Community Philosphy Blog and Library

Why We Farm: Making Money

Neysa working 2

A year and a half ago, my husband Travis and I decided we wanted to be organic farmers. Neither of us had a background in agriculture. In fact, I was probably about as disconnected from physical labor as you can get — I was pursuing my PhD. This weekly series will take you through Travis’ and my journey to own and operate our own organic farm. From a farm internship in a tiny New York town, to management positions at the largest CSA farm in the southern United States, and now our current project of running a one-acre farm in Austin, Texas, our experience has been filled with wild successes, sharp disappointments, and self-discovery. I hope our story can provide others with ideas and resources for their own farming projects–urban or rural, big or small, hobby or professional. I also hope it can shine some light on the new organic movement surging in urban spaces and among America’s young people. To me, our collective attempt to reconnect with food is a testament to the ability of youth to create, even in difficult times.

Everyone, including farmers, likes to say you can’t make a living farming.  When I was just a fresh-faced intern at Ryder Farm, I wasn’t sure what to make of that.  Granted, I had neither a farming nor a business background, but I felt like I could see a ton of potential ways to make money in organic farming.  Organic food is one of the fastest growing industries in the US.  Plus, it’s not like the industry will become obsolete.  This wasn’t swampland in Florida I would be selling, this was food.

About two months into my internship, I began to really think about the potential for making money farming.  It was mid-June, and the sugar snap peas were so fat on the vine they looked as if they might burst.  Peas generally give three good harvests before the plants kick out.  Our first harvest, three of us interns took some buckets and walked down the rows, snapping peas from their vines.  We got 18 pounds of peas.  At the Union Square market, Betsey would sell them for $6 a pound.  That’s $108.  This season, Betsey might make $300 from her peas.

pea

Let’s expand that.  Let’s say you’re a market grower, and you sell $1,000 worth of produce at every market.  Now, how much a grower can make at market depends on a variety of factors – size of the market, size of the farm, time of year.  For a small farm at a small market, $1,000 is completely out of reach.  For larger farms at larger markets, $1,000 is a minimum.  But we’ll use $1,000 for now.  If you make an average of $1,000 a week at a year round market, you’re earning $52,000 a year.  That’s gross, of course.  After you factor in expenses, including seeds, flats, infrastructure, gas, tables, baskets, signs, market fees, and labor, you might be earning more like $30,000.  Suddenly you’re down a tax bracket.

When market sales are insufficient – and unless you have access to a badass market they probably will be — many farmers turn to CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture).  This business model really is a farmer’s friend.  You can calculate how much your produce costs you to grow it, and you can charge all of it up front.  Not only are your customers supporting you from the get go, but they are also absorbing all the risk.  So if, for instance, a hailstorm comes and destroys all your tomatoes, you’ve already received your money for the tomatoes.

The cost of CSA shares range widely, depending on how much you’re actually getting in your box.  If it’s just vegetables, it’s usually in the $30-40 range.  With meat and milk or other value added items like bread or jam, the price can go up to $100 – $150 for each box.  So let’s say you have a $40 box of vegetables, and people buy it for 12 weeks at a time (a season).  That’s $480.  If you’re in an area where there’s only a six month growing season, you’re gonna get $960 per person for the entire season.  So if you have 50 members, you’re back at the $1,000 market a week scenario, about $50,000 a year gross.

Travis salad mix

That might be okay for one person, but what if you’re a farming couple?  What if you have a family?  While I was picking peas in mid-June, I hadn’t thought about any of that yet.  But I did begin wondering what kind of life farming could provide.  I believed in farming, but I wasn’t willing to live in a yurt for the rest of my life in order to do it.  Farming is a lot of work; if it couldn’t pay off with some semblance of a comfortable life, then I didn’t see much point in doing it.  As my husband and I currently begin our farming business, these are the conversations we’re having.  Figuring out how to make money selling food is not as straightforward as it seems.

Neysa is currently farming an acre of organic vegetables in Austin, Texas. For updates on her farm, visit www.dissertationtodirt.com or follow her on twitter @farmerneysa

5 Responses to “Why We Farm: Making Money”

  1. A few years ago when I did my first CSA summer, I bought a full share with a friend. There was way too much in the box for one person but just shy of enough for two. I’m sure it differs from farm to farm and region to region.

    And while I hate to “standardize” it might not be a bad idea for CSAs to do just that. This way, regardless of which farm I use I have a general idea of how much will be in each share.

    Yes, I know, it is all dependent on the weather and week-to-week it’s different, but you catch my drift. If there was a weekly goal (say, in lbs.) it would take some of the guess-work out for prospective consumers.

  2. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Mike Lieberman, Chico Garden Share . Chico Garden Share said: HOMEGROWN.org » Why We Farm: Making Money http://goo.gl/dtGHL […]

  3. This is interesting to think about. And a bit disheartening. It seems like most farmers who make a living are doing something besides just producing food.

  4. Sarah J. Moeller Says:

    Alright, this is a conversation my husband and I have had a thousand times (we live in OK, just sold out of the cattle business and are in the process of getting the place certified organic for hay production). The conclusion of many discussions is this – it does NOT make sense in dollars and cents. It can’t. But at the end of the day the bills are paid and we live and eat better than anyone else we know. You can sit in a cubicle full-time and make money to BUY food – OR you can work full-time actually foraging for, growing, processing, and preserving your food. If you do the work yourself (a.k.a. farm) your bottom line will not look so hot, but at the end of the day the result is the same – you have food. And the food you have is food you’re proud of, food that’s a joy to share, and food that nourishes you mind, body, and soul. (This is a concept really well-articulated in Barbara Kingsolver’s book “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle”.) So, back to money – I know you gotta have it. But sometimes we get lost looking at the numbers and forget where all those numbers were supposed to get us in the first place – warm, well-fed, and satisfied.

  5. Sarah, thanks so much for sharing–I think you make a great point. It’s true, I think farming can provide a way to redefine wealth: doing more for yourself means you can be more comfortable with less money. For a new farmer like me, it’s a little intimidating waiting for that to shake out. Like Stephanie mentioned, I know quite a few farmers who have had to take part time, off-farm jobs. It’s not easy, that’s for sure.

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