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Since early June, we have each been researching topics for our capstone projects. Last week we presented our projects at The Highland Center in Monterey. After so much hard work, it was great to get such awesome feedback. More importantly, we started some really important conversations about food among the community members.
I personally wrote a book called “A Young Farmers Guide to Sustainable Farm Management.” I explored expenses and revenues from vegetable gardening, laying hens and dairy goats. I found that all of these ventures resulted in net loss or very low net income. Ultimately, my book did not describe a very bright future for small farms. However, many of the audience members still had very positive ideas for ways to make it work. I am very excited to have my own farm one day and it was encouraging to hear that most people in the audience thought it would be a possibility. Here are just a few of the suggestions they gave me:
There are farmer cooperatives who work together to share equipment, tools and other resources. Many pieces of equipment, like the walk behind tractor I discussed in my project, are very expensive for a small-scale farmer who may only be using them three times a year. Instead, you can split the cost among several other farmers.
In my project, I assumed that I would be buying about 2-3 acres of land for about $150,000, but given the amount of debt this creates, one person in the audience had a suggestion to lease land instead. There are long term leases that go up to 99 years, so it’s almost like owning the land. Costs of leasing are variable, but I did find a document published by Virginia Extension stating that in Highland County the highest land rental rate per acre per year for cropland is $50.
For the theoretical CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) in my project, I assumed that it might be possible to get 60 CSA members to sign up. One audience member pointed out that in Highland County it would be very difficult to get this many members. If my goal is to a get a lot of customers who are willing to pay a high price for veggies, I need to start a farm closer to a big city. Or talk to Highland County community members and see how many people might want to buy a share of veggies and how much they would be willing to pay.
Another good idea was to research potential customers and see what types of produce and other farm products they might be willing to buy. I can grow as much wonderful food as I want, but if I have no one to sell it to then I might as well not even grow it.
The suggestion I liked the most, which came from our very own Phase II Fellow, Roger Woo, was to go through my calculations again, but do them backwards. Instead of growing an arbitrary amount of vegetables on an arbitrary amount of land and just hope to break even, figure out how much money I can make per square foot of garden space with a particular vegetable. So for a conservative calculation with carrots, I can assume that carrots are planted three inches apart. This means that per square foot I can grow, about 9 carrots. Say each of my garden beds is 100 ft by 2.5 ft for a total of 250 square feet of garden space, then I could potentially get up to 2250 carrots for one garden bed. Take off 20% for defective carrots and then I have 1800 carrots. Say I can sell a bunch of 8 carrots for $3. That would give me 225 bunches for a total possible revenue of $675. Then say I have 20 beds total all of which make a similar revenue. My garden revenue could be a total of $13,500. Assuming lots of extra path space, this total garden space would cover 10,000 square feet which is only about a quarter of an acre. I originally listed costs for a one acre garden, but I think now it would be better to determine what revenue I would require to make a profit from the garden before deciding on garden acreage.
It was so cool to hear everyone’s suggestions and feel their support. It was also amazing to think about the amount of information I could compile if I talked to a lot more community members, as well as farmers. Our country needs to do something to make it easier for young people to start small farms and I think that discussing the financial viability is a big start. Farming is always going to be something that is mentally and physically taxing. If we can support each other through programs like AMS and building community in other ways, I think it will be possible for more small scale farms to be successful in the very near future.
Living up on the mountain at AMS, it is easy to forget how we can have an impact on the local community. I am hoping that one day my own farm will also have an impact on the local community. I hope that growing good food and inviting community members to be part of growing their own food will bring people together. Food is something that everyone understands. Food is comforting. Food is natural. Food is the greatest gift you can give and receive. I am so happy to be attending AMS, where food can always be the center of attention. In our society today, we have lost sight of the fact that we should place a high importance on what we eat.
Thank you to everyone who attended our presentations and please check out the links to what we have done on the AMS website. You might be inspired to start your own project and hopefully for those of you thinking of attending AMS next year, you will also be provided with a little inspiration.
I would also like to say that I am very pleased to have the position of Garden Manager next year at AMS. I have learned so much as a Phase I Fellow this year and I cannot wait to see the fellows next year learn and grow as a group. AMS is improving and growing every year. It is very exciting to be a part of this wonderful organization.