You could be forgiven for thinking that the shine has come off the small farm movement in the recent past. Last summer, an op-ed piece in the New York Times titled Don't Let Your Children Grow Up To Be Farmers kicked off the debate, warning that "the dirty secret of the food movement is that the much-celebrated small-scale farmer isn't making a living." More recently, we were introduced to the phrase "peak farmers' market" to describe the sharp levelling off of growth in direct farm-to-consumer sales. Then a much-shared piece from Salon summed up the sentiment bluntly: What nobody told me about small farming: I can't make a living.
Wait a minute. Not so fast. My wife Gillian and I run The New Farm, a small-scale organic farm near the village of Creemore, about an hour and a half north-west of Toronto. We've been at it for almost 10 years, and grow about 10 acres of vegetables every season. We're absurdly tiny compared to most conventional vegetable farms, but we don't plan to get any bigger, because we're doing just fine. Our farm is debt-free, profitable and employs both of us full-time. And we're far from alone.
Over the past decade, I have met and worked with successful small farmers from all over North America, and I've noticed some common elements that have helped them flourish in a challenging profession. First, they're all good at both of the fundamental jobs every small farmer must do -- production and marketing. You have to grow and sell food to call yourself a farmer. If you're you're just growing, you're a gardener. Being good at both of these tasks is especially difficult because the two jobs require different skills. Growing involves long hours of often solitary work in an environment where patience and a willingness to accept what is beyond your control are key. Selling requires some mojo -- getting out there and hustling, interacting with clients, moving your product any way you can. We are lucky on our farm, because Gillian and I have personalities that are suited to both tasks. Gillian is great at talking up chefs, schmoozing distributors and interacting with clients. I'm good at lifting heavy things.
Successful small farmers are also insanely innovative. They process the millions of variables that are unique to their farm -- environment, soil type, proximity to market, client demographics, availability and cost of labour, their own passions and personality types -- and build an operation that can take advantage of every opportunity. I know farmers who have found success selling every product imaginable, though every marketing channel you could think of. Small farmers have traditionally relied on farmers' markets and CSAs (community supported agriculture), but an increasing number are now taking advantage of other ways to sell their food. We crunched the numbers five years ago and discovered that selling wholesale gave us twice the return on labor as selling in the famer's market, so now all of our produce goes through distributors to restaurants and specialty retailers. "Peak farmers' market" probably indicates that small farmers are too innovative to sit on their asses in the market when they could be making way more money elsewhere.
Successful small farmers recognize that real success means leading a happy and meaningful life, rather than simply making money, but they also recognize that you must make money if you want to stay in business. Many of the growers I know have found the balance between personal fulfillment and profitability by shifting their focus from building financial capital to building social capital as their farm matures, accumulating friends, experiences and good deeds, rather than more cash. They deepen their commitment to organic practices, volunteer, make art, travel. The seasonality of farming makes it harder to make money, but it gives us something far more valuable: time. We take a six-week vacation with our kids most winters, something not many investment bankers get to do.
The biggest mistake new farmers make when getting started is to think that a farm is fundamentally different from any other small business. Sure, farming involves a particular set of challenges -- it tends to be seasonal, weather dependent, capital intensive and subject to ruthless international competition -- but that certainly doesn't make it unique. The simple truth is that most small businesses fail in their first five years, regardless of the sector. Starting any small business is hard. We almost killed ourselves with work at the start, and there were many times when I thought our dream of a financially sustainable small farm was hopeless. But we learned along the way, made drastic changes where necessary, and worked off-farm in the early years to make ends meet. New farmers shouldn't be too quick to decide that they will never make any money, but being a small farm entrepreneur isn't for everyone, and we shouldn't be surprised when most small farms go tits-up.
The secrets of successful small farmers are really very simple -- they all spend time educating themselves before they dive in, they delay starting their own business until they have the necessary capital and the means to support themselves during the start-up phase, they keep meticulous records and make rational business decisions based on data, and they work very, very hard.
But perhaps most importantly, they never accept the idea that you can't make a decent living on a small farm. When we first started selling in the farmers' market almost ten years ago, people were constantly commenting on the fact that I carried a Blackberry (how times have changed). "A farmer, with a smartphone?" people would ask, sounding disappointed. A Blackberry was way too expensive and progressive to be found in the hands of a farmer. There are lots of screwed-up stereotypes about farmers, but the worst is not that we are backward and poor, but that we should be backward and poor.
My fellow small farmers and I know that we are skilled professionals, that we are innovative entrepreneurs carving out a sustainable niche in a profoundly dysfunctional food system, that we are the bedrock of a good food movement that has the power to change the world. We know that the things we grow are beautiful and valuable, and we're not embarrassed when we're paid accordingly. We have grown our businesses not in spite of our values, but because of them. We're successful because we kick ass.
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