Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Making Your Small Farm Profitable :: Chapter 8 Book Report

I haven't exactly been flying through this book by Ron Macher, but it isn't because of lack of interest! Chapter eight is a real nuts and bolts kind of chapter about choosing what exactly you are going to do on your farm. Of course this is something that many people have already considered to an extent, but Mr. Macher brings out quite a few ideas in this chapter. In fact he touches on at least 26 different ideas and gives a few thoughts on each one. They range from the basics like cattle to more unique ideas that will require special marketing, such as vermiculture (worms). The chapter opens with a series of questions (and explanations of those questions) to think about when you are choosing your various enterprises. Then goes into the section on the different possibilities (including some basic cost/profit comparisons, and finally touches on a couple of things that get debated and discussed on here all of the time ... Diversity and Sustainability.

The questions at the beginning of the chapter were great reminders of exactly how much needs to be considered when you are starting out from scratch. You need to think about things like marketing, water, soil, liability, machinery, labor, pricing, and if there is even room or a need for what you want to do in the marketplace. I think this is important stuff for the beginning farmer to remember and have drilled into their head, but it is equally as important for a farmer who is transitioning to something different or to direct marketing. Some of it seems basic, but I think until you take the time to really research and answer most of the questions Mr. Macher brings up you would be wise to slow down. Something about lacking to plan, planning to fail, or measure twice ... cut once comes to mind! I guess I'm trying to say that it is very important that you know what you are getting into and what it will need to look like. Having all of these questions in one place may be worth the price of the book in and of themselves...

After the section with all of the questions Mr. Macher moves on to suggesting some farming ideas. While I do have a pretty clear picture of what we would like to add to the farm and how we desire to build what we already have, because of my passions and the market that surrounds us, I did find a couple of the ideas interesting and possible candidates for spot on our diversified farm. One of those things was vermiculture. I don't see becoming a "worm rancher" a centerpiece of the farm, but I do think there are possibilities if you are doing on farm sales of meat or other products to also produce composting kits (as was mentioned in the book) or worm castings as fertilizer. My wife and I had the chance last summer to check out a couple who produce (well the worms produce) worm castings. There is not a lot of overhead to get started, and there is a growing market if you are wiling to build it. Just something we may think about.

One other venture that caught my eye, and that had been on my mind, was traditional grains. Not in the sense of large scale conventional row crops, but rather I'm thinking about open pollinated corns or cereal grains for grinding. I have not do a lot of research into the possible markets for these things, but it is something that I plan to look into. If nothing else I would like to raise both open pollinated corn and cereal grains for our farm and family use.

While a Joel Salatin book may give you a good combination of "how to", "passionate encouragement", and a "farming worldview" I think "Making Your Small Farm Profitable" by Mr. Macher is a must read for any beginning or growing farmers such as myself. Just three chapters left...

8 comments:

Mellifera said...

I've given a lot of thought to heritage variety/organic grains as well. Grains seems like a weird idea on a smaller farm, but there's really no reason why not- you'll need smaller equipment, but there happens to be a thriving Amish trade in exactly that sort of machinery. (And no, it's not all horse-drawn. Or at least it converts easily enough.)

I figure, there are all sorts of artisan bakeries popping up, and they'd probably love local heritage-variety grain. And the odds of other people in the area growing are fairly slim.

Yeoman said...

"One other venture that caught my eye, and that had been on my mind, was traditional grains."

I'd never really heard of doing this, except at a local historical site that grows a heritage garden to show what was grown at the time the site recalls, but all of a sudden I'm hearing this, and a bunch of vaguely related things going on. It's curious.

To start with, the other day the Food Channel had its popular Iron Chef show using Elk as the food item. One of the cooks used heritage grains in one of the dishes, which was an interesting approach. More interesting yet that Elk was used (which is very good) and that a cook would even know what to do with heritage grains.

Next, although not really on this point, yesterday, on NPR, there was a lengthy discussion of Louisiana shrimp. I had no idea, but apparently Louisiana shrimp are facing the problems faced by the importation of Vietnamese farm shrimp. The shrimpers are trying to save their industry which includes marketing their product as Louisiana Wild Shrimp. The interviewer did a really good job, noting the problems we cattlemen have had with foreign importation. Apparently the marketing campaign is having some success, but perhaps more significantly, a shrimper who is direct marketing reports doing very well.

Odd to note that. In the old days, all seafood was direct marketed. I guess I never thought much about how it was done now.

Ethan Book said...

Mellifera and Yeoman -

Like I said small grains and such have been on my mind a lot lately. Small pull combines, disks, harrows, and the kind of stuff you need for doing grain on a small scale is fairly easy to come by in Iowa ... especially in our Amish area!

I was thinking along the lines of oats or wheat either ground into flour or as whole wheat berries. I am running into a growing number of people who like to grind their own wheat flour but they have to buy their wheat from out of state. I had the similar thoughts when it came to corn ... maybe corn meal!

Value-added agricultural at its finest ... maybe?

Anonymous said...

I think the recent heritage wheat interest is due to the Slow Food Movement in Canada. In the 1990's, organic farmers started growing 'Red Fife' wheat, which is one of the landrace varieties of wheat and the foundation of the modern wheat varieties grown in Canada. These heritage varieties are more suited to artesian types of breads, sourdough, etc. and less suited to modern milling and baking methods.

Landrace varieties are interesting stuff, they have a genetic diversity that allows them to "adapt" to local growing conditions. As an example, 'Red Fife' is usually grown as a spring wheat, but it can be planted as a winter wheat and it has the genetic diversity to compensate.

It seems like most of the heritage wheat is being grown in Canada. I haven't been able to determine what varieties of heritage wheat are available in the U.S., or what sort of market is available, but the idea of growing heritage wheats is definitely interesting.

Ethan Book said...

anonymous - Thanks for the information. I am interested in finding out more about heritage varieties available now that you have brought it up. In fact my post tomorrow will deal a little bit more with my small grain thoughts and ask a few more questions. I would love your input if you have any!

Rich said...

I did a little looking online and found some information about heritage wheat in the U.S,

http://www.ruralvermont.org/archives/003348.html

Most of the heritage wheat varieties were soft spring wheat. In my area, hard red winter wheat is usually grown for grazing and grain, and all I know about spring wheat is it is usually grown farther north and it has a higher yield than winter wheat.

With the right fertility, spring wheat could easily yield in the 50+ bu range, so a small field of organic wheat could be profitable if a market could be found. Finding an initial source of seed might be the hard part, but then it would be a simple matter of saving your own seed so it would "adapt" to your location. I personally think it would be an interesting process to "create" your own variety of wheat.

Mellifera said...

Oats has pretty good potential as a value-added grain crop since there are so many different ways to mill it. Normal stone-ground, whole, steel-cut, etc etc.

Also cornmeal, especially if you grow it in different colors like red and blue. Then people/restaurants can make red or blue cornbread, red or blue corn chips... You could probably build an entire farm around weird colors for perfectly normal things like eggs and corn. : )

This one's not technically a grain, but have you ever heard of huitlacoche (corn smut)? You'd have to find a hard-core Mexican or other exotic food restaurant, or a Spanish grocery store to sell to, but apparently it's a pre-Columbian Mexican delicacy. It seems like another one of those things where you'd easily be the only guy growing it.

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