Posts Tagged ‘business’

“A farming weekend” by John

So I read in Eliot Coleman’s “The New Organic Grower” that you should take one day per week to do something other than farming – it’s good for the sanity. So I decided to take his advice and on Saturday went to the Nanaimo Disc Golf course to play three rounds with Kelly and Steve.
I know, I know, when I work 5 days per week at an off farm job I hardly need another “day off” from the farm, but I figure I’ll get almost no chance once summer comes so I took advantage of the opportunity.

Today though, was some good farming action. Got some chores done, got the rototiller returned to it’s rightful owner (thanks Steve) and almost exorcised the super angsty dream I had last night that we really really needed a way to dig up the earth but no one could remember the name of the machine to do it (rototiller for those of you keeping score at home) and the only one we had wouldn’t work for some reason. Doesn’t sound so bad now, but it was full of anxiety, I promise.

Got asked today if we would buy the farm we’re on if G isn’t coming back. Good question …. Comes at an interesting time as my tenants back in Ontario have put an offer in on a house and might be moving out of our place soon ….


“Being a farmer” by John

A while back Cindy mentioned a New Year’s resolution to blog more. Technically I think I came up with that one, but looking at the blog currently it seems like Cindy has been taking it on (thanks sweetie!)

Part of the reason I want to blog more is to document the process of life here on the farm so that in the years to come we’ll have records to look back on.
Part of the reason is that I want to keep a journal for myself and I know I’m more likely to do that if other people are reading it and holding me accountable.
And another part of the reason is that if there are other people out there interested in starting “growing” then maybe this will be helpful either as inspiration, instruction, or … some word that means “AAAAGGGGH – don’t do this – what the hell am I thinking” but ends in tion.”

So, I’m going to try to blog at least weekly about my thoughts on being a new farmer, as well as whatever else comes to mind. If you, gentle reader, get sick of it and want me to keep it to myself, let me know. If you like it though, let me know that too – positive feedback can be nice once in a while.

Ok – so I’ve been wondering lately what it takes to be a successful food farmer in this day and age, what it would mean to be “successful” and if it’s even possible. I specify “food” farmer because I’m not interested in growing hundreds of acres of corn, or wheat or soy which is then going to be used to create any number of junk “food” items that don’t really serve any purpose other than entertainment (or bribes to get three kids to behave and go to bed for a babysitter when mom and dad go out … or was that only my family?) I’m also not interested in growing horses (though I’ve heard they’re edible) or growing mass quantities of beef, dairy etc for industrial food chains because I’ve yet to see a way to do that and still maintain both the nutritional content of the food, and then environmental integrity of the process.

I think my definition of being a successful farmer is to be able to earn enough money from producing and selling food to meet my monthly budgetary needs. If I have to have an “off-farm” job, then I am not successful enough. That’s the business side. There’s also a vocation side which says to me that to be successful, you need to feed people. I don’t think I’d be happy growing grain for animals unless I was also growing the animals, and I don’t think I’d be happy only selling to up-scale markets and restaurants … everyone should get to eat good food.
This is not to say that the numerous farmers I know who have off-farm jobs aren’t successful – as long as they feel like they are I’m happy – I just think it should be possible to only work on the farm.

So, if the goal is to earn a living wage from working on the farm, then the question becomes how?

A lot of the groups I’m involved with like to talk about government policy, trade barriers, regulations and the way things used to be back when agriculture was funded. I think those are all important discussions to have, but they don’t answer my question for the moment which is, basically, what can we as growers do NOW in order to be successful. Is the answer CSAs? High end organics? Specialty products? Specialization? Diversification? Sharing resources? Better marketing? Value added processing? Something else entirely?

Of course the answer lies in a combination of solutions, from individual action to consumer education to the work of food security groups to governmental policy work (after all, complex problems require complex solutions, it’s not like we’re only try to launch a space shuttle here, that’s just a complicated problem) but given that I can’t influence all of those things, what can I influences as an aspiring grower? How can I do the best job I can do to keep myself in business while I work to make other pieces of the puzzle to come together.

I’m not sure how or if I’m going to be able to answer this question, but it’s the question I’m currently interested in. I have a vision of gathering some “successful” farmers together to talk about these questions – if I do, I’ll let you know how it goes.

And of course, if anyone has the answers – please do clue me in.

“Chicken Numbers and Business Sense” by John

Last weekend I went to an event on Saturday called the “Survival of Agriculture Forum 2” It featured a number of panel speakers, successful farmers, researchers etc., a lunch speech by the provincial ag critic, and an afternoon session talking about the proposed $100/farm levy, among other things.
One of the morning speakers was a successful (7 or so employees, farming full time) organic veggie grower from up island. Another was an agrologist/researcher (also from up island) who has done a number of state of the industry reports.
The lessons I learned were that you have to pay attention to the small details and treat the farm like a business AND that, according to the agrologist at least, if you’re not grossing $40,000 in sales, it’s highly unlikely that you’ll break even.

So, I’m trying to pay attention to the details in this post.

Eggs in the laying box

I swear, I didnt' line these up. The chickens did that themselves

We record the number of eggs we get per day. The average for October was about 10/day. The average for November will be slightly less I suspect. That gives us about a dozen eggs to sell ($3.50/dzn) every 2 days after we eat our share.
We haven’t been tracking each time we put in a new bag of feed (one today) which is the next thing we need to track in order to figure out costs. Cindy figures we use about a bag ($12/bag) per week.
Running the numbers, it appears that we can gross about $600 over the year with a net profit of just about $0 (not including labour, hydro or water) … but at least we get free eggs!
So … how do people make a living in this business again?

“Preserve me” by John

Wow, busy weekend. It was a long one (3 days!) so I actually feel like it was a bit of a break, but I probably did more work this weekend than I sometimes do in a week of “real” work.

Today was berry picking – raspberries, the beginnings of the second flush of strawberries and, for the first time, blueberries! Not many of those, and some are still a bit sour, but at least we beat the robins to them!! Raspberries are all sold to folks in Victoria, strawberries should hopefully have been picked up by now, and blueberries are sitting happily in our freezer – yum.

Speaking of robins (actually, I’m not sure that robins are actually at fault, but people seem to blame them) they’re also getting into the layer’s coop and eating all (and I mean ALL) of the feed. I’ve had to put two full bags in since G left and that’s a bit ridiculous for a few old ladies. Going to have to put up netting to block the eaves and also netting in the windows of the broiler-barn as otherwise all their feed will be gone too! I actually feel kinda good about this one because I spotted the issue, figured out the problem, and came up with the solution (and then had it confirmed by G, but that’s what a teacher is for!)

Which reminds me, a week from today my very first solo broilers arrive – yikes!

After farm work we did some preserving. Dill pickles (with dill from the grow-op, garlic from Maple Groove and cucumbers from our plot) and, randomly, pickled beans since we have a surplus of beans right now and ended up with extra pickling liquid. All but two of the lids have popped so we’re in good shape. Also started fermenting some kimchi today which should be ready in a week or so, and I’ll start some saurkraut tomorrow. Not sure how to keep that stuff, other than in the fridge, so advice is more than welcome.

Now I’m waiting for some stuff to dry so I can play with the beer I started a while ago. I think it’s a lost cause but I’ll try one more thing and see what happens.

All in all – hope is high, energy is in flux, excitement is up there and nerves are a little raw … but more of that later.

“Strawberry Picking” by John

Mark it in your calendars.  On Wednesday, June 23rd at approximately 9:07 am I officially became a farmer.

Well, maybe a farm worker is a better term, though I didn’t get paid (still not sure how we’re going to settle things at the end of our “apprenticeship” maybe money, maybe food, maybe just knowledge, but whatever will be good) so maybe a farm volunteer is a better term, in which case maybe Growing Opportunities was when I went official.  Though come to think of it I once WWOOFed at Plan B Farm, so maybe that was official.  Then again my grandparents had a farm just outside of Teeswater, ON when I was quite young and I remember riding the tractor and feeding the animals there so …

Anyway, suffice it to say that last Wednesday was my first experience picking strawberries at our soon-to-be-home and it made me feel like things were a bit more official and real than they had felt before.

It was a beautiful sunny day and I had my new hat on (thanks Cindy!) so I didn’t get burnt and I picked 3 or 4 boxes of berries in the 2.5 hours we were there, which probably equals just over two flats.  So, definitely not the fastest picker out there, but not too shabby for my first time out I think, especially considering that I stopped to go visit the chickens, tour the farm with the Canada World Youth leader who might come to stay with us for a bit, and put together and pack flats as I went.  I also got to deliver two flats to the Community Farm Store with an invoice and one to a private customer so making the sales made it feel more official too.

How was it?  Honestly, I don’t know how to answer that.  I was told it would be painful on my back and legs but I didn’t feel like it was too hard.  Odd muscle use for sure, but I think all of the cycling, plus the chiro and massage for my back helped to make it not too terrible.  I can still feel it in my legs a bit now if I try to hold myself in a strange position, but it hasn’t slowed me down at all.  I loved being out in the sun and the fresh air so that was great, and going back to work for the afternoon was definitely hard.  So, physically, all was and is well.  Mentally though I found I was a bit stressed out by it all.  I know, how stressful can it be to sit in a field and pick berries right?  I think my issue was the same that I have with so many other things – I just wasn’t sure I was doing it “right”.  Searching through the foliage with my hands trying to pierce the darkness under the leaves with tired eyes to identify the bright deep red that indicated a perfectly ripe berry.  Trying to leave behind all those with just a tinge or white, or that are perhaps a slightly less deep shade and need a few more days to fully ripen.  Worrying what the customers in the store or at the box distribution will think when they see my berries in the harsh light of florescent tubes.  Will there be too many small ones?  Too many that aren’t perfectly ripe?  Will they want my berries?  Did I pick the right ones?

And through it all I felt this need for speed.  The necessity to pick the berries right now before … what?  Before they went rotten, before the birds got them, before the frosts came?  Or, harkening back to my childhood, before it was time to leave the U-pick, not to return for another year.

Cindy and I were talking about it afterwards and I realized that the same patch of berries was picked two days before I got there and will be picked two days after and again and again and again till the plants are done producing.  So really, there was no need to pick berries like there was no tomorrow because, well, there is (or at least a day after tomorrow).  With that in mind it really makes sense to pick only the best of the best and leave anything that needs another day because then it will be the best of the best next time you pick.

So, there you go, John overanalyzing things again (like that comes as a surprise to those of you who know me).  I think it’s the type of thing that, with practice, will become less stressful.  It was pleasantly meditative working my way down the road, feeling growing things under my hands, moving from plant to box and back to plant.  If I can become confidant in my ability to make a good end product then I think I’ll really enjoy it.  And the other pickers and eventually Graham saw the overall haul and no one told me it was terrible so I guess even if I was bad, at least it was hidden by the hard work of others.

In purely happy news, a young couple and child came to look at our apartment today and appear to be just as in love with it as we are so we shouldn’t have to worry about getting out of our lease.  Yay!

And now (after Cindy reads my post … please, be gentle) we go to pick-up beer bottling supplies.  Sweet!  Soon I’ll actually have to brew some beer … soon.