The Viability of Small Farming
Maggie Bergen is a student within the U of M's School of Agriculture Diploma program. In the summer of 2015, she visited five farms of the members of Small Farms Manitoba and interviewed each of the farmers. She then wrote up a report, which we've published here on our blog. Enjoy!
Growing up on a commercial dairy farm, I always enjoyed the farm life. As good as the dairy was, I dreamt of the possibility of having a farm like my grandpa did; a couple of milking cows, a few pigs, some chickens, and a couple of cultivated acres for forage and cash crops. I was told though that one cannot have a profitable farm farming the way grandpa used to. Years after setting that dream aside I started hearing about small farms that were not only running, but were profitable. I yearned to learn more about the small farming practices and how it was sustainable. Therefore, I arranged to visit five different small farms and interview the farmers regarding the viability in small farms. In order to get the most out of the experience, the five farms were intentionally chosen in order that they would have different production, marketing, and years in the business. Visiting these farms helped me gain a better understanding of the value and viability of small farms.
In order to continue, we must look at what small farming means. Before visiting the farms and reading up on different small farms, I imagined small farms to simple, mixed farms that market their production from home and/or markets. I quickly realized that defining a small farm was not going to be so simple. Instead, we will look at commonalities that I observed, and how others have defined small farming. All five farms were owned and run by family with none or one employee. All the farms marketed their products directly, with relationships being a key focus. They meet a unique, niche market. And each farm values not only relationships, but also the health of the land, animals, and people. According to Small Farms Manitoba, a resource providing a place to connect small farms and consumers in Manitoba, “”Small Farm” refers not to land size, income or productivity but to the level of integrity that a farm carries” (Spain).
Small Farms Manitoba goes on to describe small farms as not being part of a marketing board, approaches social, economic and environmental impact, builds transparent relationships, work alongside other farmers, and strives to be a financially viable business.
As a farmer, what you produce and how you market your production can vary greatly.
This is especially true for small farmers. Not being tied into a marketing board, the opportunities for production and marketing are unique to each farm. I was taken by surprise by the variety of production practices occurring locally. I got the opportunity to visit an vegetable farm, a grassfed, an organic beef farm, a meat butchering and processing facility, a fruit farm, and an organic grain and milling facility. I was amazed by the availability of some of the products and services available so locally. And these are only five of the many small farms in Manitoba. There are far more available that I was not able to experience. Each farm has the freedom to produce what they like, how they would like. There is still of course government regulations that effect some producers more than others. For example, meat has to be processed and sold a certain way. Each farmer has the opportunity to meet consumer demands as well as what they are passionate about.
With the production practices being so unique, consequently the marketing will be unique to each farm as well. From direct marketing, whole-sale, farm-gate, farmers markets, to Community Shared Agriculture (CSA) the farmer can market their products in a way that caters to the consumers as well as the convenience for the farmer. One of the farms I visited sells most of their production to a local store where consumers can purchase their vegetables. The fruit farm on the other hand requires the consumers to come on the farm to purchase and/or pick their own fruit rather than buying it from a store. Another method is through Community Shared Agriculture, known as CSA. CSA is a great system for producers and consumers. For CSA, the consumer pays a set amount to the farmer for a basket of fresh produce every week. Whatever was produced that week, that is what the consumer will get in their basket. It provides a constant supply of fresh fruits and vegetables. It is also beneficial for the farmer in that before the season has even started they have essentially already sold all their products. The farm fills the baskets each week for the consumers to pick up. It is a win-win for both producer and consumer. It is to each farm how they market. One farmer does a variety; individual sales, stores, and bakeries.
The role of a small farmers is different than an commodity farmer in that a small farmer not only producing the good, but are responsible for the product until it is in the hands of the consumer. This adds extra business practices such as advertising, traveling, informing consumers, marketing, and so forth.
By now it is probably easy to see that small farming is not the easiest career or lifestyle.
There is lots of work involved working independently. Therefore I asked, why do small farmers do what they do? What drove, or inspired them to this way of life? I was surprised that the responses I got were all fairly similar. It was not so much that they wanted to stay away from commodity farming, it was that they didn’t have enough land. Four of the five farms said that they wanted to farm, but with only having so much land, they had to find a way to use the land in a way that would be able to provide an income. They learned to work with what they had in a unique way that would be able to be viable. Be in organic, a value added good, or a product or service that was not available. Another reason is the ability to work independently. Having the freedom to run ones own business, not having to work for anyone else, being able to make all the decisions, and having the freedom to make changes. All the farms visited said that despite the hard work, they love what they do and would not trade it in for something else.
If the production of small farms is so unique, is there a consumer base that is able to support these unique, special businesses? This questions was the make-it-or-break-it for a business. If the consumer base, the demand, is there than small farming is viable. If the support is not there, than the future would look bleak. Fortunately, there was a resounding ‘yes’ when I asked each farm. Not one of them had trouble with finding consumers. The problem was rather not having enough product to meet consumer demand. The reason is due to a number of factors.
One, part of each farms decision on production was a result of seeing a demand that was not being met. The meat processing was a result of the farm having beef that needed slaughtering and there was no one available to butcher. Therefore, they started a business to meet a needed services. That is one example of a small farm developing to meet consumer demand. Another reason for not being able to meet demand is the lack of businesses targeting the markets that small farms target. Although there are a number of small farms in Manitoba, there are not enough to create competition. All five farms said that there was no competition at all. They wished to see more. The reason for there not being more small farms may be due to a lack of support, or people not being willing to commit to the lifestyle and hard work of a small farmer. The reason is uncertain. What is certain though is that right now the demand exceeds the supply.
With the demand so high, the future of small farms looks bright. Farmers markets are growing, publicity is increasing, more small farms are developing, and demand continues to increase.
Every farm I talked to was very optimistic about the future of small farming and direct marketing. Reason for the growth is the desire for people to know where their food is coming from. Having a face to the farmer that produced the food allows for assurance that the food one is eating is of better quality than that from mass production. More people are starting to want healthier food, better environmental practices, and understanding of food production. One farmer said that part of the growth will be from mothers. As mothers continue to see their children get sick, they will demand for better food. The mothers will want to know where their food is coming from, and demand better farming practices. Small farmers are already catering to the demand for organic, relational farming which most commodity farmers are not catering to. As small farming and direct marketing continues to increase, co-operatives will develop, farmers markets will evolve from seasonal, weekly markets to year-round, daily markets. One thing to be aware of though, as one farmer pointed out, is that if direct marketing increases there is a concern of the loss of local stores. This concern is something to keep in mind in development in order to help the local stores continue. In order for direct marketing, small farming to increase there is a need for government support financially and providing better options for production and marketing that cater to small farmers. Encouragement will also be necessary for existing as well as new farmers amongst each other as well as from society. I heard it over and over that the work is hard. The small farmers need encouragement to keep doing what they are doing, and that the hard work is valued.
As a small farmer, the work of a small farmer is seen as valuable and worth the hard work. A small farmer does not view what they do as merely a job, but it is a lifestyle. Small farming is a lifestyle they chose to live because they enjoy the independence, the work, the holistic approach to valuing relationships to people and the land. There are many niche markets and demand that commercial farming is not able to meet, therefore it is important to for small farmers to be able to provide products and services that are not being met. One farmer I visited focuses much of their farming practices on restoring the land. The need to restore the land is important, and the ability to do so will only be viable at a small scale. Large farms are not able to cater to each acre of land as a small farmer is. Therefore for land restoration small farming is essential. Another example is organic products. More people want organic products for better health and for better land. Small farming is important for providing that with a relational aspect as well.
As small farming grows, what do the commercial farmers think, and how does it effect
them? Well, the relationship between small farmers and commercial farmers so far has been very good. I asked the farms about relationships with commercial farmers and there was no opposition at all. Some said there was no relationship at all, but most said that their neighbouring commercial farmers were supportive and even encouraged their work. While small farms and commercial farms are farms, the work and market they are meeting are very different. They are both working very different industries which allows for no competition or tension but rather support from a different perspective. One commercial farmer approached a small farmer and told them that what the small farmer was doing was very good work. We need to take better care of our land and animals. He wanted to encourage this farmer to keep of the hard work. Having the opportunity to visit these five farms was a great experience and gave me a better perspective as to the commitment and hard work involved in running a small farming business. I was surprised by the diversity in small farming. The opportunities to experiment, to try new products, new methods, and new services are available. One has to be open to changes, to failures, and to hard work. Yet, even though it was not easy, they were all happy to talk and share what they are doing. This was a sign that they did what they loved. They found joy and satisfaction in their work. While I could paint a picture that makes small farming look so glorious, it was not all glorious. The challenge of the amount of work was evident. Many of the farmers were tired. They have worked hard to develop the business, and they continue to have to work hard to keep it running and growing. Some of them said how much they look forward to when they can spend more time with family. It was somewhat discouraging to see the need for more support in labour. There needs to be more people willing to work hard like these farmers. I was also motivated to make more of a point to buy locally, to support these ambitious farmers. Hopefully one day I will have the opportunity to work with a small farmer and possibly run my own small farm business.
Experiencing these few farms proved that with determination, hard work, and a dream, small farming has a bright future and for the right people is a viable business and lifestyle to embark in. If the farm currently was not financially viable, the future showed that it would soon be sustainable and able to continue to grow. If you would ask a small farmer if investing in a small farming business would be viable, they would respond with a ‘yes’, and encourage you through the journey.
DeRuyck, Fran. Personal Communication. June 2015.
Erlandson, Evan. Personal Communication. June 14, 2015.
Hildebrandt, Dean and Tiina. Personal Communication. June 17, 2015.
Smith, Wayne and Edith. Personal Communication. June 2015.
Spain, Kalynn. Retrieved August 2015. http://www.directfarmmanitoba.ca/producers
Williment, Wayne and Colette. Personal Communication. June 2015.