Thoughts on homesteading: economic potential in small-scale farming

My sense is that there is much too much happy, optimistic talk these days about the economic potential for small-scale farms. I agree that there are many forces at work right now that will push people towards simpler and more local eating, which will tend to benefit small-scale farmers. But many of the rosy scenarios being offered right now assume that people will continue to spend as freely and indulgently as they’ve done in the past few years, and will be willing and able to pay whatever it takes to provide the local farmer with a comfortably white-collar income.

I don’t think this is true. The prices charged at Whole Foods and by boutique growers at upscale farmers’ markets are beyond the reach of quite a few people already, and a worsening economy is sure to have more and more folks questioning whether it is truly prudent to spend $2 on a tomato or $3 on a head of garlic, no matter how wholesomely and lovingly grown. In fact, I expect at least some of them to realize that they can have even better tomatoes and garlic from their backyard for little more than the time and trouble it takes to grow them—and having time on one’s hands is likely to be increasingly widespread in the months and years to come.

This particular thought was not on my original list, but came this morning while I read Shannon Whitworth’s latest Grassfed Cooking newsletter. Shannon has written two excellent cookbooks devoted to the proper cooking of grass-fed meat, and at Sap Hollow Farm she and her family run exactly the sort of operation the small-scale farming cheerleaders would have you dreaming and drooling about. And it is a great operation. But it is also being stress-tested at the moment by the worsening economy, in ways the cheerleaders don’t discuss much, and as such is worth close study by those of us who are trying to work out an agrarian approach to raising food for sale.

Again, please read the newsletter article.

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7 thoughts on “Thoughts on homesteading: economic potential in small-scale farming

  1. I agree; it is a mistake to think small-scale farming will make you rich (though it just might for a few). My attitude towards it is simply subsistance. If I can grow/ raise enough to feed my family and sell enough to cover my living expenses, I’ll consider it a success! (I already come out ahead by how much fun we have doing it–hard work and all!)

  2. I also agree, but part of me also wonders… If Walmart has to sell tomoatoes for $2, shouldn’t this open up opportunities for the market gardener? If big AG doubles the price for mass produced veggies due to the price of oil for example, shouldn’t the organic, sustainable grower be able to keep his prices relatively consistent – and actually begin to compete with, or even beat the Walmart price? In other words, can the exploding prices of mass production be viewed as an opportunity?

    I’m speaking from inexperience in that I’m still working up to becoming self-sustaining (nevermind marketing,) so I am curious about what other agrarians think about this…

  3. My experience has been that the Big Boys’ prices are difficult to match in the aggregate. They have such a HUGE crop/ flock/ herd that they can afford to make a smaller per unit profit.

    For example, if I net $1 per meat chicken on a flock of 50, I may barely cover my feed costs. However, if they make $1 on a MILLION birds, they are sitting pretty.

    As the used car salesman on tv used to say, they make money on VOLUME, VOLUME, VOLUME. We small fellers have a difficult time making those numbers work for us.

  4. It stands to reason that in the future. a larger portion of American’s budgets will be spent on food. Higher food costs are higher food costs, regardless of whether that food is factory or farmer-raised. Since American’s budgets are already stretched tight, raising food costs will be particularly painful. How will this affect small scale farmers? Those who raise crops that are dependent on purchased inputs will have raising costs, those who are self-sufficient in inputs will still be able to take advantage of raising retail rates.
    omnivores like chickens, hogs (and feedlot cattle)=grain=raising costs
    ruminants like grass-fed cows=grass=costs unaffected)

  5. Actually, you can save a great deal on feed costs for chickens by supplemental a significant portion of their diet with grass/ greens. In fact, it is better for them to so supplement their diet and it even makes the meat taste better to feed them grass.

    I usually cut some grass a couple of times a week (by hand) for my birds and I’ll even throw a pile in after I mow. The absolutely LOVE the grass!

    In addition to that, I try to save on chicken feed costs by giving them our table scraps (minus chicken, to avoid cannibalism) raising worms (which I also use for composting) to feed them as well as grasshoppers (which can be raised in aquariums if you want to fool with that).

  6. Thank you for a “reality check post”. It is important to count the cost, so to speak. By looking hard at these issues from all sides, it helps us to better understand our market, as well as our business. We try to be as self sufficient as possible with our feed (growing our own chicken feed, rotational grazing, etc), and this does help tremendously. Another thing that has helped us is diversifying. It seems that the more things we can offer, the more our customer base expands, and the more income per customer. Of course, there is only so much time and energy in the day!

    But, we’re fairly new at this, so take it all with a grain of salt! :)

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