There’s an old joke in agricultural communities:
Want to make a million dollars from farming? Start with two million.
Like many punchlines, there’s a kernel of truth to this humor. Farms are famously known for being money pits. It’s as if there’s a black hole in the center of the barnyard that sucks twenty dollar bills straight out of a farmer’s wallet. Personally, I’ve experienced this sensation on more than one occasion.
In fact, at a recent staff meeting, my crew and I spent an entire hour listing the supplies we needed for the upcoming spring season (nails, water troughs, gravel, fence boards, truck tires and market tents, to name a partial list). After we had finished, I asked, “now that we know what we need to spend, can we please talk about making some money?”
Winter is a challenging time for all farmers, but it’s especially onerous for a direct marketer like myself. Unlike most large-scale grain and livestock farms, there’s no off-season on my farm. Whereas grain farms can more or less ‘shut down’ between fall harvest and spring planting, and most big livestock farms can slow down to a hay-feeding routine, a farm like ours depends on year-round, weekly farmers markets to stay in business.
Because our farm maintains a never-ending schedule, we have year-round employees. Naturally, these folks must be paid. This requires us to maintain a constant—albeit reliably uneven—cash flow. But if food can’t grow in the winter, then how can a farm continue to create products, much less pay its bills and turn a profit?
The short answer is, it’s not easy. Historically, from January to March, our farm barely breaks even. Throw in a winter snow storm, or a couple of rainy 35 degree Saturdays at farmers markets, and our checkbook starts looking pretty scary. Regardless of how carefully I manage our finances, on days like these, I often wish I had two million dollars laying around just like in the joke.
Still, we’re able to raise amazingly high-quality food in the winter. Even though the pastures are short, the chickens and pigs grow well on corn and barley, and remain free-range even during the bleakest winter months. Our cattle and lambs eat hay during this period (they are 100% grass-fed), as they fertilize the pastures that will turn green again come April.
But hay and grain cost money. Lots of money. And it takes employees to feed the animals, as well as to staff our market booths. Compared to the ‘free’ grass of spring through autumn (and the farmers markets filled with four times as many customers during this same period), the winter months are a reliably stressful time on our bank account.
So why do we stamp our frozen feet on an icy Washington, D.C. street corner each weekend? Why not just shut the farm down in January, and read books in front of the fire?
The reason is because, on a farm like ours, seasonality is an inextricable part of our identity. The food we raise takes a long time to grow. Grass-finished steers take two full years to mature, and pasture-raised lambs take nearly a year. We keep our flock of laying hens for at least three years, and we stock our pastures with hogs monthly to make sure they grow at an even rate.
For a small farm such as ours, shutting down for the winter is almost impossible. It would require logistics of storage, timing, transportation and processing that defy small-scale capabilities. Besides, what would we do with all the fresh eggs? Seasonal challenges like these are precisely why supermarkets are so popular. It’s also the reason why most supermarket food comes from a cardboard box.
But back to the title. As the punchline suggests, for most small farms, making a million dollars is probably unrealistic. After 17 years of farming, I haven’t come close to netting a million. But growing food that I believe in—honest, nutritious, wholesome food—and interacting with grateful, appreciative customers, is the true reward in this business.
The old saying goes, “Do what you love, and the money will follow.” Each winter, we somehow manage to scrape by, and before we know it, we find ourselves wading waist-deep through spring pastures. From the top of a hillside, looking out over the fields, the view is greener than a million dollar bills.
Check out my books!
This resonates with my own heart! We are also direct-to-consumer, multi-species pasture-based farmers. And yes, I can say without a doubt, that we are the richest of all because of the lives we have with our children, close to the creation God has given us, doing something truly noble and wonderful. Despite the lack of a paycheck. 🙂
Thank you, Jerica. I know that there are many farmers like us out there, struggling through the same challenges and adversities. In this case, however, it’s less ‘misery loves company,’ and more how faith and passion can unite us all.
Keep up the great work, and stay in touch!
Very cool! Thank you. Making it through the slow season is so tough. Some of our farmer friends work at libraries for low pay in the winter. (They gain health benefits though!) I saw a hint of a green leaf under our leaf mulch this morning. Stared at it for a long time. Looking forward to Spring!
Hey Lea, thanks for the response. I’ve been lucky to have never taken an off-farm job during the winter, though there have certainly been times in my career when it might have been more profitable!
Hello, I love what you’re doing. I’m wanting to raise some organic (or close to it) hogs but have had a hard time wading though the internet for info on feed and variety of hog. Heritage hogs? Thank you very much. DF
We raise Berkshire-cross hogs on our farm, though we have raised lots of different breeds: Hampshire, Yorkshire, Tamworth, Ossabaw Island, etc.
All of these breeds do very well on pasture. The trick to raising healthy pigs is to keep their water and feed clean, provide them with fresh bedding (straw every week or two works well), and provide plenty of room for them. Preferably, they should be rotated to fresh pasture every two weeks.
Our feed ration is around 15% protein, and consists of corn, barley, wheat and a little fish meal (we use this instead of roasted soybean meal for our protein boost).
Forrest, I always enjoy reading your posts. Being a grass fed lamb producer, I can relate. We are fortunate to be in central Texas where we plant winter oats to graze the foliage of the plant from first frost until late spring, and sometimes that might be our best grazing of the year. However, that depends on rain, and we have not had near enough lately.
The farmers markets slow down a little in the winter here but, not much. I know this time of year is much tougher for you guys up north, so keep your chin up, and keep doing what you do. As you know, it’s all worth while when the loyal customers keep coming back to the market with a big smile.
I appreciate the feedback. Indeed, planting winter annuals is a GREAT way to mitigate the winter doldrums! For us, these cereals tend to go dormant for most of January and Feb, then perk back up in March… sounds like they keep plugging along for you all winter? Of course, we’re all hoping for rain for you guys. What a brutal stretch… I can hardly imagine the difficulties.
Oh, and thanks for ‘getting’ the main point of the blog: that direct-market farming isn’t about money nearly so much as it is about growing great food, living a meaningful life, and having wonderful customers. Once you get it, you get it 🙂
They can be fairly dormant for us in Jan and Feb here, too, Ideally, we keep sheep out of a few fields until then, that way there is some forage saved back. It’s green but not necessarily growing.
Good to know. Wasn’t sure if the more southerly latitudes changed the winter growing season.
I’m at your stand at the Columbia Pike farmers’ market every Sunday to get meat and eggs and lard. I’m so glad you’re there – even like last Sunday when it was freezing and I felt so sorry for your poor stand worker.
Thank you Hope! Our Columbia Pike staffer is Michelle, and even though she grew up near Buffalo and went to Syracuse, cold Sundays like last weekend are challenging for vendors and shoppers alike :^) We are very grateful that you make the special effort to support us year-round, thank you!
I’m at your stand @ Courthouse every Saturday, where we’re grateful that we can buy your wonderful eggs and sausage. There’s a synergy to the transaction – we provide money to keep the farm going, but you provide not just food, but sureness that the food we’re eating is clean and good, and trust that the cycle between us will continue. So so happy that you’re there in the winter!!!
Exactly: it’s a two-way street. We’re motivated and inspired by our customers… and knowing that they will be disappointed if we don’t show up is a big aspect of why we stay open year round.
In many ways, our farm is just like any other business: we require steady cash flow, careful budgeting, and investment in efficiency and research. But as you point out, a business like ours is about much more than just money. It’s a circle of trust that your money will be cycled back into something that you believe in, and it’s something greater than just a package of sausage or a dozen eggs. How can anyone put a price tag on that?
Thank you for supporting us at Arlington, your support means so much to our farm.
You’re at least lucky enough to have a year ’round market to sell at. We’re limited to folks coming to the farm for their milk, eggs, meat, etc. But we’re gearing up for markets when they open! Come on spring!! We’re supposed to get 6-7 inches of snow tonight. Geesh.
Ha ha, I know how you feel, Catherine. I consider myself very fortunate to have access to the markets that I do, regardless of time of year.
What a beautiful line: “From the top of a hillside, looking out over the fields, the view is greener than a million dollar bills.”
Y’know, I subscribe to Mother Earth News, and to be honest, it’s more like a fantasy publication for me at this time. I know I can make a little homestead somewhere someday when I get the courage. All I can say is, even *not* being a farmer, I’ve long since come to understand and appreciate that money does not equal *wealth,* contrary to what we’re used to chasing after in the U.S. Yes, of course you need actual dollar bills to keep the farm running, but in the grand scheme of things, the land and what you’re accomplishing with it makes you a far richer man than that million dollars ever would. (But the million bucks would still be nice!) And I don’t mean the monetary value of the land. Doing what you love, and the sense of pride and fulfillment that comes with living a “right life” — in tune with your personal values — now *that’s* wealth. (Not to mention what I’m sure are some amazing sunrises & sunsets from those green fields.)
Thanks for the nice comment, Amy. Definitely keep Mother Earth News in your reading cycle… you never know how or when some of that information will come in handy, even if it’s years down the road. I’ve been reading Stockman Grass Farmer and Acres USA for as long as I’ve been farming, and hardly an issue goes by that I don’t learn something incredibly useful.
And agreed. As important as money obviously is, it truly remains a parallel universe. On one side, bills, debts and financial struggles, and on the other, a sublime world of satisfaction, enjoyment and peace. That is, until the coyote gets into my flock of chickens!
p.s., here is a very hilarious video on this very subject, shared to me by fellow farmer Eric Plaksin. Warning, a bit of saucy language, but very funny!
Thank you for the validation. In our vocation I become occasionally frustrated by “farmers” funded by multi-million dollar organizations (and relatives). And add to your list of expenses, market application fees, municipal and state permits and liability insurance that all seem to hit at once just before the opening of seasonal markets.
Yes, I should have added farmers market application fees to the list… they all come at once! Not that I’m complaining at all about the opportunity to sell at market, but when 5 or 6 are due within a few weeks of once another, at roughly $400-600 each, it can be a huge strain. In fact, about 6 or 7 years ago, not being able to pay precisely on time nearly made me lose my spot at market… fortunately, I had a great day at market that Saturday, and was able to pay before I drove home :^)
Great post, Forrest. You speak to the challenges facing the small farmer very eloquently and knowledgeably. Best wishes for the success of the farm, season after season.
Thanks ADM, that means a lot coming from an old friend (and editor!).
Our Sundew Gardens is a market garden selling vegetables, fruit, herbs, and eggs to our local community (Orlando,Florida) through membership Upick and pre-picked “Harvest Baskets’, wholesale to restaurants and a produce retailer, and an online farmer’s market. The one marketing ploy I avoid like the plague is off-site speculative-harvested farmers market. I recently responded to one invite to be a vendor at a semi-distant (20 miles) high rent farmers market by noting all the incredible stresses involved, and that they should pay me to be a vendor. Our growing season is year round, with the hot, wet Summer our slow time (but the weeds and pests are even worse). Please visit my Sundew Gardens facebook page for photos and updates.
I’m not sure I completely understand the ‘off-site speculative-harvested’ farmers market scenario, could you explain this a little more? And we just ‘liked’ Sundew Gardens on FB! Keep up the good work, and please stay in touch.
I really try to avoid harvesting my crops on speculation that they will sell at a farmer’s market in town. Many of our other local farmers sell at several markets a week, so if what they’ve harvested doesn’t sell today, there’s always the market tomorrow. I’m a one man operation (and a few apprentices), so leaving the farm essentially shuts me down. Using a combination of the online farmer’s market, my individual CSA families that come to me, and a few restaurant and retail accounts that also come here to pick up, I’ve been able to move most of my harvests and not rely on ‘off-site speculative-harvested’ farmers market. I recognize that my location near the sprawling development of Orlando helps, but when we moved here, folks thought we were crazy for living so far out in the Florida scrub. I’m enjoying your writing very much!
Ah, I understand now. Very clever use of the Internet, especially for a one-man operation.
As an aside, this very scenario is one of the reasons we built a commercial kitchen on our farm, to help our veggie peers on days when markets are slow. But creating one’s own luck, as you’ve done, is always best :^)
I don’t care about making a million dollars – I just want to get out my cubicle and out of the city. But how? We’ve got no savings and are finally just to where we’ve got a few bucks left on payday. We don’t have the credit to take out a loan if we wanted to. We have the drive and the work ethic to make a serious go of it, but we can’t figure out how to get out of our rental house. Even if we could find a farm to rent, the chances of finding one within driving distance to work are slim to none.