Calling all small farmers: Eco-Farm pre-conference focuses on the business side of sustainability

By Rebecca Thistlewaite

My husband Jim and I have been farming intently for about five years now, at TLC Ranch near Santa Cruz. Our business has grown by an astonishing 3,500% in 5 years — ridiculous, I know! — but somehow we have yet to see a net profit at the end of the year.

Although we feed thousands of people with our exceptionally flavored, "clean" meat and eggs — full of Omega-3 fatty acids, conjugated lineolic acids, vitamins, and loads of iron — we don’t have enough money to ever fathom taking a few days off for the holidays, let alone buying some of our own farmland. We struggle to pay our employees an honest, livable wage while we have none. At least we all get the perks of good food. We take excellent care of our animals, restore the fertility of our pastures without overloading them with manure, and build carbon in our soils that sequester more carbon from the air. And yet some would-be customers still complain about our prices, while others can simply not afford them. I even joke with some of our customers that were we not raising them ourselves, we could never afford to buy the meat and eggs from our animals — not on our farming income, that is.

Happy chicks at TLC Ranch (Tana Butler photo)

Happy chicks at TLC Ranch (Tana Butler photo)

So how can one possibly create a profitable business while maintaining the values that brought you into the trade in the first place? Jim and I won’t compromise on how we treat the earth, nor how we treat our animals. We will never use abusive labor contractors to find employees. Instead we compromise by not making a living ourselves, and despite the fact that our workload has increased with our business, I also have a full-time, off-farm job to help support what we call the “farming habit.”

However, I look around this country and hear about farmers, food artisans, restaurants, and other food-related businesses making a reasonable profit while maintaining their social and environmental ethics, and I wonder: Am I in the wrong line of work, or do we just need to learn how to get better? Since we are not ready to give up yet, I vote for getting better at what we are doing: that is, more profitable and fewer-than-80-hour work weeks.

And now I shall put on my other hat. I work for the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems at the University of California-Santa Cruz. To answer my questions about how to create a truly sustainable business and to understand how others can scale up their production of SOLE food (to borrow the Ethicurean's acronym), a small team of us have organized a special one-day pre-conference seminar prior to the largest sustainable agriculture conference on the West Coast, the Ecological Farming Conference.

The Business of Sustainability: Growing Health, Wealth, and Ecological Integrity in Our Food System” on January 20, 2010, in Pacific Grove, California, will be an invigorating, practical glimpse of how some business ventures are creating a new economic paradigm — shaking the roots of the American economic system, which typically encourages consolidation, cost-cutting, and shifting costs onto others such as marginalized workers or planetary health. Newer business models are popping up all over — from unionized strawberry farms in California to community-based cafés in Washington D.C. to rural food distribution networks in New Mexico — that are better for people, the planet, and our collective pocketbook. They embody what is described as the "triple bottom line," in business success is measured by more than financial profit and loss statements: a new form of commerce that makes money while making good, that considers not just shareholders, but all stakeholders, whether employees, customers, or the communities in which they operate. We want to make this alternate model the mainstream, rather than a passing fad.

Registration is only $45 and is open to all. We especially encourage aspiring and existing food and farming entrepreneurs, business incubators, NGOs with for-profit ventures, investors and funders, students, and technical service providers to attend. This pre-conference will offer practical workshops and inspirational speakers for whatever stage of food and farming business you are in. Confirmed speakers include Jim Cochran from Swanton Berry Farm, Richard Wiswall from Cate Farms, Robin Seydel from La Montanita Coop, David Lively from Organically Grown Company, Joseph Tuck of Alvarado St. Bakery, Scott Exo from The Food Alliance, Melissa Schweisguth from the Food Trade Sustainability Leadership Association, Melanie Cheng from Farmsreach.com, Guillermo Payet from Localharvest.org, and many others. (The Ethicurean's Bonnie Azab Powell will be one of several other featured guests available to discuss informally how to use new media to promote your business.)

Rebecca and Jim at TLC Ranch (Jen photo)

Rebecca and Jim at TLC Ranch (Jenn Ireland photo)

With all these sessions, plus special consultants available over lunch and plenty of opportunities to meet new collaborators or potential customers, this conference might just be what it takes to help your business survive and thrive. Come get your tools for building a new food system!

Rebecca Thistlethwaite is co-owner of TLC Ranch, a small pasture-based livestock farm near the Monterey Bay as well as a researcher of innovative business models for the Center for Agroecology & Sustainable Food Systems at UC Santa Cruz. When she isn't running a business or doing research, she is reading books with her 4-year-old, training for a marathon, or blogging at Honestmeat.com.

23 Responsesto “Calling all small farmers: Eco-Farm pre-conference focuses on the business side of sustainability”

  1. Diana Foss says:

    Yay! I'll see you there.

  2. bruce king says:

    "... and I wonder: Am I in the wrong line of work, or do we just need to learn how to get better? Since we are not ready to give up yet, I vote for getting better at what we are doing: that is, more profitable and fewer-than-80-hour work weeks.  "

    Agriculture, especially small farm agriculture, is full of people who subsidize their customers by sacrificing their own lives and prosperity.  When you do that, you undermine the price to other producers -- subsidized goods are cheaper than goods that reflect the true cost of production + profit -- and you put yourself in a situation that apparently you're not fond of.    Of course your business is selling more year after year -- you're offering goods at a price that is lower than the cost of production.  

    Without looking at your books I can't hazard a guess as to what needs to change, but what you're facing is a standard problem with any small business, and the solution might be more along the lines of finding small business advice that would allow you to solve your problem.   

    Try SCORE, for instance.    http://www.score.org/index.html

  3. Rebecca Thistlethwaite says:

    I just found out that the Wallace Center at Winrock International is going to donate a book for each person that registers for this conference- a $25 value/person.  This new book, coming out sometime in December, offers in-depth profiles on 26 innovative, community-based food enterprises both domestically and abroad.  This is a great addition to this conference.

  4. Jed "the country bumpkin" says:

    Wow Bruce, pretty harsh on folks who obviously are trying to be honest about the challenges of making a living as  farmers. Sounds like your own farm must be wildly successful!  Or at least that 's what I thought until I checked out your blog, which is chock full of failures which must have cost your business a lot of money. Did you account for your lost greenhouse crop, your turkey breeding experiment gone wrong, all the poultry you feed to coyotes and your stupid  chicken eating "farm dog"? No probably not. You're too busy sniping at  farmers on the internet. 
    Oh, and by the way, the conference looks pretty interesting and useful....

  5. bruce king says:

    I think i'm pretty qualified to talk about how difficult farming is, wouldn't you agree, Jed?    

    And yep, I write about the good and the bad and the ugly.  ebeyfarm.blogspot.com

  6. Rebecca Thistlethwaite says:

    The fact that most farmers don't make money is nothing new, nor is it abnormal.  In fact, just this year, net farm income has plunged by 38%.  Nationwide, 40% of net farm income comes in the form of direct subsidies by the US government.  In 2005, net farm income averaged $15,603, which is hardly enough to support a family and almost the same as what the average farmworker makes (which varies between $11,000-15,000 a year depending on whether the work is seasonal or year-round).  Of the nations more than 3,000 counties, real farm income declined in 6 out of every 7 counties from 1969-2002.  Now, I doubt a SCORE retired businessman who doesn't understand agriculture would be able to reverse these trends that even expert agriculture economists can't figure out.  But I do think we can learn from each other and from the handful of farm businesses that are thriving and making a profit.  That is one of the motivations for organizing this conference, as well as how to implement sustainable practices throughout your business to better our communities and our planet.

  7. Edward Lang says:

    You are certainly qualified to talk as someone who gets subsidies. Bruce on your blog you say you feed grain to your pigs. Grain is heavily subsidized directly through the farm bill and indirectly through the subsidies for oil which is heavily used to grow the grain. Your farm is heavily subsidized. You are hurting farmers who are not subsidized. Kick the habit. Just say no to subsidy payments in all their myrid of forms.

  8. Edward, the vast majority of farmers big and small feed grain to their pigs and chickens. Our entire farming system is built on subsidies. I don't see any point in attacking farmers, period -- and that means whether you are one or not. Let's stick to constructive criticism: this seminar sounds like it might offer some benefit to farmers who would like to become more sustainable as abusiness.

  9. bruce king says:

    I've written a response to the points raised here on my blog.  You'll find it here

  10. Jackie says:

    I didn't take Bruce's comments to be critical.  He seemed to be making the very valid point that we farmers cringe at the thought of charging high prices to our customers while we ourselves struggle to pay the bills. 

    I struggle with this daily, as I want to be able to sell my meat and eggs to my neighbors.  But if I want my farm to succeed I will definitely have to price them out of the market.  It causes me embarrassment to look my neighbor in the eyes and say, "Sorry.  Not for you."  But then again, do they want me to be forced to sell the land so they can look at a new subdivision for the rest of their lives? 

    Truth is, people expect farmers to be poor.  And farmers (including myself) tend to play into this line of thought by speaking of our farms as "a labor of love", or by neglicting to add our labor expenses to the balance sheet at the end of the year.  While I hope we love  and care for our farms, it behooves no one to present our farms as anything less than a business, one that needs to cover its costs and make a reasonable profit.  That is the definition of sustainable.  

    I hope the conference helps farmers see their farms as a business first, a labor of love second.  It is the only point of view that will take us to the next step.  Too bad it's in California!--well, only because I'm a Midwesterner.

  11. et says:

    I would also be sceptical of anything that is billed as "Newer business models are popping up all over ... that are better for ... the people, the planet". "The planet" doesn't  care about business models. In fact, it could be argued that the planet would be better off without humans.

    Jackie and Bruce are right - sustainability includes economic sustainability.

    Farming that depends in very cheap/free labor be it immigrants or wwooffers is not really sustainable. At least not on a "feed the world" (not just wealthy shoppers) scale.

    That said, I hope this conference is good experience and that attendees come away having learned lots.

  12. bruce king says:

    Thank you Jackie and et.  I was wondering if anyone had gotten my point. 

  13. Jed "the country bumpkin" says:

    Well arent you all a rowdy bunch. The young lady tries to be honest about the difficulties of making a business sustainable in all facets and you jump on her. Lets see- most businesses do not make a profit the first five years, so her experience is reasonable.  Most farms do not make a profit ever, so again her experience is the norm.  From her website, it certainly does not look like their prices are too low (I certainly could not afford them that often).  But for all of you that can do it better or that think unprofitable farms should just go away, I hope you know how to raise your own food. For illustration, this year alone, one third of all dairy farmers are supposed to go out of business (that is 20,000 out of 60,000 left in this country).  Hope you like to keep cows in your back yard and know how to milk em...

  14. Doubtn' Thomas says:

    I seem to remember Bruce King posting this summer his that his farm has yet to break even and he didn't expect to any time soon.  It doesn't sound to me that  Bruce is an authority to look to about a financially sustainable farm or how to make a living farming.

    I have read his blog for a while.  He has had interesting things to say about his own approach to problems.  But lately he seems on a tear about criticizing others by cherry picking blog bits and miss quoting to pick a fight and then claiming he is the injured party.  He published a similar flame post critizing another farm Blog recently.  I am starting to suspect that this is Bruce's tactic to get more publicity for his own blog.  He used to get one or two comments on his posts, but by picking a popular blog and making accusations he gets all kinds of comments. 

    Maybe if ignored, he'll loose interest and go back to scrapping with his local environmental regulators.

    The flame that burns twice as bright....
    Is more likely to burn your fingers.
    Roy Batty RIP

  15. bruce king says:

    I think that the post you're referring to Doubtn' Thomas is this one. 

    Everyone here would like to see more small farms succeed, on whatever scale they'd like to, and I include myself in that basket.   There's no question that farming, especially small farming, is difficult. 

  16. Doubtn' Thomas says:

    I went back and checked Bruce, it was your  prediction in March of 2009 that your farm might finish this year in the black for the first time and that in 2010 you might be able to start paying the farm deficit.  I assuming the deficit you are refereing to is your earlier statement that you have weathered your losses  by  the farm from your savings and off farm income. 

    http://ebeyfarm.blogspot.com/2009/03/email-question-should-i-farm.html

    If I have misinterpreted your statements  in your blog, feel free to correct me. 

    But on what I have seen so far, it doesn't sound like you have been any more successfull than rebecca.  If you haven't been able to support yourself from farm income in at least three of the last five years after expenses and servicing farm debt  it sounds  mean spirited for you to criticize others who are in a similar position struggling to make their farms work.

  17. bruce king says:

    Thomas -- I put a business plan together for a 5 year payoff, and that's what I'm on schedule to do.  An operational profit means that the money is coming back in now, after laying it out. 

    My particular situation was that I bought raw land and had no equipment or facilities, so I had build and buy every single thing that I use and pay for every improvement needed, like water lines, and fencing, buildings and so on.   I also had substantial unexpected regulatory expenses. 

    I have no idea how successful Rebecca is or is not; my point is that business is business, and the problems that small farms face is no different than any other business faces.  

  18. Actually I don't think farming is like other businesses. The supposed "invisible hand" of the market in this case has historically been quite heavy handed support/manipulation by the government, designed to make food as cheap as possible (so as to keep the populace fat and happy). Farmers like Rebecca are not competing in a level growing field, not when the government subsidizes not just cheap grain, but the massive pollution caused by factory farms (through EQIP funding), overregulates based on large-scale operations (slaughterhouses, food safety), and does nothing to discourage industry concentration. The system is rigged against farmers like her who are trying to actually be stewards of the land, animals, and eaters under their care .

  19. et says:

    "Most farms do not make a profit ever, so again her experience is the norm."
    Nothing wrong with not making a profit, as long as you can and do pay yourself and workers a decent wage including benefits. Don´t forget advertising and packaging, amortization and replacement costs of buildings, machinery and stock, and capital costs. Putting aside some money for retirement/hard times is also a good idea.
    The problem is that many small scale farmers consider their wages are a profit, and thus negotiable.

    But certainly we need more farmers,  more good food and more people who are knowledgeable abut food, not less!

  20. I sympathize with Rebecca, all the way.  I've run a couple biotech start-ups, so understand the years of upfront investment in most business ventures.  However, "sustainable" must include economic sustainability.    We're at the point in our own business that we're looking at slowly whittling away our savings while working 80 hours a week versus cutting back to 2 cows and the garden and slowly whittling away our savings while working far less. 

    Makes you wonder why?  But, we're optimists and opportunistic; staying  flexible; investigating and exploiting new opportunities to squeeze enough out to make it cash flow.  Good luck to all of you (and us) trying to do the same!

  21. Lynda says:

    "They embody what is described as the "triple bottom line," in business success is measured by more than financial profit and loss statements: a new form of commerce that makes money while making good, that considers not just shareholders, but all stakeholders, whether employees, customers, or the communities in which they operate. We want to make this alternate model the mainstream, rather than a passing fad."...

    I'd like to see that posted on every door of Chamber of Commerce, City Hall, County Building, and Fed Building in the Country...We need this kind of new - much more conscientious economy bad...

  22. Bruce king says:

    Rebecca thistlewait closed her farm in October 2010 citing a variety of reasons. You can see my postmortem article on my blog here http://ebeyfarm.blogspot.com/2010/10/another-farm-bites-dust-postmortem.html

    There is a fairly intense comment section there as well

  23. Franko says:

    This post by Bruce King typifies his nasty mudslinging attacks on other farmers. It is sad to see some one who feels they must cut down other people in order to make themselves feel better. Bruce needs to get professional help and should be censored from posting here.