How Big is a Small Farm?

When people visit the farm I’ll frequently get a surprised comment, “Wow, that’s a lot of chickens!” And for the average person’s experience, I suppose a group of five hundred chickens is a lot, so I understand. But to my eye, this is just a small group of chickens. A conventional United States chicken farm usually raises in the range of a half million to three million chickens per year.

I spoke with a farmer who had three thousand laying hens on pasture. When people at the farmers market would ask him how many birds he raised, he’d always lie and keep the number in the hundreds. That made people happy. If he quoted a number in the thousands, their faces would fall and they would leave the stand. “Three thousand” sounded evil, like a factory farm. People wanted to hear a number less than one hundred, but they’d accept anything less than a thousand. At the place where people shopped with the goal of knowing their farmer, the two sides couldn’t communicate openly.

Everyone likes small farms. But how big can a small farm be before it is no longer a charming small farm?

When feeding the cattle their hay this morning I took a picture of only a portion of the herd.  That kept it from looking like “too many” cattle.

This is where we face the Old MacDonald problem. Most of us grew up with farm coloring books showing one horse, two cows, three ducks, four geese, five chickens, six ears of corn, etc. These childhood storybook views of agriculture stick with us and influence our conception of farming. The picture books present the straw-hatted farmer working from sunup to sundown, so it is pretty clear he doesn’t have time for a side gig. How does Old MacDonald generate enough cash to pay the mortgage? Or the property taxes, general liability insurance, utility bills, internet, tractor repairs, and worker’s comp for his trusty farmhand? Where does he get the money to keep his barn so well coated in red paint?

Old MacDonald’s barnyard is a great model for a homesteader. But he wouldn’t survive as a full time farmer here in Upstate New York.  Unless maybe, all this time he’s been running that farm as a front for something else…

I’ve gone over numbers with other farmers who are producing and selling products similar to ours, and it seems that for a family to earn a $50,000 salary from direct marketed livestock farming, they need to be selling between $250,000 and $500,000 annually (lower numbers for established farms with land and infrastructure paid for and higher numbers for new farms building everything from scratch). This level of production is difficult for most small farms to achieve. In our economy, is $50k even enough to compensate motivated, educated, entrepreneurial farmers? We often bemoan the low pay for teachers, but for reference a teacher in New York City with a bachelor’s degree and no teaching experience earns $57,845 starting pay plus retirement and healthcare.

In every respect, Wrong Direction Farm is a small farm. I don’t have any plans for gobbling up the market. I’d prefer a world where this farm remained one tiny piece in a grid of successful farms. But I wonder at the focus on small over successful. For farmers to be successful they need to be productive. Based on the average selling prices I see in the marketplace and the average production costs, a farmer with a direct-to-consumer market will need to sell about 10,000 pasture raised chickens or 80 grass fed beef cattle in order achieve that $50,000 pay target (again with some variability based on the amount of fixed costs in the operation).

Those numbers may not seem small, but in this case small isn’t the right goal. If we as a society wish to support a thriving agricultural system, we must think bigger about small farms. We need to have successful, productive farms. This isn’t about productivity über alles. None of this requires an expansionist race for each farm to become the next Tyson Chicken. And we never should compromise on critical issues like land stewardship, water quality, soil health, humane treatment, farmworker pay, or nutrition. But we absolutely need to make sure there are opportunities for farmers to reach productivity levels that meet their income needs.

Who is going to draw the coloring books so the next generation of kids are not carry the same misconceptions forward?

4 thoughts on “How Big is a Small Farm?”

  1. A lot of things to think about here, thanks for this post, Dave. Consumers – like myself – do have a certain mindset that prevents us from seeing the bigger picture in the family farming enterprise. We need more conversations about that – “land stewardship, water quality, soil health, humane treatment, farmworker pay, or nutrition” AND “farmers… productivity levels that meet their income needs.” So the next time we see a “factory farmed” chicken in the supermarket, and a pasture-raised chicken in a farmer’s market, we know better what we’re looking at and why we’re buying.

    1. I thought of you as I wrote this and I wondered how ridiculous this would sound in the context of the Philippines. I’m sure the same issues apply in the tension of increasing productivity while preventing destructive consequences, but likely the numbers are quite different with different input costs, retail prices, land values, and workforce constraints.

      In some ways I resent the pragmatic path I took in this essay. We have made conscious choices in our lifestyle that allow us to go without as much cash as we’d need otherwise, either by making/growing/building/repairing ourselves or by foregoing things. But I don’t think it is appropriate either to expect that all farmers should be willing to live in a house quite as cold as ours gets in the winter, for instance. If the culture as a whole is a consumerist culture and if money is the universal measure of success, then we need to figure out some way to have regenerative agriculture that can still pay farmers a wage that doesn’t leave them impoverished with respect to the general population.

      1. It’s something for consumers to think about PLUS it’s an alternative thought (i.e. regenerative farming) for farmers here too, something that’s just starting to gain more attention. As a producer (of sorts), I look around here and I notice at least 2 types of farming enterprise. They are often run by people who are literate, they can go online, have mortgages, debts, insurance, taxes, wages to pay etc., and they measure their success in various ways, mostly monetarily, and generally have a simple path towards that – industrial (style) farming (i.e. like the ‘big guys’). The few others who consider soil health, animal welfare, quality of life, etc) as measure of success, do tend to think less of money simply because they do their business in ways that actually require less money (i.e. they don’t have mortgages to pay, property taxes are smaller, farm labour is small or DIY, there may be some debts for small machinery, etc).

        But there is a third group of farmers (and this is probably what you’re thinking of): those people (we are visiting them this Friday) who come from generations of small-time (as opposed to small-scale) family farmers. They live far away from urban areas, they have huge tracts of land (so an increase in taxes is going to affect them badly), absolutely no machinery (sometimes the municipality has one to rent cheaply), no mortgage, and maybe some agricultural debts to produce a few things to sell (such as yearly yam production, a litter of piglets for fiesta, the rice and veggie production surplus for selling (most for domestic consumption), they are so used to manual labour (but they don’t overdo it, lots of idle time actually), the bit of profit from yam and rice (or whatever grows well in their area, including native chickens, goats etc) they use to pay for social security each month or quarterly (so they have a minimum old age pension which their parents didn’t have); if they have kids, the kids get free education until age 16 (or 18), after that they’re on their own (go to college on their own, or mortgage portion of land for education, or don’t better with college but get to work (on the family farm or get employment elsewhere). Generally, I notice that these folks just need so little money to get by anyway so they simply don’t need to work too hard nor worry about not earning enough at all in comparison to the general population, neither do they consider themselves impoverished (but I probably would do, just a bit, because I need a computer and like to eat out once a week). UNTIL they get that huge debt or that mortgage because of “expansion” or to get an education or throw a huge village wedding party for their youngest son or get really sick (although usually, they don’t get sick simply because their way of life don’t make them sick).

        But I understand your pragmatic approach in your essay and how you feel about it. I kind of feel some resentment too, like when look on my way of life as an artist in a pragmatic way. I read someone on a permaculture group call it “internalised capitalism” which gives that odd not quite right feeling, sometimes guilt or resentment, when we try to assert our share to “earn” a decent living.

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