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The Journey of Starting a Farm

By Emily Lawrence

“The greatest fine art of the future will be the making of a comfortable living from a small piece of land.” 

Abraham Lincoln

Our lower garden with just a few crops remaining

I am the current Garden Manager for the AMI Farm Fellowship. I never would have dreamed of being here when I started as a fellow last April. It is hard to put words to how rewarding the fellowship experience has been. I can definitely say that I have made a lot of great friends and I have gotten a lot closer to my goal of starting my own farm. The list of things I have learned about gardening, farming and cooking is way too long for this blog but I would like to share some of my favorites with you: 

Leading a farm crew

French Intensive Gardening

Season Extension

Vegetable Storage

Fermentation

No-Till Practices

Composting

Seed Saving

Ecological Pest Management

Creating a Planting Calendar

Planting a Farmscape

Permaculture Principals

Chicken Care and Breeding

And the list goes on…

Last year for my final project, I wrote a short book called, "A Young Farmers' Guide to Sustainable Farm Management: How to start and manage a farm that’s healthy for the environment, your finances and for you.” The ultimate goal of my book and my presentation was to see how feasible it is for a young farmer, with limited means, to start a small AND profitable organic farm. I used my previous experience working on a farm in Colorado, interviews with local farmers, budget information from previous years at the AMI Farm and a lot of research to come up with theoretical revenues and expenses to go along with a theoretical farm. On this farm I had 25 chickens, two dairy goats, and one acre of vegetable gardens.

My theoretical farm was not profitable. Across our country, many small farms using organic practices are not profitable. I do think it is possible to address this, if farmers receive more financial education and have consumers that are willing to pay what the food is worth. We need small farmers to revive our food system. The large mechanized farms that we have today are producing food with lots of chemicals, low nutrition content and they are harming the environment. Not to mention that they are only profitable because they receive government subsidies. We have lost so much care and human contact with the growing and preparation of our food. We need to start eating local again before it’s too late and all of the chemical free farmland and heirloom vegetable varieties are no longer. As writer Lisa M. Hamilton puts it, “As they [unconventional farmers] see it, agriculture is not an industry on the periphery of modern civilization. It is a fundamental act that determines if we as a society will live or die.”    

One of the last butternut squash of the season

Let’s look at why my relatively average sounding theoretical, small farm was not successful. Part of the problem was that I decided what I wanted on the farm before considering if it would at least break even. A better approach would be to look at how much money I hope to make at this farm and then work backwards from there. We will use the AMI Allegheny Farm as our theoretical farm for this exercise. All of our garden space is just about an acre and we do have chickens but we are going to leave them out for simplicity’s sake. The start-up expenses I came up with for a one acre garden last year included the following:

Hoop house - $1,000

Equipment and Tools - $2,500

Fencing - $1,500

BCS Walk Behind Tractor - $2,000

Drip Irrigation - $2,000

Farm Truck - $5,000

TOTAL: $14,000

The total annual expenses included the following:

            Seeds - $1,750

            Soil Amendments - $1,600

            TOTAL: $3,350

Since this is the first year that AMI has sold any vegetables we still have expenses from the first year that need to be offset. So I think a good goal for next year would be to try to make $17,350 or the total of all first year expenses. Since these expenses would be about the same for a lot of one acre gardens, we essentially want to see if it is possible to break even the first year for any farmer with this amount of land.

The new fence that was put up around our cash and staple crops this year!

Although the AMI Allegheny Farm is not a for-profit farm, we did sell vegetables at the Highland Farmers’ Market and to The Virginia School for the Deaf and the Blind (VSDB) this year. VSDB Foundation’s Farm to Table dinner at the AMI Urban Farm in Staunton and The Highland Center’s Maple Festival Dinners featured our produce. Currently, the farm fellows eat and preserve most of the food, but there is always a surplus. AMI definitely needs additional funds in order to keep the program running and what better way than to sell more produce. If we can come up with a plan for what type of vegetables are worth our while and are wanted by our customers, then I think that we could ultimately become self-sufficient. In an ideal world, every small farmer would come up with a concrete plan of what they want to grow for their specific customer base before doing anything else.

When considering what to grow, it is important to decide which crops are the most efficient. Meaning they produce a lot per plant and each plant doesn’t take up tons of room. Or the amount of money you could receive in revenue per plant is higher than others. It is also important that customers are interested in buying these crops. A really ugly but space efficient tomato might not sell well. And, are these crops enjoyable to grow? It doesn’t make sense to grow raspberry bushes if the farmer really doesn’t enjoy harvesting them. The farmer should also consider how much food they need to eat, as well as how much their family needs to eat. Ideally they shouldn’t have to buy most of their own food because that can add up for a farmer.

Our Brussel sprouts were stunted so I did not consider them a possibility for most productive crop

Let’s look more carefully at all of the food that AMI grew this year and see which crops might be the most profitable to grow for next year. We grew more than just the crops listed but I only included those that produced a substantial amount and seemed to be a well-received product. I also only included those crops that were relatively easy for us to grow and did not require us to seed multiple times in order to get a good crop. Of course in an educational setting, like AMI, it is good to go through hardship and learn from mistakes with all types of vegetables, but a production farm can’t afford to do this. The crops that are most successful on the AMI farm will be very different from the most successful crops on a farm in Colorado or Florida. Therefore, this is not an answer to what every small farmer should grow but rather a guide for how these calculations can be set up at every farm.

As you can see I have gotten us relatively close to our goal of making $17,350 for the season. As a small organic farmer vegetable diversity is very important so I thought maybe it would be better to grow 11 crops during our first year of switching to a more profit based farm. However if we do want to reach our goal, we can just grow the 8 most productive crops and make $16,896.72. This is assuming that people are willing to pay average organic prices. Like I said before, we need people to be willing to pay these higher prices or else breaking even will be very difficult for any small farmer. In this scenario I have only determined the most productive crops using space efficiency and price per pound. There are other factors that one might use when determining most productive crops such as: fertilizer needs, watering needs, farmer labor hour needs, etc.

I have just given you a sneak-peak into the farm report I will be creating for the next Farm Manager at the Allegheny Farm. Hopefully they will be able to use some of my number crunching to help determine what vegetables to grow in future years. I have not included any of the village gardens to allow for space to grow food for the fellows. I will probably use similar calculations when I start my own farm someday as well!

Although my project last year was just a small part of my life, it has really inspired me to help find a solution for AMI, as well as all small farmers out there who can’t make ends meet. I am so excited to figure out all of the finances behind farming before, and as, I start my own farm. I am taking accounting classes on the side to help expand my knowledge and I hope to one day become an accountant and help other farmers with their finances in a professional setting. I think small farmers need someone who understands their language to help them figure out how to make their farms profitable. 

This year’s fellows just presented their final projects in Staunton. They have all done such a fabulous job. I hope that each of their projects helps to shape their futures just as mine did. I feel so incredibly grateful to have had the privilege to work with these wonderful individuals. Thank you 2015 AMI farm fellows for a wonderful season and good luck with your future endeavors!

My favorite tree on the farm with only a few leaves left. It makes me realize how quickly our season is coming to a close. (Notice our roosters in the background under the old apple trees).

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