Gainful Farming
Gainful Farming

Gainful Farming

by Lynn R. Miller of Singing Horse Ranch

Two voices. One says; “We need to make money farming. Tell me what I want to hear and make me believe it is so.” The other says; “The biological health of the planet is endangered and agriculture is a big culprit. Tell me what I want to hear and make me believe it is so.”

Ten thousand dollars gross per productive farming acre and a healthier piece of the planet to boot. Count on it. Plan for it. Settle for nothing less. Assume it is yours.

But first throw away your membership in the industrial model. And second be prepared to pare down your operation to a size that will allow you the best chance to reach that plateau.

This is about making money with a small farm but this is not about how many tons or pounds we might produce of a given product per acre. This is about how we value what we do and who we are. This is about what price we put on that which we sell. This is about the magnetic attraction we build and/or allow around ourselves, our families, and our farms. This is about how we put ourselves out there to the public.

If it is true that success breeds more success, if it is true that health breeds health, if it is true that gain begets more gain, with the cautions in place to protect what is best of us and our efforts, we can make ours a gainful farming. Everybody and every living thing needs it to be so.

Small scale family-based diversified organic farming and ranching is the answer to both concerns, both questions, both needs: gain and health.

Industrial agriculture, and I include the new monocultural, federally sanctioned, corporate “moreganic” (my word) farming, has been all about getting people off the land. And it has poisoned our land, water and imaginations.

We need people back on the land NOW, by the thousands, by the millions. For the sake of the quality and safety of our food supply, for the fabric of the peopled countryside, for the health of the planet and for the spirit of those would-be farmers. The primary issues, in my view, are scales of operation and measures of human involvement. Smaller operations with more people on each unit create the best climate for a conservation rich organic farming that pays well.

And the public is hearing it all. The messages are reaching into almost every kitchen on this continent. People are afraid for their food and shopping for health, and people are re-engaging with flavor and natural diets.

Industrial chemical agriculture, across the expanse of the U.S., still proudly claims a net return to its farmers variously averaging $200 to $600 per acre with costs between $600 and $1200 per acre per year. Ridiculous. This is a recipe for continued wholesale bankruptcy for individual farmers (while it gives fantastic profitability to vertically integrated corporate holding companies). And it is a recipe for greater and greater dependency on foreign-grown and processed food stuffs. Which in turn means that we as a continent will have gone from self-sufficiency to dependent status in less than fifty years and at the expense of human dignity, health, diversity and our environment.

While on the other hand a true family-based organic agriculture, and its many tangents, requires an exciting broad spectrum of support industries; from seeds to baby chicks, from packaging options to soil amendments, from specialty tools and attachments to …you name it. All this will regenerate small rural communities while rebuilding our endangered biological health. And those are the side effects! What would come first is food self-sufficiency and farmer profitability. And this magnificent possibility is all within our grasp, individually and collectively!

I am charged with the challenging task of sharing my conviction that the small family farm model today, more than any other time in our recent history, holds the key to new health for all of our biological world, to attractive gainful sustenance for the farmers, and ultimately to purposeful human sanctuary.

I’d rather work in the magnificent solitude of my fields or my painting studio, or in the ultimate communion with my work horses, but I am drawn out, not because I think I am the one who has the answers (I am convinced we all have the answers) but because I am concerned at what seems to be a wholesale collective silent fear to do what should be done – to say what needs saying – to turn away from what is demeaning and destructive. It is the fear which holds us back. It is the fear which prevents those of us who are farmers, and want to be farmers, from being as successful as we should be.

Many are concerned that their actual or dreamed of farming ventures can never be profitable, never successful. They want to be shown simple solutions to dramatic profitability. They want to be shown, in good lighting and at a safe distance behind a one way mirror, the face of the enemy who would keep them from their goal.

It might surprise some of you to hear me say this; there are simple solutions and the enemies can be shown to you. But I humbly suggest that you will never be able to grasp the solutions and make the enemies go away until you find your focus. If we look hard to solution and to cause we are loosing sight of where we are going. The solutions will present themselves to you as welcome overflow or excess if you look away from them and towards your true goal. And when you have that target in sight the courage will come to you and the enemies will sluff off like so much dead skin.

I am a fortunate man. I have said it before and often. It has become for me a personal prayer of gratitude. For all of my adult life I have been immersed in work which restores me, defines me, hands me forward to each new day thankful, and humming in my wakefulness. All the elements and aspects of my life’s work have come of my own choosing. It has been difficult at times, and the difficulties have added beauty, terror and purpose. I am not successful by conventional measure, some might rightly say I am a poor farmer and poorer artist, but I love my life. And by my own measure I am wildly successful.

It matters a great deal how we see what we do, how we define it, where we shelve our self-estimation. I have insisted from the beginning that this publishing venture, the SFJ, always be seen, known, and felt as a product of our farming. This journal is farm produce. In this way it has always been easier for me to make decisions about the future of the publishing and its relationship to everything else we do. It’s a complete circle because we insist on it being so. I am convinced that this publishing effort, which produces the magazine and the books, could not exist if we weren’t out chopping thistles, watering crops, repairing fence, harvesting carrots, harnessing horses, and collecting eggs. Every penny we earn from the publishing business goes into the same pot with every penny we earn from selling beef or juniper berries or work horses, etc. And every penny then goes back out, to not only pay the expense of all the ventures but also to help people and to create new constructive efforts. No penny is ever kept. Often we find there are not enough pennies but that modest occasional insolvency is of our own doing. Because we choose to see all these efforts connected, our “farming” venture is by some measures phenomenally successful. We have thousands of customers who are our friends spread over 65 countries worldwide.

Out on our ranch I was rebuilding fence with my friend John Bruner and we were lapsing on occasion into snatches of conversation about farming and philosophy. John’s a true farmer at heart and his wife Kim has had articles published on these pages. He knows I am a painter as well. At one point he asked, “What makes something art?”

I answered, “When I can see through that thing, into the soul of the person who created it and beyond, to a mirrored back wall where I am shown myself.” And then I instantly felt humiliated for the overblown expression; it was presumptive and arrogant of me. John, on the other hand, seemed appreciative if not somewhat bewildered. Until we said in unison “a good farm is a work of art.”

At another point we were talking of the long term plans for the ranch and John asked of my goals. I answered, “I would like it to be more profitable, yes, but that must come from our own choices made within our own values. More money is not our primary goal for this place. In fact it is no goal at all, though it may be an outcome.”

“What then is the goal?” he asked.

“Ever greater fertility and health,” I answered.

“You know you’re crazy man, that’s a crazy way,” he responded laughing. “But I know you are right. In this day and age people have lost their way.”

Perhaps, but I believe they know instinctively, intuitively, where they belong, where they came from, what holds the greatest promise, the picture they hold on the back wall of their mind to keep, as my buddy John Erskine is fond of saying, the forked end down. In other words to help them keep their sanity.

Just a few days ago we received this titanic, quixotic and heart wrenching letter which speaks to 4th dimensional circles within circles and the true gains of farming;

Hi Lynn, Kristi, Scout and the whole Gang,

Great editorial in the Summer ’02. It was good that it was a little late, because when it does arrive I go into almost terminal melancholy. I agree we should advocate the small farm; I think it was the only true culture we ever had, and believe me I would be there even at my age if it were possible. Given the cost of land and the needed items to do the job, it seems impossible. As a matter of fact, I was just looking for land around Durango, Colorado and the Four Corners Area. Forget it, the cost excludes paying for it from farming unless you are as you mention in the editorial, Doctor/ Farmer. What about Farmer/Farmer? It seems that to pay for a farm it takes more than the farm. The pure farmer just may be extinct. How can I think of supporting the farm from the income alone when a mower sells for $2,300, a team of horses for thousands, taxes out of control and a government run by big oil companies, with a puppet president? The USDA and Farm Bureau trying very hard to see to it that the small farmer is an extinct species. Your point about feeding those in need, it sure would make more sense to educate them and give them the tools to work with, like the project in Mexico. Instead we bomb them because they have nothing to offer and we can have their resources anyway.

We applied, all seven of us, Jane and the five kids and myself, to the Peace Corps. We were scheduled for Sierra Leone to teach farming methods, but Nixon canceled the family program just before we were to leave.

I’ll tell you a little story. Back around about when the Journal was started, in 1974, my wife, five kids and myself bought a farm in Minnesota. Two hundred acres for $25,000 abandoned, no plumbing, small barn, and we were not sure if the well was any good. We had $3,000 to our name, part of which $2,000 went for a down payment. Ex-New York City kids, we had a VW Bus and hope. We loaded up in California and headed east. The farm was life itself. You knew you were alive every minute, with growth, decay, life and death all around. We got a wonderful team of Belgian mares, very well broke, for $2,500 (borrowed money) and between an old timer, and the mares, I learned by doing. My mentor really was glad to see tractors come in because he had seen so much abuse and mistreatment of horses in the old days. We mowed with the horses, made hay with loader, and put hay up loose in the barn. We milked 13 jerseys by hand, and sent milk in cans. Every day, summer and winter, we hauled with the horses up to the road for milk pickup. The kids were taught in a one-room schoolhouse we rented for the purpose because the local school was rather cold to some hippies from California. We lived more life on that farm than I thought possible. We had help from our neighbors from day one with equipment and labor, and returned in kind. We sold out in the late 70’s and made a trek back west. Why? I really don’t know, maybe that glass was full and new adventures needed to be looked at. The bucolic dream seemed unreachable because of all the world in its haste had heaped upon our generation. We made our way up in the job scene to get our family raised and earn an income. I designed printed circuit boards for Hewlett Packard and Jane managed a small software office. The kids all in college or beyond.

We were only making money and really not living. We got the inevitable wake up call in spades. Jane got cancer and my daughter came home from San Francisco with ulcerated colitis so bad she really came home to die. We had kept in touch with our neighbors in Minnesota over the years. Our bond with them was strong, and I just off handed called and in the conversation they told me that the farm we had owned was up for sale. It seems the well had collapsed and the owners did not have the funds to put in a new one. FHA was selling him out. Jane had just finished chemo, my daughter had major surgery. I decided to see what the sell out was all about. I flew back to Minnesota and bought the farm back for $55,000. We quit our jobs and went back to Minnesota. The house was empty and badly vandalized, but its 100+ years showed through with grace and beauty. We had a new well put in, but had to go 600 feet because the upper layers were polluted with nitrates and the well had to be grouted all the way down to keep the upper water out ($12,000).

We fixed up the house with love and care, placed the cook stove in its original spot in the kitchen (we hauled it around for years). The 401k was gone. Our Amish neighbors, who we really enjoyed, gave us a lot of help and we returned in kind. One morning at 3 A.M. Amos knocked on the door. Mary had to go to the hospital to deliver number 12 and Jane got her to the hospital around 5 A.M. She delivered her healthy baby and they were back home in her kitchen by 9 A.M. But she did get the rest of the day off. My Amish neighbors helped me to build a one story barn – comfort stalls, rubber cow mats, a great milk house, with pipeline, etc. We had above average cows, our herd average was 27,600 pounds of milk and 1178 fat. I had a two-year-old heifer that milked 32,000 pounds on her first lactation. Had a bunch of sows with an eight pig per litter average and loved the whole operation. Now the farm had to pay its way after investing all of our money. The farm was in set aside for ten years, with five years left to go and it paid $5,200 per year. The fields, which I had put in contour strips in the 70’s, were all overgrown and I purchased all my feed and hay. I reasoned without the capital investment in machinery I would do better. I bought the best hay from Canada, protein tested and as green as the day it was put up.

Well, money was tight, our needs were always second to the stock, and the price of milk and feeder pigs went in the toilet. At $10 per 100 pounds of milk and $25 for feeder pigs, we did not last long. All the love you have for the land and the animals, with all the soul you put into it, when someone else is telling you what they will pay for your products, it just makes it impossible. To have little or no control is disheartening to put it mildly. I know the ideal situation is to sell direct, or at a local market, but in an outlying farm situation, that just doesn’t work. We have to rely on fair markets that are not manipulated. We sold out and the folks who wanted to buy the farm were a wonderful young couple, with kids, just as we were back in the 70’s. They were $25,000 short of what the bank would lend, so I sold it to them anyway. They said they would pay it from the set aside money and were true to their word.

The farm gets into your soul and it can never be extracted. To this day, Jane and I have dreams where we wake up with a start because we dreamt we had not milked the cows today or had not watered the horses.

So that’s why the melancholy. I would do it all again in a heartbeat. We dream of it almost daily and talk of it often. Then we look at our bank account. Now that we have Social Security coming in, we could just farm and not worry about money. With all our memories and experiences of butchering, cheese making, canning, when to cut hay and grain, livestock care, calving, gardening and of course the horses. We know we could make it. But alas, the world has passed us by. It’s a good thing to have the Journal to keep the juices flowing and just maybe we will make it back to turn spring earth, harvest a crop, have the crib full of corn, the granary full of grain, the sweet smells from the kitchen, wood split and ready and then savor the winter respite, with warm visits to contented animals in a warm barn. I have two auction posters from our farm on the wall – they are 15 years apart. I view them with sadness. The place I love and need to be is the Sandpoint show and the SFJ auction to see and feel that energy. To tell me my love for all things of the farm is a real thing – a little quote from Thich Nhat Hanh follows. Because when you farm you are always in the present moment.

“Our true home is in the present moment. To live in the
present moment is a miracle. The miracle is not to walk on
water. The miracle is to walk on the green earth in the
present moment.

To appreciate the peace and beauty that is available
now. Peace is all around us, in nature, the universe, and
within us. In our bodies and spirits. Once we learn to touch
this place, we will be healed and transformed. It is not a
matter of faith, but a matter of practice.”

-Thich Nhat Hahn

Keep the SFJ coming. It is truly a light in the wilderness.
Bob Faller

Bob would have us believe his is a tragic story. Yes, the story leaves me breathless and sore but without tragic feeling for it is clear to me that the Faller family has known and knows the secrets of joyful purpose. I know first hand, as many of you do, what it means to have dreams ripped from me by circumstances seeming outside our control. One part of me whispers that the gentle, proper thing to do is to commiserate and feign an offering of comfort to the teller of such tales. No, I won’t do that anymore. I won’t, can’t, pretend that ours are impossible dreams. They are possible. At the clear risk of angering my friend Bob, and many more who share his conviction, I must say that our North American world of small farms and ranches is populated by thousands of folks (both too young and too old, too green and too bold) who through perserverence, slight of hand, and good fortune found the accessible and/or affordable land, found the affordable mower and team, and worked like heat seeking missiles until they found, no matter how distant or difficult, that marketing opportunity* which helped to put them on the self-sustaining GAIN side of the equation.

* I know of many farmers who regularly travel hundreds of miles to deliver retail produce or set up farmer’s market stands. And even of some who do more than one market and maintain routes. Still others have worked for years to develop highly profitable marketing clubs and CSAs where the customers do the traveling. One family traveled from southern California to Nebraska in the winter time to deliver semi loads of oranges to church organized buyers. Of course each opportunity means a new challenge to time management and focus. But the challenges well-met translate to gain.

And, as I said, we understand first hand what it means to lose. I have not wanted to speak of this before now but back in the eighties I lost my coast farm to a voluntary foreclosure. I was paying 20% interest on top of an inflated land price. Maybe I could have saved that farm, the decision was complicated by having to choose between that farm which I loved and this publication which is so important. I chose to keep the publication going and signed the farm back over to the man I bought it from forfeiting a huge investment and the entire right half of my soul. My soul has almost regrown and healed, we have this place, magnificent beyond our imagination, and I have changed. Faced with similar challenges I might not make the same choice today. And I don’t have to reach very far back to check my pulse, only to yesterday.

We have had a terrible summer, one during which I, in a dark cloud, wondered after the future of our farming. We could not permit it to go away. We might fail with this season but the venture had to be held together. And the way we did it was through perseverance and by looking for the opportunities in our disasters. We did it by looking hard for the path to gain.

How do we find ourselves, or put ourselves, on the top side of this business/ craft of farming? How do we go to the “gain” side of the equation? We want to be making money of course but if we aren’t careful with our goal we may succeed and lose at the same time. We may make plenty of money, through a maze of compromises, and find ourselves completely miserable in what we do. How do we make good income with substantive gain above and beyond our expenses without value-altering compromise?

It’s about building projects. I don’t mean as in building a shed or house or fence, though any of those will work. I mean as in the formalized, personalized, process of planning to build something, doing the work and sitting back for a few minutes to admire the outcome, swelling with satisfaction and purpose and setting out to do the next project. This is one positive structural example of gain.

So often we find ourselves bogged down with the minutiae of worry, maintenance and chores that we miss out on the important thrill of accomplishment. We need to allow ourselves to be carried aloft, often, to those wonderful modest moments when we have that energizing realization of having completed a designated project, no matter how small.

“Ah, look at that fence!”

Because when we find ourselves energized and thankful it is far easier to keep in focus why we do what we do. It is easier to say no to compromise and no to the seductive promise of increased scale.

Here are a few simple(?) solutions to the challenge of gainful farming.

First: GET OUT of the industrial mindset. Ever since WWII, farmers across North America have allowed themselves to be hornswoggled into thinking they HAD TO produce large quantities of a certain crop and sell it at rock bottom wholesale prices to middlemen. They believed, and still believe, that to do otherwise is to be less than a farmer. What utter nonsense! What self-destructive sacrificial bunk!

Farmers are craftsmen, artisans, stewards and managers. To keep the first three alive a different sort of attention has to be paid to the fourth. As manager you must avoid the intoxicant of GROSS numbers and always focus on the net. It’s not what we make farming, it’s what we keep. It is indicative of our bankrupt age that all of us are quickly attracted to an operation that shows a gross of $400,000 (with NO net or profit) and completely unimpressed with a gross of $75,000 that shows a net in dollars of $60,000 and a potential net in other aspects of far more than the gross! (That’s one of those magic concepts that accountants lose sleep over.They insist that the net return may never be greater than the gross. But they also insist that intangible returns not be included in the gross or the net.)

One of the greatest concerns for modern, so-considered, civilized men and women is health. Huge amounts of money are spent on health, even to the point of creating artifice to give us exercise and harmony. And folk work entire lifetimes to try to amass the funds to be able in their golden years to finally do that which they want so that they might feel connected to life, so that they might feel purpose. We fret and fume over the condition of society and schools when it comes to the development of our children. And we gnash our teeth at night worrying about poisons in our food. It is a recipe for societal ulceration. And it all carries a large price tag.

When we measure the net gain of our farming we need, as thoughtful managers, to give a value to all expenses and ALL returns. This is how we might show a net in excess of the monetary gross.

When we give fair value to the increase in soil fertility which resulted from our year’s work, when we give value to our healthy state of mind, when we give value to the quality of food we enjoy, when we give value to the strength and humor of our children, when we give value to the produce we have retained to feed back to our livestock, when we give value to the increases that are saved seed, tree growth, natural selection-driven genetic improvements, capital improvements to facilities, and community character – when we give value to all these things and see the longer view, gain becomes an approachable reality.

I have a friend who purchased a bag of wild bird seed and scattered it across a remaining quarter acre of tilled ground on his small farm. He didn’t want the land to go unprotected to be carried off by the winds and water. No practiced sense of what the outcome might mean. It was an impulse driven by the desire to give his wife a little patch of flowers and to protect the soil. Sunflowers and assorted other beauties came up lush and he picked bouquets for his wife. They picked more bouquets and sold them to neighbors and passers by and to local stores for resale. This friend said to me that he was surprised to have made $700 cash money off that quarter acre of flowers and it it was done so casually and so inexpensively.

I disagree with his accounting. What he did for that top soil had to be worth at least an additional $200. And what he did for his wife for a couple of months of table beauty might have cost him at the florist another $100. So figuring nothing else, he took in at least $1,000 off that quarter acre. Which means the equivalent of $4,000 per acre potential.

With our seven year old daughter, Scout Gabrielle, I find myself playing picture puzzles quite often, those where you either have to find certain hidden images or identify what is wrong in the picture. Find the thirteen bunny rabbits or the backwards shoe. It’s an exercise I enjoy and value because it draws on the larger sight, what German psychologists call the Gestalt, that sight which would take in the whole of something. And I have come to use this process in reverse. I’ll start with a few pieces of a puzzle and work to create a complete picture or several possible complete pictures. I imagine possible pieces I might add. This applies to farm planning especially well.

By using the quarter acre of flowers example from above and expanding through interlocking pieces of a puzzle construct, a diversified organic acre of flowering herbs, ornamental flowers, and companion fruits and vegetables sold retail (fresh and dry) through roadside, upick, and farmer’s markets (with excess going wholesale to alternative stores and waste to livestock feed) should gross cash receipts of $6,000 to $10,000. When we put a cash equivalent value on all those less tangible returns such as soil health, livestock feed, family sanity, increase in property value, and add it all in, the resulting net after expenses may indeed exceed the gross!

When I was in Durango this September, Flip Robyns and I visited Jim and Pam Dyer’s small farm outside of Fort Lewis. We had only a short time before dark but it was electric with their enthusiastic sharing of the farm’s magic construct. Their quarter acre garden, from which they eat, can and sell is dizzying in its variety and beauty. But what struck me in a most poignant way was the story of how their daughter had been responsible for what and where herbs had been planted. Their daughter had left for college reluctantly, she didn’t want to leave her garden. And when Pam and Jim looked on that lovely patch and spoke of it you could almost see their daughter reflected in those four shining eyes. What value can we put on such things? They are pieces of what makes a life a song, a floating song.

Second way to get on the gain side of the equation: find the right scale of operation for your family and then fill it to overfull with diversity and fertility. In some way, shape, or form you should be able to derive at least two different pieces of income or gain from each acre. The pasture land for the dairy cows should be viewed as a soil bank and may even produce additional grazing for sheep or hogs. The lagoon that holds irrigation water should be utilized to raise fish and/or ducks and rotated after three or four years to serve as a highly fertilized garden site. The orchard floor could grow a crop of legumes which would extend the pollen season for the honey bees and provide sheep grazing.

Third: Don’t sign on with the experts, naysayers, salesmen, academics, confidence men and charlatans (and yes, that probably includes me, at least as a confidence man). Since 1960 well over two million U.S. farmers lost their land and operations because they listened to the USDA, the land grant colleges, fertilizer and chemical salesmen, ag economists, farm publication editors and bankers. If you succeed, however nominally, with their ideas they may take credit, but you can be darned sure that if you fail they’ll either take it all away from you or slip off in the dark. You have to listen to yourself, your family and your friends. If you decide that you really want to try some carefully measured new aspect for your farm and you fail, you can still take full ownership of what has happened and likely turn that failure to some good. If on the other hand you follow some so-called professional’s advice and fail, it will at the least feel like a waste of time and effort and be less likely to guide you to your next level. And, at worst it may destroy you.

Fourth: Sell always with full retail value in mind! (Even when you don’t sell at retail.) This is a small part of the first solution which deserves to stand alone. What we produce on our farms are commodities, whether we like to see it that way or not. We have it within our power to see and treat these commodities as for sale at pricings solely wholesale or solely retail or a combination of both.We need to get more sophisticated in this regard. Herein lies the secret of doubling or tripling income. Most farmers either feel guilty or awkward about asking full value for their goods. That has to stop. The consumer has the option of saying ‘no I won’t pay that amount.’ We don’t need to protect them. We need to save ourselves, and often from ourselves.

One of the primary hurdles any cottage industry must face to move into solvency is the challenge of pricing. If you produce any reasonable quantity of a product and have the opportunity for retail sales, it is important that the range between cost of production and retail pricing allow room for wholesale pricing as well. Otherwise you leave yourself out of the mix and soon out of business. A $10 retail price per unit will translate to a wholesale price of between $4 and $6, allowing the subsequent processor and/or retailer to make money. Given that you may choose to sell some units at wholesale, your cost of production needs to be no greater than 50% of the lowest wholesale unit price or $2. Most farmers baulk at this notion, and lose. Pricing should always begin with cost of production plus. But most of us price according to what we think the market will bear or what we think the thing is worth. This is bad for your business.

Fifth: Let your light shine. While it may not be true in every case it is certainly true in most, we as farmers have an intangible commodity that the public desperately wants. They want to see, touch, feel and understand who we are and how we live, because it represents for them many of those precious aspects to life that are missing in their day to day world. They want their children to pet our goats and calves. They want to walk a crop row or orchard and hear stories about how we harvested the filbert nuts last year. They want to taste the new wine and nibble our new soft cheeses as they inhale the fall airs. They want to see the chicken that laid the eggs we sold them. They want to watch the teams of horses cut the hay that will be fed to the cows from which their cream comes. They want the connection. You need to give it and to feel good about the price you charge for it.

This has been about making money with a small farm. This has been about how we value what we do and who we are. This has been about what price we put on that which we sell. This has been about the magnetic attraction we can build and/or allow around ourselves, our families, and our farms. It will be a better world with more of us farming. LRM