[permaculture] Thoughts from a small farm during the midwinter lull

Saor Stetler saor at ycbtal.net
Tue Jan 16 22:51:26 EST 2007

  Risky Business

    Thoughts from a small farm during the midwinter lull

By Tom Philpott
10 Jan 2007
Before I became a farmer three growing seasons ago, I lived in Brooklyn, 
N.Y., and reveled in the array of top-flight local produce available 
from mid-spring to late fall. Long about January, though, a kind of 
local-food withdrawal would set in.

Winter on the farm.
Frosty, with a chance of failure.
Photo: iStockphoto
By this time of year, the legendary produce aisle of the Park Slope Food 
Co-op <http://foodcoop.com/> would be given over mainly to dull 
vegetables trucked in from the mega-organic farms of California, 
Arizona, and Mexico. My beloved Clinton Hill CSA 
<http://clintonhillcsa.org/?page_id=3> -- which introduced me to the 
community-supported agriculture model 
<http://www.localharvest.org/csa.jsp> now in use at my own Maverick 
Farms <http://maverickfarms.org/> -- was hibernating. And the usually 
bustling Grand Army Plaza Green Market 
<http://www.prospectpark.org/dest/main.cfm?target=gree> would be 
operating in shell form, frequented by shivering diehards like me and a 
few dairy, meat, apple, and egg vendors.

I have to admit, while tending my winter braises and pining for spicy 
salad greens, I gave little thought to what was actually happening on 
the farms that sustained me during the growing season.

Now I know: Winter is the planning season on a small-scale farm, the 
time to sort out budgets, seed orders, and marketing plans, and figure 
out who's going to do what and when. Recently, while engaged in that 
process, I've been pondering lessons I've learned since coming to the 
farm that I wish I had known back when I was an urban local-food 

One lesson I've learned viscerally: Small-scale farming is an inherently 
fragile process. In the summer months, farmers' markets across the 
nation bustle with vendors selling gorgeous produce at prices well above 
the factory-farmed wares sold at supermarkets. Surveying these vivid and 
life-affirming scenes, it's easy to assume that here in the U.S. we've 
managed to create a robust economic model for small-scale farming.

In reality, the economics of small-scale farming -- even close to 
booming markets like New York City -- are dismal. Large-scale industrial 
farming replaces human labor with energy-intensive machinery and 
health-destroying chemicals; the small-scale farms that supply the 
nation's burgeoning green market scene generally reject those methods, 
and are much more labor intensive. That means that the premium you pay 
for an heirloom tomato might not be covering its real cost of production.

Anecdotally, I know that the great bulk of small-scale farms operate on 
the following model: One spouse runs the farm, while the other one holds 
a full-time off-farm job, securing such luxuries as health care and 
retirement benefits and anchoring family finances. In my area, the 
off-farm spouse typically works in the public school system; in New York 
state's Finger Lakes district, which supplies New York City with some of 
the finest produce available there, the state prison system supplies 
farm families with gainful employment as guards.

USDA numbers back up my observation: According to a report 
<http://gristmill.grist.org/images/user/2988/EB6.pdf> [PDF] issued early 
in 2006, the average farm with annual sales between $10,000 and $99,000 
-- which describes the great bulk of farms geared toward local markets 
-- had an operating profit margin of negative 24.8 percent in 2003. 
Off-farm work -- whether as a schoolteacher, a prison guard, or a weekly 
food-politics columnist -- papers over the difference.

      Big Risks, Small Rewards

Before I get a spate of triumphant emails claiming that small-scale 
farming doesn't work 
<http://www.grist.org/comments/food/2007/01/03/economist/> because it's 
an economic disaster, and should thus be scrapped, consider this: 
Farming has always been an economically vexed activity. Every spring 
since the birth of agriculture 10,000 years ago, farmers have deposited 
little pellets in the ground and crossed their fingers. You never really 
know what's going to come up -- or whether flood, pestilence, drought, 
or some other calamity is going to wipe out your efforts.

As Richard Manning shows in his Against the Grain: How Agriculture Has 
Hijacked Civilization 
human history since agriculture's emergence has been regularly marked by 
famine, or periods when the economics of farming collapse and people 

According to one comforting fantasy, large-scale, chemical-intensive 
farming -- which has been providing a steady supply of cheap food for as 
long as most people can remember -- has resolved agriculture's economic 

There are at least two problems with that statement. First, in 
historical terms, industrial agriculture was born yesterday. For just 
five decades now, we've devoted the great bulk of our arable land to an 
agriculture that supercharges yields not by carefully building fertile 
soil, but by dousing it with synthetic fertilizers and pesticides while 
relying on an ever-narrowing genetic basis of plant and animal 
varieties. There's absolutely no reason to believe such practices can 
sustain themselves over time.

Secondly, farmers' earnings have plummeted since industrial 
agriculture's rise. Surging yields have meant steadily dwindling prices 
for farm goods, forcing farmers to "get big or get out," in the 
notorious phrase of Richard Nixon's USDA secretary, Earl "Rusty" Butz. 
But to "get big" and get outfitted with the latest yield-boosting 
technologies proffered by seed and equipment conglomerates, farmers have 
to take on ruinous debt loads and watch their profit margins plunge.

If small-scale farm operations look mainly to off-farm work to 
supplement incomes, their large-scale counterparts look to Washington, 
D.C. The government doles out about $20 billion per year in farm 
subsidies; the largest operations, which according to 
industrial-agriculture dogma are the most efficient, capture nearly all 
of that money.

So let's be straight: Agriculture is and always has been a tough racket. 
Societies support it because people like to eat.

The question is how to support it. The new Congress will soon begin 
cobbling together the next farm bill, the five-year plan that dictates 
federal food and agricultural policy. I'll turn my attention to that 
topic soon.

For now, as farmers and consumers await the next growing season, 
remember that while all farming is economically precarious, small-scale 
farmers operate without much of a safety net at all. They're subsidized 
not by the government but rather by their own and their families' 
off-farm labor.

How can you help? One way is to join a CSA 
<http://www.localharvest.org/>. By buying a share in a farm's harvest 
now, you're injecting cash into a farm at a time of year when little 
other money is coming in and seeds need to be bought. And you're sharing 
in the inherent risk that farmers take every time they drop little 
pellets into a field and cross their fingers.

Got a question about where your last supper came from? Fork it over. 
<mailto:victuals at grist.org>

- - - - - - - - - -

Grist contributing writer Tom Philpott farms and cooks at Maverick Farms 
<http://maverickfarms.org/>, a sustainable-agriculture nonprofit and 
small farm in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina.

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