Oats

Oats emerging

Promptly the day after the first rain in a while, OATS is surging up. Actually, strips of oats in one section planted a few days ago are appearing, the rest to hopefully follow just as vigorously. Oats anywhere but in a breakfast cereal bowl is a first for me. As a fall green manure cover crop, it’s an all new growing experience—if I didn’t know where this had come from, it’d look like an alarmingly healthy new weed attack…but it’s not. A couple of days ago, we seeded most of the open sections with an Earthway broadcast seeder (a simple, fun contraption, a bag with a shoulder strap that flings seed far and wide as you walk along turning the crank). In most sections, I used the rototiller on the Kubota compact tractor to till in the seed, skimming the surface in order to bury the seed no more than an inch or two. A couple of sections were raked so that the oats was lightly covered. In a couple more, the seed was left on the surface, a potential bird buffet. We’ll see what happens! Without the recent rain (we got another 1″/25mm today!), this wouldn’t have had much of a chance (oats needs to germinate by the end of August around here if it’s to get any growth on before winter kill)—we lucked out. So far, I’m liking oats!!

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15 Responses to “Oats”

  1. Matt says:

    Despite having grown up in Iowa and graduating from a school full of ag-heads, I’ve only recently taken an interest in farming. I think that’s partly because I never knew that places like the Tiny Farm existed – Iowa is all corn and hog confinements. But TFB-style growing looks… really appealing.

    Would you mind posting about the economics of tiny farming? I get the sense that it’s not something you want to get in to – and a picture of spreadsheets just doesn’t have the same luster as new oats – but I’d find it very interesting. Farmers around here correlate acres to income, and the idea that you could get by on anything less than 100 (much less two!) would probably make them laugh. I’d love to hear your rebuttal.

    Either way, thanks for keeping an amazing blog.

  2. Matt,

    Thousands of people across the country are making good livings farming very few acres. There are lots of resources available as you look at the economics of this type of farming:
    http://www.newfarm.org (online magazine)
    http://www.localharvest.com (farm listing service)
    market farming list
    Joel Salatin’s books are very popular at the moment

    I also run a blog on the marketing aspects of direct-marketing small farms at:
    http://www.smallfarmcentral.com

    It is possible! It does take a head for business and taking the opportunities that present themselves.

  3. Mike (tfb) says:

    Matt: I tried for a quick answer to basically the same question a while back. It’s in my reply in the comments for The hay around us. I just read it, seems to make sense, but I’ll try to add to it…soon.

    On the gear/capital costs side, here’s a really accurate and useful chart that’ll give you an idea of equipment requirements. It’s taken from ATTRA’s “Market Gardening: A Start-up Guide”, which is from my experience very practical, real-world, and on point. And online and BRIEF!

    If you have more specific questions, that’d be easier! I’m happy to share my little bit of experience… :)

  4. Matt says:

    Thanks for the responses, Mike and Simon. I’ll have to look into those resources. Mike, I thought your square foot example was pretty compelling by itself – and downright shocking when I compared it to some projected soybean revenues ($264 per acre).

    In fact, the disparity was so huge that my brain couldn’t handle it – it left me wondering how soybean farmers were getting $264 out of each square foot for about ten seconds before I realized that that was what they got from a whole acre. You’d be getting less than a cent per square foot at that rate. That a year’s produce from a square foot of ground couldn’t even earn a dollar in revenue is kind of mind-blowing, when you think about it from a gardening perspective.

  5. You also have to consider the input per acre (equipment, labor) is much, much higher for a market farmer than for a soybean farmer. Most people farming these small acreages are also direct marketing their products which is an added cost both monetarily and in stress. Of course, not to say that it isn’t more efficient in the long run than commodity farming — just that there are tradeoffs.

    Sorry to butt in on Mike, I’m sure he has a response too! By the way, great job with the blog Mike. Looking good.

  6. Mike (tfb) says:

    This is a fun discussion! ;)

    I think small farming requires EQUAL emphasis on BOTH “small” and “farming”. Tiny farming doesn’t really scale well, and that I think is the critical consideration, maybe the Secret. With small farming, your “job” is fulfilling and fun, it’s an end in itself. The bigger you get, the less personal it becomes, your quality of involvement and your baseline enjoyment reduce, and the money aspect becomes inversely more important.

    Interesting American organic farmer/educator Eliot Coleman has a required reading book, The New Organic Grower: A Master’s Manual of Tools and Techniques for the Home and Market Gardener. It’s around 340 pages. The Marketing chapter is quite complete and takes up all of six pages, which seems like a crazy ratio for the entire sales/revenue side of tiny farming, but when you’re actually doing it, you realize that it’s easy to over-emphasize the “business” aspect. If you concentrate on quality and consistency in the field, the commerce seems to naturally follow!

    Coleman’s final section in the six pages on Marketing is worth reproducing (I trust he’d grant permission!):

    Stay Small

    These days, when a business succeeds there is always the tendency to multiply the success by getting bigger. I have one word of advice—don’t. That admonition may sound heretical given the dictates of modern economics, but my experience confirms it. I have seen too many successful producers make the expansion mistake. Without exception, they have each become just another company trading on the reputation they established before expanding. If demand exceeds supply, bring the two back into line by raising prices. Income will increase just as it would by expansion, but quality will not be compromised.

    It’s easy to explore the economics more in-depth. Take two acres in full production as an end target example. Check the equipment requirements chart, you can acquire the entire list for under $10,000, old truck included. From there, it’s all labor, creativity, maintaining good karma, more labor… If you start at 50 cents a square foot on 35,000 sq ft out of each acre, that’s a gross revenue of $35K. Try going down to 25 cents ($17.5K), and up to a buck ($70K). Work the crop selection, the weeks of availability, and so forth. If you grow 20 crops and have a short season of only 20 weeks, you need to sell $87.50 of each crop each week to hit the 50-cent target. Break that down and work the variables. Add weeks to the season, adjust for higher and lower priced crops, etc, etc. $87.50 is 58 bunches of radishes at $1.50/bu, or 22 400g bags of salad mix at $4, over 20 weeks. What if you managed a 26 week season? What if you grew 10 or 30 crops? Convert all that back to the square feet and map it (a crude sketch would do to start!) to get a rough field production plan—how much to grow of each crop—and don’t forget succession planting, you can get a minimum of three salad crops of the same ground in one season, and so forth…) It’s a straightforward, simple, totally fun arithmetic game!!

    I think an attainable higher end goal over maybe 5-7 years is $80K/ac for 2-3 acres. You can start alone, with part-time help at critical times. To approach really full production, you’ll need at least two full time workers (farmer plus hired hand), eventually probably three or four, plus a bunch of part-timers. And you’ll find that it works out to serving maybe 200-500 regular weekly customers, whether by market, farm stand, CSA, or combination. For example, 3 ac x 80K/ac = $240K (around $2.30/sq ft at 35 sq ft/ac). Divide by 400 customers and that’s $600 per season per customer. That’s a doable rate for a 20wk CSA membership, or it works out over 20wks to $30/wk veggie spending per customer. That’d be enough veggies for 1-2 people, or a small family.

    With those numbers, there seems to be room for LOTS of tiny farmers! And I drive by the land for hundreds (thousands) of tiny farms every time I make the 12 mile trip to the nearby town of 17,000.

    At the bottom line, where are you after a few short years? The optimist’s view: you’re in pretty good health from doing the work and eating the superfresh produce, the initial stress has evolved into a general calm and connected feeling: you’re better educated, your lifestyle is a lot more sustainable, you’ve learned to roll with the elements, you have a truly meaningful connection with the people around you, you should be debt-free and operating essentially a cash business, with no financing worries, and you’re pulling down maybe $50K a year, after all expenses (which includes immense, value-adding reinvestment each year in the soil, in your production system, in your gear). If you like doing this stuff (it’s addictive!!!), you should be a pretty happy camper… And if our entire economic house of cards collapses, at least you’ll be eating well till the bitter end. :)

    This simplifies things a lot, but I don’t think it’s a…simplistic view, just a stripped down one. Paper planning is absolutely necessary, but getting distracted by the formal business plan approach as a starting point can obscure the most important reality, which is the passion, the motivation, the satisfaction, the quality of life, all driving well-focussed, well-intentioned effort on the part of the tiny farmer. It’s not EASY, but it’s also not that complicated.

    Now, lemme re-read that! BTW, in my Year 5, I’ve got a long way to go, but it’s moving along and totally fun! :)

  7. Matt says:

    This has been very enlightening. Thanks for all the advice and information.

    I guess the best I can do is to offer a bit in return, which is: listen to Coleman. I study economic and organizational sociology, and the number one way to throw away a great enterprise is to ignore the relationship between its size and its success. Like Coleman says, if you ask anybody to list the most successful businesses, they all list the big ones. Okay, no ranting, I promise…

    Interestingly enough, look who popped up in Business Week this week: A New Push to Make Farming Profitable.

  8. Yeah, I have to admit that it is a little hard to take the advice of “celebrity farmers” extremely seriously since they make so much money with speaking and other types of income. I think they have a lot to give the community, but what is really inspiring is to look around and lower-profile local farmers who are economically successful.

  9. Mike (tfb) says:

    So far, I kinda like the idea of celebrity farmers, it’s sort of…hilarious! Salatin is the only “crossover” name I’d recognize, I dunno how much mainstream media exposure he’s gotten, but I have read about him a lot in the last year or so. Someone like Eliot Coleman is definitely a celebrity farmer in organic farming circles, but I doubt anyone else knows his name. There are some writers, like Michael Pollan (Omnivore’s Dilemma) who are likely more widely known, than, say, Coleman—for now, I’d rather have a celebrity farmer than a celebrity farming writer! :)

  10. jeff says:

    Good stuff Mike… Thanks for sharing!
    Peace
    Jeff

  11. Heather says:

    I agree! Small is the key to being successful… My husband and I run a small CSA. Just 20 members this year ($8000) on 3/4 acre = about $.30 a sq ft. We want grow in the next 5 years to do 100 members and that will handelly support our family. Although unlike Elliot Coleman, I like more machines! Mechanical transplanter (waterwheel), plastic mulch layer, tractor tiller, decent used tractor, & others will raise my equipment cost to about $20,000 to $25,000, but it is worth every penny in my mind, just be sure you can buy stuff in cash and not carry any debt! Less debt = less risk! Less risk = continue farming…

  12. Mike (tfb) says:

    Hi Heather: It sounds like you have a compact, shipshape tiny farm, with future planning in order! :) About tractor gear, having started literally on an acre by hand (although it was moldboarded, disked and rototilled by a big tractor to start), I find it kinda hard to think of switching tasks from hand to tractors. This year, for the first time, I hired full-time, and there was also a great crew of part-timers. Maybe I was lucky with people, and next year will be a problem, but I quite like the people power approach. I do use a small tractor for lots of stuff, including rototilling, but I could always get by with the Horse walking rototiller and…help, if there was an emergency where the tractor went down. Bob here on the farm keeps suggesting longer rows and getting an old cultivating tractor, and I’d like to get the machine to experiment with, but the long rows and riding up and down cultivating isn’t as appealing. I guess I haven’t sorted this part out, but for now, I still see people at work and a max 5 acres in production. Thinking too small?

    I posted a longer bit on people-vs-tractor on the forum I attached to this blog.

  13. EtienneG says:

    Re: economic of tiny farming …
     
    Sorry again for digging up post from the distant past, but this particular topic really caught my attention when I got it through the TFB History widget.
     
    I have tiny farm plan of my own, hopefully to be concretized in 2011, and you bet economic sustainability is on my mind.  I have given some thoughts to the question, and I echo Mike stance on the subject.  Here is what I found out in my research.
     
    Equiterre, a Québec-based environmental advocacy group focusing on concrete action (http://www.equiterre.org) have published an economic analysis of the CSA model that is very useful in trying to determine cost and potential revenue.  If you read any French, it is really a must-read:
     

     
    According to their economic model, you can expect revenue of about 50K$/yr/ha (or about 25K$/acre), where one person per 0.67 ha (1.5 acre) required in term of manpower.  I think they are a bit conservative in their estimate, but that is a good baseline.
     
    Les Jardins de La Grelinette, located in the Eastern Township not too far from Montréal, have recently been nominated for the prestigious Mérite Agricole award (unfortunately, they did not win).  This is a very important validation of the tiny farm model by traditional farming circles, and an encouraging recognition for those like me that hope to have their tiny farm project understood.  The owners of Les Jardins de La Grelinette where kind enough to publish their business plan online, complete with revenue prediction.  You can get it at:
     
    http://www.lagrelinette.com
     
    Last winter, I was chatting with a small organic grower from the Bas-St-Laurent (climatic zone 4, 3 according to US standard).  He is farming a 1.2 hectare plot (about 2.5 acres) on a northern slope, with very shallow soil and the bedrock poking out in place.  Despite a pretty short season, he is able to pull somewhere between 40K and 48K$ CDN every year, with the help of a full time helper about 10 weeks a years.  He sell strictly in farmer market and to restaurant, no CSA.  Considering his cost are so low, I would say he net about 25K/yr.  Not bad for working only 7 months a year!
     
    If anybody have any other data point to share, please do!  The more solid information we have on economic sustainability, the easier it get to convince people to help us in our own tiny farm project.
     
    (Finally, I believe I posted this information already, either as a comment or in the forum section.  I guess some thing are worth repeating!)

  14. EtienneG says:

    Another *excellent* resource I found on the economic of small diversified vegetable farms:
     
    http://www.cias.wisc.edu/crops-and-livestock/report-helps-fresh-market-vegetable-growers-understand-and-share-finances/
     
    It compares the economic of farm in the 1-3 acres range, 3-12 acres and above 12 acres.  Unsurprisingly, the smaller the farm, the higher the income per acre.  For example, net cash per acre for the tiny farms (less than 3 acres) range between 1800$ to 9400$.  Not bad!

  15. EtienneG says:

    It’s funny how things come around.  I am here idly browsing TFB on a rainy Sunday, and this article pop up in the history.  And then, re-reading my comment from 2009 really made me smile.  It’s now 2011, I live on the farm, and I have just started this season on 1/3 acres (out of 10 available to me).  It’s a lot of work, and so far, I haven’t sold a single veggie.  Actually, I haven’t even *eaten* anything out of the garden yet, given we are going through the absolute worst possible spring ever. But, the most important thing is that this is ton of FUN!  I am totally loving it :)

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