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This week's Book of the Week feature is The Rebirth of the Small Family Farmby Bob and Bonnie Gregson. 

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From Chapter 3: Key Factors to Success

Small Farms are a Labor of Love

As one considers what to do to make a living on such a two-acre parcel, there are major factors to consider, a screen through which one’s dreams must pass. The ten key factors we have identified, and discussion of each, follow:

  1. Like-minded partners — mutual support is crucial.
  2. Organic growing — ethics and economics happily coincide.
  3. Keeping it small — a few acres are enough.
  4. A passion for growing — small farms are a labor of love.
  5. Physical ability — are you a willing worker?
  6. Ongoing education — knowledge is the key.
  7. Direct marketing — cut out the middlemen.
  8. Location close to consumers — nearby population is an asset.
  9. Value-added product(s) — two plus two can equal five.
  10. Off-season work options — have a backup skill.

Like-Minded Partners

We believe it takes two like-minded, very supportive people to make most start-up enterprises work. And a small farm, like any small business, is indeed intense during the early years! It will require all the focus the partners can give.

That is not to say that it is impossible to do this with a family or one partner’s career and its related needs — but the partners must mutually understand, appreciate and fully support the motivation involved in operating the farm, and be prepared to sacrifice most other outside activities during the early years.

It is obvious to us that our coherent interests are in large measure responsible for our success. To be blunt with a personal subject, it is also obvious that this would not have been the case with our prior spouses; neither of our prior marriages would have withstood this activity level because the spouses did not have the same passion for walking/talking/working/reading about and thinking about growing things, and, quite understandably, could not have supported or substantially contributed to the overall effort. And neither of us could likewise contribute to their passionate endeavors.

Remember, we said that this is a great life and very fulfilling, but probably only if this is where your passion lies. It is crucial to identify personal life passions in advance. Dragging a partner into an intense field of endeavor into which he/she does not fit may be fatal to the relationship.

Organic Growing

Small farms should grow crops organically. The more we read and discover, the more we see the long-term disaster that chemical farming is, both for the consumer and especially the farmer, and we also see how feasible it is to grow mixed crops better organically. (We have closely followed the debate on this topic for many years, and have experienced it ourselves, so do not make the previous statement lightly.)

Over 70,000 chemical poisons have reportedly been used in recent years in various phases of agriculture; most are still in use. No one knows how any of the 70,000 or their by-products interact with each other in the various soil-groundwater-air combinations, let alone how they impact the 100,000 or more living entities found in each teaspoon of topsoil. Or what impacts chemical combinations have on humans. There is no way a rational, dispassionate observer can assume toxic agricultural chemistry is benign to humans; after all, it is designed to kill living entities.

Farm workers and farm families have many horror stories about their personal experiences with those toxic chemicals. Many such persons are killed and damaged around the world every year. Those poisons plus synthetic chemical fertilizers are also a huge expense to farmers. Fortunately, they can be replaced by much cheaper homemade items, especially on the small farm where chickens and other farm animals can play a substantial role.

Save Money and Build Healthy Soil

So why would anyone use expensive products that are undeniably dangerous to the applicator, to the eater of the produce, and to all nature, if they are not necessary?

Because well established multi-billion-dollar financial and bureaucratic institutions are dependent on their sales and use, that’s why. They have created a dependency and a mindset that seemed to make sense for awhile after World War II, but is now known to be dangerous and unnecessary in almost all cases. And they focus on symptoms instead of the real problems.

These powerful institutions are stridently promoting their chemicals and “silver bullet” procedures at all levels, and have the financial power to strongly influence the political and educational system.

If the buggy whip industry had enjoyed equivalent financial power early in this century, during the transition from horses to automobiles, it is not unreasonable to believe that every new car would still have a federally-mandated buggy whip as standard equipment!

Many farms, both large and small, have decades of successful organic production of a wide array of crops. Good crop rotations, feeding the soil with natural amendments and compost, and good choice of varieties replace toxic chemistry and serve everyone better in the long run.

Productivity of Organic Farms

It is sometimes said, even recently, that chemical farming is dramatically more productive than organic. That is utterly false. For a two-year sample study of 28 farms, see the article by Klepper et al in the February 1977 American Journal of Agricultural Economics, showing approximately equal performance in Midwestern commodity crops.

Another myth alleges that organic produce is usually small, ugly and blemished. It can be — but won’t if well grown and properly cared for. Another myth is that pests run rampant through organic fields. The truth is that healthy soil grows healthy, pest-resistant plants, and encourages a natural balance of so-called pest and predator.

Some organically grown produce actually tastes better, too, especially carrots, beets, potatoes and walnuts. Good organic farmers grow beautiful, high-yielding, tasty produce.

If you need further reasons for using the best of the old-fashioned ways, consider this: organic produce is also a market niche commanding a higher price and increased consumer interest/loyalty.

Chickens and Other Farm Animals Belong in the Scene

As a corollary, we think organic farming almost has to include raising truly free-range chickens, birds that have complete access to varied outdoor areas.

True free-ranging chickens convert various leftovers, crop residue, general forage, and purchased feed into terrific input for the compost pile; they devour most weeds, weed seeds and bugs they find; they aerate and till the soil in a healthy way (as long as they aren’t left in the same place too long); and they provide eggs, or meat, that, again, is notably better than what you can find at the grocery store.

Our eggs are a real draw to our farm stand because they are so fresh, with an orange, upright yolk that tastes appreciably better than the “factory” eggs from stressed, caged chickens. It is usually impossible to find grocery store eggs from free-running chickens, despite the clever — but meaningless — marketing words like “range,” “ranch,” “naturally nested,” and “freerange”that adorn many commercial egg cartons. Farm stand eggs will be, at most, several days old; those in the grocery store may be several months old.

Ethical Considerations

People are also beginning to have ethical concerns about how production animals are treated; many like to know they are patronizing a farm that lets chickens and other farm animals freely run in a congenial setting.

Final Note About Organics

Replacing synthesized agricultural inputs with meticulously defined organic inputs is a huge step in the right direction. But it is only one step. We firmly believe that it is equally important to use diversity, intercropping, companion planting, “friend strips” (habitat left for insects), cover cropping, crop rotations, wind breaks, runoff collection, and integrated livestock techniques to achieve the robust balance of life in and above the soil that enhances all agricultural activity. People and communities also count in the equation: ethical, caring attitudes should be a hallmark of everything we do when we call ourselves “organic growers.”

Learn more about Rebirth of the Small Family Farm here.

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About the Authors:

Bonnie Gregson grew up in Seattle, attended Colorado Woman’s College on an academic scholarship, but left to get married. She then spent time in construction management and a 12-year career in medical clinical management.

Bob Gregson was raised in Pasco, WA, in wheat country, graduated from West Point in 1964 and served in the Army for 6 years. He left the military and obtained an MBA at Dartmouth College. Bob is past chair of the King County Agriculture Commission, serves on the advisory council to the dean of the College of Agriculture at Washington State University, and is a board member of the Washington Sustainable Food and Farming Network.

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