Across the country, from urban rooftops to rural holdings, farmers are proving there is more than one way to farm successfully on a small scale.
I didn’t come from a farming background. I grew up on the edges of cities. My parents had vegetable gardens that I mostly ignored. When I went away to college and started cooking for myself, I became more interested in where my food came from and how to grow it. That interest grew, inspired by books on small-scale food production. There weren’t many writers on that topic then, and it wasn’t so long ago.
It’s hard to say exactly when I started thinking about a small farm, but in the summer of 1996 I took two workshops from John Jeavons — an early influence on me — through the Ecology Action garden store.
For the next 13 years I learned from working on farms, playing with my own versions of spreadsheets, and gardening in my spare time. Slow Hand Farm began on a little, flat rectangle of borrowed ground in Oregon in 2008. In 2013 it was incorporated into a larger farm (Our Table Farm), but for the four years prior it demonstrated to me the potential for success in a small hand-scale operation, even in an area with competition from very good market growers who used tractors.
How small is very small?
My own farm produced vegetables and herbs on less than a quarter acre. John Jeavons always spoke of 4,000 square feet (less than one-tenth acre) as the minimum amount of land needed to support a family. He suggests that for someone working by hand, anything larger than 10,000 square feet (slightly less than a quarter acre) is too much to handle alone.
“Compact” is an alternative word to describe such farms. Their farmers choose to keep their production spaces modest, intensively working limited areas, as opposed to spreading out their efforts over vast acreages. When setting out to find farms to feature in my book, I went a little larger than Jeavons’s ideal. I sought all kinds of successful farms with less than 5 acres of production and found not just a new wave of urban farmers, but also an old guard of seasoned veterans carrying on long traditions. Some work their land primarily by hand, but many use tractors of one size or another, and one even uses horse power (although the horse pasture takes up as much space as the production area!). All of the farms have more than one person working on the farm during the main season, although sometimes that means only two. The point is that it doesn’t take a large space to be productive or to make a decent, sustainable living. Across the country, from urban rooftops to rural holdings, farmers are proving there is more than one way to farm successfully on a small scale, and it can be done just about anywhere with decent soil, water, and people.
COMPACT FARMS VALUES AND STRATEGIES
Compact farms are human-scale, approachable, and easily manageable. I enjoy being able to walk the entire production space, checking in with all of the plants, animals, and structures in the course of a few minutes each morning. Other benefits are not exclusive to compact farms but are characteristic of them:
Hands-on farming. Compact farms can and frequently do utilize machines, but the nature of small spaces means that many tasks are far better suited to hand tools (or even just hands) than to tractors. I’m mechanically inclined, but I don’t want to be a full-time driver or mechanic, spending my days working on big machines. I enjoy working with hand tools, which are quiet, fume-free, and relatively easy to maintain.
Community Magnet. Compact farms build a sense of community centered around food. It’s much easier for most of us to relate to small local farms than to large distant ones.
Partnering with natural systems. Compact farms almost always rely on a diversity of crops instead of a suite of synthetic sprays and fertilizers. Small plantings of diverse crops have the potential, through myriad natural symbioses, to reduce pest and disease pressures. Some of those natural symbioses also provide fertility, increasing production and changing “waste” products, potential environmental pollutants, into soil-building amendments. It may appear easier to manage a big monoculture (the planting of a single variety, which is typical of large farms) and become an expert on the needs of just one crop rather than thirty. In fact, those single-crop plantings can require more intense management of nutrients, pests, and diseases precisely because they are working against, not with, natural and diverse systems.
Limiting outside costs. Since large monocultures are easily mechanized, they appear less costly to run than more labor-intensive, small, diverse farms that are better suited to the incredible flexibility of hand labor. In fact, many of the actual costs of large monocultures, such as groundwater pollution and soil erosion, are externalized and are not included in the price of the produce. Further, repetitive stress injuries during field work are more common in larger enterprises than on small farms, and those injuries externalize the costs to workers in another way.
Variety in plantings also means variety in tasks, and from personal experience I can say this definitely helps reduce physical wear and tear.
Limiting startup costs. For farmers just starting out, one of the obvious benefits of starting small is lower initial costs. This is often amplified because, as mentioned above, compact farms typically use more labor and less machinery. Both labor and machines can be expensive, but machines typically require cash up front, whereas labor on a very small operation can often be paid for in sweat equity.
Adding value. In a time when land prices are relatively high and food prices relatively low, it can be tricky to make the jump into a business requiring lots of land and equipment to produce a low-value product. Compact farms reverse this equation, reducing the land needed and increasing the value of the produce. In the long run, of course, you reach success by keeping expenses lower than gross revenue, a difficult task no matter the size of your outfit.
I’ve visited countless farms and I’ve had the good fortune to meet a lot of really fantastic farmers — not only good growers, but good and generous people. I’m continuously reminded on these visits that there isn’t just one way to farm well.
My hope is that folks who have never planted a seed will be inspired to try it, gardeners with bigger aspirations to start growing for their communities will be motivated, that overwhelmed farmers will see that scaling down is an option, and that people who are already farming small will feel encouraged to keep up the great work.