After studying a great deal about soil health, regenerative agriculture, and small farming we decided to take one full year to put it to practice and see just how possible it is to make a living at. On both leased farm land and our urban lot we grew over 2,000 lbs of food which we washed, packed, and distributed.
We sold our produce through a CSA where we provided a weekly bag of mixed vegetables and herbs to ten different families. While this was a great way to predict sales, we ended up having far more produce than interested people. We donated much of the excess to a local shelter. This report outlines our experience as first-year farmers on leased land.
This is our first year farming. From January to May we spent the winter preparing by tilling the ground, putting up fences, hauling mulch and compost, counting and recounting seed orders, estimating yields, and starting seeds in our kitchen. From May 1 through September 1 we produced a weekly share for about 10 customers. We thought it would be beneficial to publish the outcome for others thinking about going down this path.
Our urban location is in the back yard of our home, partially shaded by tall pine trees. It is in USDA Hardiness zone 7B with a total growing area of 1772 ft² (0.04 acre). We irrigate it with garden hose and drip irrigation from our house's municipal water supply.
We also leased a rural plot that is flat and open with no sunlight obstructions. It is in USDA Hardiness zone 6B with a total growing area of 6375 ft² (0.15 acre). It is irrigated with drip line fed from a well.
Expenses Education $225.00 Equipment $627.23 Materials $589.21 Packaging $126.54 Seeds $188.03 Soil Test $10.00 ------------------------------- Total $1,766.01
We drove a total of 1614 miles back and forth between our leased plot and home, as well as making deliveries to customers.
Revenue CSA customers $1,842.00 Plant sales $239.04 ------------------------------- Total $2,081.04
We harvested a total of 2194.5 pounds of produce.
Harvest Urban 620.5 pounds ------------------------------- arugula 14.0 asian long bean 17.5 beet 63.5 bell pepper 33.5 bush bean 2.0 carrot 23.5 cayenne 3.0 chard 18.5 cilantro 1.0 cucumber 57.5 green onion 2.0 jalapeno 9.0 kale 17.0 lettuce 20.5 mustard greens 8.5 oregano 2.0 patty pan 94.0 potato 23.0 radish 27.0 red cabbage 13.5 sorrel 4.0 tomato 120.0 zucchini 40.5 Rural 1574 pounds ------------------------------- bush bean 145.0 corn 18.0 patty pan 439.5 zucchini 346.0 radish 16.0 tomato 9.0 watermelon 480.0 pie pumpkin 120.5
We donate excess produce to local food pantries and homeless shelters. Rather than letting it go to waste, we are able to do something productive with it and get a tax deduction at the same time. [update: In 2022 we learned that what we donated was not tax deductible as we did not contribute the minimum amount for consideration which was around $25,000]
Donations 710.5 pounds ------------------------------- beans 83.5 cayenne 1.0 cucumber 4.0 jalapeno 3.0 squash 573.0 tomato 46.0 -------------------------------
Our spring produce, which we planted only at our urban location, finally became ready for harvest. We didn't want to bite off more than we could chew on our first attempt at farming and we believe that the land under our care is managable for two people. We still have time to work on other projects and take care of clients. It is a good feeling to make your first sale for produce that has been five months in the making.
June was our first full month of income. Growing and harvesting produce turns out, we feel, to be the easy part; selling it is the hard part. Many of our customers are going on vacation for a week or two, which is a direct hit to our income. We have excess produce, for which we are struggling to find buyers. In the meantime, we're preserving and freezing to save for winter.
The harvest sizes, and variety, increased this month, as you'd expect in the middle of Summer. Throughout the month we were able to take a sizeable amount of produce to local food pantries and homeless shelters. Sales avenues continue to be a challenge, with the cost of liability insurance a major barrier. Other barriers include storage and refrigeration space and local competition. With the increasing heat and general dryness, pest pressure has increased with our biggest challenge being the Mexican Bean Beetle. We made a vermicompost system this month to begin cultivating our own organic fertilizer.
A family member's urgent medical situation required a large portion of our time and attention this month. We elected to stop our weekly CSA shares. We pulled out old bean plants, corn, watermelon, squash, and chard to clean out our leased rural plot and to make room for fall crops at home.
We were surprised how easy it was to grow food. On an eighth of an acre of land, we were able to produce a vast abundance of food; far more than we could eat or store ourselves. We did not utilize but about 60% of our leased rural plot. It did require careful planning, sweat, a respect for nature, and appreciation of the unseen, but it was not so difficult a task that an average person couldn't achieve it with a little dedication. It was hot, sweaty, and taxing at times, but we were not "worked to the bone." Farming has a reputation among the lesser-enlightend members of western society of being such backbreaking work that it should be avoided (go get a bachelor's degree instead). We wholeheartedly recommend everyone grow their own food, and we can say from firsthand experience that it is *not* difficult to produce enough food for yourself. Earth is quite literally designed to support life; our survival is not a consequence of the Department of Agriculture or large food producers, an idea that seems to have been lost over the last hundred years. With an understanding of soil health, water management, seed saving, plant care, and preservation, sustaining yourself is within the realm of possibility for everyone. We are encouraged by this, as we now see a healthier future is available to everyone who wants to sieze it. Industrial pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers, and heavy machinery are simply not a requirement to grow food.
“To be alive in this beautiful, self-organizing universe – to participate in the dance of life with senses to perceive it, lungs that breathe it, organs that draw nourishment from it – is a wonder beyond words.” —Joanna Macy
Conversely, growing food for money is extremely difficult. This is probably what everyone means when they say that farming is hard: it is hard to sell food and have enough money left over to survive. We can make sitting at the computer for a single week nearly triple what we made in revenue for this entire project. If you're counting profit, the amount of time we'd have to sit at the computer goes down to two measly hours (if you count mileage driven, we're way in the red!). Exploiting petrochemical products is an easy way to make the labor of one person scale up to an increased profit, but of course at the expense of the planet. Our customers' appreciation for our work spanned the full spectrum: some are determined to get as much as possible from us in the future, others appeared inconvenienced and skeptical of the value of what we were producing. The following challenges became clear over the season:
We live in a low-income area of town, so spontaneous customers are few and far between. Many neighbors simply don't have income to spend on anything but the cheapest food. Organic is not even on their radar. Our city as a whole is not very progressive, so the odds of finding a customer that doesn't fit the profile of a loyal Wal-Mart shopper are lower than in some more forward-thinking cities. Convenience holds an extremely high value to some. Why go out of your way to buy our produce when you can just go to the supermarket and get your produce, eggs, bread, milk, cheese, and meat in one place? Some friends who wanted to support us and be our customers were still constantly making calculated decisions about their own family's finances. Many behaved cordially but had an air of skepticism about the price even though we matched our local supermarket's organic prices and tried to stuff every bag to the brim at no extra cost. Some people have disappointing palettes: arugula, chard, kale, sorrel, mustard greens, and cayennes were rejected by some customers. Optimization is important for profitability. Time and expense spent driving to and from our rural leased plot is always eating away at the profit. Realistically, you must live on the farm to maximize every minute of work and incur no travel costs. Existing local competition has a fierce loyalty. We did not attend any open farmer's markets because we heard from multiple reliable sources that customers in our city will ignore any new or unrecognized vendors. It is simply unrealistic to harvest all week and spend a day of our weekend to make a total of $25. Refrigeration is required to have produce that appears presentable. We had two standard-size refrigerators, which were the main limiting factor in the quantity that we could produce. To serve more customers, we really needed a CoolBot or other walk-in refrigerator, which we do not have the physical space to accommodate. These are also costly energy-suckers. Further research into passive or more efficient cooling methods would be extremely helpful.
On a final note, one of the highlights of our very first year of farming was the feedback we received about the produce itself. Many remarked on the exquisite flavor, appearance, and longevity of our produce. This feedback further solidifies the confidence we have gained in our ability to not only grow a diverse number of crops, but to do so in such a way that yields high quality organic produce.