Small Scale Farming Really Isn’t Small



​Economists sanctify expansion in agriculture as the way farmers survive but in the very act of saying that, they are also pointing out why farmers don’t survive. If all the land is occupied, for every farm that expands, another ceases to exist. So it would be just as accurate to say that expansion is the way farmers don’t survive. And that leaves us in a situation where, according to the statistics, as quoted in a new, soon- to- be- published book, Miraculous Abundance, some 80% of the arable land on the planet used in intensive mechanized agriculture is owned by multinational corporations. Meanwhile, the proponents of big farming continue to flaunt their challenge: “get big or get out.” When all the land is owned by one big corporation and it still doesn’t make enough of a profit to satisfy the stockholders, what then?

​As a matter of fact, small commercial farms and so-called hobby farms are on the rise again and whether or not they are profitable by today’s money standards, they are generating a lot of other economic activity which in aggregate becomes quite significant. These farmers are creating a different economic model than that of industrial production. They are successful because they really aren’t about how much money they can make but how much of what they do make they can keep in their pockets while they spend their time doing what they really want to do in life. As they proceed, they generate all sorts of other small businesses and avocations that in turn prompt more small business. The sum total amounts to big business. For example, judging from the exhibits at our county fair, looks like there are more goats on farms now than cows. And who would ever have thought that kale would become a cash crop and soul food of America?

​The backyard chicken craze is another good example. It is hardly a scheme for making money or even for saving money but it is generating lots of business. John Emrich, who has 25 years of no nonsense experience in investment and corporate finance, writes in his book, The Local Yolk, about the business he started delivering chicken feed and supplies to backyard hen raisers in Chicago. Hard telling how many little businesses have started up manufacturing and selling cute little chicken coops for the backyarders. I hear you can buy coats for your winter weary hens or diapers if you like them wandering around in the house. Farm supply stores are doing well selling straw and grain to backyarders too. It pays because hen hobbyists are willing to pay more for supplies than commercial growers.

​A good way to become convinced of how small scale farming is in aggregate not all that small is to read one or more of the new Edible magazines, of which there are about 80 representing almost every area of the U.S. These magazines themselves are evidence of the way new farms are generating new business. Edible Cleveland (Ohio) lists 18 farm-based artisanal cheese makers in the state. I count 74 ads in just one issue from farms, stores, restaurants and other businesses selling food directly to consumers and 28 CSA farms just in the Cleveland area. There are some 60 farmers’ markets in northeastern Ohio alone (I use this area because I am familiar with it—similar statistics hold for all the more populous areas in the country.)

​The explosion of interest in greenhouse agriculture has been a bonanza for all the manufacturers of the new hoop house structures, buildings that essentially are almost all roof made of various fabrics. They might be more susceptible to storm damage but not enough to offset their obvious advantages. I like to do the math on what could happen if a society of backyarders and small farmers got serious about this kind of enclosed farming, especially with global warming looming on the horizon. Check my math here. Think of the fact that the United States has more acreage in lawn than in cultivated crops. Let us say that 50,000,000 homes (in the U.S. population of around 330,000,000 right now) would each grow food on an eighth of an acre undercover. That would add up to some 6,250,000 acres more acres of farmland. With the higher yields possible in enclosed farming, each of these acres might produce three times the yield of an open air acre, or the equivalent of 18,750,000 acres, right? (If that sounds dubious to you, read Eliot Coleman’s books where he describes how to get five crops per year undercover, in Maine.) Total cropland in the United States is right around 442,000,000 acres (and surprisingly the number is falling). If each of those enclosed one-eighth acre “farms” housed six egg-laying and meat producing hens and a couple of pigs to eat the plant parts from the greenhouses that humans can’t consume, we could be looking at a very significant amount of food that did not depend on the gambling whimsy of the Chicago Board of Trade or the weather. Who says we need big factory farms. We just need a whole bunch of little factory farms.


Move south. Economy is good down here in Texas.

Many small farms also changes the society. Many children who know how things actually work. Many people who care about the spot that they own. Many people who care about laws and regulation which effects them.

Gene, this reminds me of my favorite chapter in At Natures Pace on tradional farming of the amishman with just 26 acres .He had 10 fine cows,a few fattening hogs,nice flock of chickens,a plot of tobacco and an acre of strawberrys and his handmade hickory chairs he sold for extra cash he needed.I’ loved to have seen that small farm.Wonder if it is still even there now?I think we try to do our figures and book keeping the same as the industrial boys which is a huge mistake. If the guy with 4-10,000 acres needs more ground to be “profitable” nowadays them maybe the way we are figuring what a “profit” is?I hear guys complaining but i notice none of them seem to be getting out except for death and retirement. Me thinks a lot of it is trying to discourage everyone else to get out so they can farm and profit more! lol

A farmer won the million dollar lottery. When the reporter asked him ‘what are you going to do with your million?’ The farmer replied ‘Well, I guess I’ll just keep on farmin’ til its all gone.’

We began our $228,000. 10 acre farm in 2012.

2016–we are still in the red having done, pastured eggs, alpine goat milk, longhorn steers-beef. Last fall, we’ve essentially mostly shut down operations after my job loss. W2 wages, with which we were funding the farm, are gone.

$5.00 per dozen—does not cover cost to produce the eggs. We’ve tried differing models. The cost of land, equipment, infrastructure, maintenance, feeds, pasture care, feeder steers, hay…simply can’t be supported in this economy…not to mention our own labor.

Our family eats fresh eggs and meat..but at a high-cost.

We knew going in, we could do as little or as much as we could afford with the farm.

Inflation and the cost of doing business does not really get examined in any honest way ….resulting in the ‘hobby farm.’

As I’ve said, ‘who in their right mind would do this for a hobby?’ lol.

— Small Farm in SW Ohio

Ken, you ask me if I think homeowners will “do the work” of growing our food. As long as it is called “work” I doubt it. When it is called “play” or “pastime” I like to think enough of them will to change the economic model for food production to something different than the current industrial model. I think to do that we need to have about one out of every fifty people producing food for the other forty nine who won’t or can’t do it. To do that, we need to take food out of the industrial economy and into something like a sports economy. Look how hard people “work” to become proficient in a sport. If we get our priorities straight, they will work at least as hard to become “master gardeners” as we do to play competitive basketball. Gene

@ Ken: You might enjoy reading this article. I found it fascinating but not a bit surprising, given what we’ve found while searching for land to buy. And I’m talking about land without a home on it.

Here’s a quote from that article:
“What stands out, first of all, is that a $350k home is even tagged as a starter home, let alone being hailed as “affordable.” Furthermore, a $350k home has press-board counters and a yard barely capable of sustaining a child’s plastic pool. Also, the buyer is 25 years old and an auto mechanic. An auto mechanic buying a $350k home? The glorification of false prosperity has become so unrestrained and routine that the bubble mentality is the accepted orthodoxy. Decades of conditioning the masses on the virtues of living in debt to live beyond one’s means has made a permanent mark on American society. The “American Dream,” as it is currently defined, is being doled out equitably to all who apply for their fair share of affluence.”

$350 K for a home with basically NO yard. This is what our gubmint is encouraging, not to mention the mountain of debt it creates for young folks. If my DH and I were still young spring chickens we might consider some debt, although not 350K by any stretch of the imagination. But to spend that kind of dough and get no useable yard? Can’t even plant a shrub or have a kid’s swingset? Outrageous. We’re not going to leave our kids with that kind of burden to pay off because Lord knows we won’t live long enough to pay it off.

We, very luckily, live next to a very fast-flowing, water productive creek and have our own well in our yard. So we have the water, just not much land. I do plant a lot of things in pots on the front and back deck, but for the past three years it’s been slim pickin’s because we haven’t had summer until mid-June and our first frost comes sometimes at the end of August or first part of September. Not even enough time to grow cucumbers or anything that vines. I did have some nice radishes and a few peas (strange to grow these in pots, let me tell you!) but a few is the key word. Not enough to can and save for winter, that’s for sure.

So where you are geographically, and what you already own (especially land-wise), and your income make a huge difference in people’s plans. Age is a biggie, as well. You can only do what you’re capable of doing, and families don’t work together like they used to. That’s the saddest part of life since the 1970’s – few families group together to make a good life for all, anymore.

The only sector of ag that is growing in Pa. is the small farm. There are at least seven producer only farm markets and I don’t know how many CSAs in my county. The local big state affiliated university has just announced that they will soon have a student farm to teach food production and hopefully show the kids the connection between what is in the field and their plate.

While we have not been able to save up enough for a hoop house, there are four celery plants at the window at the back of the garage and the citrus trees (three shrubs really) occupy a south facing window each in the house. Nothing says “take that ol’ man winter” better than eating fresh home grown lemons and limes in the dead of winter.

The cost of home growing is downright cheap. Basic hand tools, seeds, watering devices, and other sundry garden goodies can be got for far less than the $150 or more that most people spend each month on their TV/internet/cell services. You can’t eat click bait.

Hope that you had a relaxing Ground Hog Day, Gene.

I’m willing to bet that while land is important, water is going to be even more important in the not too far future. One reason we bought our place is the abundance of springs (several run six months and one runs year round at 700 gallons a minute) and two year-round creeks. If you live where the aquifers are running dry, better read up on dryland farming. Small farmers may be able to do better in that situation, because they can farm intensively in beds with lots of humus and drip irrigate. The get big or get out guys are more likely to go belly up because they can’t water their thousands of acres.

I agree with your logic and I think it could be done. Goodness knows I do my part as the others who respond to this blog do.
I do have one question to ask you Gene. Do you really think people in America who own homes and have yards will do the work? The reason I ask this is because I asked my two young grandchildren two weeks ago if they would grow a garden like Papaw does when they get big. The granddaughter enthusiastically responded she would. My grandson said and I quote,”Naw, too much work”! I know 11 and 8 year old kids say a lot of things but there are a lot of people that would just as soon go to the store.
Anyone have an opinion on this?

The trick, even where I live here in the wide-open prairies, is finding the land. If you don’t already own land (bigger than a postage stamp) it’s damn difficult to plan a future of self-production. We’ve been looking for land outside the City Limits of ANY of the surrounding towns in this area and the prices are untouchable for the average person. Our yard will, and does, support one fairly small greenhouse, but beyond that we can do nothing. Our City is zoned for no backyard chickens or anything other than cats and dogs, and they are starting to crack down on outbuildings now, too. We have a shed for our lawnmower, snowblower, etc., and when they assessed our property last year (we haven’t figured out why that was done) the first question they asked us was if we were “growing” anything in there. I told the guy I was big into growing pot. Ha! He actually asked to see inside the shed. I rolled my eyes and took him to look. I then called him snoopy and asked him to leave. I expect them to be back this summer when we have the greenhouse put back up. We took it down last fall to do some much needed repairs.

Pretty soon everything we do will be their business, if it isn’t already. All of our “smart technology” is getting us kicked in the shins and few people even realize it. The City uses our tax money to strangle us with regulators carrying out regulations and restrictions.

Dear Gene,

I couldn’t agree more. My sons are in the military (Navy, Army and Air force). All three carry their garden with them in 5 gallon buckets and are constantly experimenting with different cultivars and vegetables and ways to garden (apples don’t fall far from the tree as they have seen there father do this experimenting all his life). I read several of Elliot Coleman’s books last winter and tested some mini greenhouses this winter in East Central, Iowa (bent some old cattle panels and covered with plastic and floating row covers inside). My harvest has been wonderful. More than my wife, and two boys at home could eat. We had Kale, Lettuces, Carrots, radishes, parsnips and scallions. Much of this was given to neighbors that were in complete wonderment and had to come over and see for themselves. We’ve had our own egg layers for 5 years and the flock continues to grow. I started selling eggs to help with the feed bill. And every year I am turning potential customers away. I pretty much breakeven in terms of dollars. But dollars don’t account for the premium compost I get nor the canned chicken meat (also in high demand from neighbors – but current laws disallow me from selling this item) we use each year. My children are part of the future, I and see a much brighter future as they and their friends have a different view of food and agriculture. One day all of them will have their own land no matter how small and I see their children growing up with gardens and livestock.

A special thanks to you. Your many books have sparked many ideas in all of us over the years.

Nice ! One of my favorite issues of FarmShow magazine has a homemade version of a hoop building that the farmer made and has used for at least 3 years for cattle.I started marking the first page of that newspaper/magazine with the pages of interesting ideas that i can use. A big problem especiallu on small farms is winter pugging or the tromping of pasture and other land during the wet soft seasons or after a few days of heavy rain.Having an economical place to house livestock during that time is a god send and so;ves the problem of animals turning their Pasture or feedlots into a stinking soupy mess.Plus the manure is kept safely for future use as fertilizer with the extra bedding as well as keeping the animals clean.Joel Salatin uses his for chickens in the winter with a few small feeder pigs rootin up the bedding allowing it to dry and saving money on bedding and helping it to break down.. Then grows vegetables in there in the summer.Instead of fighting for more land to own or rent ,which is sky high right now, we can seek new ways to farm our places more intensly.

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