(Cui bono? is Latin for “To whose benefit?”)
When I visited Eliot Coleman a few years ago, he was grossing $150k from 1.5 acres. He was also quick to note that after all the staff got paid and some of the costs were accounted for, all that was left over was $20k. Also keep in mind that there are some things he doesn’t have to pay for from the farm income that most of us would, such as his land, which was practically given to him by the Nearings, or his house, which is probably funded by income from other sources (e.g. royalties) and that of his wife, and all the associated utilities (probably part of the house bill). Likewise, equipment may have been purchased through other income sources, so it’s quite possible that if you looked at true costs, he might be operating at a loss.
Jerome told me roughly the same thing about Coleman’s operation, having read in an article by Coleman some years back that Coleman was grossing $100k but ending up with $25k after paying wages and other expenses. I have yet to locate that article, so I’m glad to have it confirmed here. There’s no reason to speculate that Coleman is actually operating at a loss; he is a an experience farmer and businessman, not a hobbyist, and surely understands how to calculate net income for his operation. So let’s take the $150k gross/$20k net profit numbers to be accurate.
Anyone thinking about centering their life around small-scale farming should take the time to wrestle those numbers to the ground. They represent the fruit of a thirty-five year effort on the part of one of the two best-known small-scale farmers in the country, and as such I think they should be taken as an upper bound on the economic potential in such an approach. To do better, one would need to take a different approach, one that Coleman either never thought of or one he considered and ruled out. But if one is thinking about following Coleman’s approach—which is the purest example I’ve seen of a small, diverse, non-industrial, self-sufficient farm which grows produce for market—one needs to be happy not only with those numbers, but with the fact that they are higher than the return an average farmer should expect.
Viewed as a business proposition, it’s not a very attractive one, but viewed as a family economy it is quite attractive. I recall reading but not exactly understanding a point Gene Logsdon raised in one of his articles on Amish economics, namely that a non-Amish farmer counts labor costs as an expense but an Amish farmer counts them as income. The reason is that an Amish farmer pays those wages to a family member, thereby keeping the money within the family economy; if, say, one of the family does $30,000 worth of work, he has actually enriched the family operation by that much.
I don’t know how Eliot Coleman staffs his operation, but I can well imagine a large family intensively working 1.5 acres of land if a few of the children were older, especially if one or two were young marrieds starting their own families. And I would think that for an extended family that was living simply and supplying most of its needs directly from the farm (food, clothing, entertainment), their collective expenses would be low enough that grossing $150,000 per year would make them relatively wealthy.
The important question is this: is the purpose of the homestead to provide comfortable incomes, even for multiple generations, or is it to create a context in which successive generations can live and thrive, i.e. reclaim an agrarian life? If generating incomes is the purpose, then I think that the small-scale farming that Eliot Coleman exemplifies is insufficient to the task; you’ll need to at least pursue along the lines that Joel Salatin has created, or perhaps beyond even that. But for the agrarian, I think that Coleman’s numbers are good news indeed.