Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Making Your Small Farm Profitable :: Chapter 11 Book Report

Well, I have finally made it through the last chapter of Ron Macher's book, "Making Your Small Farm Profitable". It has taken me a little longer than I had hoped, but not because it wasn't an interesting read. This chapter is titled, "Where Are We Going" and it gives a brief history of agriculture (according to Mr. Macher) followed by his thoughts on the direction of farming in the United States today in and in the future. This is the kind of stuff that really interests me and I would love to takes some time in the future and read more on the history of agricultural from a practical and cultural standpoint.

Basically, Mr. Macher writes that in the beginning of U.S. agriculture we would use the land until it didn't produce any more and then we would just move and start over. Of course in the 1930's the problems with this method showed their ugly face and people become more concerned about soil conservation and land in general. After WWII people began wanting a "taste" of the country life so they started moving from the cities to slightly more rural areas and businesses and industries followed them. According to Mr. Macher (don't know where the stat comes from) we lose 2 of farm land to development ever minute.

With the industrialization of farming post WWII we began to see that fewer and fewer farms were producing more and more of our food. With that increase those farmers began to specialize and focus their efforts on one type of livestock or crop. Of course this spread everything out so much that almost all of the food had to be shipped a great distance to get to the consumers ... this wasn't a big deal at the time because transportation was cheap.

Of course you had John Deere, the plow, "fencerow to fencerow", bigger is better, and then the farm crisis. In the 1980's there were farms lost, lives taken, and marriages and families broken apart because of the get bigger mindset (and the willingness of the land bank to give money out so freely). Those that survived either barely did or got bigger in the process because they were able to buy up what was suddenly available. It kind of sounds like a bleak picture ... but, Mr. Macher points out some good news. The number of small farms (178 acres and down) is growing and with that the opportunity of small farmers to diversify and make a living.

That is some interesting stuff, and like I said is a book in and of itself that I would like to read. But, he closed with four last points for a beginning farmer (or one that wants to change). I'll leave you with those points:
  • Experiment - Start farming wherever you can (unless you live in my town, then don't have chickens in your backyard). Grow a garden, set aside a small piece of land to do something different, or at least start planning. Just get doing!
  • Rent Land - In some ways I think this is becoming more difficult with the current high grain prices than it was 10-15 years ago when many of these "you can farm" books were written. But, it is still a god staring place and it is important to remember that you can rent a pretty small piece of land (even in town) to get started with a market garden.
  • Lean As You Grow - You don't have to have everything or do everything right away. In fact you probably wouldn't be able to handle it just like I am not going to be able to handle it all at once. But, take is slow and as you learn and experience more then you can grow.
  • Always Watch Your Bottom Line - Bigger isn't better, sometimes you can do more with less or if you can't do much with a little then you probably can't do any better with more! It is easy to treat farming as as "hobby" if you are just getting started and have a town job that is supporting your family and beginning farming. Don't do that! Make sur the farm is working for itself no matter how big it is (this could be as simple as cutting your grocery expenses).

19 comments:

Yeoman said...

"After WWII people began wanting a "taste" of the country life so they started moving from the cities to slightly more rural areas and businesses and industries followed them."


That phenomenon actually existed before WWII, but the big change in it came about with the enormous change in transportation that era saw.

It's odd to think of it now, and most Americans hardly realize it, but the motor vehicle was much more limited in utility up until about WWII. Cars came in strong after World War One, but roads were primitive. It was not realistically possible to take a long trip with a car, and those who tried it were viewed as adventurers. Roads dramatically improved in the 20s and 30s, but a 150 mile trip with a car was still a bit of an ordeal. For the most part, any long distance transportation was done by train. For that reason, "pleasure farms" were the domains of the rich, not the average.

Huge postwar improvements in roads changed that.

To add to it, while it's almost shocking now, farms were strongly regarded as places to escape from, by lots of Americans, up in to the 1950s. Young people hoped to leave the farm, not stay on it. There's a lot of reasons for that, but a false sense of "progress" and "quality of life" associated with the cities had a lot to do with that. Even now, a lot of rural families, if they've never lived off of a farm/ranch will encourage their kids to leave, under a completely false idea of what urban life, and work, is like.

Dave_Flora said...

Yeoman- that's "industrial progress" at work for you. I live in Eastern Kentucky near a university where I've heard the Chair of a department lament at how many promising boys and girls won't leave their homes to get "good jobs". I realized not long ago, that those young people were simply valuing their relationships more than their economy, which makes much more sense than driving off to a suburb to live in isolation.
The reason for a large prejudice against rural life is that so many of the benefits aren't easily measureable or quantifiable. It's one of the reasons we have the words "house" and "home". You can buy a "house" with money, but you can't measure or purchase a "home" (which is probably the reason "homes" aren't easy to find!).
Industrialization has failed with farming for the same reason that physics or chemistry don't work to produce healthy family relationships. That's why I tend to agree with a statement in Gene Logsdon's "At Nature's Pace": "Farming is an art, rather than a science."

Yeoman said...

Dave, very interesting.

As folks here already know, I live in Central Wyoming. We here have an extremely odd relationship with economics and employment, of which such thoughts are just one such example.

I hear some of the same things you do in smaller communities, and particularly do if I am near Nebraska. I also hear it from long time agricultural families. The present generation of farmers and ranchers often puts an enormous emphasis on eduction for their kids, and the goal often seem to be to provide them with a "good job". The problem is that they don't really know what a a "good job" is. Often, the product of that education is training for a job that doesn't exist here. Or its for a professional job in one of our several mid sized cities. Those of us from an ag background who occupy those jobs are always sort of lost, as our agricultural fellows feel we have a "good job", and never let us forget it. We in turn often wish we didn't have the "good job." Some ultimately wonder back out of their "good jobs", some are just bitter, and some try to split their time (or have to) between what they'd like to do and the "good job." Often there's no choice but to do that, because of economics, but if the job's a professional one, everyone will tend to view the agricultural job as sort of a weird hobby.

"Good job", in this sense, tends to equate with "good wages". But that just assumes money is goodness, a pretty flawed concept.

It's worse, I believe, in the true farm states, where there can be a lot of pressure on kids to get a "good job." I myself have heard a ranch wife (poor term, I confess), complain that her eldest child had no ambition, as he "only wants to be a rancher." Odd complaint, but genuinely held.

Even in my own case I've found that family members are quite reluctant to support any agricultural ambitions. I have, you see, a "good job". I'm supposed to be happy with the "good job", as it's, well, good.

A real oddity of all of this is that some of it is highly cyclical. I've observed here before, I think that you often find the situation where a homesteader worked hard his whole life to make a good farm/ranch for the next generation. That generation built on it. The generation after that worked hard to get their kids educated so that they could get a "good job". The "good job" generation works hard to give their kids a better "good job". Good job generation II works hard to buy a place in the country, so they can live like their homesteader ancestors.

Odd.

Rich said...

My grandfather came from a big family, in WWII most of his brothers joined the military, and Grandpa helped the war effort by farming and doing his part to feed the nation.

Like all farmers he had to adapt to a limited labored force during the war, and when the war was over his brothers were able to (were forced to?) pursue off-farm careers.

Both Grandpa and his brothers were able to make decent livings, but since they were humans, they were probably envious of each other to some degree.

As it is often said, "The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence". When bumper crops are being harvested and the selling price is sky-high, everybody thinks farmers are getting rich; but when the crop fails or the price paid at the elevator doesn't cover his expenses the farmer thinks everybody else is getting rich but him.

In all likelihood, when Grandpa heard his brothers complaining about their jobs, all he was able to see was the steady paycheck they were receiving. When his brothers heard Grandpa complaining about the lack of rain, all they were able to see was the joy of planting something, watching it grow, and finally being able to harvest it.

I think that is part of the reason some people in agriculture wish their kids would just get a "good job".

Mellifera said...

I had this awesome job last summer. It was working with the Florida Dept. of Ag apiary section, and involved some working bees in the middle of the day in Florida in July. In a beesuit, getting stung. It didn't have benefits and I quit it for a job that did (we *really* needed health insurance), but man I miss that place. Everybody was so great and you felt like you were accomplishing something worthwhile. I just don't get that feeling from doing lab tests on kitties getting kidney transplants. No joke... they really do that here.

In other news, speaking of crappy "good" jobs- I'm finally quitting mine! YAYYY!!!

We aren't exactly starting the farm, just grad school. But I figured since my husband was already in grad school and there's no way we can buy land until he's got tenure, I might as well do it too. As long as they waive tuition and give me a fellowship, so we don't go into massive debt over it. I'm REALLY excited... this is a big step.

Yeoman said...

Rich said:

"I think that is part of the reason some people in agriculture wish their kids would just get a "good job"."

I haven't quoted all that Rich said, but I think that's undoubtedly ture. Put that's only part.

Part of what has also occurred, as Logsdon has noted, is that there's actually an urban prejudice against farmers, and that's spread to society in general. American have a love/loathe relationship with farmers. We love farming in the abstract, and have an idealized view of the family farm. At the same time, however, most urbanites, which is most Americans, think farmers are a little slow. Even farm families often think that if a kid can do something else, he should, to live up to his "potential". If the kid feels his potential is farming, they don't encourage it.

Another side of this is that farming often isn't as financially lucrative as other occupations, and people have been taught they're "consumers". So people feel that they ought to go into a field that maximizes their "consumption". People often don't like that, but they feel they should to it.

And beyond that, on the rural family side, there's an assumption that other occupations are easier. This is particularly common amongst people who have only experienced farm work. Farming can indeed be hard, but it is satisfying work, and truth be known, it's often not as hard as some other occupations that people go into. As a lawyer, I recently meant a ranch kid who just graduated from law school who'd gotten there as his parents hoped he'd have an easier life. He was desperately, and unsuccessfully trying to convince himself that his 10 hour a day, seven day a week, job was easier, but he wasn't convincing himself very well.

The grass is always greener, as they say. However, having grazed in all the pastures myself, I think I've come to the conclusion that most people haven't thought out their jobs and lifestyles at all. Most economist and businessmen are occupationally unable to, which is why many bad trends are lauded as good, and vice versa. Most farmers, I will say, seem to have, which is why they are still farming.

Rich said...

As Yeoman said - "...there's actually an urban prejudice against farmers, and that's spread to society in general."

It is more complicated than a simple prejudice, somehow society in general has come to believe that if less people are presently involved in agriculture, then our nation (and world) are therefore less dependent on agriculture. In fact, I would think that since a smaller percentage of people are now responsible for feeding a ever growing larger percentage of people, then agriculture is now even more important than it has ever been in the history of mankind.

Our larger society doesn't want to admit that they are so dependent on such a relatively small segment of the population, so they purposely downplay the contributions of those that have the audacity to try to provide the food that allows them to live and work in their urban surroundings.

If they were to recognize farmers and ranchers for their true worth, it would call into question the true value and expose the fragility of their urban way of life.

Not trying to sound like some sort of radical rural revolutionary, but until farmers and ranchers realize their true worth and recognize the fact that our society needs them more than ever before, agriculture will continue to be treated like the red-headed stepchild of our nation's economy.

Yeoman said...

"Rich said...

As Yeoman said - "...there's actually an urban prejudice against farmers, and that's spread to society in general."

It is more complicated than a simple prejudice, somehow society in general has come to believe that if less people are presently involved in agriculture, then our nation (and world) are therefore less dependent on agriculture."

Quite true. There's a general belief that the more "efficient" something is (which tends to mean the fewer people who are involved in it) the better off everyone else is.

This is really ironic in the context of American history, as at least a branch of the Founders thought that the more people who were independent farmers, the more society itself would be independent and better off. There's really something to that, as independent farmers (yeomen) are nobody's slaves, but are also not so big in terms of economics as to be able to dominate. So, they're free, but not repressive by their nature.

You can extend that to all walks of life. Generally, society would be better off if people were economically more or less self sufficient, but not so economically dominant as to be repressive. That is, we'd be much better off with small shop keepers, independent grocers, and the like, than we are with Wal Mart.

Ah. . .where's the Sherman Anti Trust Act when you need it?

Yeoman said...

"# Experiment - Start farming wherever you can (unless you live in my town, then don't have chickens in your backyard). Grow a garden, set aside a small piece of land to do something different, or at least start planning. Just get doing!
# Rent Land - In some ways I think this is becoming more difficult with the current high grain prices than it was 10-15 years ago when many of these "you can farm" books were written. But, it is still a god staring place and it is important to remember that you can rent a pretty small piece of land (even in town) to get started with a market garden.
# Lean As You Grow - You don't have to have everything or do everything right away. In fact you probably wouldn't be able to handle it just like I am not going to be able to handle it all at once. But, take is slow and as you learn and experience more then you can grow.
# Always Watch Your Bottom Line - Bigger isn't better, sometimes you can do more with less or if you can't do much with a little then you probably can't do any better with more! It is easy to treat farming as as "hobby" if you are just getting started and have a town job that is supporting your family and beginning farming. Don't do that! Make sure the farm is working for itself no matter how big it is (this could be as simple as cutting your grocery expenses)."

Excellent insights (both yours and his)!

I particularly like your last point. To add to that, if you treat it like a hobby, others will view it as a hobby, and it will become a hobby both in your minds, and theirs. At that point, it won't be a passion, really, anymore.

RIch said...

I have always thought that some of the best ideas about ways a farm/ranch can be operated more profitably and effectively can be found by looking at differing areas of agriculture.

For example, if you are currently raising cattle, look at how pigs are being raised on pasture. If you are located in the mid-western U.S., study methods used in the southwestern U.S. If you are in the Great Plains of the U.S., look to Australia for ideas.

Unless I'm mistaken, there was usually an period of agricultural innovation whenever waves of people from different parts of the nation and the world homesteaded new areas of the U.S. Homesteaders from places like Ohio, Virginia, and Wisconsin all came to places like Kansas, bringing their old farming practices and combining them into new improved techniques. With today's improved communications it should be possible to recreate the same process without packing up and homesteading new land.

Ethan Book said...

Lots of good thoughts everyone! It is exciting to write down just a few paragraphs and then have thoughtful and well written responses come in like this. It gives everyone plenty to think about.

I do like what you said Rich about learning from different areas and different people. Hearing about and learning from various people with various backgrounds and from various locations is huge!

Steven said...

Yeoman, I loved your example of the different generations working towards different things. My family was almost exactly as you described, we still have 2/3 of the original farm though... it's just all in row crops.

farm mama said...

On your blog, you have addressed the problem of how someone finds land to become a sustainable farmer, so I thought you might be interested to hear about a meeting my daughter attended last week. It was sponsored by Clemson Extension Service (South Carolina) and was very interesting as a whole. However, what was particularly interesting was some of the contacts she made there. One man specializes in "incubator" farms - he matchs up people who want to farm with landowners who want/need someone to use their land productively. There was a farmer there who wanted to move to sustainable farming, but just didn't have the energy any more, so is actively looking for a younger person(s) who would be willing to join forces with him. Another contact - a company near Hilton Head, SC, owns a farm that produces meat and produce for their three restaurants, and they are looking for someone to run it. She also met a young woman who has joined an older farmer that had quit farming because he couldn't make a profit, and they are offering shares in a CSA (Community Sponsored Agriculture). They did it last year, and they made a tidy profit. Surely there are similar opportunities in other areas of the country, although I don't know the best way to go about finding them. I guess it's all about thinking outside the box!

Ethan Book said...

farm mama - It is interesting that you bring that up. Yes, there are opportunities out there like that, but sometimes they can be difficult to find and work out. My uncle worked for Iowa State University for many years trying to get their Farm On program going strong. Basically they wanted to find farmers getting close to retirement to hook up with young farmers looking to get started. Not hand outs, but good help. They would find plenty of farmers, but when it came to working out the details they were never willing to step aside or give anything in a compromise.

I think it was pretty frustrating for him and he ended up leaving ... as far as I know the program still exists, but not as it was planned...

Steven said...

Hey Ethan, if Dexters are a "fad" then what do you call making good fast money by "typing" from home??

That discussion on the homesteading forum really got me worked up. How do you have a 20 year Lowline fad when lowlines weren't auctioned off until 1992. That's 16 years that they've been on the market according to the Australian Lowline Cattle Association.

Yeoman said...

What discussion on the homesteading forum are we referencing?

Ethan Book said...

Steven - Don't even get me started on the Dexter as a fad thing. I probably should have stayed out of it because no minds were going to be changed, but I just couldn't hold myself back. Nobody ever said that Dexters were going to compete on the commercial market, but that does not make them a fad! It just means they are what they are and they will always been around, just like they have been in the states for at least 100 years.

Oh yeah, I'll see if I can start writing from home ... for money ;)

Ethan Book said...

Here is the link Yeoman

http://www.homesteadingtoday.com/showthread.php?t=240759

It began as a discussion about how long a dairy cow will produce, and then became an argument of sorts as to whether or not Dexters are a fad. It was also argued that Lowline Angus are a fad. I didn't say this, but according to some of the definitions of "fad" thrown out would we be able to say that Black Angus is a fad?

In conclusion, Dexters are not commercial cattle ... but they aren't going anywhere.

Steven said...

Here's what I don't understand. The guy was worried that he'd have a field full of yard ornaments... our big thing is that if we can't make a profit with the meat alone then we don't want to get involved. We don't want to rely on inflated prices for seed stock... like mini hereford and lowlines seem to be right now. But these animals have an intrinsic value in their meat and milk and I don't believe that the "market" could just drop and leave you high and dry (emus etc.) because you'll always have the meat and milk to direct market or eat at home.

I was talking with a long time farmer last year about how the whole cattle industry is really just a bunch of fads. He was urging me to get black cattle, no matter the breed but agreed that in a couple of years red could be all the rage... and mostly just because of good marketing of Black Angus. He is basically the king of the local state fair and shows belgian horses. He said he'd never seen some of the breeds be solid black before, but sure enough last year there was solid black Simmental and others being shown.

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