Wednesday, November 30, 2011

So, how much can you grow on a speck of land?

"Well son, that sort of depends? What are ya growing, and where are you growing it?"
A little back of the envelope (excel spreadsheet actually) tells me that I can plant about 75 trees of all types of fruit and nuts upon an acre and obtain about 16000 lbs of quality foods in a single year once established.
Now it might take ten years to get close to full production, and in years 1-4 the results will be slim indeed. But each year after that third year will get better and better.
So, how does this work on the investment side?
I estimate that in year one, had we the money, we can invest $5000 an acre into the property, including the cost of the land itself, cover crops and 75 Trees at $22 a pop, 50 blackberries at $12 each and a $500 for skid house for chickens (see the link on the previous post with chickens).
If we raise broilers on this acre, perhaps one hundred chicks at a time, 6 cycles at 35 days to "harvest", netting $2/lb, and assuming that we have no other significant harvest, we net $5400 on this acre, a 100% return on our original investment.
Let's say that in year two we double that to 200 chicks at a time still netting $2/lb with a 4.5 lb weight per bird. We then net $10,800 on this one acre.
You could continue to do this for a few years, but then the fruit starts to come in in year 5 and we might harvest 3000 lbs of fruit, which might net $4000, so in year 5, $14,800 net
After the trees are more established, you might run a cow under the system, and then maybe a sow and her happy little piggies.
In a dozen years when everything is well established and in a permanent state of equilibrium, the income from this acre might rise to as much as $30,000 with 15,000 lbs of fruit, 4000 lbs of hog, and one half lowline angus cattle raised on this acre with some chickens run on the property for fertilization purposes.
So, this is assuming pretty good growing conditions, a seven month chicken season, April through early November, and it assumes that we can harvest and pick it all and sell it all.
How do we grow this much food? Consider that each semi-dwarf Apple tree can produce 6-10 bushels of apples, 42/lbs per bushel and that you can plant about 110 of these trees per acre, this can produce 36000 lbs of apples on that acre. Of course I don't want 110 apple trees, the pests would kill us over that. I want 8 apple trees on that acre, spread all around. Then I want 8 each pear, peach and persimmons, five cherries, apricots, filberts and black walnut, a dozen mulberry trees and perhaps 20 or so nitrogen fixing trees spread throughout to help improve the soil, along with a handful of native trees, just for the diversity.

So now it goes to selling this stuff… But I promise to start small and work my way into it…

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

How do you make a small fortune in Farming?

Well, Clearly by starting with a large one!

Or so the old joke goes.
But if you start out middle class, doesn't farming make you poor?
Isn't farming just a transfer of wealth from you to the bank?

Let's examine this idea for just a second...
I found a guy online bragging that he had made $550/acre in this (2009) his best year ever, but that some guys down the road were barely breaking even. I have heard that many industrial corn farmers will average about $100 per acre after subsidy and all expenses in a good year.  Afterall, the expenses for a corn farmer can be very high.
They need to buy fertilizer by the truckload. The big tractors cost $300 a day in diesel. The equipment costs can run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. The herbicides, fungicides, the pesticides, and of course, the 1000 acres aren't cheap either if there is a mortgage on it at 5%? Add to that the frankenseeds that Monsanto makes you buy (seriously, they will sue you if you save your own seeds) which costs about $100 per acre.

Then if they irrigate there is a whole new expense or pipes, pumps, water, infrastructure and more...

"So", you ask, "what makes you think you can make any money at it when even the big guys can't live without taking a second job in town?"

I'm glad you asked that. Really I am. Sharon asks it all the time, wondering if I've lost my ever loving mind... I wonder too, if there is something to that... After all, of all the things I've lost, I miss my mind the most.

There are a few differences that need to be considered.
1. With permaculture, the long term goal is to have as few external inputs as possible, other than water (as rain), energy (as Sunlight) and human input.
2. The outputs of the permaculture farm are not commodity priced. They obtain a much higher price in the market place.
3. The small farm does not sell a commodity, it is a business, in business to make money, or at least a living.

So first off, do small farmers have the ability to sell food that can make them money?

I think you will find that they most certainly can.

For example, a typical CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) farm will charge $30 - $35 per half bushel of food, each week. Compare that to $7/bushel for Corn.  Big difference eh? In that half bushel will be about 12 - 16 lbs of food, mostly greens, cukes, tomatoes, squash and the like... So the CSA is getting about $2 per lb for their produce.
Many CSA farms around here have as many as 500 customers generating $15,000 per week during the growing season. I could live on that, if I had to, but putting 500 boxes together would be quite a chore I think.
Some Farms only have 100 customers generating $3000 a week.Certainly some have fewer supporters, but I don't want to be one of the really small farms... Too hard to pay the bills.

My Second Example is that free range organic beef  and pork tends to go for around $6-$8 per pound in the farmers markets around here. If you sell a smaller lowline angus beef per month, dressed out to 350 lbs each, you can clear about $2100 a head. Lowline need about 1/2 acre each and since you need enough room to maintain mom and calf for 18 months, you need just over one acre per head sold per year. So sixty acres can produce as much as 50 head of cattle worth $2100 each at market (butcher costs about $1/lb plus feed, gas, and other costs)
Add to this  that you can free range hogs at a much higher density and that they are much more prolific. You should be able to keep about 1 sow per acre, and they throw off a dozen piglets each year.
Pigs are quite efficient at converting food to protein. They will need about 4-6 lbs of feed to make about one pound of pork.
It takes about 6-9 months for a pig to be finished, If there are a dozen piglets per sow per year, you can sell 12 piglets per year from each acre at 250 lbs each. We should be able to sell each hog for about $700. Subtract a couple hundred for feed (if we aren't in full pig food production yet) $4800 per acre. Not a bad living at all. if you are running them on thirty acres. Of course you will need as many as a thousand customers, so I won't be able to get to this point quickly. It might take many years to get to this level of production.
Here is a nice reference article on raising piggies: how-much-land-per-pig.

And, since pigs and cows eat different "stuff" they don't compete all that much for food.

And then there are Chickens!

Here are some other ways a farm might make some money:
herbs and herbals
bed and breakfast
farmers market
fruit stand
equipment rental
farm tours
Pick Your Own
Backyard Bar-B-Ques
fish (aquaponics)
salad greens (aquaponics)
Out of season hot house vegetables
vanilla beans
various crafts

Some ideas are better than others, but a diversity of income streams is always a good thing.

So, let's just start with the assumption that IF we can grow food, we can sell it for a decent amount of money if we cut out the middleman. The question is what are the costs of the inputs, what labor is needed, how much can we grow and how much can we sell?
We will discuss those issues in the next post.