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.
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.)
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.