhouse, etc., but at least it suggests the possibility of economic sustainability.   Because of the labor involved, this is not something that can be done on a large scale, so it wouldn’t be possible to farm more than a few acres this way (at most).  He encourages folks to start small, perhaps with a quarter-acre or half-acre and build up to the full acre if possible.

There are some things about his model that we wouldn’t want to incorporate onto our farm, but I’m a big fan of his project and hope his research will help open doors for all the young people who want to become farmers these days, but are shut out by the high costs and low returns.

To read more about the work being done at Virginia State on this program, go here:  http://www.timesdispatch.com/business/economy/vsu-project-explores–acre-farming-model/article_5265765d-6f6d-5ca8-82ab-08b57053b631.html

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12 comments on “43,560

  1. El Guapo says:

    How important is it to have medical insurance when working on a farm? And how susceptible are small farmers to price fluctuations?

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    • Bill says:

      How important is it to have medical insurance when working anywhere? I suppose that depends upon whether the person is wealthy enough to be able to meet any medical need that might arise, without insurance. My personal opinion is that catastrophic coverage is a good idea.

      We don’t have in-season price fluctuations, as least not in any significant season. Large scale commodity farmers deal with them with hedges and futures contracts. Not an issue for us.

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  2. Jeff says:

    Have you checked out Sustain Floyd? They have a model for small scale farmers (< 5 acres) that they say is viable. The classes have sold out every time they are offered. Sustain Floyd is doing some pretty good work. Are you going to blog about Wendell Berry in Floyd?

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    • Bill says:

      Yes, Sustain Floyd is doing great work. I’ve never been to one of their events but I’ve heard they’re great. Floyd has committed to becoming food self-reliant and they support their local farmers in ways most communities don’t. We ended up not going to Floyd for the Wendell Berry event. It was a long drive the night before an early start and the event was sold out such that the only seats available were in another room at the school where you could watch him on closed circuit TV. Still hated having him so close and not being there.

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      • Jeff says:

        I didn’t look at your link initially, but having done so now, it appears that Sustain Floyd’s offering is very similar to VSUs plan. From what I’ve read, it is very popular in the Floyd area, so I think VSU will have a lot of success, too!

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  3. Lynda says:

    Thank you for sharing this, Bill. When we get moved our plan is to sell berries: Blueberries, raspberries, and blackberries. (and though not fruit, I plan to sell honey as well) Everyone else grows stone fruits and apples and these would be crops we would have needed to start at least 10 years ago! I will be doing most of the farming to start, and therefore will be starting small. Perhaps a quarter acre, maybe less, and plan to pour the profits back into the purchase/propagation of more shrubs and vines to begin with. Up until I read this article I thought maybe at age 60 it was too late to dream of such a thing.

    I am encouraged by reading that the author is 59! 😀

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  4. Very interesting. I notice in the article you linked that he stresses that the marketing is key. Basically all direct sales – farm gate, farm market, CSA etc. I think Eliot Coleman says much the same about what to grow with limited space available. I’m off to google Floyd now!

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    • Bill says:

      Interestingly, he sells (and recommends selling) wholesale to CSAs for use in their member shares. If the farmer can eliminate all middlemen and do all direct sales, then the profit per square foot can be much higher. But marketing is definitely the key to making it all work and that’s not what most of us are good at or want to do. If we enjoyed marketing, we probably wouldn’t be farmers. But without good marketing, the farm can’t survive.

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  5. It is taking me a long time to reply to my blog comments. I do love this article on organic farms. I try to buy all organic and local, but I understand the low returns farmers get. A lot of produce comes cheaply from other areas and countries but that is not what I want as it is full of
    pesticides and I am ill. I guess nature is the one thing we can count on and hope we can
    find small local farms.. Thanks so much for visiting my blog. cheers.

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  6. EllaDee says:

    Interesting. I have a regular chat with an long time established apple/pear grower at the farmers market and he says he now nets more money since he downsized and sells only at farmers markets. His previous overheads and selling in volume to the supermarket co’s were costing him profit.

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    • Bill says:

      I’ve just started a book by a farmer from the Shenandoah Valley (west of us). He says that the last year they farmed corn/soybeans there the farm netted $18.16 for the year. He saved the place by returning to sustainable practices and selling at farmers markets.

      These days the chemical-based farms are doing very well here, thanks to high grain prices and generous government subsidies. It’s a lot harder to make a living doing what we do, but I’m convinced it’s worth the effort.

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