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Farm Profitability, Season Extension, and Marketing for the Small Farm

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

Presented by Michael Kilpatrick, Kilpatrick Family Farm, Middle Granville, NY Reviewed by Julie Rawson, NOFA/Mass Education Director

One of the great benefits of living in Barre is that we get to host the presenters for our Advanced Grower Seminars when they come to town. Michael is the youngest seminar leader we have had, at 26 years of age. It is a wonderful sign of the times that there are a number of highly qualified young farmers that are fast becoming the new leaders in the movement.
 
Not unlike his mentors Paul and Sandy Arnold at last fall’s advanced grower seminar, Michael took us on a whirlwind tour of his farm over the 6 hours that we spent with him. His focus was season extension, in the field and the high tunnel.
 
Michael was a homeschooler for his entire youth, living in St. Louis for the first 6 years, another handful of years in Westfield, MA, and finally moving with his large family at age 12 to Middle Granville, NY, in the upper Hudson Valley. At 17 he and his older brother decided to become farmers and borrowed $5,000 from their parents to farm on their land. They spent a summer apprenticing in VT and a couple weeks with the Arnold’s with whom they developed a long term mentoring relationship. Last year Michael spent the year at Polyface Farm with Joel Salatin to broaden his experience from mostly vegetables to include animal husbandry. His approach to farming and marketing has a lot of both the Arnold’s and the Salatin flavor. As he was dropping me off at home after the event, I asked him if he was always a whiz kid.
 
He countered that he and his younger brother vied for the position of black sheep growing up. He has clearly, in his young adulthood, incorporated a number of good lessons regarding how to think smart, work hard, market savvy, treat the earth and its people with respect, and build community.
 
In 9 years he and his family have moved from a small vegetable operation to a $450,000 operation that does a year round CSA, sells at 2 year round markets and a small amount of wholesale. They also sell turkeys at Thanksgiving. On mostly rented land, they grow 14 acres of vegetables, keep 25 acres in cover, have 8 seasonal full time employees and 2 full time equivalents in the winter. Rented land often comes from conventional management, so is kept in cover crops for 3 full years before using it as vegetable land. They are Certified Naturally Grown, and may move to certified organic as they attempt to grow and move more into wholesale markets.
 
Michael attempts to keep staff around all year (if minimally in the winter), having learned that if you only hire people seasonally, you lose good welltrained staff and have to start over again each year. Their substantial emphasis on winter growing and selling previously stored produce all winter keeps the cash flow coming all year, and provides important work all winter. Michael noted that for the past few years they have worked 24/7 all year long. But as of this year they will take off the entire month of January to rest and rejuvenate. This coincides with his upcoming marriage on December 31. He met his fiancée at Polyface Farm.
 
They don’t borrow money, but instead build in a slush fund to pay for good deals on machinery that might come up that aren’t in the budget. They make 30% of their income from winter growing and 70% from growing the rest of the year.
 
It was remarkable to me that everything is well-planned, well-researched and well-actualized. For instance, careful attention is paid to learning how much is made on any one crop, with a threshold of $40,000/acre necessary to include a crop in the list. He has been quite influenced by Richard Wiswall and his teachings put forth in “The Organic Farmer’s Business Handbook: A Complete Guide to Managing Finances, Crops, and Staff - and Making a Profit.”
 
Earlier in the day he showed us pictures of the containers that he has bought and set up as root cellars for storage of vegetables for winter sales. At the end of the day he mentioned that he bought containers instead of building in-ground root cellars so that the farm could be packed up and moved to a new location when, and if, he decides to leave home and get his own place – a remarkable example of the forethought that he uses in all of his steps.
 
Some valuable tenets that he set forth for the new winter
grower included
• Start small, but make a start.
• Don’t lose big in big mistakes.
• Learn what the trends for the winter growing are.
• Start part-time and see if it is for you.
• Don’t spend big money on infrastructure.
 
After spending the day seeing slides of beautifully produced, cleaned, packed and stored vegetables, and spread sheets for how to do it all profitably, it was a little surprising to me that this was almost incidental in juxtaposition to his obvious passion for marketing. In the final hour and a half, Michael waxed eloquently about their displays at market, stacking strategies, t-shirts, bags, recipe cards, storage charts, website, blogs, Facebook and Twitter presence, and farm festivals. He truly believes in what he does, and has figured out how to get that across to others.
 
To learn the intricate detail that was put forth, one can go to the NOFA/Mass website and download his MP3s and powerpoints under the “Resources” page. You can also check out the resources on his website, http://www. kilpatrickfamilyfarm.com/.
 
In case anyone was worried that the passing of the baton is not occurring from the older to the younger organic farming generation, you can stop your fretting!
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