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Have you ever wondered what it takes to start or run a successful small farm? Wondered what exactly a “small” farm is or what it means to be a “regenerative” farm?
This is the first article in our new Small Farm series, where we’re going to be giving you a closer look under the hood of a successful, small regenerative farm.
Our goals with these articles are twofold:
- Help consumers (e.g. everyone who eats food) place more value in the quality of their food and where their food comes from;
- Help new and aspiring small farmers become more successful while avoiding costly mistakes that could doom their small farming operations.
Now, let’s get growing!
Introducing Chris Miller, Small Farmer Extraordinaire
If you want to learn how to become a successful small farmer using regenerative practices it helps to talk to someone who’s actually doing exactly that — and doing it successfully. We know of no one who better matches this description than Chris Miller.
I originally met Chris a couple years back when we worked together to set up the permaculture farm at Oak Hill Cafe & Farm in Greenville, SC. We’ve been good buddies ever since.
Chris has over a decade of experience working at farms of all sizes. Today, his business, That Garden Guy, does small farm and garden installations throughout Upstate South Carolina. Chris also started and runs Horseshoe Farm in Greenville, SC, which is a unique partnership with The Anchorage restaurant here in Greenville.
As such, much of the information provided in our Small Farm Series likely comes straight from the mind and mouth of Chris.
What is a small farm vs a large farm?
“Small” is a very subjective term. Small based on what? Income or land in production? The technical definition of “small farm” according to the USDA is income-based: any farm with gross income under $250,000.
What about acreage? For some perspective, according to the USDA, the average size of a farm in the US in 2018 was 443 acres. Pretty big. If you’ve ever driven through the endless miles of maize and soy fields in the midwest, this number may not surprise you.
Most people don’t realize that these multi-hundred acre operations often don’t produce food that goes directly onto your dinner table. They produce animal feed for CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations), ethanol for gas additives, high fructose corn syrup, and other additives/fillers for highly processed foods — basically, the stuff nutritionists tell you not to eat.
In the process, these farms use large quantities of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. Most also till their soils. Both of these practices have a degenerative impact on soil health and the ecosystems in which they operate.
Sadly, many of these larger farms are also operating on razor-thin financial margins and high debt loads (tractors and farm facilities aren’t cheap). For instance, in 2018, Midwest corn and soybean farms averaged a net profit of just $9 per acre. It takes a lot of acres under management to make those numbers work.
When international commodity prices dip or severe weather wipes out a crop, it can spell financial disaster for these farms. This is why financial subsidies from US taxpayers keep many farmers afloat and US food costs low (at least at the point of sale, where negative externalities are not priced in).
A different approach to farming
There is an entirely different farm model that exists on the opposite side of the size spectrum. That’s where you’ll find farmers like Chris Miller.
While Chris says he defines small farms as “any farm under 100 acres,” Horseshoe Farm is a grand total of 2 acres, with only 1 acre currently in production. (The other acre is slowly being put into production over the next year as profits allow for that reinvestment to make sense.)
There’s no giant tractors (or tractor loans) at Horseshoe. Work is done by hand or with relatively low-tech specialized tools.
However, the quantity, quality, and diversity of food crops produced on Horseshoe Farm is staggering. All of the crops produced go directly to local restaurants (mostly The Anchorage), CSA holders, and the occasional farmers market. There are no commodities brokers/exchanges dictating the value of his crops or subsidies propping up his bottom line.
Chris does not use any synthetic fertilizers on the farms he operates, only compost or pelleted manures. He doesn’t use any synthetic pesticides either. Almost to a fault, he won’t even use organically approved OMRI-listed pesticides which are almost always made from safe, plant-based compounds (example: neem oil).
What about the financials? The net profit from Chris’s small farm is likely far greater than most large midwestern commodity farms.
What is regenerative farming?
Most farms have a significant, negative impact on native populations of insects, amphibians, birds, and other wildlife. This is primarily driven by habitat loss, lack of plant biodiversity, and pesticide use. There’s not much for wildlife to live on in an endless field of corn coated in biocides.
Most farms also deplete soil health. The combination of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, tillage, and fallow land lays waste to the soil food web while leaving the soil defenseless against wind and rain. That’s why the average US farm loses a staggering 5.8 tons of topsoil per year per acre to erosion. (Yes, you read that correctly.)
Much of the carbon that would otherwise be sequestered in the soil is released into the atmosphere. Pesticides and fertilizers run off or through the soil into nearby waterways, creating or contributing to additional ecological damage such as “dead zones” in rivers, lakes, and oceans.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, regenerative farms aim to improve soil health, sequester atmospheric carbon, and create rich ecosystems where amphibians, birds, pollinators, and other wildlife can thrive right alongside the crops grown for human consumption.
While Rodale Institute is currently in the process of unveiling a “regenerative organic certified” labelling process, many small regenerative farms are simply foregoing certification processes entirely and hoping that personal relationships with local consumers will fill the trust void. This might mean people going to tour a farm or just getting to know their farmers before buying their food.
Horseshoe Farm: a regenerative operation
Walk around Horseshoe Farm for a few minutes and you’ll notice the air buzzing with native pollinators and honeybees from the on-site hives. The chorus of crickets and frogs around the pond next to the fields is deafening at night. The pond is also clean and full of fish and other aquatic life.
Flycatchers and bluebirds dart over the fields hunting insects. The rich, dark soil is never tilled, which helps keep carbon in the ground and the soil food web intact. Many native, ground-dwelling bees which help pollinate the crops also benefit from no-till farming since their homes and overwintering eggs and larvae aren’t destroyed by a plow.
Not all animals are welcome on Chris’s farm, of course. There’s electric fencing around the fields to try to keep the deer and groundhogs out, both of which can eat hundreds or thousands of dollars of crops in short time.
But this is not an ecosystem being degraded. Nor is it simply being “sustained.” It’s being improved, regeneratively.
All the while, the farmers and workers responsible are able to make a good living. Likewise, the local customers who support the farm get the freshest, most nutritious foods possible at a great price because no middlemen, brokers, commodity traders, or retailers are involved. It’s simply farm to table.
In our opinion, this is a sensible, profitable, and humane farming business model that can and should scale a million times over to lands and communities across the United States and beyond. It’s a localized, decentralized knowledge economy sector that can improve the environment, create jobs, and help bring better health to a population of people where obesity and chronic illnesses are the norm, not the exception.
In the coming articles in our Small Farm series, we’ll dive into the nuts & bolts of how you can help make this model of farming possible in your community, whether you’re a farmer or a customer…
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