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A few weeks ago I was discussing various topics in sustainable agriculture with farmers and apprentices at the Accokeek Foundation’s Ecosystem Farm in Accokeek, Maryland, about 20 minutes south of Washington, D.C. During the course of the discussion, it was mentioned that my farm’s goal was to move the price of sustainably-raised food into a sphere competitive with that of conventionally-raised food. This statement drew two reactions, both of which are rather common whenever I mention the idea of democratizing sustainability through price.

The first reaction is amused disbelief: “Do you really think that’s possible?” is what I most often hear from a concerned face pitying my delusional optimism.  Naturally, I think it’s possible to compete with conventional agriculture on price, but not if we insist on playing their game: focusing on commodity and wholesale markets, relying on annual labor/machine intensive agriculture, and leveraging economies of scale. All of these practices require sustainable operations to compensate for their shortcomings in ways that will always result in a more expensive product.

Permaculture offers a way to lower prices in a revolutionary way: reducing the need for human intervention in agricultural systems. Pasture-based farms are the gateway to this model in offering a limited-input method for producing herbivores, but staple crops and omnivorous meat products (e.g. pork and poultry) can’t be produced in these systems at a competitive price point. Moving into staples would require a fundamental shift in the entire agricultural model: away from commodity/hybrid species and toward locally-adapted species, away from annual crops and toward perennial crops, away from specialization and toward diversification, away from centralized distribution and toward localized distribution.

When you read about all that necessary change, the “do you really think that’s possible” question sounds awfully appropriate. But ultimately, someone has to believe it’s possible because the alternative – maintaining the status quo and keeping sustainable ag products solely in the realm of the elite – is quite hopeless. The sustainability movement can’t save the world if it’s only accessible to a small slice of it.

The second reaction is more nuanced and requires a bit more thought. Many natural farmers chafe at lowering their prices, and not just for selfish reasons. The logic holds that people don’t place enough value on food, and the relatively high price of organic food teaches people that food isn’t a commodity and is something important enough to be valued. I’ve heard Joel Salatin echo this argument: “If you can understand the difference between a BMW and a Honda, then you can understand the difference between a Polyface Broiler and a Purdue Broiler.”

There are two big problems with this line of argument. First, it assumes that price is either the only or the most important vehicle for conveying the value of food. I’ve always thought the best way to convey the value and fragile nature of food production is to have people grow it themselves. Growing a tomato plant will change a person’s outlook on food in a way that higher prices and exclusive markets never could. And for middle- and lower-income people, the price of organics is not just higher, it’s prohibitively higher.

As I argued that last point, the folks I was debating made the valid counterargument that it’s not impossible to get middle and lower-income individuals to pay more for a good product. One of the apprentices, who grew up in southeast D.C. around the same time I did, correctly mentioned that you could go to a Section 8 project in the worst part of the city. and see kids with $400 iPhones and $200 sneakers walking out of apartments where the $60 heat bill hasn’t been paid all winter. The problem we have to contend with, I argued, is the fact that premium products in areas like consumer electronics and fashion provide instant, tangible benefits. To get benefits from an iPhone or a new pair of Jordans, you buy it one time and your friends ooh and aah over it right away.

Healthy food, on the other hand, conveys benefits that are both intangible and delayed. To get benefits from healthy food, you have to buy it for a lifetime and the benefits are only realized decades later when your friends ooh and aah over your lack of diabetes and hypertension. Of course, healthy food isn’t the only thing that people consume for a lifetime to provide a delayed benefit. Toothpaste also falls into that category. But the reason that only 26% of people regularly buy organic food while 94% brush their teeth at least once a day? Toothpaste doesn’t cost twice as much as the next best alternative.

Second, the Honda/BMW analogy hits the mark in terms of the value proposition (i.e. of course you pay more for a better product) but misses the broader point entirely. BMW, whose mission is to make a tidy profit and produce the world’s best-engineered cars, benefits from the exclusivity that stems from its price point. BMW can fulfill its mission without appealing to people with Honda budgets. In fact, offering products to appeal to budgets outside of BMW’s high-luxury wheelhouse (i.e. the introduction of the 1 series) produced quite a bit of groaning among the company’s core clientele.

Sustainable agriculture on the other hand, whose mission is to save the world by displacing conventional agriculture, would find that exclusivity directly contradicts its mission: We can’t replace conventional agriculture if we can’t capture their customers. This presents the following set of realities:

  1. Sustainable agriculture is producing BMWs
  2. Most people can only afford Hondas
  3. The fate of humanity depends on us getting Honda customers into BMWs

We’re left, then, with two options. 1.) Convince people with Honda budgets to pay the high price of our BMWs, or 2.) Find a way to make our BMWs more affordable without compromising quality.

The first option seems, to me, unworkable. Assuming that some marketing genius is able to convince the masses that organic food is as worthy a luxury item as an iPhone, you’ve still got a problem: people don’t consume luxury items everyday. It’s not enough to have people buying “BMW food” for special occasions to show off to their friends; sustainable agriculture only works if the majority of agricultural land is under sustainable management, and that only makes sense if people are getting most or all of their food from us. Catering to a bigger niche market may satisfy the 20 year financial goals of a few sustainable farmers, but it doesn’t satisfy the 100+ year goal of restoring the environment and changing the face of American agriculture. The bottom line is, even if you’re able to convince lower and middle-income people to pay the higher price for your food, our movement still loses in the long run because they can’t afford to buy from us every day.

That leaves us with the second option: making our BMWs more affordable. As I mentioned earlier in the discussion of low-input permaculture, this option seems viable. Our hope here lies in the yin and yang of technological innovation and ancestral knowledge, a holistic marriage of human ingenuity and natural elegance. In this space lies the solution to making the sustainability movement not just visible, but accessible, and capable of continuing our ability to live happily on this planet.

Chris Newman
Proprietor, Sylvanaqua Farms

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Much of the push in sustainable agriculture centers around getting more farmers in the fields. The logic holds that smaller farms are easier to manage in an ecologically responsible manner, but smaller farms mean that we’ll need more of them to feed the population. These small farms would preferably take the place of the large factory farms now dotting the landscape. But I’ve always wondered… exactly how many of these small farms would we need?

Mark Shepard’s “Restoration Agriculture” got me thinking about that question in earnest. In this book, Shepard conservatively calculates that a mature, multi-tiered permaculture farming operation could produce 5.97 million human food calories (i.e. calories actually ingested by humans rather than diverted to animal feed, bio-fuels, etc.) per acre, per year. I decided to use this estimate to determine how many farms like mine would be needed to feed the town of Earlysville, VA, where we’re located.

Earlysville’s population is about 5,520 people. If each of them eats 2,000 calories per day on average, that’s 5,520 x 2,000 = 11,040,000 calories per day. Multiply that by 365, and we have Earlysville consuming 4,029,600,000 calories per year.

Once the permaculture infrastructure is mature, we’ll have about 20 productive acres (26 total acres minus 2 acres for homes and buildings, minus 3 acres for riparian buffer, minus another acre of generally unusable land). If we multiply that 20 by Shepard’s calorie production estimate, then our farm can produce 20 x 5.97 million = 119.4 million calories per year.

Finally, we divide Earlysville’s annual consumption of 4.0296 billion calories by the 119.4 million calories the 20 acre farm can produce, and we see that we need 34 twenty-acre farms to feed Earlysville.

Depending on where you’re coming from, that might seem like a lot of farms and farmers for such a small town. But it’s really not that bad when you crunch the numbers a little more. Assuming each farm employed two people (it really doesn’t take more than that to manage 20 acres), the town’s farming population would be just 1.2% of the population, which is actually lower than the current nationwide percentage.

Each farm would need to feed about 162 people. If each person purchased just $100/month in meat and produce from the farm, we’d gross close to $197,000 a year. Without conventional farming’s massive debt service, input costs, and labor/machinery costs associated with planting, harvesting, and protecting hundreds of acres of monoculture crops – this near $200K gross would allow the two farmers on each farm to enjoy a comfortable middle-class living once overhead, purchasing, maintenance, rent, etc. costs were removed from the total.

These numbers are conservative and well-grounded, but they’re still just theoretical. Our farm will be a real-world test case over the next several years to explore the very exciting possibility that a.) farming could again become a financially rewarding enterprise without b.) spiking prices on consumers or c.) destroying the environment.

So ask yourself… how many small farms would it take to feed your town?

Chris Newman
Proprietor, Sylvanaqua Farms

Be sure to check out the other articles in this season’s series:

Lessons from the Farm, Pt. I – Brooders and Feeding
Lessons from the Farm, Pt. II – Poultry Processing
Lessons from the Farm, Pt. III – Fact Check: The Cost of Starting a Farm

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Scalability

My father-in-law and I began clearing a bunch of trees last May, the first living sacrifices for what would eventually become our poultry pastures. I was still employed as a technology consultant at the time, so I was happy to be out in the country exercising and getting fresh air. At some point, either I or one of a few friends that were helping us said “Yeah… I could definitely do this instead of [current sedentary career] for a living.” Pops, a general contractor with decades of experience in construction, shot back, “Do it for a year, then say that again.”

He was right. The clearing of land dragged on through the summer and was easily the most backbreaking work I’ve ever done. By the end I didn’t quite hate it, but there’s no way I’d be willing to keep it up for an entire year, much less a living. Since the tree felling ordeal, there’s one very important idea I ask when presented with a new idea for our farm operation: Would this idea still work if I a.) had to do it forever, or b.) had to scale the practice up?

This idea first bore fruit when I was trying to figure out the broilers’ feeding schedule. I’d been reading all over the internet about people checking on their birds every three or four hours, carefully restricting their feed to just six hours a day, and otherwise babysitting them practically around the clock. Checking on the broilers every few hours would be fairly easy for us right now since we just have one pen fairly close to the house. But next year we’ll have three or four, and the year after that we’ll probably go to a dozen or more, with some of them being on neighboring properties. On top of that we’ll have pigs, hens, bees, turkeys, gardens and orchards to contend with at the same time. Needless to say, managing the birds by keeping a near-constant eye on them is a solution that wouldn’t scale to a mature operation, so I forced myself to come up with a service schedule that allows me to visit the pens just twice a day.

The same idea convinced us to get a guard dog for the broilers. After a raccoon attack claimed five of our biggest birds, we start putting 4×4 blocks around the edges of the pen to secure it against burrowing predators on uneven ground. Again, this solution works well for our single pen but fails the “what if I had to do this for ten pens” test miserably. Unpinning and re-pinning the 4x4s on one pen takes about seven minutes. On ten pens it’ll take over an hour, ultimately tacking on additional labor costs of $6,400 for the entire season. This adds about 25 cents a pound to the sale price in addition to tying up time (to the tune of eight man-weeks) that could be spent doing other things. The alternative was to buy a guard dog for less than $100 (allocate this at $10/year over the ~10 year life of the dog), make a one-time labor investment of about $800 in training (allocate this at $80/year over the 10 year life of the dog), bank on about $500/yr in vet bills and meds, and feed the guy with unsellable birds and homemade dry kibble for $50/mo. It wasn’t hard to opt for $640/year instead of $6,400/year.

We’re still using the 4x4s on the practice pen because it isn’t economical to use a guard dog for just one pen, but next year those blocks will definitely be repurposed for something else.

The bottom line is, do not become dependent on any practice that can’t grow with you.

The Importance of Having a Mission and Values

If you’re into sustainable agriculture, there’s a good chance that you’re fairly well read. Sustainability rarely makes the news, so having a clue about the movement usually means putting eyes on books. When you decide to take the plunge into a farm of your own, your voracious appetite for knowledge will be critical to your success. But it can also be your undoing.

Sustainable agriculture is experiencing a renaissance. Increasing numbers of people are both entering the field and maturing within the field, spawning an array of new and exciting ideas so vast as to be overwhelming. In my own experience, I found the ideas of my Native ancestors, Joel Salatin, Sepp Holzer, Mark Shepard, Alan Savory, and many others competing for space in my head, often contradicting one another. For example:

  • Compost is a key element of Salatin’s fertility program. But then, the legendary Sepp Holzer does not practice intensive composting at all.
  • Tillage disrupts and destroys soil life. But then, it can be done in a way where that disruption is only temporary and erosion/compaction doesn’t become a problem. Furthermore, no-till practices are nearly impossible to implement economically.
  • Nothing builds topsoil like perennial grasses grazed by herbivores. But then, forests and savannas produce much more biomass and capture much more sunlight than open pasture.

I was in danger of schizophrenic thinking. All the ideas sounded great, including those at odds with one another. What ultimately saved me was the fact that I’d articulated a mission statement and core values for the farm several months earlier.

It’s understandable that mission and values statements sound both corporate and hokey. And it’s deservedly so in many cases since large corporations have by and large reduced their mission statements to cheap marketing bylines, and drifted far enough from their stated values to render them meaningless. Nevertheless, a simple but thoughtfully considered mission and values can be indispensable in guiding you through difficult decisions. I’ll share Sylvanaqua’s mission and values:

Mission Statement:

Make a healthy, happy world.

Core Values

Holism: Evaluate actions against the holistic goal, and their potential impact on future times and distant places.

Sustainability: Produce a net improvement in the continued ability to live happily on this planet.

Inclusion: Absolutely everyone deserves to be healthy and happy

With that in mind, here’s how our mission and values helped us to adopt the farming strategy we have today: one that involves a few years raising commercial breeds on pasture-based systems until our permaculture landscape matures:

Our farm is fairly unique in its value of inclusion. Many natural farmers treat the socioeconomic exclusivity of organic food as both unfortunate and unchangeable. As I’ve argued earlier, however, sustainable agriculture can’t fulfill it’s mission (i.e. saving the world) without moving into the mainstream; as James Madison would have put it, “a minority may block or delay, but ultimately may not govern.”  Lots of natural farmers and our supporters fight the good fight against ag subsidies and cronyism in an effort to get conventional agriculture to reflect its true cost. And while I believe that’s a worthy effort, I also believe there needs to be a Plan B that wouldn’t result in a debilitating economic shock on middle and lower income populations.

We can’t make everyone happy and healthy if we suddenly dump the ag subsidies. Food prices would double (or worse) and there’d be blood in the streets. Mainstream organic and natural production, as they stand today, are simply not capable of providing a product that’s affordable for the average person.

We considered several solutions to this problem:

  • Overproducing intentionally by about 10% to provide giveaways of our food to lower income people.
  • Annual community fundraising to set up a mobile market that doubles the purchasing power of lower income people. People come to the market, and for every dollar they spend, we match it with the money from the donations.
  • Getting into the community to teach people how to grow their own food.

Each of these solutions was a non-starter. The first idea would practically eliminate our profit and violate our principle of reducing overproduction. The second idea would make lower income people dependent on fickle public charity and increase their powerlessness. The third idea is one we’re still pursuing, but there’s only so many fruits and veggies people can eat; they can’t grow adequate staple crops and meat in an urban environment. At least not yet.

Underlying all three of these ideas was an assumed high price of organic food. It became clear natural food would be forever inaccessible (or accessible only through undesirable means) to the average person so long as the price remained high. So, how could we lower it and make it competitive with conventionally grown food without all the subsidies?

Asking this question eventually led me to consider permaculture. Among other things, permaculture espouses the development of extremely resilient, low-input agricultural systems by maximizing the capture of solar energy, installing perennial plant species, rearing animals naturally, and aggressively culling both plants and animals to encourage local adaptations. While the environmentally restorative effects of the system are to be lauded, I found myself particularly interested in the notion of feed and labor savings. If my animals could be fed with forage that I had to neither buy nor plant (due to perennial species), and my time in feeding and babysitting animals not bred for local conditions could be directed elsewhere – then I could pass those savings on to my end product to make it available to more people.

For these reasons I ultimately decided to orient my operation towards permaculture, but the glaring problem with that system is the time it takes to become productive. In a pasture-based system I can buy 200 Cornish Cross broilers from Ohio tomorrow and in eight short weeks I’ll have a harvest. Permaculture involves extensive earthwork projects, planting of trees and shrubs that won’t produce a harvest for years, and cull-strengthening the flora and fauna to adapt them to the local environment over a period of several years. Because of that reality, I decided to continue with pasture systems (which are infinitely more sustainable than conventional and even traditional organic systems) long enough to get our permaculture landscape to the point where it becomes our centerpiece.

It’s worth noting that these decisions would have been much more difficult without our core values. The decision to pursue permaculture is entirely rooted in the promise of fulfilling our core value of inclusion. Without that core value to drive decision-making, it’s very likely that we simply would have taken and remained on the path of least resistance. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing in and of itself, but I’d have likely spent the next several years second-guessing my decisions and being buffeted by the relentless tide of new ideas coming out of the natural farming renaissance.

Like a ship’s compass in a storm, your values will guide your farm through rough seas of naysayers, sales pitches, competing ideas, hyperactive enthusiasm, fads, and the desire to do everything at once. Take the time to build your compass, and find yourself farming deliberately instead of being moved along by the tide. You’ll thank yourself later.

 

Chris Newman
Proprietor, Sylvanaqua Farms