Today, there are tens of thousands of organic, regenerative farmers in the U.S. Organic food is available in 3 out of 4 conventional grocery stores, and sales are growing by more than 10 percent per year, reaching almost $40 billion annually. There is soaring consumer interest in farmers’ markets, natural food stores, and restaurants that feature locally-grown organic produce and pastured meats. Alongside this boom in consumer interest in the farm-to-table movement is another story being told about our heirloom tomatoes: the failure of small farms.
The now-famous New York Times op-ed by Bren Smith, “Don’t Let Your Children Grow Up To Be Farmers,” made waves in the agricultural community two years ago by stating that being a small farmer was not a great way to make a living. Afterwards, many celebrity farmers (Joel Salatin being included in that list) rose to the challenge to make the case that farming can be a profitable and desirable profession. Just a few months ago, Civil Eats published an article entitled, “Quitting Season: Why Farmers Walk Away From Their Farms.” The story follows the closing of Walking J Farm and its two farmers, Tina Bartsch and Jim McManus, as they realize they have been losing money for five years and make the difficult decision to quit.
Despite the hard and heartbreaking stories of young farmers closing down shop, there are sustainable farmers and ranchers like Full Belly Farm in Guinda, California. Full Belly Farm has spent over 30 years building a resilient and successful business while restoring natural habitats, sequestering carbon in the soil, creating over 50 jobs and economic opportunities for farmworkers, and educating families on where food comes from.
So what are they doing differently? They are running their farm like a real business. Successful small farmers are using Quickbooks, creating crop enterprise budgets, applying for USDA grants, making purchasing and investment decisions based on taxes, analyzing marketplaces, anticipating returns and adjusting, always adjusting, to make smarter business decisions.
Full Belly Farm co-owner and farmer, Judith Redmond, believes that creating a financially viable business begins with something that doesn’t come naturally to many farmers, “None of us at Full Belly Farm have training in financial matters, but over the years we have learned that we need those tools as much as the others that we use out in the field. Of course we use economics as one way to analyze how we are doing from year to year, but we have also figured out that we need to be on top of the financials so that we can deal with taxes and the regulatory world in the most advantageous way possible.”
There is a new generation of sustainable farmers like Fifth Crow Farm, a seven-year-old organic vegetable farm in Pescadero, California that is also figuring out that financial tools are as important as farm tools. Fifth Crow Farm has gone from barely scraping by to making a comfortable living farming. They are growing food for thousands of families and maintaining farmland in an area rife with urban sprawl. They have created more than a dozen jobs and strive to be a model business through working towards providing healthcare to employees, donating to the local food bank, and starting a scholarship fund for the children of local farmworkers.
Fifth Crow Farm could have been Walking J Farm a few years ago had it not been for a combination of support from their community, their families, and rigorous business planning. They had to spend time and energy to adapt by analyzing their financials and adjusting to the market. Wholesale wasn’t working so they shifted to direct sales through a CSA and farmers’ markets, which proved to be a profitable model for them.
Teresa Kurtak, one of the owners of Fifth Crow Farm, explains the company’s own struggle finding time to business plan: “The work we do is so all consuming that it's easy to get lost in the unending list of right nows. But, truthfully, the most important time we spend is sitting down and really working through what our bigger picture goals are. It's easy to find yourself working for the farm instead of the other way around.” Fifth Crow Farm hasn’t made it out of the woods, yet but they are on track to be as successful as Full Belly Farm.
As consumers, we often see the purchase of food as a simple financial transaction instead of what it is: a critical relationship with the people who produce our food. Our grocery choices determine the health of our families, our land, and our planet. What we need to do, as consumers, voters, and advocates, is recognize these farms as they are starting out and better support them. Let’s build on the good food movement of the last 40 years to support increased social, environmental, and economic justice for farmers and farmworkers. Walking J Farm shouldn’t be the standard for the story of a beginning farm -- Fifth Crow Farm should be.
There are free resources for small farmers to assist with business planning, legal advice, land access, and food safety, offering a chance to make a difference in their financial success. The next time you are shopping at a local farmers' market, ask your farmer what they need help with and how they can succeed. Learn about their struggles and try to offer help through buying food or sharing educational resources. As Redmond believes, “when people talk about sustainability, they think of environment, community, and economics — the financial side has to be integrated into the decision making.“
For an opportunity to meet Fifth Crow Farm and learn more about the financial tools that helped to empower them to become a better business, join us at our upcoming Grazing at the Kitchen Table from 6.30pm to 9.30pm on Thursday, September 22, 2016 at Dogpatch WineWorks in San Francisco. Tickets are on sale now. Follow #GrazeAndGive2016 for updates.