Small farming can be a meat grinder. Yes, it’s an amazing job – there’s nothing more satisfying than growing the literal sustenance that people in your community depend on.

 

But it’s brutal. The work wears on your body, the hours wear on your energy and the lack of a safety net wears on your nerves. You have to be the labor, the accountant, the marketer, the tech service and the admin assistant. It’s not sustainable. It’s rare to find a small farmer who’s made it past the five-year mark, let alone one who’s made it a decades-long career. Surviving as a small farmer requires figuring out how to systematize and scale enough to get some of the work off your plate.

 

 

There’s something of a viability curve to the small farmer experience, and today I’m going to talk through what I’ve seen in my 7 years of farming. In our next post, we’ll talk about ways for small farmers to speed through or bypass the crappier parts of the viability curve.

 

Barely Surviving

 

 

This is where most small farmers are. Including myself if we’re going to be honest – my farm has hovered between barely surviving and having some breathing room for years. I’m a co-founder of Good Agriculture, but I’ve also hired Good Agriculture to support my farm and help it climb towards thriving.

 

If you’re barely surviving as a farmer, you’re in constant hustle mode. You’re not truly covering your expenses, and something like a vehicle malfunction, a tax bill or a bad stretch of weather has you watching the bottom line with a pit in your stomach.

 

Before I co-founded Good Agriculture, barely surviving meant jumping from support to support like a video game character – this person will front money to cover the tractor repair, and if I hold off paying this bill until that crop is harvested then the money will be there. It means leaving things undone – yes, it would be way more efficient to spend the $100 to build better nest boxes, but there’s neither the time nor the $100 to do so. It also means that you make bad decisions because you don’t have the time or money to step back and look at the bigger picture.

 

In 2020, my farm lost its lease during our most successful year ever. I found a vacant property and raised $85,000 to clear it, put in essential infrastructure, and plant out a half-acre of strawberries. And then things started to go wrong. I knew the clock was ticking to get plants in the field with enough time to have a season, so I kept pushing. I didn’t have my colleagues at Good Agriculture to help me take that step back and analyze my options. In retrospect, the 2021 season was doomed from the day that the compost showed up and was 40% fresh wood chips. I’d have been better off to stop and make a more realistic plan. But I didn’t have the space to make that decision, and I fought until I ran out of money.

 

As a small farmer, you want to spend as little time as possible in this space of barely surviving. The amount of stress that comes from living in this space is insane, and it forces you to make decisions in less-than-ideal conditions. If you’re in this space now, you’ll have to figure out how to pause long enough to plan, to take a step back and look at the whole of your situation. You need to get far enough away from the chaos of surviving to find a path to a sustainable future. Spending years in barely surviving is why most small farmers wash out within 5 years.

 

This year, when this season’s strawberry yields were a third of what I’d projected, I spoke with my team at Good Agriculture and made the choice to shut down the season and put the field into cover crop. That saves me most of my labor costs for the next 5 months and gives me the chance to put in new plants this fall and take one last shot at a successful strawberry season next year. If I kept trying to make the field produce, I’d guarantee running out of money and shutting down for good.

 

Breathing Room

 

When you get to breathing room, you’re still vulnerable, but things are moving smoother. You can count your on-farm hours each day on two hands instead of three, your expenses are covered, and you’re paying yourself something. You can take a step back without worrying that everything will burn down in your absence and begin to truly plan out how to build a stable business.

 

I’d gotten my farm to this point in 2019. It wasn’t perfect, but the rent was getting paid on time and I saw a path towards taking a salary for myself for the first time since I started the farm in 2016. The thing about having breathing room, though, is that you’re still vulnerable. In my case, I was one bad landlord away from being back underwater.

 

Then the relationship with my landlords started deteriorating after I’d already put winter crops in the ground – including a quarter acre of u-pick strawberries. By spring we were communicating through lawyers, and I was fighting to both harvest what I’d planted and figure out where the hell I was going to move a 7-acre farm. If I’d had any sense, I would have folded and shut down the farm back then. But I’ve described myself as slightly more stubborn than exhausted for years, and I wasn’t about to let go of the dream that had been within my grasp.

 

If you had a business plan when starting your farm, you’ve learned that no plan survives contact with reality. Once you’ve caught your breath, it’s time to revisit those plans, figure out what worked and what didn’t, and revise. It’s also the time to observe and make the changes to routines so that you can build additional breathing room – can you invest in tools or methods that reduce your time spent weeding, or can you move your equipment and storage to reduce your field time? This is NOT the time to add complexity to your operations – don’t even think about adding another crop or animal to your rotation. Optimize your current setup and get yourself to thriving.

 

Truly Thriving

 

When you’re thriving, your business is stable. You’re paying yourself and your crew a living wage. You’re working 30-40 hours a week instead of 70-80. You have solid systems in place for your operations, and you can easily pass parts of your work off to other people so you can take a vacation, work on a new partnership, or have a kid – human or otherwise. 😉

 

This isn’t to say that your business won’t need your attention – a farm will never run on autopilot, and you never know when a natural disaster or global pandemic will force you to pivot to stay in business. A business in pivot is barely surviving – it’s just in a better place to survive if it has the resources from having thrived in the past.

 

It’s a rare small farmer who makes it to truly thriving without additional income streams, a spouse working off farm, or participating in a network or partnership that helps to spread the risk of farming across many businesses. In our next post, we’ll discuss what you can do to increase your chances of building a stable farm business, whether you’re currently barely surviving, or you haven’t started yet.

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