Ok. So, I want to share some of the disappointments and victories from our undertakings this summer. I want to share some of the realities of the financial end of starting some temporary and small farming enterprises. I will try to make it concise and helpful. And if you want more information you can let me know.
Tony and I have “wwoofed” or helped on over two dozen farms all over the world. We did, after all, fall in love while sorting freshly pulped coffee beans at a remote farm in Nepal. After several years of learning and helping on farms we didn’t own, we decided we needed to head down the road of finding something we could take more ownership of. We want our own land, but are still figuring out exactly where that might be and how to afford it. But in the meantime, we sought a situation where we would still be on someone else’s land, but take full ownership and responsibility of our time, enterprises, and income.
We heard about Peter and Maureen Allen of Mastodon Valley Farm through the networking we began in the permaculture world. We had been interested in checking out Mark Shepard’s place and found out that Peter and Mo had spent a few years there doing the things we were interested in doing. So we contacted them and visited their new farm in Wisconsin last fall. We discovered that they were interested in other people living on their land and partnering with them. They offered to allow us to stay on their land, in their yurt, and run some animals and have a garden. They also allowed us to sell under their name, to their customer base. The exchange was that we might be able to advertise and market on their behalf, and build infrastructure that might be useful (like an eggmobile and broiler pens), among other things. We didn’t ever write out an agreement or an MOU (Memorandum Of Understanding) because this was the first time any of us had entered into an arrangement like this. We weren’t exactly sure what to expect. It certainly would have made more sense if we had stayed longer than one season. That way, we would have invested into a market that we would have kept. As it is, we do not plan to live in the area, and we truly set up some nomadic enterprises: animals that we slaughtered at the end of the season. Either way, it seemed like the perfect next step for us, and in many ways it was. But with the time and energy that is necessary to run the type of enterprises we desire to have someday we realize now that it is best done in a place and situation that is at least semi-permanent. We realize now that the next time we work on a farm to this capacity it will have to be our own. We are incredibly grateful to Peter and Mo for offering up their land and market to us this last season. We learned lessons that were invaluable.
After communicating back and forth with Peter and Mo, we decided that it would be best if Tony and I tried pastured poultry: both broilers and hens, and even some turkeys. And try a market garden as well. Poultry can be raised fairly quickly and slaughtered at the end of the season. And a garden would at the very least feed those living on the land. We also decided to buy a pig, which lived with Peter and Mo’s pigs. We paid for its feed and shared in the labor.
We arrived in Wisconsin at the beginning of May with a car full of plant starts. Within a week, Peter had helped us plow and till about 1/2 acre for our garden, our first batch of 100 baby chicks arrived in the mail (and we built an off-grid brooder if you remember) and we craigslisted and found 100 4-6 month-old Rhode Island Reds that were already laying eggs (and built shelters for them). Soon after we had purchased 25 young turkeys and a pig. It was a scramble to get everything going all at once: trying to keep the chicks warm without electricity, building shelters for hens and turkeys, and planting a giant garden. I don’t think we ate very much those first few weeks. We lived on Nettle and eggs from our new hens. Lesson #1: don’t try to start too many things all at once. You might begin to rethink your goal to become a farmer. The thought of farming and living off the land in a beautiful setting with incredible food can sure seem idyllic. But as anyone who has farmed knows, it is HARD WORK. It may seem cute to see someone at the farmer’s market selling their pretty vegetables, but more than likely those smiling farmers were up far before the light of day, feeding their animals and harvesting greens by the light of their headlamp.
With this new wave of life, came loss as well. 15 of our hens died on the way home from the place where we bought them. So we had to go out and find more to replace them. A couple of our chicks died and our brooder collapsed. Something was eating our squash seedlings (mice) and something else was cutting our tomato plants down in the night (cutworm). We were having to take quite a few trips to the hardware store and feed store. We were beginning to spend money on things we hadn’t anticipated (which shouldn’t have come as a surprise). We were even borrowing things from Peter and Mo. It was becoming very clear that we would be lucky if we made any money, and our time could certainly not be valued in terms of money. Otherwise, it would not have been worth it. The worth came from our quality of life, and the satisfaction of doing something we felt was worthwhile. The spring water! The fresh pastured eggs! The abundant garden! The wild herbs! The pastured meat! Lesson #2: decide to farm because of the richness in food and health, not because of the money.
Well, let’s go over the finances shall we? Let me first break it down simply by sharing how much we spent and how much we made with each individual enterprise:
- Broilers: $2557 spent; $2960 income = $403 profit
- Hens: $2380 spent; $2149 income = $231 loss
- Turkeys: $506 spent; $578 income = $72 profit
- Garden: $1194 spent; $1256 income = $61 profit
Ok. So if we add more expenses, like the money we spent on gasoline all summer, and other expenses not directly relating to the above enterprises, the numbers look like this:
$8882 total expenses
$7384 total income
= $1498 “loss”
But it isn’t exactly that simple. Each enterprise has its own advantages, disadvantages and explanations. And the total “loss” can be looked at in a different light. For example, we determined that $1086 worth was spent on tools and equipment that we can and will use again (like electric fencing, energizers, buckets, a shovel and pick, waterers etc.) That brings the loss down to $412.
And then there’s the fact that we directly benefited from each enterprise. We ate several dozen eggs a week; ate fresh vegetables, canned and stored some for winter; froze a bunch of meat.
Let’s look at each of the 4 enterprises a little closer, while not actually publishing the spreadsheet.
- Broilers: Most of the money was spent on feed. It would be interesting to note that a good portion of the feed we bought in bulk and sprouted, which most likely saved us money. We do know that sprouting grains saved about $100 per pig by the end of the season. That’s significant. We sold the broilers for $20 each regardless of weight, but most of the birds were in the 5-6 lb range. That’s pretty big. We discovered that there were others in the area selling pastured meat birds for $30 each and had no trouble selling them. If we were to sell them at a per pound price we may have made quite a bit more. But in our first season, how could we have known how big these birds would get? And it would have taken a lot more work to sell 200 of them for a higher price. Peter and Mo sold quite a few of them for us to begin with. There are certainly other factors, but I know that it could be possible to make more than we did. What if we could cut feed costs? If we were living permanently in an area we might be able to establish connections with local businesses and pick up large loads of scrap food, for example. We also received rave reviews about our meat birds. If we had stayed in the area I know we would have had a strong customer base even in the second year.
- Hens: We sold our eggs for $5 per dozen. Egg prices can really vary across the nation. In our area, most people raised chickens themselves so we wouldn’t have been able to sell our eggs for more than $4 per dozen near the farm. We sold all of our eggs in Madison, a progressive city. At a farmer’s market I visited recently in San Diego, pastured eggs were going for $8.50 per dozen. It really makes a difference who your market is! Again, we could look for ways to reduce feed costs, and selling the eggs for say, $6 would have brought us out of the red. The value for us came in the form of having unlimited access to fantastic eggs. We search far and wide for good pastured eggs whenever we move somewhere and can never find anything as good as the eggs we ate from our own hens. We estimate that we ate about $500 worth of eggs this summer. That alone makes it worth it for us.
- Turkeys: we initially planned to sell each turkey for $100 each around Thanksgiving. In an ideal world, that would have brought in $2500, and with $500 spent, that would have been a $2000 profit! So, how did $2000 turn into $72? Well, the turkeys weren’t as big as we had hoped. They were quite a bit smaller than we had thought, weighing in at 6-12 lbs (most of which were in the 7 lb range). We couldn’t sell a 7 lb turkey for $100 so we reduced the price significantly to $5 per pound, and sold a few of the turkeys in discounted groups of 2 since they were so disappointingly small. One of the turkeys was trampled by a cow and 2 of them were eaten by coyotes. Tony and I took the 4 smallest ones to smoke for our own Thanksgiving dinner, so the $2500 income turned into $578, just barely enough to cover the costs of raising them. If we had had bigger turkeys, we could have sold them for more, but we didn’t.
- Garden: we spent many many many hours in that garden, and tortured ourselves with early Saturday morning wake-ups to get ourselves to the market and hours in the kitchen canning tomatoes and tomatillos, and we only made $61? Well, part of the expenses fell into the category of things we will use again, like row cover and seedling cells. We surely saved on our food bill by eating from our garden. And possibly best of all, we learned some valuable lessons by participating in a Farmer’s Market and learning how to sell things that we had grown ourselves. We made many little observations and would change little things here and there about how we displayed or labeled something and would watch the reactions. For example, the first few weeks we sold our tomatillo salsa, we didn’t sell too many. But once we started giving samples, the sales went way up! When we started bagging tomatoes and writing prices as opposed to “by the pound”, many more people were interested. Giving away samples of cherry tomatoes worked like a charm. You get the picture. There are certainly many variables in this as well. If we had had more variety, I am sure we would have sold more. If we had a more long-standing customer base we would have sold more. If we weren’t living in a popular organic farming community with Amish farmers selling produce at crazy low prices, we would have made more. The list goes on.
Adding canned goods was a good idea. We attended the Mother Earth News Fair halfway through the summer and listened to Lisa Kivirist and John Ivanko, authors of Homemade For Sale teach us about Cottage Food Laws. Within a week we had read up on Wisconsin’s “Pickle Bill” and were canning tomatillo salsa and tomato sauce and selling it at the market. For canned goods, we spent $454 and made $723 with a $282 profit (this was factored into the garden report).
Well, these farming enterprises obviously weren’t profitable. Especially considering the amount of HARD work it took to make everything happen. But we can’t wait to do it again! Lesson #3: Farming will not be profitable for us at least in the beginning. This time on our own land, where the time and energy will be invested into something we will keep. We know that profits will raise with time, as we continue to build infrastructure and gather tools and materials. And if we want to raise our own meat, eggs and vegetables, we know we can at least pay for the cost of producing those things by selling the surplus. Until this summer we had thought that we could both live and work on our farm from the beginning, but now we realize that at least in the first few years we will need an outside income. So back to the Park Service we will go next summer! As soon as we can locate and afford a piece of land we can start some similar and improved enterprises.
Only go into farming if you value land restoration and high quality food above all else, and are willing to work hard and long for it, with little pay. Then if you do make some money, it will be a nice surprise. I’m not saying it’s not possible to make a white collar salary as a small farmer. We should! It is just unlikely, especially at first. But that’s not why we do it.
Thank you Peter and Mo for allowing us to live on your land and try our hand at raising some animals and growing a garden for profit!