Small Farmer Conference Announced

The National Small Farm Conference holds a convention for small farm holders and academia to discuss the unique challenges facing small farmers every three or four years.  This year the convention is taking place in Virginia Beach, VA from the 20th-22nd of September this year.

What’s a Small Farm?

The USDA defines a small farm as any farm who makes less than $350k/year. Fortunately, more and more, we’re beginning to recognize the vital role that small farmers play in not just our economy, but also in promoting biodiversity, flexibility of our food supply, and as a provider of jobs to local economies.

Small farms in the US have been falling in number for decades as more and more of our food supply is placed in the hands of fewer and fewer individuals and corporations who each control a larger percentage of land than ever before.  While only 11% of US farms make more than 350k USD per year, they account for 78% of the food production in the United States.

20 Years In The Making


National Small Farm Conference started in Nashville, TN in 1996 and is held every three or four years across the country for U.S. and international stakeholders from academia, non-governmental and governmental organizations, foundations, and grassroots farming communities whose goal is to support economic growth and quality of life for small farmers and ranchers.

Less Room For Error

One of the challenges facing small farmers is that they are usually operating with less room for error; smaller operating margins and savings mean that many small farmers are forced to take “town jobs”, seek other sources of income, and are at greater year-to-year risk of crop failures.

Rapidly Aging Population

Another serious challenge facing the small farmer in the US is the rapidly aging population.  The average age of the small farmer is 58 and only 6% of U.S. farmers are under the age of 35.

Among the factors limiting new younger farmers starting out is lack of access to the capital necessary and higher debt loads for young farmers who started off by going to college.

Why Worry About Small Farms

When so much of our food is produced from large commercial operations, some people wonder why anyone would worry about what the small guys are doing.

“Small farmers are usually more efficient, producing more food per acre than commercial operations. They also support the sustainability of rural and farm economies, as well as protect and enhance natural resources,” Denis Ebodaghe, conference co-chair and national program leader for USDA NIFA’s Small Farm Program, says.

Small, yet efficient farms are able to experiment with new growing techniques and tend to be at the forefront of market opportunities like the organic movement or the newer “farm to fork” or “farm to table” movement.


Connecting Urbanites To Small Local Farms

I read an inspiring story on the berkeley website about farmcation – a startup that’s trying to create connections between well-heeled urban dwellers of the San Francisco bay area with those small local farms operating in California’s central valley.

“To both of us, food is so much more than sustenance,” says Toombs. “It’s a means of creating community, and a way to foster connectedness with the world around us.”

Farmcation was the brainchild of two Berkeley students.  They moved to western Massachusetts for the summer and raised a small vegetable farm and raised chickens in order to serve wedding guests for their ceremony in August.

The experience provided them with a sense of the connectedness that comes from providing food for a community, but they also realized that the economics of making a small-scale farming operation profitable can be daunting.


photo by kim heath

Urban Farmer SPINs 6 Figures Per Acre

More Than 100,000 Dollars per Acre

Many an aspiring first-time farmer or aggressive market gardener can get discouraged when running the numbers for the first time on a prospective farming operation.  Or worse, they get into it without running the numbers, only to realize after the fact how difficult it is for them to turn a profit.

Urban Farming and SPIN

Curtis Stone gave this inspirational talk at the permaculture voices conference.  It seems a bit ironic because he plants almost entirely high value, high turnover, high maintenance “annuals”.  “SPIN Farming” actually stands for s-mall p-lot in-tensive. You can read more about it here.  The idea for Curtis is to get up and get cash-flowing ASAP.  The next objective is to have fast maturing crops that he can turn over many times a year — between 4 and 7 crops a year.

Crop Turnover

Curtis has focused in his production on the most profitable subset of  what he can grow locally in his small plot urban environment.  That tends to be high value salad greens, micro-greens and similar crops.  For his CSA and his restaurant clients he has started importing from local farmers enough to round out his product offering and focusing almost entirely on his most profitable crops given his small plot sizes.

Plot Sizes

He operates on what he says the average field size is only 2,000 square feet.  That’s insanely small, so lower value crops that take up a lot of space aren’t something he will bother with. He focuses on high value crops that have high yields that he can crowd into small, standard-sized beds which typically sit 53 feet long and 30 inches across.

Farmers Markets

He sells at a number of farmer’s markets, only he has standardized the pricing matrix such that he will offer something for 3 dollars and will offer two products for 5 dollars.  That simplifies his offering and makes it easier to get rapid transactions accomplished in the garden market.

Cost Reduction

This urban farmer has identified the two biggest cost centers for any young grower to get his operation off the ground and that is;

  • land costs
  • labor

Land costs

The cost of arable farm land can be a huge headwind for most growers when they are getting started.  Curtis has found an ingenious way to get around this obstacle that is made up of several components.  The first is that he reclaims ground in his local suburbs.  These are typically backyards that are unused or growing grass or weeds.  He goes a step further by making the property owner a member of his community supported agriculture group.  Essentially, his land costs are zero.  He needs to turn the land into arable farm land from a yard, but once he’s done so, he continues to farm there rent free by simply making the land owner a member of his CSA.

Labor costs

By keeping his operation focused on high value crops that take a minimum of infrastructure to plant grow and harvest he’s able to do most all of the farming with simply himself and a part-time employee.  In addition, recent innovations in harvesting his crop have led to even less need for labor above and beyond the grower.

In Summary

If you’re one of the many aspiring growers who would like to find a way to turn your dreams into reality, watch the video for Curtis’ inspiring story.  He shows that with a little determination and some ingenuity you can overcome the challenges that every startup faces and be on your way to growing food locally for your family, your community, or yourself.

Farm Local – Directory for Local Farmers and Growers

Farm Local Support Local Market Farmers, Growers, and CSA’s

Farm Local is being revived as the go to source for anyone looking to reduce their carbon footprint and support their local economy by buying or selling fresh food from local sources.

Why Buy Local?

Buying and eating local has numerous benefits.

  • Fresher, more tasteful food
  • More nutrient dense
  • Support local economy
  • Create food system more resilient to economic shocks
  • Create of more sustainable food system

Picked and Eaten At Peak Freshness

Food allowed to ripen to the peak of freshness just tastes better.  So why don’t the big agribusinesses allow their food to completely ripen on the plant before picking it?  Because their food sources are often many hundreds or thousands of miles away from those that will purchase and eventually consume it.  Growers are often forced to harvest their crop before it’s reached maturity and use chemical ripening while in transit from farm to fork to bring the produce to maturity.  The result is a tasteless, bland, unhealthy substitute for the original

More Nutrient Dense

Food just isn’t the same as it was even 50, or even 20 years ago.  As massive monocropping agri-businesses look to lower the costs of production and boost yields in their fields all other considerations are subjugated to needs of the grower to boost yields.  Hybrids are created that can deliver yield without spoiling over long distances, and nutrient density, taste and the health of the plants and animals that consume them is secondary.

Support of Your Local Agriculture Economy

In general, the percentage of people working in agriculture over the last 100 years.  The reasons are numerous, but efficiency is a big part of that.  And, there’s nothing wrong with that.  Efficiency is great.  What we aren’t so fond of is the drive for efficiency over smart long-range planning.

Creating agricultural centers that grow the majority of the food for the entire world creates a more fragile system as growers are completely reliant on growing conditions and disease in a particular region and the just-in-time inventory spanning continents is susceptible to interruption from war or natural disaster. Besides, buying your food local helps keep people accountable for what they are using to grow it!