Making Green with Greens: How do farmers make a living?

west gardenIt’s one thing to have 80 acres and a tractor (or 180 and more tractors). It’s another thing to make a living growing food when the field is soil you’ve carefully built year by year with compost and organic amendments so that it’s optimal for what you’re growing, for your climate, for the resources you have to tend it.

Most of the Brookside Farmers’ Market growers work their crops by hand. The labor is intensive, the yield is smaller than a big commercial farm, and the risks of loss – or whole crop failure – are greater. 

What’s Fair?

When you work dawn til dusk doing very physical work…how do you gauge what you need to earn as fair compensation for that work? Ami Zumult of Red Ridge Farms says it’s not going to be “fair compensation.” Not monetarily, like you’d calculate for another type of job. She and Jim chose this life because they love the back-to-nature lifestyle for their family and they enjoy the work.

“We also do it because we are motivated to grow good food for our family,” Ami says. “We wanted a job where we made a difference in people’s lives.”

Laura Christensen, Blue Door Farm, said “I love knowing that people are eating and enjoying  my food,  so I want my prices to be accessible. I also want my portions to be generous and the quality to be high.”  

“Yes, my chard is fresh, nutritious and beautiful. It’s also certified organic and tended and prepped by me and two part-time workers who deserve a fair wage,” Laura explains. “At my farm that means $10 an hour for workers. And for me…less. As with many small business owners.” Photo by Steve WilsonIt’s not just the cost of labor, Laura points out. Vegetable  farming is also unpredictable.

“Two different plantings of beets will have different costs to produce,” she says. “One may need to be weeded more often, one may grow better, thanks to a lucky rain, or it may be lost to a hungry deer.”

Hmm. I didn’t think about deer. 

“I like my customers to know what to expect when they come to my booth,” Laura says. “So prices generally stay the same week to week and represent an average of what the cost to grow them is. …The gut check for me about a price is whether I look at the product and the price and am proud of both. And whether customers buy my veggies!”

Starting from Scratch

At URBAVORE Urban Farm, Brooke Salvaggio and Dan Heryer started from scratch in 2010. No buildings, no fences, no water, no electricity.  Nothing but 13-acres of grass and trees, Dan says. “So we’ve definitely worked our little booties off to build a functioning commercial farm. And you better believe that cost some money.”

IMG_20160507_084459697_HDRMany farmers might deal with that by taking on debt to establish their farm, and hoping for seasons of successful crops to keep their loan payments current. 

Brooke and Dan have a principle of not taking on debt. “The farm progresses slowly, and our infrastructure projects wait for our income and savings to catch up,” Dan says. “At year seven, we finally have electricity and running water!” he laughs. URBAVORE sustains itself without additional outside income.

“We’ve built our farm on 10 years of income from vegetable farming, and we owe our success to the amazing customers who have supported us along this road,” he says. 

“To establish a fair price, we try to balance the needs of the customer with our own,” Dan says. “When our crops are abundant, customers will see discounts (especially on bulk purchases).  We consider carefully how much work each crop has taken, and price accordingly.  As we’ve evolved our farm, we’ve developed some methods of saving labor on certain crops, and we’ve been able to drop our prices to reflect that.”

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