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Cultivating Questions the Well-Being of Small Farmers

Cultivating Questions

Concerning the Bio-Extensive Market Garden

by Anne and Eric Nordell of Trout Run, PA

The Well-Being of Small Farmers

The topic of the column for this winter issue resulted from a swap between Bob and Bonnie Gregson of Vashon Island, WA, and ourselves. The Gregson’s ordered our video and we ordered their handbook, Rebirth of the Small Family Farm, which Lynn recommended on page 17 of the Summer ’96 issue of the Small Farmer’s Journal.

We asked the Gregson’s how we might improve our video presentation to better meet their needs. Their suggestions, just like their handbook, addressed the concerns of aspiring farmers everywhere. We hope we can return the favor by responding to their important letter in the same broad-minded way.

“…evaluating intuitively as opposed to scientifically.”


Dear Anne & Eric,

We very much enjoyed your video presentation. The whole cover cropping issue is the greatest unknown in agriculture (aside from all the other major unknowns concerning the interactions within the soil itself!) and you present it in a nice way to get the basic idea across. It’s a tough subject to come to grips with, partly because there are so many uncontrollable variables that enter each trial situation, and because things can be so different from one climatic site to another. My impression is that all the major ag colleges in the U.S. could focus totally on this subject for several decades before we would have definitive answers. But we must start somewhere! That’s what you are doing. And so are we, on a very small scale, but evaluating intuitively as opposed to scientifically.

The best thing that would help us concerning your video would be a written matrix of some kind. We got lost trying to follow and remember your sequences and timing. We also would have to sort out what applies here and what does not: slugs are a huge problem in some covers, and less so in others; we get much less summer rain than you do, so use drip tape for everything, and virtually always keep the ground covered with something – straw, grass, cover crop, ground cloth, chicken litter, or chickens themselves – then it gets very wet in the Fall, requiring great planting/tilling timing and so on. It would be interesting if your presentation included your conclusions about what is universally valid with covers, and what needs to be locally adapted. But that’s a tall order in itself!

As you will see from our little book, our focus is more on the start-up and business aspects of the farming venture. So we were curious about how many people are needed to work your farm, its economic viability now and over the long term (what would happen, for example, if Eric were no longer able to work the horses, even temporarily), how much time/resources go into dealing with horsepower vs. the Eliot Coleman tiller method, and the stellar question we worry about with all small farmers: are you working yourselves to death without adequate compensation, health insurance, etc., etc.? These latter are crucial “sustainability” issues that sometimes get overlooked in the popular press – the health and well-being of the farmers themselves, their families, and workers.

Keep up the good work. Your philosophy is wonderful. We’ll read your columns and look forward to personal discussions someday!

Best Wishes, Bob & Bonnie Gregson

Cultivating Questions the Well-Being of Small Farmers

“…the financial and personal well-being of small farmers.”

Since we have focused our past articles on the biological aspects of our operation, we thought we would begin our response with the Gregson’s concern about the financial and personal well-being of small farmers. We will then try to detail the costs of our animal-powered operation, saving the cover cropping questions and rotation chart for the end of the column.

First of all, we must confess that we hope “to work ourselves to death” because the alternatives just don’t sound that appealing! That inclination is not because we are workaholics. To the contrary, come winter we could be certified as organic couch potatoes. But we really do love the work of farming together and so far that gets us through the exhausting summer months in the market garden.

As for adequate monetary compensation, when we started farming here in 1983, we figured that a gross income of $15,000 would cover our immediate business and living expenses. We met that modest goal in three years. To include “luxuries” like health insurance, and to keep up with inflation, we made our next goal $25,000. Last year we grossed $30,000.

This increase in farm income did not come from expanding acreage in production or planting more intensively, but from fine-tuning our cultivation practices, developing new markets, and slowly-but-surely bringing direct market sales in line with organic wholesale prices. We could probably improve our gross considerably if we were willing to truck our produce 4-5 hours to New York City or Washington, D.C., to cash in on organic retail prices. However, the time spent on the road would compromise our quality of life and our commitment to provide down-to-earth food to the nearby Williamsport area.

From our perspective, $30,000 seems like a respectable return from less than 3-1/2 acres of unirrigated produce. Whether it is adequate compensation for eight months of labor really depends on individual circumstances and expectations. We are living a full life and paying the bills, but we are in the unusual position for farm couples our age of not having children or a mortgage to pay.

Considering that we had family money to work with to help capitalize the farm, we also took an unusual approach to reducing financial stress: Instead of going into debt to purchase prime farmland close to a large market, we bought relatively inexpensive land in a relatively remote area and invested the remainder in community loan funds and other farmers. We felt that diversifying our income over many farms and communities would help to minimize risk just like diversifying the crops on our farm. And the interest from these loans covered our costs during the critical start-up years and now goes toward our retirement.

What may be more relevant to aspiring farmers is our farm’s bottom line: Annual out-of-pocket costs just for raising the crops in the market garden have run between $3-4,000 over the past few years, primarily for feed, seed and minerals. Our total business expenses, as calculated for I.R.S., came to $15,000. That includes the feed, seed, and “fertilizer” mentioned above plus repairs, depreciation, improvements (we finally wired the packing shed and installed a small walk-in cooler), taxes, 75% of electricity, fuel and phone, farm and office supplies, and so on. Given that many of these so-called business expenses cover a good deal of our living expenses or represent long-term farm improvements, we consider our net to be much higher than fifty percent.

One of the reasons our net may appear to be a relatively high proportion of our gross is that we do not pay ourselves, or anyone else, hourly wages. To be more specific, we do not hire outside help for the actual work in the market garden. We are willing to pay our neighbors for other tasks when this allows us to devote our full attention to what we do best.

For example, in our minds, buying feed for the animals from area farmers frees us up during the critical cultivation months of June, July and August. It also saves us the expense of purchasing and maintaining field crop equipment. For similar reasons, we hire a local custom operator to clip the pastures annually and we employ Justin, our teenage neighbor, to mow our large lawn. Justin enjoys helping Anne run our stand at the Saturday farmer’s market, guaranteeing me at least one full day each week to catch up on field work.

Cultivating Questions the Well-Being of Small Farmers

The Gregson’s question about sustaining the health and well-being of farmers kind of hit home as I had to learn how to contend with a chronic digestive disorder when we first started farming here. While this minor handicap definitely limited our farming efforts, it also helped us to plan some slack into our operation right from the beginning. It forced us to focus our energy where it would be most effective and encouraged us to rely more on observation and management than muscle to get the job done – lessons we might not have otherwise learned until later in life. As a result, we may have been slower than most in bringing the market garden into full production, but our limitations, in a round about way, may have encouraged us to bring some biological efficiencies into play which have made the work easier and more rewarding in the long run.

One of the drawbacks of not having hired labor or an intern program is that we have no one trained in the details of our operation to take over in the event either one of us were disabled. In fact, the two of us have become so specialized over the years it would not be easy for either of us to cover for the other.

To be truthful, our small business would suffer much more from Anne being out of commission than if I needed down time. I am completely out of touch with the direct market sales Anne has developed in recent years and now represents the bulk of our farm income.

Anne, on the other hand, is familiar with all aspects of the fieldwork. Despite her busy schedule, it is not unusual for her to take a turn at the lines on occasion, giving us both a break from our usual routines. She also has seven years experience operating mechanized field equipment so I can rest assured the fieldwork would get done one way or another. However, neither one of us can imagine continuing the farm alone in its present form because its design, purpose, and meaning is so much a part of both of us.

It is also true that Becky and Buster have become so specialized in the work they do that farm life would become much more difficult if either one of them filed for workhorse compensation. We have come to depend on them as much as we depend on each other to keep our operation running smoothly. In this respect, and many others, it might be more appropriate to compare work animals to farm partners rather than machinery.

Unfortunately, we are not in a position to compare the costs between live horsepower and the Eliot Coleman tiller method because we do not have any firsthand experience with this sort of walk-behind tractor. We do suspect that simply substituting one power source for the other might be pretty awkward, if not disastrous. Somehow we can’t imagine working Becky and Buster in the Gregson’s beautifully manicured gardens of permanent raised beds any more than we can imagine fallowing our half-acre strips with a tiller.

Right from the start we recognized that horses are farm animals. So we tried to design the market garden to resemble a traditional diversified farm operation as much as possible. For example, our mix of cash crops, cover crops and fallow lands mimics the rhythm of traditional field crop rotations, spreading the horses labor over more months of the growing season than a conventional till-and-plant operation and creating more time and space for the horses than might be found in an intensively planted garden. In short, our bio-extensive approach to vegetable production is an attempt to keep both the land and the horses in working condition.

Up front costs for horse-powered market gardening: We purchased Becky as a 2-year-old from a neighbor for $700. Anne picked out Buster for $540 at the Middleburg Auction. Our mixed-and-matched collection of harness, bridles, collars and lines has added up to around $400. The total for the horsedrawn equipment we regularly use in the market garden comes close to $2,000 and includes a walking plow, potato plow, mowing machine, manure spreader, box wagon, two riding cultivators, one walking cultivator, springtooth harrow, disc, “ridger”, and cultipacker.

One of the big differences between horsepower and a walking tractor that comes to mind is the cost of shelter. A tarp or small storage shed would probably do for the tiller, but with our long winters a barn for protecting the animals, feed and tack sure comes in handy. The $650/ acre we paid for the land included a very liveable house and barn so our costs for these structures seem relatively negligible. Building a barn, on the other hand, would be a real financial consideration.

It is difficult for us to itemize the maintenance costs of the horses because their care is pretty well integrated into the way the whole barn works. In fact, we tend to look at the barn as a “whole” for accounting purposes because the barn is where we process off-farm inputs into a form suitable to enliven the land.

Since we stopped putting up our own feed our whole barn costs have ranged from $1,500 to $3,000 a year. Into the barn goes feed, bedding and minerals for both livestock and compost as well as vet bills and animal purchases. Out of the barn comes all of the power and fertility for the market garden except for lime and cover crop seed. The barn also provides us with all of the soup birds and eggs we can eat as well as six to seven dozen “compost run” eggs to sell each week. We have raised and sold 12 foals over the last 15 years from the two mares stabled in the barn. And each fall, two 500 pound porkers leave the farm for the soup kitchen in town.

Separating out just the horse portion of the whole barn economy is beyond our bookkeeping abilities. For example, most of the hay ($900 in 1995) and straw ($440) for our four horses is recycled as feed and bedding for the pigs, chickens and compost. Some of the straw is also used directly on the fields for mulching the medicinal herbs, strawberries and cut flower beds. Likewise, over half of the oats ($85) we sprout for our flock of three dozen hens with another 10-12 bushels going for cover crop seed. Most of the shelled corn ($195) goes to the pigs and chickens. But is it feed? Or fuel for composting?

The hour a day we estimate for basic barn chores includes both care of the animals and compost management. The actual time spent on the horses during the busy summer months is minimal because they do most of their feeding, watering and grooming out on pasture overnight. When the team is needed in the fields we must figure in another half hour for harnessing, unharnessing, washing down and watering. And on those days when we need to clean stalls, mix minerals or doctor a horse, barn chores might stretch to two hours. Finally, our “barn accounting” does not track the time and resources which go into improving and maintaining our badly neglected pasture.

Now that we have gone to the trouble of detailing the costs of our animal-powered market garden, we must admit that our choice of using horses over tractors or tillers was not so much a question of economics as simply a love of working horses. And that love of working horses continues to sustain our interest in farming.

Finally, the Gregson’s cover cropping question. What is universal about our cover cropping system and what is site-specific?

Our impression is that cover crop selection really needs to be tailored to each operation because no two farms or farmers are alike. In fact, market gardeners just 10 miles north of here use a different mix of cover crops than we do to accommodate their soil type, microclimate and time constraints. We like to think that cover crop selection, just like breed selection, is one of those variables which make each small farm unique.

We do feel that the principles behind what we call Controlled Rotational Cover Cropping may be universal. We say that only because we have borrowed those principles from traditional cropping systems which have stood the test of time.

We won’t take the space now to detail those principles but refer you, instead, to Crop Rotations Today in the Winter ’92 issue of the Small Farmer’s Journal. For the time being, it is enough to point out that most vegetable crops make pretty poor substitutes for the field and forage crops in old time rotations when it comes to soil building and weed control. We figured that cover crops would make better replacements. After much trial and error we eventually pieced together cover crop sequences which reproduce the rotation effect of traditional cropping patterns and give us the kind of control we are looking for in the market garden. In this respect, it is the rotational aspect of our cover cropping system, not the cover crops themselves, which may be universal.

So what does a cover crop rotation that mimics traditional cropping patterns look like as a “written matrix”? Remember, YOU asked for it! We stopped handing out these rotation charts (see box below) because of the confused look it produced on peoples faces. For those of you really interested in tackling the chart, here are some tips which may help with understanding it: Below the black line we have indicated some of the rotational principles we have borrowed from traditional cropping systems. We laid out those patterns to correspond with the crop progression diagrammed above the black line. For instance, the annual alternation between cash crops and fallow lands is highlighted by the shading of the columns. Rotating the types and timing of tillage and compost applications is just another variation on this age-old theme. But of most importance to us is how the rotation between early and late planted crops sets the cover crop sequences in motion.

Cultivating Questions the Well-Being of Small Farmers

Believe it or not, there are just two cover crop sequences which we consider the building blocks of this rotation chart:

  1. Rye/bar fallow/Oats and Peas/EARLY PLANTED CROPS/Clover
  2. Clover/bare fallow/Rye and Vetch/LATE PLANTED CROPS/Rye

We guarantee you that the significance of these cover crop sequences will become much clearer in the context of how we developed them in “A Few Long Furrows” (Spring, 1993, SFJ).

The portion of the chart above the black line suggests how these two cover crop sequences fit into the whole rotation over both time and space. For example, if we were looking across the market garden in early spring, we might see a cover crop of rye and vetch in the first field, a rye cover in the second field, lettuce-peas-spinach in the third field, a cover crop of clover in the fourth, and so on across the 12 half-acre strips.

If we were able to watch the rotation unfold over time, the first year in the field would start the spring in a live cover of rye and vetch which is skim plowed before the potatoes planted in early summer. After this LATE crop of potatoes is harvested there is usually time to get a cover crop of rye established before winter. The second year in this field the rye is deep plowed midsummer before a brief bare fallow period followed by a cover of oats and peas seeded late summer. The oats and peas die back over winter so they do not appear on the chart in year three when EARLY leaf crops like lettuce, peas and spinach are planted first thing in the spring. These cash crops, in turn, are harvested early enough in the season for an overseeding of clover to get well established before freeze-up. The clover, in turn, is plowed down in the summer of year four to begin another bare fallow period. We seed rye and vetch after the fallow in preparation for the LATE planted cash crops in year five. This four year pattern repeats itself two more times over the 12 year cycle, with different cash crops filling the EARLY and LATE slots.

Please keep in mind that the progression of cash crops and cover crops outlined in this chart are tailored specifically to our markets and site. It would be a rea mistake to try to replicate our rotation in detail somewhere else. Our intention for the chart was simply to show how many aspects of the market garden can be rotated in different overlapping patterns. We assure you that putting these patterns in place is not as complicated as it looks. As one recent visitor summed up our system: “JUST KEEP THINGS MOVING.”

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