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Chances are that if you are interested in farming—or new to it—money and running a profitable operation is probably not your driving motivation. Farming, to be sure, is not exactly known for being the most lucrative of pursuits. Many young farmers, perhaps even most, found their way to farming through a want for a better world, for a desire to get closer to their food, and for a love of the outdoors, cooking or nature. Money is often the furthest thing from our minds.
I was definitely that farmer. I moved with my wife to the middle of the woods and was happy to just scrape by raising a small market garden and some mushrooms. Our neighbors had a successful farm, so I worked there during the peak growing season. During the winters, due to poor budgeting, we mostly just read and waited for spring when the money would return. Then after a couple of hard winters, I realized something critical about being a small farmer: For many, many reasons, it needs to be profitable.
1: You Need Money to Farm
Chief among my realizations as a young farmer was that because we only ever made about as much money as we needed to pay our bills, we had very little money to expand our farm. For instance, we wanted to plant more blueberries but couldn’t afford the plants. We wanted to do more mushrooms logs, but the spawn and equipment were too expensive. We really wanted a barn and to clear some of our woods in earnest for pasture, but it just wasn’t in the cards for us to hire anyone. We could do some of it by hand and chainsaw—and did, notably—but I started to destroy my back and shoulders doing so. In the end, it just wasn’t sustainable. We needed to learn how to make money.
2: You Need Money to Learn
Education is a valuable resource. If a farmer or speaker comes through town, it isn’t always cheap, but it is almost always worth it to hear what they have to say. I’ve done whole-day workshops that entirely changed the way I farm (for the better, of course). New farming books? Savvy people will go the local library, have them order the book and check it out. We lived half an hour from the library, so that wasn’t always an option for us. It was also not a great option for us because farming books tend to be more like manuals than memoirs; references rather than quick reads. In other words, you need farming books on your shelves all year long to flip through for inspiration or emergencies.
3: Profitable Farming Helps You Through Emergencies
This is a no brainer. A truck gets a flat on the way to market and you have to buy a new tire. You get hurt, and need money to cover the bills or the time off to recover. The plastic on the high tunnel gets a hole. For things like this that will happen, you should have money set aside. I recommend $400 but preferably a couple thousand. Whatever it is, don’t let the many unforeseen costs of life cripple your dream.
4: Profitable Farming Lets You Address Retirement, College, Savings
In a moment of sounding like my father, you must think about your future. The longer you farm, the more you will realize how hard it is. It’s hard on you and on your body, and at some point, you should probably think about retirement. But if you’re not budgeting for it, how can you expect to achieve it? Perhaps sending a kid to college one day is in the cards—that needs to go in your budget, and your operation must be profitable enough to cover it without taking away from your other expenses.
5: A Profitable Operation Allows Vacations
Because even if you don’t care about it right now, you will. If for no other reason than you want to visit other farms, your farm should be profitable enough to help you do that.
While you’d rather focus your time on your soil, seeds, animals and food, in order for your farm to be sustainable, it needs to bring in money. Some thought about this at the beginning of your operation will give you a chance at enjoying your profession for years to come.