Sunday, December 6, 2015

Doing Something Real, But Are We Making a Living?

At the 2015 Practical Farmers of Iowa conference back in January, I was honored to be asked by Melissa Dunham of Grinnell Hertitage Farm to participate in a presentation she was leading on farm financials.  I'll simply state that it wasn't an easy presentation for Melissa, but she did an outstanding job illustrating the complexities and difficulties in trying to run a profitable farm business.

All I had to do was follow up with our farm's financials.  And, then I appreciated all over again how difficult this presentation was for Melissa as I struggled to do the same thing.  And I did this, all the while realizing that our farm is an order of magnitude SMALLER than GHF. Oh my goodness!  What will people think?  Surely we are failures in comparison?  And, everyone can now look at our numbers and dwell on how poorly we do what we do.  Ugh.

Putting seed in the 6 row seeder
Then, not long after the conference, farmer friends started sharing links to this particular blog post with respect to the viability of small farms such as ours.  I encourage you to read that post.  Why?  Because, if you are a supporter of local foods, small scale farming and other related concepts, you need to read it.  This is ESPECIALLY true if you are not a farmer.  This person's experience is not unique to her.

First, I should make something very clear here.  A small farm is just as likely - and maybe more likely - to fail as any small business during its first five years.  And, just like any small startup, the owners are often not going to see much return during those years.  It isn't unusual for a farm our size to rely on income from another job in order to pay the bills, especially at the beginning.  But, what happens if you want to quit that off-farm job and just work on the farm? It isn't easy.

So here is the BIG question:
What will you do to support local food producers?

It's nice that you think local foods are a good thing.  It's great that you purchase local foods when it is convenient for you and even sometimes when it is not so convenient.  It is truly wonderful when you don't try to tell us that our prices are too high and when you recognize our efforts to produce the best food possible for your consumption.

But, in the end - is this you? (this is quoted from the blog I have cited above)

"Then the woman glanced back over her shoulder, I hope the farm stays here forever, she added. I hope you never go off and get a real job."

Does it comfort you to know that farms like ours, and the writer of the article I linked to, exist?  Isn't it great that we abstain from "real jobs" so you can visit us at the market on weekends when you can make it - and pay us $4.00 for a bag of spinach?

Well, we think it's great too.  And we would like to be here for you for as long as forever might be, I suppose.  But, that means that this IS our "real job."  And, as a real job, it has to compensate us enough so we don't begrudge the long days put in to produce the good food we all get to enjoy.

Young pumpkin vines
And, that means farms like ours need you to meet us part way.

Now, I suppose some people are going to say that, as a business, it is up to us to go out and 'get' the customer.  The onus is on us to meet you where you are.  But, if part of what you get from a farm like ours is the feeling that you LIKE the fact that our farm (and others like ours) exist, then our existence is part of the product.  And, if that is the case, you need to 'pay' with the understanding that we do not have the resources to do everything a bigger operation might do. 

In fact, we often do not have the inclination to do some of those things.  In other words, if our farm had to do certain things to survive, we might find it better to just cease farming and move on to something else.

1. Understand that we can't be everywhere at once, so you might have to meet us part way to get our products.
We have been approached multiple times by people who want us to hold a spot in a new "neighborhood" farmers' market, or to make a delivery of our CSA farm shares at a new location.  Folks who ask typically mean well, but they are forgetting something.  Every farmers' market and every CSA distribution requires person hours in packing, cleaning, commuting, setting up, staffing, tearing down, commuting, unpacking, putting away and cleaning up.  If we do too many of these, when do we actually spend time growing the produce and raising the poultry that you all like so much?

So, we select methods, times and places to sell/distribute our products that hopefully reach our customers reasonably well within the time and resource constraints that we have.  And, we do carefully consider each request made for our presence.  Of course, there is always a chance we will decide that a new opportunity is right for us.  But, we do need everyone to understand that there is only so much of us to go around.  And, if we got big enough to put our product everywhere - well - then we wouldn't be that small-scale, local, family-based farm that you all like to know exists, would we?

2. We thrive when we have some security in knowing that there will be consistent purchases.
Our farm income doesn't magically appear every two weeks in the form of a paycheck like it used to when Rob worked as a software engineer.  And, thankfully, Tammy does get a regular paycheck for her "real job."  But, consider this.  Many people go about their jobs from day to day feeling secure in the knowledge that they will receive that paycheck on a regular basis as long as they continue to work that job.  Farmers on small, diversified farms such as ours do not necessarily have that security.

Weeding green beans
Imagine working hard and doing reasonably well with the intention that you will get paid for that effort - and then not getting paid.  In fact, imagine that you ended up losing money in the deal.  This is a very real possibility for farms such as ours.  It could be something that no one could control, such as a hailstorm that destroys the crop the night prior to harvest.  Or, it could be the poor turnout at farmers' market the week the farm pulls in the main crop of melons.

Of course, our farm isn't nearly that brittle.  We do many things to deal with the risks and issues with growing and selling what we grow.  But, that isn't the point.  The point is that farms like ours work to find ways to encourage consistent purchases (such as our farm share CSA, our egg email list for pre-ordering, etc) so we do receive consistent income for our labors.

What we are trying to say to customers is that we appreciate those who purchase from us regularly and consistently.  We aren't asking you to over-purchase.  In fact, that has a way of backfiring on both parties, something I can blog on some other day.  And, we won't say no if you suddenly decide to buy something from us once in a blue moon.  But, we greatly prize those who buy the $4 bag of spinach each week we have it, or the dozen eggs every other week, or the five chickens each time a batch is processed, or the membership in the CSA.  Farms like ours depend greatly on the investment of a community of buyers - just like any other business. 

3. Our CSA model is one of our ways we use to build a financially sustainable farm.  Respect each farm's approach they use to do the same.
In fact, that is the whole point of our using the CSA model.  A small farm like ours has a chance to operate with some consistent income if a community of subscribers meet the producer part way each season.   We fully realize that there are some things our customers must deal with if they join.  Members may get some veggies they don't want.  They may get too much or too little of some things depending on the week or the growing season.  Members may have some limitations on pick up times.  We realize this, which is why we typically give members more produce value than they paid for.  It's a recognition of their investment in our farm.

Each farm will have its own way of staying within itself.  No small farm that focuses on local sales is going to be able to provide product without some sort of limitation.  Respect these limitations and choices your local producer makes in order to do what they do very well - rather than trying to do everything and doing it poorly.

4. Pay the asking price for local food products.
Before I get on the soapbox, let me make it clear that I welcome honest questions about our pricing.  If you REALLY want to know why I ask the prices I do, I will tell you.  But, you had better let me know if you want the full version, the summary version or the sound bite version when you ask. 

Straw mulch for the tomatoes
What I do not welcome are comments, actions or questions that are meant to imply that we set prices solely for the purpose of "ripping off" our potential customers.  I am also not fond of comments that make inaccurate price comparisons with other growers or sources.

A typical farm of our size will ask for prices that they feel they need in order to cover appropriate expenses and hopefully make some profit in their sales.  Prices are not a random act on our part.  In fact, most farms of our type and size make the mistake of charging TOO LITTLE because we really don't want to take advantage of our customers.  After all, we don't want to prevent people with limited incomes from having a chance to buy quality food products.  And, really, we're on YOUR side.  We really do want to do right by you.

But, as a group, farmers like us may actually be afraid of what you, our customers, will think of us if we tell you what we need in order to be reasonably successful at what we do.  After all, you might start thinking we are greedy.  What does it say when I tell you that I actually worried about what people would think if we bought a new truck for the farm even though it was something we really needed?

Don't worry, I got over the truck thing.  Really.  But, I still bring it up to make the point.  All we want is to work hard and do well at our jobs.  We want to produce good food and have good sales.  We would like to take some profit so we can pay bills, invest in the farm and maybe have a little left over after that.

So, the net result is this.  Farms like ours need the prices they are asking.  If you decide the prices are out of line, you can discuss it or opt not to buy, certainly.  But, you need to respect that the price was come by honestly in 99 of 100 cases.  And, if you, and everyone else chooses not to pay that price, the farm will stop producing the item in question.  It's a fairly simple situation with simple consequences.

Except, you just said that you wanted farms like ours to continue to exist.  Yet, you just opted not to purchase an item from the small local farm because you seemed to recall that it was 5 cents a pound cheaper at the grocery store.

5. If you have limited income, you might be surprised what can happen with you and local foods.
We are acutely aware that there are many folks out there with very limited income and limited options.  In this case, it becomes much more understandable that you may be completely dedicated to getting the best price you can just so you can put food on the table.

Rather than getting preachy about this, I thought I'd share a few things that might work or have worked with us or other farmers we know.  Please remember that every small farm has limited resources and will have unique needs or demands that may limit certain options.  But, that doesn't mean a small, local farm can't find a way to work with you.

Example a: Ask the question - "Is this food more expensive than the other stuff I buy - or is there possibly more value here?"  You might be surprised to find out that local foods often feed you better on your budget than the other options that seem less expensive.  We know this isn't always true, but don't discard the notion until you are certain.

Example b: Learn a little about what's in season and be prepared to buy when a farm has excess and they are willing to sell in bulk.  When everyone has lots of nice tomatoes at the farmers' market you will find that many of them might be willing to give you a nice deal.  You will need to do something to preserve the food, but often the same folk you buy from could help you figure out how to do that.

Example c: Trading food for time or a skill that you have and the farm needs.  A person who was in between jobs with limited savings joined us during the heavy weeding season and received a farm share in return.  Another person had significant comm-arts design skills, but no job.  They traded their skills with a farm we know for food.  As a result, the farm had a nice set of new brochures and other marketing material they would not have had otherwise.

Example d: Be brave and ask if the farm has options for low income persons.  They might not...or maybe they will.
If they say no, it isn't because they don't want to help, they just may not be able to.  Perhaps their family income is not much better than yours, but polite inquiries are really not an imposition as long as polite refusals are also accepted.

Example e: Help the farm help others - and receive help in return.  Many farms will have excess produce that they would love to donate to a food bank, community dinner or other similar organization.  Volunteer to help them get that produce to those locations.  I know we rarely let volunteers get away without a little produce in return for their help.  And, if you participate in the local community dinner, etc, you will receive some of what is donated.


  1. Great post here from the farmer. Love it!

  2. Glad you like it. Hoping putting these things out there makes a difference for someone, somewhere.


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