Saturday, January 12, 2008

Making Your Small Farm Profitable :: Chapter 2 Book Report

Boy, I really have some catching up to do. I'm actually way past chapter two right now, but I think it was worth it to take a break from my normal blogging drivel to have a great interview like we just had with Kelli of Sugar Creek Farm. But, I actually do have some thoughts on the second chapter of Ron Macher's book, "Making Your Small Farm Profitable." Overall it was a pretty interesting chapter that threw out some good basic information to consider when you are starting a farm.

It doesn't matter if you come from a farming background or have never lived on a working farm in your life, if you are going to farm you need to attack it with a plan. Just as it is with any business you can't just run out and start doing things without having an idea of your needs, skills, and goals. Much of this chapter deals with the evaluation of your resources. In the case of a farm resources means: capital, skills, labor, land, soils, water, location, climate, and equipment. I won't take time to discuss each one of those resources, but I will hit on a few that were especially interesting.

Of course when it comes to beginning a farm you need a certain amount of capital and skills, but you can be creative with those. Yes you need money to buy land, equipment, and livestock and it is important to have some skills (but you can learn as you go if you go slow enough) ... but, I thought Mr. Macher had some good things to say about the resource of labor. First of all, I believe it is important to realize that your labor is a resource. Mr. Macher wrote about thinking of labor in the terms of not just yourself, but also in the terms of your family. I believe one component of having a successful small scale farm, especially a full-time farm, is that it includes the entire family in the fun, livestock, and the work! If the family is going to be included in the labor "resource" than it is important that the whole family is on the same page. Also, in this section there was a very interesting table that gave average times of labor needed for different livestock and crops. The table comes from the University of Missouri and gives information such as: it takes 14.8 hours of labor per acre of alfalfa hay, 40 hours of labor for 100 laying hens, or 40 hours of labor for 1 sow producing 2 litters/year and to finish those hogs. I'm sure the numbers don't reflect everyone's experience, but it was interesting to see some averages. Looking at things like this will help you plan you labor and see what you are able to do.

Another resource that was interesting to read about was soil. I believe soil is something that the beginning farmer easily overlooks. Not that soil would be an end all of my land purchase, but that we need to be looking at our soil and seeing what it is all about and what it needs. In raising pastured animals you soil is really one of your most important ingredients. You need to the know the condition of your soils and the natural fertility that your soil has. If you stick with me through each one of my chapter reports I'll talk a little more about soil when I report on chapter four of this book.

The last resource that I want to touch on from this chapter is equipment. Not so much because it had a lot of new information, but rather because it brings back to the surface one of the main keys to sustainable family farming ... it is important that you don't look at equipment as your only tool. In fact what we need to be doing is thinking about how we can replace pieces of equipment with animals or use smaller more efficient equipment to do our jobs. Things like rotating crops in order to build soil quality, using animals to harvest our pastures so we don't have to make and feed hay all of the time, or use ponds as water sources for our livestock (I do agree with others that it is best to keep the animals out of the pond, but bring the pond water to them). Also, when you assess your resources don't forget that equipment includes more than just your machinery, but also things like your fence and buildings.

So far so good with this book. I think it will be a good addition to my farming library and will give me plenty to think about as we do our farm work and plan for the future.


Kramer said...

I too enjoyed this book. As far as including your family on the farm, this is a major part. There have been times that people criticize Joel Salatin because he basically fell into his land and operation but I feel this is an unfair attack. If you look at Polyface Farm, you will see a multi-generational farm from grandfather, down to great grand kids. This is amazing in todays farming terms. Joel is very good at what he does because of the people that surround him. He has several other people on his farm that are just as capable of performing tasks and making decisions as if he himself were doing it. That is key to any business. People that are just starting out should quit criticizing Joel Salatin for what he "fell" into but instead look at what Polyface Farm started as and see how their operation, however big or small, could blossom into if you implement all the right plans and action.

Soil should be top on your list of any land purchase if you are wanting to make any money on your farm, whether you are doing crops, livestock, or hay operations. This is especially vital if you are starting off with little or no capital. Face it, just as some people are born more athletic and smarter than others, land is blessed with more natural goodness than others. Without good soil, you just have dirt. Especially in terms of livestock, your mindset should be build great soils that produce great grasses. Once you have that part down, you can put whatever you want on pasture and it will thrive. Buying a place with poor soil can set you back many years and several thousands of dollars just in soil improvements. I know this because unfortunately that is what happened to us. However, we do plan to have an open farm to our customers so location and visual appeal help in that area. That we do have. I just wish we could have met somewhere in the middle. As I have said before, there is no way I will purchase another piece of property without first obtaining a soil and forage sample. Just personal opinion.

Ethan Book said...

Thanks for the great thoughts on soil quality. It is something that is going to be on the top of my mind for a while.

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