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Small-Scale Intensive Farming: Lowering Risks and Increasing Profits

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This article comes from the NOFA/Massachusetts 2013 March Issue Newsletter

By Andy Pressman

The increasing demand for local food is creating opportunities for commercial success through small-scale intensive crop production. Small-scale intensive crop production systems are making it possible to earn significant income on small land bases. This is particularly appealing to beginning farmers who are often challenged by barriers to production, such as lack of access to land and capital. They are allowing established farmers to either downsize or diversify their operations. However, there are many risks associated with commercial production on a small-scale. This workshop focused on risk management techniques for starting and managing a sustainable small-scale and urban farm business. It specifically covered the importance of setting goals and developing a business plan for the farm, establishing a marketing campaign, production techniques for growing high value crops, and the necessary tool and infrastructure investments that will allow for high profits.

With about 50 participants in attendance, half of the room stated they are currently farming. Of more importance was the fact that only five of the farmers said they have a business plan for their farm. The first part of the workshop focused on goal setting and business planning. Pressman explained that it pays to plan and noted that 64% of farms in 2010 had negative operating expenses. Business plans serve as guides in the decision-making process. They decrease risks and allow for progress to be monitored.  Prior to developing a business plan, it is important to establish personal, family, and farm goals.  Pressman and his family use whole-farm planning and holistic management techniques to guide them in their personal and farm endeavors. They focus on farming for profit and not production. Unlike the traditional model for determining profits (Profit=Income – Expenses), holistic management focuses on reducing expenses in order to achieve a targeted income (Expenses= Income –Profit).

The next topic of the workshop focused on land access. Pressman listed several criteria in determining whether or not to farm on a small land base. Some criteria include: size, soil condition, topography, history, sunshine, utility and water access, buffer zones, relationship to neighbors and community, and security. He also explained that urban areas have many advantages that a small-scale farm can benefit from, such as climate, water, proximity to markets, and opportunities for multi-locational production.

Small-scale intensive production techniques were then covered. Pressman implements a system based off of SPIN-Farming®. SPIN stands for Small-Plot-Intensive and is a commercial-based farming system for land bases less than one acre in size. This system focuses on utilizing two-foot-wide beds that are 25 feet long. Pressman explained that the smaller the land base, the more intensely it should be planted. Therefore, it is important to focus on high-value crops – those that generate at least $100 per bed per harvest. This includes crops such as leafy greens, salad mixes, scallions, radish, carrots, fresh herbs, and green garlic. By incorporating relays, or successions, some beds can generate $200-$300 per season.

Crop planning was next on the agenda and Pressman explained how to determine what to plant, where to plant it, when to plant it, and how much to grow. Rotational crop planning looks at progressions over the years to improve yields and reduce the workload while annual crop planning looks at the details for a single year and creates organized “to do” lists that are easily shared. Pressman demonstrated how to create an annual crop plan by working backwards through a harvest matrix. Pressman then used several spreadsheets as examples of annual crop plans and for scheduling crop relays.

Harvest and post-harvest handling were then discussed. Pressman talked about the importance of timing, both in terms of maturity and time of day, for harvesting various crops. He focused on post-harvest handling that included components of food safety and the importance of using commercial refrigeration to lock in the value of the produce – its nutrition, taste, and appearance – in order to get a premium price at market.

Pressman offered a list of tools and infrastructure that he finds necessary for commercial success when farming on a small scale. It is important to understand the relationship between scale and equipment needs which was shown through a chart listing different appropriately-scaled tools and equipment. Other investments discussed included fencing, transportation, irrigation, soil amendments, and marketing supplies.

Marketing was the next topic of discussion. Pressman listed several marketing options and risks associated with marketing. He focused on direct marketing and explained that at this scale, it is very difficult to access larger-volume wholesale markets. Pressman then went over what he considers the “golden rules of marketing.” This includes such aspects as know what you are selling, know to whom you are selling your product, know your story, don’t make assumptions about people’s buying habits, be customer-oriented rather than product-oriented, sell features and benefits, diversify to manage risks, and sell before you grow.

Pressman then talked about how to set prices for your products. He explained that he now favors a tier system where most everything is sold in uniform bunches or packaging at a quantity of one for $3 or two for $5. By selling through a tier system as opposed to by price per pound, he is able to sell more at higher prices.

The workshop concluded with a look at various crops and how they fit in to small-scale, intensive crop production. A brief introduction to ‘shoot’ production was also included. Pressman demonstrated how he uses a biodegradable mat for growing shoots indoors and the costs of production associated with growing shoots.

Andy Pressman is a Sustainable Agriculture Specialist with the National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT) and the ATTRA Project. He has a background in small-scale intensive farming systems and works in the fields of organic crop production, urban farming, and farm energy. He and his family operate Foggy Hill Farm in Southern New Hampshire.

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