Farm Finances


Rasing pigs is a twofer – a couple for your freezer and the rest to sell as weaners.

How to understand farm finances: There’s an old joke about the farmer who won a $10 million lottery. When asked what he was going to do with the money, he said he thought he’d go pay a few bills. “But what about the rest?” his questioner wanted to know. The farmer shrugged. “They’ll just have to wait,” he answered.
The fact is, farming is not a way to get rich. Even the ranchers and farmers out there who are rich often got that way because they had money and bought a ranch or because they had the advantage of something like oil wells on the place. The other exceptions are the folks whose ancestors were able to build up fortunes over the course of many years – for example, the King Ranch in Texas. That’s not to say they didn’t work hard for their money. But Joe and Jill Average should not expect to go into agriculture and make a fortune.
Interestingly enough, it’s the people who do it small who are more likely to master the art of farm finances. I’m not talking about the urban farmers who grow microgreens on less than an acre – that’s a big garden, not a farm. The Amish generally have farms in the 40- to 80-acre range. Their goal is not to make money, but to have a farm that can be managed by one family and raise most, if not all, of the food for that family and their animals. Singing Frogs Farm in Sebastapol is only seven acres (and only three of that is under cultivation), yet Paul and Elizabeth Kaiser make a living and pay several full-time employees.

It’s hard to find grass-fed lamb – this can be a good niche market.

Many years ago, Gene Logsdon and Booker T. Whatley laid out the basic rules for making a living farming. Both knew whereof they spoke. Logsdon had a 30-acre farm in Ohio, while Whatley was an internationally known horticulturist from Tuskegee Institute who was raised on a farm in Alabama and spent years teaching people how to better manage small farms. Logsdon supplemented his farm income with writing. Whatley advocated running a pick-your-own operation, commenting that customers would thus do most of the harvesting work. Both wrote books about farming – The Contrary Farmer (Logsdon; he also wrote a bunch of others) and How to Make $100,000 Farming 25 Acres (Whatley; this was back in the 70s, when $100,000 was big money – and that was net income). Here are their precepts:
1. Don’t go into debt to buy your farm or equipment.
2. Don’t buy more land than you can handle.
3. Identify your market, preferably before you buy the farm.
4. Diversify; odds are you’ll always have something to sell.
5. Aim for a year-round income stream (see #4).
6. Sell direct.
7. Always lay money aside for the lean times.
I would add a few to the list:
1. If you are married or otherwise partnered, make sure your spouse is on board.
2. Make sure you have a good source of water, preferably one that doesn’t require electricity to pump, especially if you live in the West. All the indications are that water is going to become critically important with the changing climate.
3. Have a fall-back skill or skills that allow you to earn some hard cash in another or a related field. This can literally save the farm.
4. Learn to be frugal, to coggle and to make good use of your junk pile.

Selling seedlings – especially heirlooms that are ready in your microclimate when garden stores don’t have any – can be a good source of spring income.

The last piece of advice I would give you is to adjust your definition of success. Odds are you are not going to drive a fancy car or have the latest and greatest electronic goodies in your home. You’re likely to buy your clothing at a secondhand store (especially the stuff you wear around the ranch). You’ll also eat well, sleep soundly at night, spend quality time with your partner and kids, and find endless entertainment in your animals and the natural world.

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1 Response to Farm Finances

  1. littleleftie says:

    Bang on!!

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