Buying farmland without Wall Street

By Stephanie Hiller
This article first appeared in the July 2019 issue of Acres U.S.A. magazine.

Since the 2007 subprime mortgage crash, which threatened to derail the entire global economy, Americans have been waking up to the realization that Wall Street is too stratified, trading is too abstract and too rapid, and corporate power has advanced so much that no one is looking out for Main Street.

Young farmers have suffered greatly, especially those who raise organic produce and pasture-raised meat for families in their own communities; they have experienced a decrease in their ability to obtain the capital they need for land and equipment to run a successful farm enterprise.

According to the American Farmland Trust (AFT), the number of beginning farmers has reached a 30-year low. Between 2007 and 2012, the number of beginners dropped 20 percent, and new farmers now represent the smallest share of farmers since 1982, as per the Census of Agriculture.

Responding to what is starting to look like a crisis in farming, with thousands of farmers due to retire and fewer young farmers than ever, a number of organizations — including USDA, large agricultural universities such as Cornell and the University of Minnesota, Farm Credit and the AFT — have put forth new programs to help young farmers find land and financing.

farm in autumn

Smaller Programs

But closer to home are the many small, innovative programs that have been springing up in the past decade to create new tools for building local economies.

Progressive economists have been pointing out that a dollar spent at a business in one’s own community circulates many times within that community, while a dollar spent at a national Big Box store disappears into corporate coffers, where it contributes to the profits of faraway shareholders.

New local investing programs have been devised that depend upon direct community involvement to finance small, local businesses and farms. Beginning with crowdfunding, which uses social media to promote and help fund adventurous new projects, these innovative programs are wielding old investment methods like shareholding and even local stock exchanges to engage the community in investing in businesses close to home.

Instead of buying stocks in distant companies, the public can invest close to home in a local farm or business through a mechanism called a Direct Public Offering, or DPO. Unlike investors in the stock market, these buyers do not have to be accredited to invest in a DPO, and no minimum investment is required.

Amy Cortese, author of the book and blog Locavesting — a term she invented to identify the new investment model — tells how residents in her Brooklyn neighborhood got together to rescue a beloved bookstore by investing whatever they could afford to provide the business with capital.

According to the Sustainable Economies Law Center in Oakland, in a DPO, “a business owner or a group of leaders of an organization advertise the opportunity to invest in their enterprise to their community or to the general public directly, without the use of stock markets, brokers, or other middlemen.”

In 2012, President Obama signed into law the JOBS Act — Jumpstart Our Business Startups — which established a legal framework for DPOs. It took until last year for the SEC (Securities and Exchange Commission) to work out the details. Now 34 states have created their version of the rules for local investment.

Cutting Edge Capital ( works with a team of attorneys to help farmers and small businesses set up DPOs.

Investing Clubs

With the high cost of land, young farmers are likely to need more capital than an urban bookstore or a small-town bakery.

“A more just food system is inherently intertwined with a more just system of land distribution and ownership,” said Christina Oatfield, policy director of the Sustainable Economies Law Center (SELC). “Beginning farmers need some pretty significant financial resources to buy land. Where will all that money come from?”

SELC is exploring some possibilities. Trillions of dollars are held in retirement savings and other long-term savings accounts, she said, and “many of these investors would be willing to take a smaller return on their investment if their dollars were financing more just and sustainable food systems.”

In Port Townsend, Washington, a group of investors got together and pioneered the concept of a Local Investing Opportunity Network (LION). Locavesting reports that since 2008, “the Port Townsend LION has grown to more than 60 members, who have made more than $3 million in investments.” A similar investing club in Maine is called No Small Potatoes.

With the surge in consumer desire for fresh, local, organically grown and well-prepared foods, much of this investment has gone to food, whether in the ground, in the store or for prepared specialty items.

Slow Money, an adaptation of the concepts espoused by Slow Foods, an organization that seeks to produce local, natural, community-supported food systems, has invested $57 million since 2010 in more than 625 organic farms and food enterprises via dozens of local Slow Money groups. 

A similar organization, FarmlandLP, aims to “provide investors with the opportunity to invest in two dynamic markets: farmland and organic food.” It invests in commercial farmland, converts it to organic and then manages the land.

Iroquois Valley Farmland Real Estate Investment Trust is “a restorative farmland finance company providing land access to organic family farmers, with a focus on the next generation.” It has a special program for young farmers and is currently seeking “young farmers with a diversity of farming operations, including grains, local and organic foods, vegetables and pastured livestock.”

“Some of this work is already happening through loosely organized community groups, as well as nonprofit loan funds like RSF Social Finance, Northern California Community Loan Fund and others,” said Oatfield. SELC intends to pick the best models “to support a new generation of more diverse, ecologically-minded, community-supported farmers.”

Rules vary, so you may need to do some hunting online to find out what’s available in your state.

As with seeking any other type of financing, know what you are looking for and have your farm business plan at the ready. The task of finding “slow money” can indeed be slow, but that may be one of its strengths.

Start-Up Requirements for a Small Farm

By Bob and Bonnie Gregson

About $11,000 will buy everything necessary to start the farm business.

If you have comfortably passed through the ten-point keys to success you are over the major hurdle. So what is needed to get a profitable small farm going? That’s easy: farmers, land, some equipment and supplies.


We’ve already talked about some of the characteristics of people who can make this work.

There are few actual requirements. New farmers have to be hard-working, observant, focused, idea seekers, and learners. At least one of the group on your farm should have good “people skills,” since much about a successful small farm operation involves friendly, positive customer relations.


We often say that we were a bit too old (45 and 42) when we started farming. But age is circumstantial. A couple could probably take over a well-established operation in mid-life or beyond if they were fit, there wasn’t much development work to do, and they were otherwise prepared. Scott and Helen Nearing are fine examples of those vigorously active in later years; their books are exceedingly inspiring. They allegedly started the current back-to-the-land movement while well past mid-life, over 40 years ago.

At the other end of the age spectrum (20-30) danger may lurk in taking on something of this intense nature prior to having a wide array of life experiences — not being ready to leave the hurly-burly and really settle in. What seems like a refuge to many of us can seem a prison to others!


There are so many variables about selecting land that we’ll not add any more than noted in the earlier discussion about farm size.


We started our dream fairly well capitalized. After a major house renovation . . . and hasty purchase of the wrong tractor . . . and wrong truck . . . and wrong irrigation system . . . we were much wiser and much less capitalized.

Farm equipment is one of those areas where many of us, particularly males, have built-in assumptions. We see ourselves on a large tractor doing “farmwork.” The tractor probably is a serious looking older Ford or John Deere that we have miraculously purchased in mint condition, and intuitively know how to operate and maintain. Some may fantasize that they bought the tractor for a song, and rebuilt it in their spare time, using the new knowledge conferred on males when they achieve a rural route mail address.

Beware of that Tractor Syndrome

Tractors, of themselves, are nothing but a (very attractive) power source: the attachments are what do the work. Those attachments come in all sizes, shapes and functions. The farmer must be very knowledgeable to pick the right attachments for his/her operation. Those choices in turn more or less dictate the choice of tractor.

But you probably don’t even need a tractor in the beginning.

Frankly, even many experienced farmers fall into the trap of buying unnecessary or too much equipment. One can usually rent machines or hire someone with specialized equipment when needed, saving a great deal of money in the long run.

It’s really pretty simple. Don’t buy anything until you know exactly why you need it, what it will do for you, and why something — or someone — else much less costly can’t do the job.

Farm Trucks

Let’s also counter tradition right away by stating that a truck or van is great, but you can get by with a sturdy car, especially a mini-van, in the early years. Our 1987 mini-van has handled everything from fifteen tall buckets of flowers to six adult sheep.

We recommend the flowers versus the sheep. The sheep had gone for a little outing after breaking through a fence, and were ultimately captured too far away to herd back home. A very bad afternoon. It almost raises a sweat five years later. “Lawnmower sheep” cost us far more than they were worth in the long run.

Can There be Farm Life without a Pickup?

Despite the universal belief that a pickup is required, we have had several kinds and ultimately decided there is more value to this farm from a van.

A van best protects produce, animal feed, straw, and so on, from rain, wind, sun and dust. Those items are the things most often carried, and the latter are the elements most dangerous to them. What a van cannot easily haul — the bulk items — we have delivered or make on site.

One can put a canopy on a pickup to provide that same protection, it is true, but then you just have a van with less headroom and overall useful space. Also: good, tight-fitting canopies do not easily go on and off a truckbed.

Other Primary Necessities in the Maritime Northwest

There is a core of equipment requirements on a small produce farm, one which varies somewhat by region and by specialty. Make sure you have solid evidence and/or experience before you buy additional appealing items — and many temptations will surely present themselves.

Start-Up Costs

In our area, after you’ve arranged home, land and a vehicle, it currently (1995) requires about $11,000 to purchase all essential farming start-up items. To some that may sound like a lot; in farming terms it is unbelievably small change. Those items and rough cost include:

small farm costs list
*Prices are subject to change.

Yearly Expenses

Following are some of the items you will consider in your yearly operating budget: chicken feed, straw, replacement chicks, water, seeds, soil amendments, insurance, fuel, electricity, vehicle costs, maintenance, depreciation, property taxes, dues, publications and professional education.

Source: Rebirth of the Small Family Farm

Farm Jobs: Tips for Building a Team on a Small, Sustainable Diversified Farm

By Alan Haight

Farm jobs are available in almost every zip code in the country, but finding the right employee and work team can take a little creativity and effort. In fact, regenerative farming does not leave out the people-factor when it comes to sustainability, and many challenges and questions can arise. How are fair working wages and pleasant working conditions balanced with keeping produce prices low enough for the farm’s customers? How does one weigh the desire for the farmer to remain self-sustaining and independent against offering employment for local citizens? And, where does one farm’s hired help stand within the larger picture of sustainable agriculture?

Here are some thoughts shared by Alan Haight on the challenges of hiring farm help, what he has learned and how he has met the challenges so far:

“The internship phenomenon is very widespread, and it may be contributing to a relative dearth of paid positions that pay a livable wage.

“We rely on online advertising for hiring. Primarily, I use the EcoFarm and CCOF job listings, but also Sustainable Food Jobs and Good Food Jobs. This year I also placed our ad on the ATTRA website, but this listing is primarily for internships and not for regular paid employment.

farm hands
A worker helps transplant seedlings to the field.

“We used to employ interns. Two years ago we switched to hiring regular paid employees, and we now have three out of our four-member crew returning, two of them for their third year and one for her second. We’ve hired one new full-time employee who has worked for two years on another California farm, and we’ve hired a part-time employee from the local community. This is a much longer discussion and it’s probably controversial, but I have been surprised by how few applications I’ve received when advertising paid positions, compared to the 100-120 applications I used to receive for internships.

“At this point, I would expect there to be many individuals in the United States who have interned on farms for one or two years that would be very eager to find a position as a paid employee. The controversial part about which I’m sure there is a broad range of opinion, is whether or not the internship phenomenon is impeding the development of a strong, skilled labor force for sustainable small farms. The internship phenomenon is very widespread, and it may be contributing to a relative dearth of paid positions that pay a livable wage. This may be having the effect of discouraging interns who are not able to find paid positions, and are leaving work on small farms because they can’t figure out how to support themselves and remain in ag. Like I said, it’s a much bigger topic, but deserves consideration. In a nutshell, if it’s supposed to be sustainable agriculture, how sustainable is it if it depends on an underpaid and very transient workforce?

“In terms of hiring quality employees, I couldn’t be happier with our crew at this time. I think it’s luck to have found good, thoughtful individuals and the fact that the farm is a desirable place to work, combined with me learning more about how to be a good employer, that have come together to produce this good result. We are a small, intimate group that spends a lot of time together, so I’ve tended to emphasize that we should all get along, work cooperatively, stay focused on producing a quality product that we can be proud of and work reasonably hard with consideration for the fact that all of us get tired, or bored or discouraged at one or more times during the season.”

This article is in the May 2014 issue of Acres U.S.A.

Superior Farm Staff Leadership

By Charles Anderas

Effective farm staff management can make all the difference. A long-time organic farmworker named Jessica told me, “When you are the boss there is not much incentive to change.” I’d like to prove that there is great incentive to improve management. Poor management hurts everyone — it makes farms less productive, and it can make employees miserable. It’s also very difficult to address the problem.

man in field pointing
When farmers teach their systems and the restrictions of their climate, their workers are better suited to help improve functions on the farm.

Workers don’t have any power in the relationship. They fear bringing up conflict for fear of losing a good recommendation in the future or the chance for a promotion. There is typically no structure in place for employees to contribute ideas about how they are being managed.

Drawn from interviews with organic farmworkers from around the country and my own experiences on multiple farms, here are some thoughts about managing farmworkers from their perspective (some names in this article have been changed).


A lot of the workers I talked to expressed great appreciation for the ways that farmers empowered them in their jobs. The best bosses assume their workers are capable of learning and performing tasks, even contributing new insight into the direction of the farm.

A farmworker from Colorado named Steven Kluck told me about his boss Andre Houssney who is a great example of empowering workers. Houssney demonstrates the constant of all the good experiences my friends and I have had at work. He simply asks for ideas. When Kluck shares ideas that aren’t that great, Houssney doesn’t shoot them down right away. Instead, he “builds on them or redirects them toward something better.” In two seasons, Kluck went from being a part-time volunteer intern to farm manager and “more of a business partner, helping to establish a brand new CSA program.”

Big changes can happen when farmers build on the potential and direct the passion of their workers.

I’m not an experienced builder, but last year I helped construct a greenhouse with my boss, Danny Blank, at 12 Seasons Farm in Fort Myers, Florida. He regularly asked me for input, and we used several of my ideas on the project. The project helped us build on my abilities and gave us both confidence that I could build a large chicken coop on my own. The hens added another revenue stream to the farm that he didn’t have time to start on his own.

mobile chicken coop
Good management techniques empowered and motivated the author to help add poultry — a new revenue stream — to the farm.

If he had just told me when and where and how to do everything on the greenhouse project, neither of us would have known what I could do. He created a healthy work environment by consistently asking me questions about how we should do things. Blank also asked for ideas for intercropping in his orchard.

When you compare our experience and knowledge, it was unlikely that I would figure out a solution to a problem he’d been thinking about for years. He didn’t get offended if I suggested something obvious that clearly wouldn’t work.

Most workers need a manager’s assistance to get to the point where they can actually contribute. Managers should expect new workers to suggest dumb ideas, but should encourage their suggestions anyway. When farmers teach their systems and the restrictions of their climate, their workers are better suited to help improve functions on the farm. The best employers cultivate a safe environment for ideas and build on them. Bosses that empower workers trust and acknowledge workers’ ability to see something they might have missed.

Martin Price, the founding CEO of ECHO, a nonprofit dedicated to reducing hunger through sustainable agriculture, shared with me that one of the biggest lessons of his 30 years of management is to sometimes “allow staff to do things differently than you’d prefer. You don’t have time to do all the thinking anyway. The only way for an employee to learn and become confident in making decisions is to have the freedom to make them.” Fresh eyes can contribute in unpredictable ways, but it might take some time.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, micromanagement disempowers workers and limits productivity. Good training and micromanagement each have their own assumptions.

Good training assumes that the worker will be able to understand the task and perform it well. Micromanagement assumes that the worker doesn’t and can’t understand the task. Micromanagement is a pattern. Good management takes effort. A good manager can give precise instructions, but will trust that the worker will understand the instructions. When there is a power differential in a relationship, the assumptions of the powerful can be reflected in the powerless — a self-fulfilling prophesy. A boss’ assumption that a worker is incapable of basic tasks can negatively affect the way that a worker performs. For example, Pete said he was washing out some trays, and his boss kept looking over his shoulder. He became nervous and inevitably made a stupid mistake. The same thing happened to him while performing other tasks, too. He said, “It sounds like a terrible excuse to say, ‘I didn’t drop any apples until you walked up,’” but the environment of intimidation that micromanagement creates can actually cause workers to make mistakes. Workers can become so focused on the boss’ eyes on them that they lose focus on what their hands are doing.

Great Expectations

Unmet expectations are a major source of conflict between workers and managers. Clearly stated expectations before employment begins can prevent a lot of frustration. This is particularly important regarding responsibilities, pay and hours. This can be most important for first-timers who might have romantic ideas about farm work. There are important distinctions between jobs and internships/ apprenticeships.

I asked what workers expect out of internships, and all said things like “education is one of, if not the main goal of the position.” In contrast, another friend worked at a farm that had apprentices. The apprentices quickly became discontented because nothing distinguished them from normal employees. There was no special training; they just got paid less. Expect conflict when the season’s experience does not match up with the intern’s expectations for this important distinction. There are some wonderful internships that jump-start the knowledge and experience of young farmers, but there are also “internships” that are illegally cheap labor. Farmers should be careful to only call a job an “internship” when they provide intentional, valuable educational opportunities. Interns do hourly wage calculations all the time in the field, and if the education portion is lacking, your employees will have a lot to grumble about as they work. As one worker put it, she thought a lot about getting paid “the equivalent of $2 an hour while doing 10 hours of weeding.”

Farm Staff: Wages

Wages are a complicated issue, but they have to be addressed. There are many great resources online to guide farmers through state and federal laws, but farmers don’t often follow the law to the letter. Farm interns are frequently content with their wages anyway. Jessica, also quoted above, said, “The hourly wages I’ve gotten have been fair because I know the farms are small, struggling businesses and are giving what they can.” Most workers understand the financial challenges that farmers face. They will sacrifice for the experience, but they won’t stick around unless they are growing. Beyond minimum wage laws, farmers should calculate compensation carefully. Farmers should calculate the value of housing, produce and other benefits in order to respect the workers’ time.

With the rising cost of college and huge student debt, only a certain segment of society is able to work at a rate below minimum wage. Just like in other industries, low-wage internships can widen the achievement gap between the rich and poor. Small stipends can restrict young people from working class families from participating in educational internships.

Organic farmers should consider the way that their compensation shapes the future makeup of the organic farming community.

This greenhouse was built through the collaborative effort of worker and manager.

Expectations about hours are very important, particularly for stipended workers. One worker who was new to farming said she “underestimated how little personal time I would have with a farm schedule.” Another said that bosses are “vague about time commitments and time off,” and their “employees feel guilty when they take time off during the busy times of the year.”

Understanding workers’ needs for hours and time off can help farmers hold on to good workers. A worker named John was at a farm that had several employees, but each employee only worked three days a week. As soon as the other employees found full-time work elsewhere, they would quit. The farm had new employees every couple weeks. It took up a lot of the boss’ time to advertise an opening, interview several people and train a new employee.

Meanwhile, none of the employees had enough hours to make a living wage. The financial incentive to keep good workers is cumulative. The longer you keep someone the more they understand the vision for your farm and the more their work is worth to your farm. This also promotes a stable community for you and your workers and rewards the hard work of empowering workers.

Communication is Key

“I heard from the boss’ wife that a co-worker had mentioned something about my not working fast enough,” remembered Jessica. She also said, “I had a boss bring up a past poor performance several weeks after the fact to demonstrate that I was not meeting expectations, but never mentioned it at the time so I didn’t know to correct it.”

Workers shouldn’t mind being confronted when they don’t meet expectations, but the conflict should be communicated clearly, promptly and respectfully. Many workers noted bosses who were either passive-aggressive or abusive. A worker can’t give constructive criticism about how an operation is managed when a boss emotionally overreacts or never communicates unmet expectations.

Unresolved conflict can kill workers’ motivation. For daily communication, it is important to match training with expectations.

Of three bosses I had, one gave very limited instructions but wanted very specific outcomes. Another gave limited instructions but had loose expectations for how things were done. The last gave thorough instructions when he wanted things done a particular way. Can you guess which two out of three jobs I enjoyed?

If you give little instruction, especially to new employees, don’t expect the work to be what you pictured. If you want a specific result or process, give specific instructions. Explanations have to match expectations. It takes a lot of time to learn what a boss wants. Don’t play “Guess What’s In My Head.”

Clear authority structures help eliminate systems that contribute to bad communication. It is very difficult to work at farms with more than one boss — particularly on family farms. At one farm, a boss would send me on a task, and then the other one would stop me half way through and send me in the opposite direction. Then the first boss would yell at me for not doing what he had told me to do, saying, “I told you to do something, don’t listen to him.” It never became clear to me who was in charge. Being under undefined management puts stress on workers that they don’t deserve.

Workers should never have to discern which of their bosses to obey.

When I’m asked if I like my work, I answer that I love farming, but it largely depends on the manager whether I like a specific job. Good management makes farming life-giving, rewarding and profitable for both the farmer and the workers. Farmers that work to empower their workers, have clear expectations, understand the expectations of their workers and communicate well on a daily basis create wonderful environments for workers.

Farmers should think of management not as another task, but as another tool for cultivating productive farms and healthy communities.

This article appeared in the April 2015 issue of Acres U.S.A. magazine

Leasing Farmland 101 by Joel Salatin

By Joel Salatin

Leasing is a way in and a way to scale. Goodness knows we need as much of this transitional farmland as possible to go to our tribe and not to the corporate industrial tribe. An owned hub is great, but it can be much smaller than the managed acreage. Don’t frustrate yourself with partners that only want as much money as possible. That’s not a good fit. Work with landowners who want wildlife, soil building, better water cycles. Those are the things our eco-farming tribe can bring to the table.

In the late 1960s farmland prices began spiraling far beyond historic price-to-production ratios. When my mom and dad purchased the core property for our farm, the land was $90 per acre (in 1961) and feeder calves brought $150. You could raise half a feeder calf on an acre of pasture, a gross annual production value of $75.

At a price-to-production ratio of $90:$75, that was nearly 1:1. Today, it’s worth $7,000 per acre and that calf is $700. We receive no more rain, sunshine, or fertilizer than we did in 1961. At half a calf per acre, the new ratio is $7,000:$350, or 20:1.

I’m certainly a big fan of owning a home base. But even on a livestock operation, home base can be relatively small — 5 acres?

I’ve talked to many older farmers (all of whom are now gone) in the community who acquired their land from a couple years’ production. I mean, their wheat, cattle, milk, etc. paid for the land in a couple of years.

That’s now an outrageous idea. Yes, some of the most successful micro-farms are buying land with production, but it’s rare. So where to from here? Virtually all agricultural experts agree that in the next 15 years, half of all America’s farm equity (land, buildings, equipment) will change hands due to the average age of farmers being 60 years old. Only 6 percent of farmers are younger than 35. Business gurus say that anytime the average practitioner in an economic sector drops below 35, it’s a sector in decline.

The problem is that when the impediments to entry are too high for young people to get in, then the old people can’t get out. Both generations are stuck at the intersection: one at the on ramp and the other at the off ramp. Much if not most of this farmland transition will go to heirs. But most of the heirs do not want to farm. These children reside elsewhere, have their careers and proximity to pizza delivery, and have no intention of uprooting their teenagers to move back to the family farm.

Farmland acreage is becoming available at unprecedented rates as current farmers age out of the process. Cornell University did a study several years ago looking at New York state’s abandoned farmland. They took a 15-year period of time (I believe 1995-2010) and identified farmland acreage that was still privately owned but not actively farmed. It was not sold for development, not used for roads or buildings. The acreage was about 3.1 million acres … in New York state alone!

I remember well a busload of New York farmers who came to see our farm in the early 1990s. They asked what our property taxes were, and I think at the time I was paying about $1,500 a year on our 550 acres. They said a farm like this in New York would be paying $15,000 in annual property taxes. According to them, the urban areas, primarily New York City and Buffalo, needed rural taxes to remain afloat because the cities sucked too much state money. It eventually ran the farmers out of the state and dropped farmland prices by 70 percent (the market has a way of adjusting to government shenanigans).

One of our early apprentices was from upstate New York. After he finished the program he went back home and within a month was offered 1,000 acres (3 different land owners) for free if he would just do something with the land. Which brings me to the point of this article: leasing farmland.

I’m certainly a big fan of owning a home base. But even on a livestock operation, home base can be relatively small — 5 acres? You need a minimal animal holding area, animal starting area, maintenance shop, equipment storage and a place to live. Other than that, production is possible on leased land.

Here at Polyface, we now lease 12 parcels in the community, totaling about 1,400 acres. Our hub is only 175 acres of pasture, so the leased acreage dwarfs home base. That has enabled us to achieve some economies of scale (more hours on equipment overheads), heal more land, serve more customers and germinate more young farmers.

My dream is that as half of all farmland changes hands over the next 15 years, most of it will go to management under a new generation of bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, land-caressing entrepreneurs increasing the commons and serving communities with integrity-based food and fiber.

In all cases, customized leases speak to the unique desires of individual landowners. They vary in personality, expectations and needs. While we certainly use a template, each one speaks distinctly to the arrangement. In our case, most landowners contact us; we don’t contact them. They’ve seen what we do or know about what we do and want us to manage their property.

Consider leasing as a property management business. You’re providing a service to the landowner who is unwilling or unable to keep up fences and maintain the property. What makes a farm a farm is not the land; it’s not production; it’s a farmer. This is the problem with most farmland preservation efforts — they seek to preserve farmland without preserving farmers. Like upstate New York, if we preserve farmland without farmers, we just create wilderness without economy or community.

To land a lease, therefore, you need a working model of what you’re going to do. That’s where the hub comes in. Whether it’s pastured poultry or a garden, you need to be able to take a prospective landlord to a place and say: “Here’s what it will look like.” Even landlords who abuse their land have a fetish about what it looks like.

Leasing Farmland: Great Expectations

A lease is a partnership, and you need buy-in from the landlord. I’ve walked away from a couple of leases over the years that eventually became too tense because the landlord’s expectations did not fit. One was a couple who asked us to come manage their place because they saw the beauty of the place next door that we were leasing. After three years, however, it became painfully obvious that they really wanted a golf course. They didn’t realize that the month or two a year of “blown out” forage was why it looked gorgeous the rest of the time. The mob stocking on lignified carbon was our recipe; they didn’t want lignified carbon.

The other one that went south was a wealthy family that really wanted a park ranger for their private country club. It took us awhile to figure out their expectations; when we did, we took our eggmobiles, chicken shelters, gobbledygo, hoophouse and water pumps and walked away — best day of my life. Sometimes it doesn’t work out, but we’ve had far more positives than negatives.

Remember, the 1,400 acres of pasture we lease is worth nearly $10 million on the open market, and we’re leasing it all for $60,000. That’s 0.6 percent. Even if you bought it at 4 percent interest, the interest payments alone would be $400,000 per year. You can afford some babysitting, handholding and explanation time to get access to land at that price. Leases tie to the real production market and therefore reflect real agricultural value, not speculative viewscape value.

Once you have an interested landowner, you must discuss expectations. Every landowner has a hot button. For one, it may be thistles. For another, it may be lane maintenance. Fences, visitors, landscape appearance — these all enter into the discussions. Always remember that managing land is an incredible privilege. Few people get to viscerally touch land anymore; to do so is an honor. Treat the land and the landowner that way and the respect will show through the discussions.

We have one landowner who doesn’t want any animals there during hunting season. The farm is his get-away from a high-pressure business, and he doesn’t want his hunting encumbered with electric fence gates and animals when he seeks his solitude. That’s not always easy to accommodate, but it’s certainly doable.

Often in farming, some non-portable capitalization may be required. That’s always ticklish on un-owned land. For our operation, it’s buried waterlines, perhaps pond development, electric fences and corrals for livestock. Portable and semi-portable infrastructure helps, of course. Here is our solution. We pay for non-portable capital improvements and have one year to install whatever we want to install. At the end of the year, we put an addendum on the lease with the cost and payback plan. The payback is a simple 20-year amortization (5 percent per year) forgiveness. No money changes hands.

If our cost is $20,000, then $1,000 (5 percent) comes off each year until it goes to zero. If the lease breaks before that time, regardless of fault, the landowner must pay us the leftover amount of the infrastructure capitalization cost. This arrangement frees us up to develop as completely and rapidly as we want without asking the landowner for money, and it protects us from the landowner kicking us off once we do all the development. It also creates a de facto 20-year lease out of an actual 5-year lease.

Leasing Farmland: Communication is Key

Landowners do not like surprises. While leasing sounds financially rewarding, it requires communication. In our livestock operation, we routinely move herds from one leased farm to another. We had lined up the trailers for three mornings hence for what was to be a typical load-out and move, but the night before the designated morning, we got 3 inches of rain. Needless to say, we made some ruts getting in and out of the loading area. Rather than wait for the landowner to see it, we communicated immediately that we had torn up that spot and asked if he could meet us there to look it over and agree on a solution.

It was ticklish because it was at the entrance to their sophisticated horse operation. He met us and was frustrated, but our initiative defused an otherwise explosive situation. We ended up getting a truckload of stone and made a nice rock apron, which has now served us for years. Take pictures of what you’re doing and send them to the landowner. Keep them as involved as possible. If you cut a tree off a fence, tell them.

Landowners have no idea what maintaining the property requires. Keep a list of what you’re doing — even the tiniest thing. That way you can document all the pot sweeteners you’ve brought to the table. An annual review, with bullet points, is a great way to help the landowner appreciate what you’re doing. Little pot sweeteners are far more valuable than money.

Above all, listen to the landowner’s concerns. What does the landowner consider unsightly? What does the landowner consider an offensive odor? Agree together about compost piles, water pumping stations, corrals, access and projects. What can you do to endear yourself to the landowner? The main thing here is to listen. We have landowners who love us and give us tremendous freedom to do whatever we want. We have others who watch over our shoulder and want us to clear everything with them before proceeding. Regardless of the type of landowner, always ask how you can serve their interests better. If you’re the first to offer and listen, the landowner can’t help but love you.

Landowners have short memories. If you begin to improve the land, nobody will remember what it looked like a couple of years before. As it improves, the expectation standards will rise. We have one landowner who had rented to another farmer for 20 years and then came to us. That place was covered in thistles and ragweed — massive ragweed 10 feet tall. Today, the thistles are far fewer and the ragweed is nonexistent, but the landowner complains about thistles. Don’t be frustrated by this. Remember, it’s 0.6 percent land. Pleasing the landowner has a cost, but it’s normally less than the price of the land. We do quite a bit of clean-up with a big batwing rotary cutter.

Farmer Joel Salatin speaks to Polyface Farm visitors in Swoope, Virginia.

We would never do it that meticulously on our own place; we do it to please the landowner. So it costs us $1,000 a year? Big deal. We’re still getting access to 240 acres for $10,000. We can afford a few hours on a mower to make him want to show off his farm and recommend us to his neighbors. What’s that worth?

Before ending, let me discuss two areas of tension. The first is the idea that in a lease, I’m improving someone else’s property. If I build soil and increase fertility, I can’t haul that away in a trailer if the landowner and I part company, regardless of reasons. Fortunately, soil responds fairly quickly to proper care. While it’s not portable, the experience of building it is. On the next place, you’ll create fertile soil better and faster. Creating soil is a skill just like any other; moving land bases is not the end of the game. Get over it.

The other area is one we’ve encountered with landowners struck by the higher productivity of mob grazing and stacking complementary enterprisers. Once we sign the lease, we institute our intensive and symbiotic models. Whatever was being done on the property before, whether by the landowner or by a manager-renter, chances are it was fairly conventional. That means it was single species and low productivity.

When we go onto a property that never had more than 50 cows with a herd of 300 (not for the year, but a couple of two-month stints throughout the year) it shocks the landowner. To be sure, we have never rented a single grazing farm in 25 years on which we did not double production the first season. Landowners aren’t blind; they see that increased production. If we then add eggmobiles, turkeys and broilers, the landowner does some quick math and has a financial epiphany: “The guy before was generating $35,000 a year off my property; these guys are generating $100,000.” Guess what the next thought is? You got it: “I think they’re taking advantage of me; the rent should be higher.”

That creates the most ticklish conversations we have with landowners. When it comes up, here is my answer to their logic: “Could you please tell me anything you did that enabled us to generate more production? Did you bring anything to the table that increased the production? Anything?”

After a pregnant and sometimes awkward pause, the landowner must admit the obvious: “Nothing.” That settles it once and for all. The point is that the agricultural paradigm of a community sets the lease rate for land. It might fluctuate a little, but not much. Land type X is worth a certain amount; land type Y is worth another amount. If I figure out how to double the income, that’s my cleverness, hard work or a combination of both; the landowner did not add anything to that equation and therefore has no part in its benefits. Once we get that “nothing” answer from the landowner, we never have trouble with that issue again.

Perhaps our culture will eventually follow Europe into the 99-year lease and tenure. Who knows? But one thing is sure: farmers who know how to make beautiful landscapes, who have a servant’s heart and who radiate an enthusiastic disposition will always find a place to blossom. Be willing to start small and let it develop slowly. Don’t worry about speed; just worry about trajectory.

My dream is that as half of all farmland changes hands over the next 15 years, most of it will go to management under a new generation of bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, land-caressing entrepreneurs increasing the commons and serving communities with integrity-based food and fiber. Let’s do it.

This article appeared in the November 2018 issue of Acres U.S.A.magazine. 

Joel Salatin operates Polyface Farm in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley with his family. He is the author of several books on ecological, family-scale farming, including Your Successful Farm Business, Fields of Farmers, Everything I Want to Do is Illegal and many more, available from the Acres U.S.A. bookstore or by calling 800-355-5313.

Starting a Small-Scale Livestock Venture: Understanding Market Considerations

By Kelly Klober

A number of years ago a neighbor called with questions about starting a purebred swine operation in our area. It was going to be based on a breed not already present in the area, but one that was well-regarded and had been used often to produce some good, rugged cornfield shoats across the Midwest.

I agreed that it was a good idea as the breed was one that we had once considered. I was about to advise a small, careful start when he told me that they had already purchased 30 gilts and two rather pricey breeding boars. Within two years they were out of the purebred swine business. It was a case of too much too soon.


A livestock venture and the market for it tend to begin small, and it will take time for both of them to develop. Along with acquiring needed skills and experiences, the producer must determine to what level of production the venture can be grown and continue to garner good selling prices and returns.

Price is set by the quality of the output and the demand for it. The producer can certainly shape the quality and, to an extent, have control over the amount of output (at least from his or her farm into nearby markets where most direct sales are generated). Before selling a single boar of his chosen breed our neighbor had the numbers in place and the money spent to be producing them by the score.

It is a mistake that we have all made, and some of us have made it several times. A young man of our acquaintance once ordered 50 quail chicks, grew them out with comparative ease and sold them quickly for a tidy profit. He next placed an order for 1,000 quail chicks, and the results were disastrous.

Small creatures though they may be, 1,000 quail chicks taxed his facilities, almost immediately problems began to arise that were beyond his level of experience, and a market that bought 50 and wanted a few more had no need for them by the hundreds. His losses of birds and dollars were substantial.


Many of us have perhaps been made overconfident by early small successes or brought into such specious arguments as, “If 10 are good, 100 will be better,” or “It is just as easy to care for 200 head as 20.” I have heard both of these arguments made many times in my years in the feed industry and saw far too many who weren’t doing a good job with 10 head go on to do a really bad job with 100.

field of hogs
A livestock venture and the market for it tend to begin small, and it will take time for both of them to develop.

“I had a vo-ag teacher that would tell you straight away that more hogs were lost to “too many pigs disease” than perhaps any other reason. When reading of the success of others, too many overlook the fact that the most successful herds and flocks and the markets that they serve may have been decades — if not generations — in the making.

Markets can be quite unique and challenging, and among the hardest of sales to make are those to local folks. I left for college one Sunday after a weekend of horror stories about a particularly virulent round of rhinitis in the county adjoining ours.

That Wednesday morning, Dad called to say that he was putting all of the hogs on the next truck going out to the then still-in-existence National Stockyards. Fearing the worst possible scenario, I asked what had happened. He replied that the old bachelor farmer that lived down the road from us had just left the yard after buying a young Duroc boar. Try as we might, he said, we would never duplicate that feat again. In 35-plus years in the purebred swine business we sold hogs that close to home just once more.

The marketing radius for producers selling direct from the farm is believed to extend around the farm a distance of about one hour’s driving time. That converts to a distance of about 60 miles, and for every animal we sold in our township, we sold a score or more beyond it. There is a well-noted tendency in farmers that when making a major purchase they will look well beyond their local communities. If I ever needed any proof of this all I have to do is think of all the cold fried chicken Dad and I ate alongside the road when looking for bulls, boars and farm implements.

We lived along a county road with nearly a half-dozen other purebred swine producers, some of them with national and even international reputations. Our niche became sales to other small farmers, such as ourselves, that needed not purple-ribbon winners but animals bred for and grown out in the dirt. Such a niche still exists and, by many accounts, is again growing.

Yes, I have seen multiple potloads of cattle change hands on a single handshake, but most livestock sales are still small-lot transactions of sometimes as few as one or two head. The small farmer should not be daunted by the idea of direct-marketing and small-lot sales.

As the concept of a more artisanal-type of production grows, livestock production is becoming more focused on niche and direct-marketing. We live in very contradictory times, however. Our local sale barn, where potloads of cattle regularly change hands, heavily penalizes grass-fed cattle and those showing a lot of heirloom breeding. There are no futures contracts offered for range broilers or grass-fed lambs. And yet, few are the big three magazine press runs without at least one account of a farm family using social media to market wool for spinning, farm-fresh beef or other farm goods being offered for sale in small lots. And one of the most active marketing arenas online is given over to the sale of show pigs that are sold just one or two at a time.

A market can be built in many ways, but it cannot be willed and pushed into being or be forced to accept something just because that is what the producer wants to grow. By starting small, the producer can test the market waters without too great an investment risk.

I have been witness to several attempts at creating a poultry/hatchery venture and seen them stumble over many of the same early obstacles and missteps. They nearly all try to offer too great a variety too soon and position themselves before the public while still lacking needed background and expertise to do so. Many of the most successful and enduring hatcheries are family-farm based, but are operating with rather modest offerings and breed lists. A few specialize in turkeys or waterfowl, and others may offer as few as six or eight breeds of large fowl chickens.

I remember one excited call from such a beginner relating how he had just acquired a breeding flock of White Faverolle large fowl. If you just said, “White what?” don’t feel bad because I did, too.

To get the birds, he had to travel a long way and spend a lot of money, and he did come up with some of the rarest of the rare. Simply put, some breeds are rare because there never was much demand for them. Such, I believe, was the case with the White Faverolle. In his acquisition he tied up a substantial amount of capital, invested a lot of man-hours, and I don’t believe he sold a single one before folding his business. His trade area was Missouri and adjoining states, and the white bird there was, is, and always will be the White Rock.

No matter how diversified the family farm may be, such a producer cannot be all things to all people. There are breeds and animal products to produce that do have stronger identities with potential buyers and the genetic depth that would indicate a continuing level of demand. And though you may begin with a reasonable expectation for demand and selling price, neither should be taken for granted. To the point they have to be grown just like each new generation of pigs, calves or baby chicks.

One must begin with an emphasis on quality over quantity and add numbers only after you have done well with initial numbers. As one old hand told me, the good ones eat no more than the other kind, often less, and they always sell for more.

We have found nothing in the small start that could be considered truly restrictive to success in the present or the future. Follow back the history of most legendary herds or flocks, and even the very breeds, and you will see that they began with but a handful of individual animals, sometimes just one or two.

girl with piglet
For many, 4-H or FFA projects based on a single animal were their gateway into farming.

I began a 35-plus year career in purebred swine with a single Duroc gilt bought in my junior year of high school with my share of that year’s soybean check. It had been a late harvest, and I had to wait until one of the very last swine sales of that season to have the needed funds for a single gilt. Dad built our cow herd one or two animals at a time during our early years on the farm. Our first heifers were bought as bucket calves and Dad walked many a mile down sale barn alleys looking for the best possible animal to buy with the money we had. For him, patience was more than a virtue, it was the way to build things to last.

The first calf born to our small herd was from a white-faced heifer no one would call pretty. She grew into a not-pretty cow until you learned she calved effortlessly every year, her calves were among the first on the ground, and they flat grew. Thanks to her, I soon learned the wisdom in my Scotch/Irish grandmother’s favorite saying, “Pretty is as pretty does.”

Being born into a calf crop of 1,000 head does not make a single calf among them one whit better. Still, the temptation, especially with poultry or small stock is to buy as many as you can as fast as you can. The only way that could possibly lead to success would be to live in an area with many others who are equally eager and equally inept.

Marketing is the most challenging aspect of production for most smallholders and family farmers. It is made no simpler by building up early, large numbers to be sold into a market still lacking definition. A niche market, by definition is always going to be small, is easily broken by overproduction, is generally quite exacting in its demands, will not be dictated to, and will best be grown by adding value to a rather modest level of production. Simply adding pounds or number of heads offered for sale is not value-adding and may well be market depressing.


I have farmed through a great many fads in swine type, the exotic animal craze, the breed-of-the-month in poultry-keeping, and such fads as the Pigeon King debacle and the raising of chinchillas in your basement or emu in your front pasture. Some made some money with these enterprises, and a lot lost a lot of money. If it is a sound idea it will endure. It will be grown through modest investments and quality inputs, and most things agricultural will never stray very far from their historical roots.

The small farmer should always be open to new ideas and new enterprises to add further diversity to the home farm. The goal should be to add diversity, but to not change too greatly the character of that farm nor the beliefs and traditions of the markets it serves. The first Charolais bull in our area was sent to the local sale barn multiple times before it found a second owner. Nearly a half-century later, the Charolais is still something of a minor breed, having tried everything short of developing a black varietal to get into the game.

The Large Black and the Gloucester Old Spot are swine breeds garnering a lot of coverage in the alternative ag press. It’s good PR, but the four swine breeds with demonstrated superior meat quality are the Duroc, Berkshire, Tamworth and Chester White. They were the swine breeds known to your great-grandparents and maybe even great-great grandparents, and at least a few head of them have likely laid down cloven hoofprints on every farm in the Midwest.

The mantra of agriculture in the second half of the 20th century was go big or go away. They stopped teaching agricultural history in the land grant colleges to facilitate the ignoring of the lessons it had to teach. The legendary Dan Patch, the greatest pacer in history, was produced by a horseman with one mare.

What is giving animal agriculture greatest value in the 21st century is what the producer, the man or woman at the halter or in the fold, feels, believes, puts into practice, and then brings to town on four hooves or two good legs.

Kelly Klober specializes in raising livestock using natural methods. He is the author of Talking Chicken, Dirt Hog: A Hands-On Guide to Raising Pigs Outdoors … Naturally, and Beyond the Chicken, available from Acres U.S.A.

This article appears in the May 2016 issue of Acres U.S.A.

Farming Success: Joel Salatin’s Top 10 Markers

By Joel Salatin

Farming success can be measured in myriad ways, but sustainable farmer Joel Salatin shares 10 keys that can help farmers stay on the right track.

The market is here. The knowledge, thanks to decades of Acres U.S.A. articles, is here — all we’re doing these days is tweaking and refining. The basics are all in. The people are here. Young farmers, small farmers, localized farms — it’s a veritable tsunami. The infrastructure is here — portable electric fencing, water systems, foliars, composting, tall tunnels and greenhouses.

With all our technology, tools, and knowledge, why aren’t ecological farmers more wildly successful? More to the point, what are the markers for success, the salient commonalities among the practitioners who enjoy great production, great profits and great pleasure?

If we can tease out these elements, perhaps more of us can enjoy the fruits of righteous farming. What follows are 10 elements, in no particular order, that I think identify farms that successfully transition into and thrive in the integrity food system.

1. Develop One Enterprise Well Before Adding Others

All of us feel the push. The push to meet customer demands, the push to better utilize our infrastructure, the push to become fully employed and leave that town job. Goodness, the push to have a profitable enterprise.

Every business has a mother ship, a core persona or enterprise that becomes its defining feature. Restaurants start around a food theme and then normally create core menus that reflect that theme. These are the distinctions of an organization, the branding of an outfit.

When people talk about the business, this mother ship is the first thing they describe; the first thing that comes to mind. Farms are like that. Some revolve around a dairy. Some an orchard. Some heirloom vegetables, where the number of varieties is front and center. If you don’t know what your mother ship is, you’re not ready to add other enterprises. For example, at Polyface, our mother ship is the pastured broiler. Even though we raise many other animals, when we think about our distinctive — our claim to fame, if you will — it always revolves around the pastured broiler.

Although it has been replaced in gross annual income by both pork and beef, it is the core enterprise around which everything, including our public persona, revolves. For many years, pastured broilers eclipsed everything else on our farm in income. In fact, not until we had been doing pastured broilers for several years did we add the pigs. The cows during those early years filled the need of mowing ahead of the broilers; they were not the critical enterprise.

Figure out what your core enterprise is or will be, then develop it fully. Get good at it. Become an expert. Most of us never become experts in multiple enterprises or fields because the wealth of knowledge necessary for multiple proficiency is too great. I have interests in a host of varied farm enterprises, from bees to mushrooms to pastured broilers.

Grazing cow and a rooster

But for whatever reason — sometimes the mother ship just is, like serendipity — the pastured broiler occupied all my creativity and made the farm successful. Yours might be something else entirely. But don’t run off and jeopardize the mother ship chasing other rainbows.

You’ll know you have skill and proficiency when even crises like floods or droughts don’t send you into a panic. “Been there and done that” should be the operative term. Not that you’ll never tweak and refine. We all need to do that. But you need to be comfortable and assured enough with the model that naysayers, newbies, and new ideas don’t send you into a tailspin of doubt and worry.

If you’re not there yet with your primary enterprise, stick with it. Observe, experiment, and ask for advice. You’ll be rewarded emotionally and economically once you arrive. Then and only then should you try to duplicate the proficiency on another enterprise.

Early on you may want to try many experiments as different enterprises jockey for that sweet spot that meshes with your climate, resources and personal interests. But once you settle on and develop that mother ship, be tenacious about taking it to its ultimate point before chasing another enterprise.

Creativity is expensive. You can’t afford to be creative in a lot of different enterprises at once. For the sake of your emotional and economic sanity, focus your attention on one. Once that is accomplished, let it finance and generate the excitement for another enterprise. You’ll burn out financially and emotionally if you have too many loose ends vying for attention. Never jeopardize the mother ship.

2. Find People to Complement Your Weaknesses or Interests

I’m not talking here about just hiring employees — far from it. I’m talking about being honest with yourself. Do you like building things or selling things? Do you like routine or spontaneity? Do you like working with your hands or working with the books? Ouch. That one got me — I hate accounting. Do you like clutter or clean? Would you rather change the oil or weed the green beans?

The talents and interests necessary for a successful business don’t all grow on the same pair of legs. In other words, to have a farm business that is as attractive to your children as it is to you, you’ll need to assemble a team. Coming back through these pages, I can hear your sigh: “But Matilda and I got this farm because we don’t like people. We want to be by ourselves and forget about society.” Sorry — you have a farm that will fill you with work for a few decades, not a farm business that will excite your children and create a legacy for tomorrow’s generation.

A woman pulling out some weed in her garden. Spring time. Horizontal outdoors color image. Greenhouse is on the background. Before her we can see male hand with garden hoe. Back lit.

Make a list of what you really like to do — things you would do even if you didn’t get paid to do them. The stuff that floats your boat. Do you really like meeting people? Hosting parties? Selling stuff? Being a hermit? Fixing machinery? It’s okay to have special loves and interests. That’s what defines who we are. If we can leverage that into what we do, we have a much better chance of success. Nobody thrives doing detestable things. Not everything has to be enjoyable — but if we can figure out how to leverage our loves, we’ll tend to get more done and generally be more enjoyable company to our family and friends.

In a conversation with one of our apprentices a couple of years ago, I had an epiphany: I have never been alone. He was lamenting starting his farm without a wife (he’d seen how much Teresa and I make a complementary team). He didn’t like accounting — neither do I. But my dad was an accountant (part-time farmer), so in those very formative and early years, he kept the books. That way we had good information that enabled us to make wise decisions.

When he became ill he trained Teresa how to do it, and she has held the reins of our bookkeeping ever since. But it’s too complicated and massive for her to do everything, so we handed off the tax preparation work to a bonafide accountant. A few years ago we hired Jackie, our full-time bookkeeper and sales/invoice preparer. Teresa is still the treasurer of the business, but she has helpers who more than pay their way by allowing us to do the things we enjoy more.

I’m focusing on the accounting because I can’t balance a checkbook. Fortunately, Teresa is meticulous to a fault and will chase down a penny for hours until it’s right. I go outside and tear up things; Teresa makes sure we can afford to fix what I tear up: we’re a great team.

Understanding this concept is why, two decades ago, when we began delivering to restaurants, I structured the billing so that the delivery was a separate charge on the invoice. Within one year, the volume was high enough to hire a subcontractor to do what I did not enjoy. Especially in the early days of a business, most of us have to wear more hats than we’d like. But designing the model to transition easily into a team that takes the disagreeable things off our plate is important for continued success.

I’ve always liked the garden, but as I’ve gotten much busier writing articles like this and doing speaking engagements, the garden has suffered. Daniel (our son) really likes the livestock but does not like the horticulture. Several years ago, I began a conspiracy to get the garden back without pushing Daniel to do it. Sure enough, we now have Leanna, a former intern, in charge of all horticulture. It’s her business. She simply pays rent in the form of a pre-agreed volume of vegetables that Sheri (our daughter-in-law) and Teresa want to preserve for our personal consumption.

Leanna picks the varieties, determines her price and shares marketing risk. If she can’t sell it through one of our venues, it goes to chickens and pigs. Now I have the garden back — better than ever — and the person operating it loves it. Yes, it shows.

As I became busier with writing and speaking, I had less time for marketing. Daniel and Sheri both enjoy marketing (note: who your kids marry is as important as who you marry), but Sheri thrives on it. She took over much of the marketing, on a commission, and it has prospered under her care. Bottom line: a team does not have to be a bunch of employees. It can be volunteers, subcontractors, commission-based collaborators, salaried folks or any combination you can imagine. But the whole really is worth more than the sum of the parts when you get the right bus — the mother ship — and then get the right people on the bus sitting in the right seats. That’s the team.

3. Close the Carbon Cycle Loop

Work on in-sourcing fertility rather than out-sourcing it. Realize that eco-systems rejuvenate based on the carbon circle. Just to make sure we’re all on the same page, the carbon cycle is essentially this: sunlight converts to biomass, which decomposes (either in digestion or decomposition) to build humus, feed the soil food web, and make plants more efficient at capturing more sunlight converted to biomass. Whatever we can do on farms to tap into this cycle, the better.

I call this “closing the carbon leak”. Think of your farm as a huge dry lakebed. Is the lake gradually filling, or is it staying dry due to leaks in the dam? Carbon is energy, fertility… everything, really. Tightening the cycle, closing the leaks, and letting this carbon accumulate on your farm without depleting carbon somewhere else is the pinnacle of farming success. No group has done this better than the permaculture folks. Yes, I honor them. Moving toward perennials, edible landscaping, pasture-based livestock, minimum or no tillage, multi-speciation, and woody-based bedding and composting are all critical elements in a functional carbon cycle. Too many people rely on outside potions and inputs to compensate for carbon leaks. Really successful farms run on real-time solar energy converted through biomass.

Carbon accumulation differs significantly from plant to plant. Grass accumulates fastest, followed by brush, and then forest. In other words, if you really want to build soil, you want pasture — not woods. And recognize that intermediate one: brush.

Cutting brush, letting it come back, and then cutting it again can be one of the most efficient ways to acquire on-farm carbon. Sepp Holzer has demonstrated the power of brushy windrow piles in Austria. Brush can be chipped with modern chippers to reduce the particle size and speed up decomposition.

The point here is to realize that we as farmers are in the carbon cycling business.

We should reduce activities that hurt the cycle and adopt activities that encourage it.

4. Develop Your Tribe

Too many people fritter away valuable time seeking advice and friendship in opposing tribes. While I’m not against reaching across the aisle, cultivating your own tribe first makes sure that you have something to contribute when you do finally interact with the opposition.

Please forgive my trademark disappointment with government. In order to be honest with myself, I have to put that in here. Stay out of government offices. Forget grants. Most government agricultural advisors grew up on farms and really wanted to farm, but, since they couldn’t figure out how, they went to work for the government with all its cushy vacations, paychecks, and retirement plans.

I know there are good people in the government agriculture system. You just have to work really hard to find them. And even then, the good ones walk on eggshells to actually accomplish anything because the system pounds them down.

In my experience, hardly anything makes a farm more unsuccessful quicker than when the farmer spends time in government offices. They don’t lead anywhere, except to more government offices.

Joel Salatin - 10 keys to farming success
Joel Salatin shares knowledge with seminar attendees at Polyface Farm in Swoope, Virginia in July.

Do the project yourself. Pay for it yourself. You’ll be far more creative and it will be cheaper in the long run. Instead of seeking government help, go to an Acres U.S.A. conference — that’s our tribe. Cultivate friendships, mentors, and information there.

Seek advice from people who are doing what you want to do, who are actually living it, who have skin in the game and are still playing successfully.

5. Prototype with Small Trial Balloons

Innovation is always expensive because it requires many failures prior to success. The only difference between success and failure is that the successful person picked himself up one more time.

That’s why the opposite of success is not failure, but quitting. All successful folks have a history of errors; they just learn from them.

I wish I had a nickel for every time somebody told me to become the Frank Perdue of pastured poultry. I’ve been offered six-figure salaries to join advisory boards on businesses that had a big business plan. Every one of them fizzled. Every single one.

Staying power comes from starting like an embryo — small. Get the kinks worked out. Don’t go buy a huge piece of land or start a huge enterprise. My dad used to always warn me to “beware of people born with a big auger.” When anyone tells me they have the solution for Polyface to get big, I run as fast as I can the other way. The crash and burn is always more survivable if it happens small than if it happens large.

Test the market. Test the production idea. Whenever someone asks my counsel on transitioning, I always tell her to start it small. If she has a 1,000-acre corn and soybean farm and is interested in pastured beef, I tell her to carve out a few acres and get half a dozen calves. Play with it. Build some fence. Learn how to check spark. Learn how cattle herd, what they eat, how they eat, how they poop. As your confidence and interest build, add a few acres. Again, don’t sink the mothership. Start all innovation small.

Do you have a value-added product you think you’d like to develop into a business? Don’t install an inspected commercial kitchen right off the bat. Make some of those lard-crust sweet potato pies in your kitchen first, and when all your friends swoon, then go forward with renting a kitchen. Get your HACCP (Hazardous Analysis Critical Control Point) plan in place. After you have a loyal following you may want to build or buy a kitchen, but not before.

This is becoming more and more an issue as the local food tsunami takes hold in our culture. Our local food movement is attracting more interest from Wall Street-types who only think in increments of millions. We’re littered with the carcasses of starry-eyed empire-builders who floored the accelerator before they even had tires on the car. Take it easy out there, folks.

6. Efficiency

Industries put a lot of effort into time and motion studies. Successful farmers do the same. How long does it take to put away a dozen eggs, gut a chicken, or set up a 200-yard electric cross fence? Anyone reading Eliot Coleman’s books on vegetable production will quickly appreciate his attention to efficiency. He knows exactly how long it takes to plant a foot of Swiss chard. He knows exactly how long it takes to spin out 20 pounds of lettuce leaves.

Too many farmers think their vocation is noble enough and important enough to transcend basic business principles, as if they are immune from profit and loss. Yes, we’re farmers, but we’re also moving, transporting packing, fixing — lots of industrial-type stuff. At Polyface, we printed a Standard Operating Procedure manual for both broilers and layers for our interns. It includes how much time it takes to do things, and yet not one in ten uses a watch to time themselves and try to achieve these benchmarks. The ones who do have a much higher chance of success on their own operations.

Do like things together. Go loaded and come loaded. Double up on trips. Bundle your chores by area so you aren’t zigzagging back and forth between workstations. Go to one spot and do as much as you can for as long as you can. Shaving a few steps or a few minutes off each activity can add up to hours in a day.

7. Value-Add & Increase Margins

We’ve all heard the old song that the middleman makes all the money. Well, if that’s true, then I want to be one. Pick me, pick me. The commodity system and value-added system are two entirely different models.

Commodity systems always drive prices down to a floor, asking for the greatest price concessions on the segment that is most able to defer true costs. That happens to always be the farmer, who can defer fertility, maintenance, infrastructure, and even his own paycheck. The manufacturing and processing components of the food system can’t defer as many things.

Their labor force has to be paid in real time with real money; the refrigerators have to be fixed today and paid for today.

Commodity systems are big enough to absorb any and all comers without affecting prices, so entrants can grow as fast as they want without crashing the system.

Direct-marketing and value-added farms, where product branding and entrepreneurial savvy create customers, are always limited by the size of the market.

If you produce one dozen eggs beyond what you can sell, the value of that extra dozen is not half, but zero. They make pretty expensive pig feed. I’ve been there and done that. As a farm begins accepting more and more processing and marketing risk, its margins can escalate.

Successful farms protect their margins and hold tenaciously to their customers. If they sell through middlemen, they still try to create name recognition. For example, here at Polyface we’ve been selling through an electronic aggregator — kind of a virtual farmers’ market. These are popping up all over, and are a great addition to the venues available for economical local distribution. We encouraged this business to offer a bus tour of Polyface, with boxed lunch, as an agritourism event. This gave the aggregator something else to sell, created buzz among their clientele, and brought these folks out to our farm so they could see where their food really came from.

Whatever you’re producing, value-add it. Sometimes the best value-adding kick comes from salvage, like broth. In our case, one of the early items was hot dogs as an alternative to beef chuck roast and boneless pork. We now sell some 6-8,000 pounds of hot dogs a year. Sure beats a fire sale or throwing it away.

8. Multiple-Use Infrastructure

This includes buildings and equipment. We never want to buy or build capital-intensive single-use anything. If you buy a $150,000 combine, that’s fine — but realize you’re not in the farming business; you’re in the manufacturing business where machines need to run 24/7 in order to pay their overhead costs.

One of the most common examples of single-use infrastructure, of course, is any kind of confinement building for animals. It is not only expensive, but also hard to retrofit or remodel if and when that production model becomes uneconomical or archaic. A confinement dairy, along with its bankruptcy tubes (silos) has deterred more than one aspiring pasture-based farmer. The economic and emotional investment in the structures drives future decision-making and stifles innovation. The bigger the ship, the harder it is to turn.

I like pole sheds and pole barns because the structure’s strength is in the poles rather than the walls. That way we can knock down walls, change them around, or even completely change the interior to another configuration for another animal without affecting the structural integrity of the building. We have several tall tunnels, or hoop houses, at Polyface for winter housing of laying hens, pigs and rabbits.

We even put them all in the same place at the same time. Four-foot-tall slatted-top tables pushed together provide a platform like a mezzanine for the chicken feeders, nest boxes, and waterers. Rabbits reside in roomy pens that overhang the floor, and pigs have the run of the place beneath them. When all these animals come back out to pasture in the spring, we plant vegetables on the composting floor, using the tall tunnels as garden season-extenders.

Think about trailers instead of trucks. Minimize engines. Maximize attachments that do not need engines. If you’re going to buy an engine, buy one that can handle many attachments rather than just one. This is why we buy tractors with 4-wheel drive and front-end loaders at Polyface. Yes, these machines cost a little more than their counterparts, but they are twice or thrice the machines. Let multiple-use everything drive your design and your purchases.

9. As You Scale, Stay True to Your Identity

Successful farms and businesses have to guard against corner-cutting like the plague. Many true-blue honorably-branded small businesses grow up to be ho-hum big businesses. That includes farms. If big is what you want to be, you’ve already sold your soul. At Polyface, we refuse to have a sales target or marketing benchmark. This protects us from selling out for an additional sale. Sales should be an outgrowth of your faithfulness.

Sales should reflect customer participation in your vision. Sales should indicate the power of your product, the compelling nature of your differentiated brand.

Recently I read about a large heritage-breed turkey producer collaborating with some national organizations that ought to know better on financing a monstrous poultry barn big enough to hold 12,000 turkeys. That sounds perilously close to Tyson if you ask me.

Many years ago I visited a turkey grower who sold through Whole Foods when Whole Foods actually sourced locally. The first year he raised his turkeys on pasture. I went to see his processing facility at the end of the second year and he had gone into defunct poultry industry houses. “Nobody really knows or cares whether they are on pasture or not,” he confided as he toured me around. Really?

Corner-cutting has become endemic in the organic certification industry. All you need to do is keep up with the watchdog Cornucopia and you’ll see the constant attempts to pull a fast one. Unfortunately, many succeed.

Those of us who have some size to our operations should be dedicated to innovating with more integrity, not less. Don’t let anybody with “BIG” printed on their business plan steer you into compromising your product distinctions. Stay true.

10. Pay Your Team Members

If you want a content, loyal, innovative team, you need to reward them well. You can’t starve commitment and happiness into your team.

This starts with parents and their children, because children are often the first workers a farm couple employs. Are you stingy? Do you begrudge others a great compensation because you don’t feel fully compensated?

At our farm, some of our team members receive more income than the owners. We have incentive and commission packages that are open-ended. Ultimately, the owners are not in it for money, but for the joy of service, healing the earth, creating customer relationships. While we want a team that is also jazzed about those ideas, farm owners need to recognize that ownership is a great privilege. Don’t lord it over anyone. Just be grateful. Good people always pay their way.

Sometimes a stellar team candidate will make you choke on their requested compensation package. But if their contribution can pay their way, who cares what they earn? Be generous. Tip heavily. An ancillary principle here includes verbal praise. People don’t just work for money. They work for higher values.

In fact, we want to attract those kinds of people. Are you a stingy praise giver? How often do you hug your team players? Do you send “atta-boy” (girl) emails? You’ll get more when you give more. Praise is the cheapest incentive you can pay. Use it liberally.

Farming Success

I’ve counseled and listened to farmers all over the world. The sticky point in the operation usually falls into one of these 10 categories. Generally, the weak link is between our ears. Or it’s character. I’ve seen successful farmers in the middle of nowhere producing on a pile of rocks. Others have been on paradise — quality land five minutes from a million people — and can’t get it together.

In my opinion, the benchmarks of success are not primarily about location, soil type, or even bank accounts. They follow along the lines of good business principles and character qualities. The reason I don’t do much farm consulting is because it’s too frustrating. More often than not, the best thing farmers who have enough money to hire me can do is to turn their farm over to a hungry, savvy, innovative young person. If a farm is losing $100,000 a year, the most successful thing to do is to quit farming. That would at least move the bottom line toward zero.

Hang in there. Persist. Be faithful and honest. Pay your bills by not accumulating them too fast. Be creative. Don’t get enslaved by a model. Be efficient, precise, and observant. Experiment small. Love your tribe. Pay your people. These will make you successful whether you are transitioning, starting or dreaming. Now go change the world.

This article appeared in the December 2012 issue of Acres U.S.A. 

Joel Salatin operates Polyface Farm in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley with his family. He is the author of several books on ecological, family-scale farming, including Folks, This Ain’t Normal, which is available from the Acres U.S.A. bookstore or by calling 800-355-5313.

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Adding to Your Farm Crew: How to Hire and Keep Employees

By Louise Placek

If and when your business needs the support of outside employees, there are many things to consider and understand before you get mired in the muck. If you have owned businesses in the past that supported employees, then most of this will not be new to you. If you have never done this before, sit up and listen. It’s not hard, but there are lots of ducks to get in that row.

Before getting into the details, let’s have a word about con­tract help. There is almost no way you can hire a person in horticulture who wants to work by contract. I know how tempting it is to hire someone who will take full responsibility for their Medicare and Social Security taxes, but there are very specific laws regarding who may hire themselves out for con­tract and who may hire them. First of all, there has to be a very carefully constructed contract for a very specific job that has a beginning and an end. Second, the person hired must have all his or her own tools for the job to be done—they cannot use your tools. You cannot supervise them or tell them what to do. None of this fits into horticulture. You need someone who can do multiple tasks and can go from one task to another under your supervision. You might as well just prepare yourself for hiring employees, be they full-time, part-time or temporary.

Ads and Interviews

Getting good, reliable help is a challenge. If you are like most horticulture businesses, you cannot pay much and the available work force is limited. Rural areas especially can be a challenge. If you are not near a good-sized town, you might have some trouble finding anyone, much less the right one. You might have to piece it together with a lot of part-timers.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that there are an amazing number of people out there who love working with plants. Trainable people.

Where do you find people who want to work? Word of mouth works pretty well, but you get into some sticky situations when you decide not to hire someone who is a friend of a friend. Another way is to list your position on job boards at high schools, colleges, employment offices, etc. You may have to fill out some forms, but it can help you clarify, in your own mind, what and who you are looking for.

newspaper ad
Most newspapers and websites offer affordable rates for “Help Wanted” ads.

When you begin wording your ad, I suggest you keep it simple. You do not have to go into lengthy job descriptions. Just state who you are, where you are (especially if you are rural), general job title, how much you pay, and your phone number. If qualifications are important, then describe briefly.

When you start interviewing, give yourself a cut-off date. Let everyone know that you will make a decision by such-and-such a date. This way they will know ahead of time that if they have not heard from you by the date you have given them, they are not hired. This saves you a lot of time and anxiety about having to call people back. If you find the perfect person the first day, keep your word and continue the interviews until the cut-off date.

Make your interview as informal as possible with­out losing professionalism. Have something for them to fill out that gives you basic information about them, (name, address, phone number, horticul­ture-related work, back or other medical problems that might interfere with this type of work, etc.). I also state our employee health insurance status, refer to the seasonal nature of the business, quote a starting salary and make them sign the bot­tom. I think a lot of the information on standard application forms is useless, so I made my own form.

I also ask them why they want this job. If their immediate response is, “I love working with plants,” then you probably have a winner. If they say something like, “I just need a job,” or, “It’s all I could find,” then ask a few other questions to see if there is a light on in the plant tower. Remember, this is your livelihood and small mistakes can create whole batches of unmarketable plants.

farmers in pasture
It is amazing what you can learn about a person by the questions they ask you.

During the interview I will also give them a thumbnail overview of our business (including our philosophy regarding the environment), and, if they want, a quick tour. Then they get to ask me questions. This is not a test to see how intelligent they are. It is strictly an opportunity to open communication. The questions will vary from clarifica­tion of working hours to elucidation about how one becomes certified to carry the “organic” label. If you conduct lots of interviews, you might want to make notes to yourself (after they leave) to remind you of what impressed (or did not impress) you about the person. When you decide to hire, listen to your instincts.


Once you have decided on the employee(s) you want to work in your business, call them right away and set up a starting date and time. If you have hired more than one employee, even if they are working different hours and days, schedule them to come in at the same day and time for orientation. It is not good management of your time to go over the material several times in the course of a few days or a week. Besides, it gives them time to get to know each other a bit before getting to work.

When your new help arrives, introduce them to anyone already employed if they had not already met them in the interview and show them around. Then take them to fill out tax forms, settle on schedules, read the orientation manual, and go over basic dos and don’ts of work­ing in horticulture. If you do not have an orientation manual, then consider writing one. You want to cover all your bases right up front and have something they can refer to later to refresh their memories. A manual can consist of simple guide­lines for many of the routine tasks or step-by-step instructions for things you do every day. I also suggest you have guidelines on disease prevention, acceptable and non-acceptable behav­ior between employees, tardiness and absenteeism, work hab­its, back care, safety, lunches and breaks, and any other expec­tations you have concerning employment with your business.

Be sure they understand that time sheets are their responsi­bility and have them start one right away to be sure they know how to fill it out. The method you choose should be simple for the employee to use and easy for the person doing payroll to inter­pret.

Keeping Employees

Alright, you have hired some people, you have a work schedule, and production is rolling along. What do you offer that would prevent your employees from quitting suddenly at an inopportune time like, say, the middle of spring? Yikes! It is a tough dilemma if you are only paying minimum wage and have no health insurance benefits. What can you give them to make them stick around? If you hired “plant people,” then the ability to buy plants at wholesale prices is a big plus. My folks walk out of here with an armload of plants and love it. But even that is not enough if they are not happy in their work. Here are some thoughts.

You should be approachable. Work alongside employees until they feel comfortable in the routine tasks. This way you can correct mistakes right away and offer encouragement when employees feel frustrated. This teaches them that they can always come to you with a question about how to attempt a task without risk of embarrassment.

Give kudos for good work. People love being thanked for their hard work and complemented on exceptional production. I know it sounds silly, but a round of applause after finishing a particularly big job can lift everyone’s spirits.

Be patient. Everyone does not learn at the same pace or in the same way. You might need to work with some people more than others and repeat instructions more than a few times. This is why routine tasks should be in writing, in a step-by-step format, and in a notebook or tacked onto a bulletin board for reference.

Take a few minutes now and then to relate to employees as individuals. Everyone has a life that is important to them. If they have children, ask about them. If they have an ailing fam­ily member, ask how they are doing. Assuming this does not make them uncomfortable, it might actually give them a sense that you care about them in ways other than how many flats of basil they can plant in a workday. It can also give you a read on any problems brewing that might cause stress or lack of concentration at work.

Correct mistakes immediately, but do it in a positive way. In other words, tell them what they are doing right first, then show them what you want them to change. I have found that people will respond much more readily to correction (or in some circumstances change) if there is a valid, logical reason for why you want things done in a certain way.

man and woman look at lettuce
More often than not, the reasons I do things in a particular way are from experience doing it the hard way or in an unproductive, inefficient manner. Telling employees my blundering stories sometimes helps them understand the means and the end.

You will have grueling days. Your employees will have days of blunder. There are times when it really does seem like there is some cosmic conspiracy keeping you from completing the work. Try to step out of this stress vortex and get perspective.

Give raises when you can. Even if it is 50 cents an hour. It is not the amount, it is the sentiment behind it. We have never had enough money coming in to pay people well, but I try to give my good employees some kind of raise at intervals. They will not consider a small raise an insult if they truly understand your situation.

Give employees responsibility. There was a time, early in my nursing management experience, that I mistakenly thought that most people would feel their worth in a position by how much money they made. I am sure there are still some who feel this way, but I have found over the years that most people achieve self-validation through responsibility and doing a job well. Give each of your employees an area of the routine tasks to oversee, with specific guidelines and expectations. Even part-timers can have specific areas of responsibility if it is something that only needs to be checked a few times a week, such as grading/sorting the salable plants in flats.

Deal with tension. If you are noticing tension or unease between employees, deal with it. Often it is a simple misunderstanding. If it is personality differences, then you may need to mediate a compromise that is suitable to both parties. One way to prevent disputes from the start is to have short, informal, Monday morning meetings to plan out the tasks for the coming week. If everyone has specific tasks and the anticipation of working as a team, then there is less room for disputes to occur. (By the way, having lists of tasks to cross off when done gives everyone a sense of accomplishment at the end of the week.) Sometimes, if the conflict is serious, there may be noth­ing you can do to remedy the situation.

Be as flexible as you can with schedules. There are always times when an employee needs a few hours off to go to a doctor’s appointment or run an important errand. I allow them to do whatever they need to do as long as the work is getting done. Most employees are very willing to make up the hours another time if it is necessary. Flexibility goes a long way to building loyalty.

If people come in sick, they need to go home and get well. You will not get productive work out of someone who is running to the bathroom every 15 minutes or has a nose, lungs and/or mouth oozing fluids. I have never thought it fair to expose other employees to whatever vile virus a sick employee is harboring. People still do not understand that rest and fluids really will get them better faster than working through it.

Most of what I have said is common sense, but I also know that dealing sensibly with employees is easier for some than others. Strive always to put yourself in their shoes and to truly understand their position. Only then is it a real team.

Payroll Liabilities and Taxes

This is one of those duties that can be hard or easy depend­ing on how you want to proceed. The thing is, it has to be done no matter how you decide to do it, even if you have only one part-time employee.

The first thing you will have to do is file with IRS for a busi­ness Employer Identification Number (EIN). You will need this before you pay one cent to any employee. This is how the IRS keeps track of you and your employees as long as your business exists. It will be on any and all forms you file whether you owe taxes or not.

It is the law that you take Social Security and Medicare taxes out of every check that goes to an employee. This is cal­culated by multiplying the total earnings by a percentage cur­rently assigned to each tax. When your employee gets the check, it will be minus whatever amount you have calculated.

If you only have a small number of employees, chances are you will only have to file your taxes on a quarterly tax report, but it must be accompanied by a check that has the amount of Social Security and Medicare taxes you have withheld from the paychecks, plus a matching amount contributed by your busi­ness. At the end of the year you file a summary report (W-3), which states how much you owed, how much you paid, and to whom this amount was attributed (which employee). You file a W-2 report, which is in quadruplicate so everyone gets a copy.

There is also the Federal Unemployment Tax. This you pay if you have a certain number of employees to whom you are paying a certain amount of wages in a certain period of time. The government has it all figured out and will take you for quite a ride trying to figure out if you are obligated to pay this outrageous tax, but it is the law.

Then there is Workers Compensation. As with the unem­ployment tax, the state workforce commission has a formula for figuring out if you are responsible for paying into this plan to ensure that injured workers are properly cared for. Of course, your business can take on the expense of injured work­ers in lieu of Workers Compensation, but it could get mighty expensive if it involves physical rehabilitation. It’s a gamble.

A good CPA (Certified Public Accountant) will be able to guide you through the process and help you understand how to make the numbers work for you.

There are many other payroll considerations such as overtime, health insurance, retirement and pension plans, sick pay, vacations, bonuses, etc. All have specific requirements attached to them regarding U.S. Treasury Law. All are covered in the Circular E (Employer’s Tax Guide) put out by IRS. This and any other publi­cation, guide or form is available to you by contacting IRS.

Since it is generally assumed that you will have a computer associated with your business, I recommend that you get a good business bookkeeping program that includes payroll. These programs will calculate payroll taxes for you if you fill in the tax rates, and will print out all manner of reports for you. Some will even print out the checks if you have the right printer and check blanks. When I started out, I was calculating everything by hand and it was pretty time consuming. With the payroll program we just type in the number of hours worked and the computer calculates every­thing else. Easy.

You could do all your own day-to-day bookkeeping, quar­terly taxes and such, but many business owners choose to work with a CPA (certified public accountant) at the end of the year to file the IRS paperwork. If you are not familiar with the different forms to fill out and how to apply the financial state­ments you have generated, then it would probably save you a lot of stress (and probably some money) if you have someone do it that knows the ropes.

If you do not feel comfortable doing the daily bookkeeping tasks then, if you can afford it, you might consider hiring a CPA your first year or two to assist you in setting up your books. If you do not know by now, your time is extremely valuable and it might be worth the extra money in the beginning to get the help, rather than spend hours and hours hammering it out by trial, error and blunder. In business bookkeeping, ignorance can cost you a bundle.

Source: Made From Scratch

Calculating Income and Business Projections for Your Farming Operation

By Louise Placek

We all know about the two inevitabilities of life: death and taxes. You become acutely aware of the “T” word when setting up a business. The IRS wants to know all about you and how much income you are generating, and the state comptroller wants to know if you are collecting sales taxes.

Whether or not you owe Federal taxes at the end of the year, you will need to get an Employer Identification Number (EIN) from IRS. You fill out a form (currently the W-9) and return it to IRS, they will then assign your business a permanent ID number. This number will be on all correspondence with the Department of the Treasury, Internal Revenue Service.

If you plan to sell anything retail, you also need to get a tax ID number from the state comptroller. You will be required to report retail income monthly, quarterly or annually (depending on your taxable sales) and pay the taxes you collect based on rates in the counties or cities in which you sold taxable, retail product. Please remember that the sales tax you collect is not yours. This money should be kept separate from other income so it can be paid promptly when it is due.

Calculating income
If you aren’t fully confident in your own knowledge, remember that there are people whose job it is to help guide you through the process.

Financing Your Business

Of all the start-up considerations that a business owner faces, financing is likely to be the most important one in terms of your survival the first few years. Unless you have years of experience, an established market, and the resources (includ­ing the human type) to begin production immediately and start selling within a few months, you might want to think hard about how you finance your business.

When I started my business, we had the cash to buy the greenhouse and supplies. Fortunately my husband Chris had a job to pay the bills until I figured out what I was going to do with this business. As it turned out, it took me several years of many costly mistakes and a negative cash flow to learn how to make organic horticulture work.

My point is that even if you have the cash to buy your start-up necessities, do you have the money to maintain the business until it can sustain itself? Horticulture is a costly business no matter what aspect of it you choose to be involved in and no matter the level of experi­ence with which you start. The old adage that it takes money to make money is never truer than in the plant growing indus­try. It may take you years to turn the cash flow from negative to positive.

This is not to discourage you. It is only to save you the grief of losing the business after several years because you did not foresee the financial burden created as the business is trying to get to a place where it supports itself.

Thinking through the financing of the business means allowing yourself the freedom to learn how to make the business work without going bank­rupt. Even if you pay cash for your initial investment of materi­als and structures, you still need to figure out how to finance the business in the time it takes to make it self-sufficient. Granted, this time will vary depend­ing on your experience, how steep your learning curve is, and how well your market supports the prod­uct. No matter how much time it takes, you need the financial safety net.

If you finance your business through a personal, bank or govern­ment loan, you will need to figure in operating capital. This is difficult because it is often based on speculation. At best you are guessing at costs and potential income. If you are wrong, you might need much more finan­cial support than originally thought. Lending institutions do not look fondly on businesses that come back for more money because of inaccurate projections.

Experience helps a lot in this area. If you don’t have the necessary experience, then go to people who do. Talk to as many horticulture business owners as you can to get the infor­mation you need. Some won’t want to share, but many will. Allow yourself time to take notes on what is generally required to start and/or maintain a business of this kind. If you do this work thoroughly now, you won’t have to keep rewriting your plan and plugging in the items that slipped your notice the first time around.

Once you have gathered as much information as you can, it is time to calculate projections. This means figuring your costs versus income on a monthly, quarterly or annual basis. One of the biggest considerations is the seasonality of this business. Your greatest costs (and income) will occur in spring and, to a lesser degree, fall.

If you plan well enough, you might be able to pro­duce something to sell in the summer and winter, but that depends on your market and where you reside. Here in Texas, nurseries do very little business in the middle of summer—it’s just too hot.

All over the country nurseries close down in the winter unless they are involved with Christmas selling or their climate is so mild they can do business year-round. Your pro­jections must reflect seasonal variables in order to be accurate.

Don’t take it personally if, in the end, your income projections are a wee bit lofty.

List of Considerations for Business Projections


In order to determine your income you must know what it costs you to produce your product. When you know this, you can figure what you will charge your retail and/or wholesale customers. Then you have to realistically calcu­late how much product you will be able to generate in a year, given your resources. When you know this, you can estimate your potential income with the assumption that you will sell what you produce. The only advice I can offer here is to try to be as pragmatic as possible. It is rare that a horticulture busi­ness sells everything it produces, but this may have more to do with the whims of the nursery business than with the quality of your product.

Production Costs/Cost of Goods Sold

Note: This is the calculation of how much it costs you to pro­duce each unit (6-pack, 4-inch, 6-inch, quart, gallon, hanging basket, etc.) so you truly know how much to charge your cus­tomers in order to make a profit. It is imperative to know this so your bottom line is not a surprise at the end of the year.

Soil. Whether you buy pre-mixed soil or make your own with individual components, you must calculate the cost of soil per unit. In other words, how much does the soil cost you per each container (6-pack, 4-inch, 6-inch, gallon, etc.).

Containers. You need to know the cost of each container (6-pack, 4-inch, 6-inch, gallon, etc.) in order to know (along with the cost of soil) what each unit costs you to produce.

Labels. Calculate the cost of each label and apply it to each unit to be produced for sale.

Seed. If you plan to grow any plants from seed you must assess a value and apply it to the overall cost. At best it is esti­mation because there is no way to calculate the cost of indi­vidual seeds unless they are big and pricey.

Plant Material. If you plan to buy starter plants (plugs, rooted cuttings, stock plants, etc.) this outlay needs to be added to the cost you calculate for plant production. These starter plants may be convenient, but they will drive up your costs.

Plant Losses. You will have plant losses. If you are just starting out you might want to plug in a generous allowance (say 20-30 percent). Plants can be lost to lack of experience, insects, disease and acts of God (try a hail storm). Your losses may be more or less than average, but it is better, when doing cost projections, to err on the side of higher projections. Then, if you do better than you projected, you will have a more accu­rate percentage to work with the next year.

Ancillary Costs. This can be anything from holiday nurs­ery pics and pot covers to container sleeves. Anything you plan to send out with your plants, even if it is seasonal, should be counted here.


Note: These are ongoing expenses (monthly, quarterly or annual) not one-time expenses.

Business projections
You can decide either on an annual bud­get amount that is pro-rated monthly, or a variable expense that fluctuates with the time of the year or season.

Utilities. You must estimate electricity, water, heating fuel (propane, natural gas, etc.) based on average expected cost dur­ing different times of the year. For instance, in Texas heating fuel will likely only be used three or four months out of the year unless you have a water heater in addition to a heating unit. Electricity will, on average, be higher during warmer months if you have exhaust fans or a water wall in your green­house. Water will be two to three times higher during the warmer months, not only because of increased evaporation, but you will likely have the most plants during the warmer months and therefore be watering more.

License/Permit Fees. Any fees you pay your state depart­ment of agriculture (or health department) for your nursery/ floral, market, food handling, or organic certification.

Office Expenses. Any ongoing expense related to operating your business from your office. Postage, paper, pens, paper­clips, business telephone, long distance business charges, Internet services, business equipment rental, etc. In this cate­gory you also want to budget notebooks and clipboards for record keeping in the production area, and marking pens for writing on pot tags.

Advertising. This covers expected costs of business cards, fliers, publication ads, help-wanted ads, etc.

Dues and Subscriptions. Annual membership dues and fees for industry-related organizations or publications.

Professional Development. Anticipated budget for indus­try-related conferences, trade shows or other educational opportunities to further your knowledge of the business.

Insurance. Anticipated cost of insurance related to busi­ness liability, health, automobile, trailer or workman’s comp.

Vehicle. Budget amount set aside to pay for repairs, main­tenance and fuel for your business vehicle(s). You might want to budget a monthly allowance that reflects higher usage at certain times of the year.

Sales Tax. If you plan to do any retail sales, you will have to estimate how much you will be selling in “non-food” plants. Texas, for example, has a very narrow definition of food plants, so you will have to check the laws in your region. In many places, herbs in pots are taxable.

Bank Fees. Any service charges or check printing costs applied to your business account by the bank.

Interest Expenses. This is your estimated budget on any business related interest (loans, vehicle payments, credit cards) you will owe during the projected time frame. Generally you can get this information from your loan amortization schedule.

Loan Principal. This is the estimated budget for principal costs associated with loans related to the business. Again, you can get this information from your amortization schedule.

Auxiliary Production Materials. This will include fertiliz­ers, pesticides, or other pest control costs such as beneficial insects, sticky traps, pheromone traps, etc.

Employee Expenses. You will need to estimate your pay­roll expenses, which includes Social Security and Medicare taxes. These expenses will fluctuate a great deal as you add and subtract employee hours from peak production times like spring and fall to slower times like mid-summer and winter.

Professional Fees. For a business this will usually be service by a CPA. It could also be for attorneys or business consultants if you foresee using either during the projected period.

Market/Stall/Booth Fees. If you plan to do retail sales at plant shows, flea markets, farmers markets, etc., you will need to estimate your expenses for booth/stall rental and associated fees (electricity, water, chairs, tables).

Building Rental. This is any expense for rental of a struc­ture necessary to the business such as a retail shop, storage building or office space.

Travel Expenses. Business-related overnight lodging and meal expenses for conferences, trade shows, plant shows, obtaining supplies, etc. If you know ahead of time what out-of-town excursions you will be taking, it should be relatively easy to budget these expenses.

Tools/Equipment. Budget an amount that covers any of the anticipated supplies in this area that would be necessary for production. These might include garden tools, pruners, trowels, pumps, sprayers, carts, hand trucks, hoses, cut-off valves, hose-end sprayers, etc.

Miscellaneous Supplies. This category might include things like dish soap, hand soap, bleach (for disinfection), mops, towels, scrub brushes, brooms, trash containers, plastic tubs or anything that you can think of that will be used regu­larly in the work area.

Owner Pay. If you plan to give yourself an income from the business, then put this in the budget. If there is not enough projected income to allow for your salary, then you had better have another way to pay your personal bills because they should not come out of the business income.

bottom line

The spreadsheet provided is a mock projection sheet for a fictitious business to give you an idea of how to plan and implement one for your own business. This exercise is the most important one you can do to determine if you are indeed ready to take on the responsibility of a business. Simply plug in your own items and numbers, and do the math.

business spreadhseet
spread sheet
The numbers tell the truth about the viability of this busi­ness.

It might be helpful to use a computer program that assists you in putting these projections on a spreadsheet. Many business programs will help you see into the future by projecting cost/expense versus income over a three- to five-year period.

You could, of course, do this by hand with a calculator and a grid sheet, but what a brain strain. Again, it depends on your resources. If you have lots of time and no computer, the choice is obvious. Either way, it must be done in order to have a realistic idea of what you are facing in the birth and growth of your business.

If you are financing your business with a loan, you should be armed with reasonable expectations of what your business is capable of doing in a three- to five-year period. This is impor­tant to the lending institution because they want to know how the heck you are going to repay their loan.

Most won’t lend money on projections alone. This is where it gets sticky. You may have to prove that you have income outside the business that will support loan payments until the business is able to sustain that financial burden on its own. No doubt you also will have to have some pretty fancy collateral. Horticultural businesses are notorious for being bad risks to moneylenders. A failed nursery business isn’t worth much in the open market and broken down into pieces is worth even less.

Again, I am not trying to dissuade you. I am just trying to help you see the challenges you face if you choose one path over the other. Any way you go, breaking down your costs is a very healthy exercise and reality check. Unfortunately people who get into the plant business are generally not number-oriented folks, but it really is an important step in implementing your plan.

I think it is a good idea to educate yourself on building and maintaining a small business by reading books on the subject or attending workshops or classes (many are held by IRS, the SBA, and local business associations). Some community colleges offer evening classes by local business people on small business management, but many offered by government or small businesses associations are free.

The more you learn ahead of time about profit and loss statements (P&Ls), a chart of accounts (breaking down income and expenses into meaningful categories), and creating financial statements, the better vision you will have for the future of your business.

Source: Made From Scratch

Operating A Subscription System Farm or CSA

By Bob and Bonnie Gregson

Everything evolves. Your notions about what you want to grow, how to lay out the farm, and how you like to sell may change substantially over time. It is painful to think of the numerous “permanent” fencing changes we’ve made, for example, and even the “permanent” raised bed structures achieved with so much hand digging that have been levelled later. Likewise, the poor blueberries are in their third “permanent” home in as many years. They are set back with every move; so are our blueberry pancakes.

There is an issue at the other end of the “permanence” spectrum, and that concerns trees. They aren’t so moveable after several years; you must make some genuine long-term orchard/plantation plans early on, before you are probably ready, or you will seriously delay arrival of the fruits of those trees. Read one of Bill Mollison’s “Permaculture” books before making those decisions.

Trees aren’t easily moved after a few years, so be sure to have a long-term plan for your orchard!

Let us assume you have been through the start-up activity and have two or more years of experience selling at a farmer’s market. You will have some idea of how you do things, what you do best, what seems to grow best, and, in general, if you want to be serious about making a living on a small farm. If you have decided that this life is for you, then the next step is to develop your own medium-term farm plan.

The Basic Subscription Start-Up Questions

How many subscribers should we attempt the first year?

That varies by individual preference, experience and confidence. We know one two-person, part-time operation that started with only six customers; another took forty. Both survived and both expanded. We also know of failures, where the advance payments had to be refunded in mid-season because the farmer could not handle the demands of the business.

We believe twelve to twenty is a good starting point for those with minimal experience.

Should I begin with fewer customers than I really think I can grow for?

Sure. You can sell surpluses at your farmer’s market or at a farmstand on site. The issue usually is not how much you can grow, it is growing balanced amounts of a wide variety of crops to interestingly fill each bag each week.

What are the main problems the grower encounters with this system?

Growing so many different things for a prolonged period of time . . . which requires such good planning and timely execution . . . is both a curse and a blessing to the grower. The biggest complaint we hear about our system, or those of other subscription farms, is that there is too much of one thing for too long a time.

bunches of radishes
One customer claims that his farmer provided six bunches of radishes, and very little else, for three weeks in a row at the beginning of the season! Needless to say, that relationship did not endure.

We try to delay start of the weekly pickups into mid-May — even though the pressure mounts to get going earlier — to have an assured supply of diverse items. In fact, we use some items from the previous year, like nuts and dried beans, plus potted vegetables or herbs or flowers for customers to plant at home, to add variety in the early weeks of the season.

The other main problem from the grower’s perspective is that this is a season-long commitment. It is a good idea to schedule a one-week hiatus during the middle of the summer. That is OK from the customers’ perspective and a nice break for the farmers.

What is the best way to advertise for customers?

Word of mouth is the very best. Our first customers were friends or friends of friends, and only a few of the first twenty came from the various newspaper ads we ran. Tell your friends what you are about; prepare a good brochure and give copies to those friends; take copies to the farmer’s market and hand them to customers you have gotten to know a bit. The local newspapers and other media may be interested in publicizing your program if it is somewhat novel in the area. Develop a good logo early on and use it on a farm sign; visual advertising will reinforce your brochure and your own sense of professionalism.

Should the farmer deliver produce directly, or deliver to pickup points, or have people come to the farm every week?

In most cases, it is simplest for the farmer to have customers come to the farm. That way they can get to know the farmer and farm premises better, may want to purchase additional items if they see them for sale, and it saves the time and trouble of loading/delivering. There is an implication herein that the farm is neat, attractively maintained, is easily accessible along decent roads, has parking and a place to properly store the full produce bags or boxes on pickup day.

Some farmers prefer drop-off points at houses or businesses in town, where, in exchange for a share of free weekly produce, the residents will provide secure storage and availability so the other customers can pick up their bags or boxes without travelling out to the farm.

vegetables for delivery
Another option is for the farmer to deliver direct to each customer each week, for an extra charge.

Many of the larger operations have one or more coordinators who set up an entire pickup system, collect the money, and recruit new members. The coordinators would, of course, be remunerated for their services. That reportedly works for many farmers. We prefer not to do it that way because it gets back to the idea, however benign in this situation, of a middleman between the grower and the eater. It is also an extra cost to the farmer.

How much should we charge for a subscription?

This may be the biggest question of them all. And it has the most varied answers.

What is so dicey about the whole issue is that no one knows in advance exactly what will go out each week, and therefore what the value in wholesale or retail terms may be for the season. And every CSA/subscription farm sends out decidedly different quantities, different produce, and often prepares and packs it quite differently.

Some develop an annual farm budget

Allocate proportionate amounts of costs and gross income to the subscription program, and then divide that portion by the number of subscribers. Example: If the farmer determines from a well-prepared budget that serving 50 subscribers for 20 weeks requires $20,000 gross from the subscription portion to meet farm financial objectives, each subscription would cost $400.

Some go by total poundage

They plan to provide a certain number of pounds of produce per week to each customer. That seems a strange approach since a pound of salad mix is so much more valuable and time-consuming to prepare than a pound of winter squash, for example.

Our choice was to target the retail grocery store value of what seemed would be a typical bag we could fill in mid-season, then back off from that to give the subscriber some saving versus shopping at the local grocery store. That came out to about $15 per week the first year; we have increased prices about 4% each year based on higher costs of farm inputs, especially seeds and chicken feed. We realize, and mention to our subscribers, that the early season bags will contain less value, but we’ll make up for those later in the year.

With our system, we have a target value to achieve each week. That simplifies things a bit. We keep an eye on grocery store organic produce prices, and then fill the sacks to reach our desired value each week, adjusting for past underages as necessary.

man with bags
Our experience suggested it is far easier to obtain, store and handle used grocery bags than it is to work with more bulky boxes.

Notice we use bags. Most use boxes. We feel it is essential to keep most vine-ripened vegetables and fruits in cold storage until in the hands of the consumer, so cold storage space becomes critical. Our old beverage cooler makes a nice cold storage unit for customer pickup, but it will handle only a few boxes versus a maximum of 36 full grocery bags.

As a general rule for establishing seasonal pricing, look at what others are charging in your area. The least we know about, anywhere, is around $12 per week, and the most is around $25. Again, there is no consistency among weekly outputs of any of these, so it is impossible to directly compare them.

“I started out at a very low subscription price because I was new and didn’t know if this whole thing would work… now I realize I gave them about twice what they paid for, and for this next season must either cut way back on what they are used to getting, or substantially raise prices to make ends meet, but am very afraid I’ll alienate my existing customers.” This is a nearly verbatim comment from various new farmers we know or know about. Beware. Be scrupulously fair to everyone, including self, from the beginning.

How does the subscription program affect a typical farm weekly schedule?

There’s nothing unique about scheduling in this system. Any marketing method requires similar amounts of work and routine, including deadlines.

We have always spread the customer pickups/deliveries over two nonadjacent days. Thus if 18 are scheduled to get their sacks at 3 p.m. Wednesday, and 17 on Friday, we follow this routine:

  • Monday a.m.: Pick and wash 20 pounds of salad mix.
  • Tuesday a.m.: Same as Monday.
  • Wednesday: Pick and pack all other items for 18 subscribers, in the bags by 3 p.m.
  • Thursday: Pick salad mix for weekend sales.
  • Friday: Same as Wednesday.

That is the part that directly relates to subscriptions. In addition, we consider and harvest for farmstand and grocery store sales.

We pick salad again later in the week as needed for sale at the farmstand, and do the same with other produce as it ripens. Everything is picked fully vine-ripened and ready to eat to insure best flavor and highest quality for the farmstand. Grocery stores, on the other hand, want produce that is not yet ripe so it can last longer on the shelf and withstand more handling.

The rest of our schedule is quite variable. It depends on the time of the season and relates to all of the rest of the weeding, seeding, transplanting, watering, etc. Nothing unusual there.

A confession: everyone assumes farmers start work at the crack of dawn. Most farmers apparently do, and relish those early hours. Well . . . we don’t arise until after a half hour of classical music and the 7 a.m. news on the radio, including those always-gratifying traffic reports. Our systems simply work more happily with that routine. We do work until dark. And it is a seven day week, with Sunday being a more casual time of doing odd jobs and lesser things, including what we sometimes refer to as “recreational weeding” — weeding an area that is not crucial but will make us feel better when it looks better.

farmer planting seedlings
There is hope for even the early-morning-impaired.

How many people will one subscription share feed each week?

That is an utterly unanswerable question, though most CSA brochures include some comment about one share being enough for three people for a week, or whatever.

Bob’s 21-year-old son could probably consume one of our bags in two sittings. Alternately, some families of four might dabble at this assortment for a week. For reference, a typical 1995 July bag contained one-half pound of gourmet salad mix, one-half dozen eggs, a huge sweet onion, four or five small summer squash, several kohlrabi, four globe artichokes, a head of lettuce, a big bunch of New Zealand Spinach, and a pint of sweet cherries.

Other CSA farms often concentrate more on bulk and do less prep work — everything we put in the bag is clean and ready to eat, looking just like it came from a grocery store. Some farmers pick directly into the customers’ boxes, dirt and all. Their weekly fare might include several pounds of potatoes, several pounds of beets, several pounds of carrots, heads of lettuce, chard, and so on, perhaps up to 20 or more pounds. That might indeed provide plenty of certain kinds of vegetables to feed a four person family for a week.

Fortunately for all of us, there is no single answer. Some folks prefer lots of pounds of unprepped vegetables, and others prefer a broader mix of prepared foods. There is a huge market for each of those styles plus many more!

Is a weekly newsletter important to the CSA customer/subscriber?

Indeed it is. Our customers have said many times that they like to know what’s going on at the farm and with the farmers, and they especially like to have recipes for what’s in the bag.

Bonnie collects recipes all winter, so we have a repertoire ready to print as different items ripen. It usually requires 30 minutes to prepare the night before customer pickup day.

physical paper
Some farmers consider a newsletter an insignificant, unpleasant chore; we think of it as an important, integral part of our farm program.

Is it important to keep good records, and is a computer essential?

It is definitely important to keep good records. It goes without saying that customer payment schedules and records must be precise; other things like planting dates, harvest dates, quantities planted and picked, and costs are very valuable for future planning.

Perhaps less obvious, but equally important, is that keeping good records constantly reminds us that this farm is our job, not a hobby. It enhances the professionalism needed to be successful.

As for computers . . . we’ve kept financial records both by hand and on the computer. It seems like the computer takes more time and effort in the long run, even for very detailed records, unless using the computer is second nature.

The concepts associated with the Dominguez/Robin book Your Money or Your Life have been extremely important to us in this overall issue of records and tracking expenses. Anyone wanting a simpler, more basic and meaningful lifestyle will find immense value in this book. It has greatly aided us in reaching a debt-free farm situation, plus a savings program that is working.

When should subscribers pay?

There are once again many approaches to this. We want the bookkeeping essentially out of the way before the rush of the season overtakes us; our subscribers pay a deposit in December, then equal installments by the first of April, May and June.

Our subscribers pay a deposit in December, then equal installments by the first of April, May and June.

What subscriber turnover rate should be expected?

Some farms report up to 60% turnover per year. Our experience has been in the 10-30% range. One must watch this closely and use year-end anonymous evaluation forms to determine what is causing turnover. There are plenty of reasons over which the farmer has no influence (moving, finally started own garden, etc.) but dissatisfactions must be discovered and addressed if one is to maintain a successful enterprise.

We realize this system is not for everyone and some will drop out every year. But most subscription farms have nice waiting lists filled out by the end of each season.

Source: Rebirth of the Small Family Farm