Richard Wiswall on the business of organic farming
With the economic downturn and increase in the desire for a relationship with our food, farming has become a popular lifestyle among young people opting out of the corporate world. And while these people are new to life on the land, others have made a life of it for generations. But either way, growing food is rife with politics and economic stresses. Look at the dairy farms in Vermont filing for bankruptcy, the family businesses going under in the midwest, and the monopoly of small farms by corporate agriculture! It sort of looks dismal out there. And while sure, it may be satisfying in the short term, can farming actually pay the bills?
Contrary to popular belief, a good living can be made on an organic farm. What’s required is farming smarter, not harder. I talked to farmer Richard Wiswall, author of newly released The Organic Farmer’s Business Handbook: A Complete Guide to Managing Finances, Crops, and Staff — and Making a Profit, about how he manages an organic farm, and what aspiring farmers can do to make some dough.
In your book The Organic Farmer’s Business Handbook, you explore the ways organic farmers can not only make their vegetable production more efficient, but also better manage their employees and finances. How have you managed to do this on your own farm?
As a manager or owner of a farm, it is ultimately your responsibility to keep the farm in business. Time must be made for running a sustainable farm, economically as well as ecologically. Long range planning, employee management, and financial management don’t just happen on their own. An effort must be made by the farmer to manage these responsibilities. Just recognizing this duty is the first step to better management.
I make time for employee management. I look at the week’s projects and daily tasks that need to be done and try to budget employee hours accordingly. I spend a bit of time mapping out the day, and develop contingency plans if something goes awry (never happens). I know roughly how long each task should take and share that information with employees. On their first day of work, employees are given a job description/personnel policy that outlines work on Cate Farm. Employees are paid by the hour, but the farm is paid by the piece (by each head of lettuce or pound of tomato). Production per hour is important for the farm to succeed. It is also stressed that no matter how small or insignificant a task may seem, it is still important to the overall success of the farm. Employment at Cate Farm is a team effort, and in that spirit, we pay our employees well.
As for financial management, years of trial and error is an effective but expensive learning experience. I now set aside one or two half-days a week to tackle desk work. (Otherwise it would happen at 10 o’clock at night). I have developed systems to make office work as efficient as possible to save time and money. I use a computer when appropriate, but I’m a big fan of a sharp pencil and pad of paper.
Your organic farm, “Cate Farm”, has an interesting history. Can you talk briefly about its inception, and how it became what it is today?
Suzannah and Enoch Cate settled the farm in 1793, and the land stayed in the Cate family until 1901. It remained a farm (dairy or sheep) through various owners until Goddard College purchased it in 1964. It was used for faculty housing during the 1960s, and then by Bread and Puppet Theater in the early 1970s. The Institute for Social Ecology was here in the late 1970s, prior to my buying it from Goddard College with four other partners in 1981. I leased Cate Farm from the partnership to start up the farm business. I bought out the partners in 1993, after I had established a viable farm operation and convinced lenders that I was bankable. Now my wife and I are sole proprietors of the farm.
What do you think are the most common business blunders made by organic farmers, and how can they best avoid making them?
Farmers are attracted to farming, not necessarily business. Often the business aspect takes a backseat in the sometimes frenetic pace of farm life. But eventually the business and farming worlds collide, and it is a wake call to figure out how to make the farm survive as a business. The irrefutable business equation, Profit = Income – Expenses, needs to be looked at closely and thoughtfully. And not just for the farm business as a whole, but each farm enterprise, for example carrots vs. potatoes vs. blueberries vs. eggs vs. milk which are the parts that make up the whole.
Your farm is certified organic. How expensive is the certification process, and what does it entail?
Certification takes about two hours of application work in April, plus a two to three hour farm inspection by the certifying agency. The better records you keep during the year the easier the job is. Cate Farm is certified by Vermont Organic Farmers and costs us $650 per year, but for years there has been a rebate that brings the net cost down to $200/year.
In your opinion, what are the most important reasons for going organic — both environmentally and from a business perspective?
What is the most important reason for NOT going organic? Take a look at the label of any agricultural chemical with all the warnings, and then spray it on your fields and what you are about to eat. Don’t forget the fine print.
I grow organically because of my values, not market opportunity. When I started out in 1981, some buyers were scared of the term organic. Even though the organic market is big right now, it doesn’t mean it is a profitable venture. Any farmer has to pay attention to net profit, not just gross sales.
What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced in your 27 years of operating an organic farm?
The challenges have changed over the years. First it was learning the ropes and getting the ball rolling — like building infrastructure and fertility. Then it was balancing the needs for raising a family amidst all the farm work. Then I borrowed a ton of money which really put the focus on the business end of farming. Now the biggest challenge is not biting off too much.
Considering the current economic climate, if you were to advise a young person considering farming as a way of life, what would you outline as the reasons for and the reasons against starting your own organic vegetable farm?
Being an organic farmer is a great way to make a good living: watching food grow, being independent and your own boss, working outdoors with nature’s rhythms, and creating your own farm plan each year.
The downsides are: the learning incline may be steep, long hours for little return at first, nature and business throw curve balls at you, credit may be tight, and markets may be fickle. But a healthy desire to farm, and farm smart, will overcome any obstacles.
READ an excerpt from the book, click here.
WATCH a video of Richard Wiswall on his farm, click here.