By Carrie Chandler, New Dawn Farm, Chickamauga, Ga.
Farming was something that I envisioned doing during retirement, for fun, on my husband’s family land. But life happened, and circumstances led us to come back to the family farm before we had planned. With that move came the question of what to do on the farm. When farming equals livelihood, decisions like that take on a new meaning. Will it make money for us? Does it make sense for us to do that here?
After living in the northeast for a while and becoming familiar with the CSA (community supported agriculture) model, we decided to bring that to New Dawn Farm, and since the family already had cows on the property, grass-fed beef was the other obvious choice. We are entering our second season, and through research, attending conferences, and talking with other farmers, we have seen a whole host of other things that we might want to do – cheese making, honey bees, lamb for meat and sheep for wool, goats milk, you-pick vegetables, and, well, you get the picture. But how do we go from a “might do” to a sure thing? And what do we need to think about before we get there?
Farming is a dicey choice of career, what with all of the droughts, floods, insects, and disease that can hamper any operation. Add to that the fact that there are so many options for sustainable farm products, and that leaves a farmer mired in questions if they are considering adding products. Why even go there? Why not just stick with the CSA and the grass-fed beef?
According to Nicole Tyson of 180-degree Farm in Sharpsburg, diversification is the key to a farm’s success. “Having a range of products provides security” she noted, “if something were to happen to our garden, whether its crop failure, or bad weather, we would still have our livestock to provide income.” Diversification is a way to ensure the livelihood of the farm. It is also a way to spread income throughout the year. With a little bit of planning, added products can have a different harvest date for a different sale date. In this time of economic instability, anything that we can do to make sure that we will have an income and continue to be able to farm the land is a good thing.
But money isn’t the only reason Tyson encourages adding new products. “Diversification allows us to be more sustainable and heal the land” she said. “Manure from the animals is used to fertilize the garden and pasture. Garden scraps are either fed to the animals or turned into compost.” That sounds a lot like how small family farms used to work – making use of all the products and by-products of the animals and plants that were grown there. Sustainability encourages diversification – for confirmation, just look at the natural world. All of the plants and animals work together to create a more livable environment, our farms can do that too.
Although it sounds as if diversification is the solution to all small farm problems, farmers must still look carefully at the product and at their farm to determine if adding something is the right choice. Will honey bees really be beneficial for us? Should we buy llamas or alpacas to make yarn? Although all these choices sound wonderful, we still need to take a look at our goals and plans for the farm. This is where a good farm plan comes in handy. Once you have the goals of your farm and the general plan of where you want to go, considering whether or not to add a product becomes much easier.
A farm plan includes how big you want the farm to be – how many acres do you want to cultivate, what kinds of plants do you want to grow, how many animal breeds do you want to raise, how many head of livestock do you want to have, how many acres of grazable land do you want to rotate livestock through – and how you want to structure your labor – just you and your family, two staff, ten staff, or volunteers. It doesn’t matter what the plan looks like, or how detailed it is, but it must have a tentative direction for your farm. Jenny Jackson of Jenny Jack Sun Farm in Pine Mountain said, in regards to the fruit trees that she put in five years ago, “it was something we liked, and we saw it in the long term plan of our farm.” Knowing that allowed her to make the decision to add fruit early on.
Once you have that, you can compare any product and see if it fits in your plans and goals. Considering adding products also requires extensive research. Farmers need to know the ins and outs of the particular vegetable or animal that they are considering. Read all that you can about the product. Visit farmers who are sell that product. Tyson suggested farm visits as a way to see how much time you will need to spend on the product. “To get a real sense of what it will add to your day or week, visit a farm that is successful with that product” she said. “They’ve already been through the learning curve and can help with efficiencies.”
After the research, there are a few questions to think through as well. Tyson stated “the first question is always, is there a market for this product or can one be created?” Once that answer is known, the next consideration, according to Tyson is “is it profitable and can you afford it until you get a return on investment?” No matter how much I might want to add alpacas, if they don’t make monetary sense, then it may not be the best choice for New Dawn Farm.
After looking at the profitability of the product, considering its fit on the farm is the next decision. Tyson noted that farmers should ask themselves if they have the land and infrastructure to support the new product. This is a time to think outside the box, to think of all the potential problems with the product. For example, for grass-fed livestock, a farmer needs to consider whether they have “acreage to keep them healthy and adequate fencing to keep them off the neighbor’s property” said Tyson.
Not only does a farmer need to consider the physical fit on the farm, but also how the new product will fit in the workload. Will it require more staff? Will it require more labor time for current staff? Jackson noted that “for Jenny Jack Sun, land is not the issue; it’s the labor that’s our limiting factor.” Adding more staff, or a substantial amount of work for existing staff, cuts down on the profits and makes any new product less desirable.
According to Tyson, the last thing to look at is a product’s sustainability. “Is it sustainable (or close) and will it or its bi-product compliment one or more aspects of your existing operation?” she said. “The more sustainable, the less expense, the more profit.” And profit is really the bottom line.
Farming is not an easy career. It requires time and effort and hard work. Adding products not only means more work, but potentially more profits. It is a delicate balance though, and requires much consideration. As for New Dawn Farm, I think we will wait a few more years to add those sheep or honey bees. But asking the right questions will help us decide which one works on our farm, and in the end, that is what it is all about.
Carrie, and her husband Alan, raise grass-fed beef and naturally grown vegetables at New Dawn Farm in Chickamauga, Ga., and are currently mentees in Georgia Organics Farmer-to-Farmer Mentoring Program. When not farming or raising children, Carrie is a freelance journalist.