Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Making A Living From Gardening

"As we awaken to the realities in store for us in a future defined by declining net energy, concerns about food security, adequate nutrition, community resilience, and reliable income commonly arise.
Small-scale farming usually quickly surfaces as a pursuit that could help address all of these. Yet most dismiss the idea of becoming farmers themselves; mainly because of lack of prior experience, coupled with lack of capital. It simply feels too risky.

The refrain we most frequently hear is: I think I'd love doing it, but I don't know how I'd make a living.

Enter Jean-Martin Fortier and his wife, Maude-Hélène. They are a thirtysomething couple who have been farming successfully for the past decade. In fact, they've been micro-farming: their entire growing operations happen on just an acre and half of land.

And with this small plot, they feed over 200 families. And do so profitably.

The Fortiers are pioneers of the type of new models we're in such need of for the coming future. Fortunately, they realize this, and are being as transparent about their operations as they can -- in order to educate, encourage and inspire people to join the emerging new generation of small-scale farmers.

They have published a book, The Market Gardener, which is nothing short of an operating manual for their entire business. In it, they reveal exactly what they grow, how they grow it, what tools and farming practices they use, who their customers are, what they charge them, and how much profit they take home at the end of the day.
A quick summary of the numbers from their 1.5 acre operation:
  • 2013 revenue: $140,000
  • Customer sales breakdown:
    • CSA operations (140 members): 60%
    • Farmer's markets (2): 30%
    • Restaurants/grocery stores: 10%
  • Staff: 2 paid employees + the Fortiers
  • 2013 Expenses: $75,000
  • 2013 Profit: $65,000 (~45% profit margin)
Their initial start up costs were in the $40,000 range. Not peanuts; but fairly low by most new business standards.

Did I mention they're doing this in Quebec? (translation: colder, and shorter natural growing season vs most of North America)

Learning to do more with less, and doing it sustainably, will be a key operating principle for future prosperity. Here's a model that shows it's possible to do both, and have good quality of life, to boot.

We need more of these."

This is an extreme example but a thought provoker after yesterday's sad state of affairs on entrepreneurial enterprise.  I have done part of what this model suggests but never taken the big jump to make it a living.

Is this feasible?

Ed

5 comments:

  1. There is a lot of interest in this type of farming. People are making it work. It is somewhat recession proof. For some weird reason it seems that when money is tight and people really have to think about where they are spending their money, they will put a priority on good food. It may also have to do with the issue that people will buy food if it is cheap and not care that much that it doesn't taste all that good. But, when food prices start to rise, you start to notice the wooden taste of the tomatoes and strawberries and you look for alternatives.
    I would like to do something like this but it is hard to get the production ag concept out of your head. That, and it is hard physical work, and you have to deal with multiple customers...

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    Replies
    1. You know, I lived that way most of my life and I don't miss the hard labor. I have got it down to the lowest amount of labor for the highest amount of food I can produce, probably $1000 worth of veggies for 100 hours or so investment.

      Ed

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  2. I am sure we'll see much more of these initiatives, there is also a growing market for indoor farming, like they do extensively in Chicago, repurposing abandoned factory buildings. That's why I call "tray farming", as you can grow 5 to 8 crops on the same acreage, on as many superposed trays. The only limiting factor is cheap energy, which some locations have for cheap (hydro, solar), and local access to water, but it is already profitable even in expensive cities. Indoor farming has great advantages to outdoors: No pests and no nutrient leaching (recycled via a close loop), and this industry is already highly automated and robotized, not just the obvious lighting, watering, temperature and moisture control, but also the manipulation of the trays. Within a few years, the whole cycle from planting to harvesting and packaging will be entirely automated, so no more "hard physical work", Budde! ;)

    Fish farming is also exploding and seems to make a nice close loop with vegetable farming, as you can use the fish manure to fertilize your crops. There is a lot of talk about "tower farming", where a whole multistory greenhouse building is built for this sole purpose, there are a couple already in Asia, I think in Taiwan, where the cost of land is prohibitive, but I still think it's an expensive and unsustainable fad. What is more likely to develop is "underground farming" like some guys do already in London's disused bomb shelters.

    Like Budde said, it's not for the individual, you can't just take the tractor or combine and process a quarter section on your own. I think it's a good thing in many ways: First, it provides much more jobs per acre, and it also makes people more connected with farming. Most consumers don't feel any connection with farmers who grow corn and soybean, i.e. nothing that they see on their table in that form. It's mostly for animal feed or processed by the food industry, but it's not a tangible food they eat directly.

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  3. Thank you sirs:

    "That is not as far fetched as some would think.

    A poor down trodden Black Man put 4 kids through school growing vegetables on empty lots in Houston.

    True Houston has a 12 month gardening calendar. Which helps.

    Equipment was something like a rotor tiller, a trailer to haul the tiller, and a PU to pull the trailer and deliver the produce.

    College is not all that difficult. Most Counties have a Community College where the basics can be picked up. In fact now most high schools have a Honors program where the kids can take college level courses that count for their high school as well as full college credit.

    Then Houston, like many other areas have a State College ( University now ). You can live at home have a minimum wage job and attend college all at the same time.

    Now Houston is a city full of men with limited opportunities. Still they made the effort and have prospered.


    In this town is a now 50 year old with the best income in the town. He has a garbage business. Started out with a high sided flat bed PU and he threw garbage on and then off at the dump.
    You do the math He has a paid for full fledged garbage truck, has more than 2,000 customer who pay a minimum of $20 for trash PU. Now that would not work in Houston, as Houston is like most cities, they own all their services. Out here the towns own nothing and three servers pick up trash, at less cost than the City Wide Operations.

    After WWII an American family of Japanese descent moved to Eastern Pennsylvania and did much as the Canadian Fortier family.

    Your Blog's article should be an inspiration for many. As you say few will answer the door when opportunity knocks. "

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