Family farming is a concept that has been lost in today’s world of industrialized agriculture but it is a concept that we at the Green Acre farm embrace. Perhaps it is because of the fond memories I have of driving out to the “country” as a child and picking out fruits and veggies from my mom’s favorite road side farmer’s market stand. There the friendly lady was always ready with a warm smile and while my mom and sister browsed the veggies and chatted, I always wandered out back and climbed up on a fence rail. Rows and rows of crops lay out before me, tractors hummed and a big red barn and some horses and cows were off to one side. Occasionally there was the soft sound of a nicker or the shriller call of a whinny in the distance. To my typical city surroundings, this was the life. I think that is when my fascination with farming all began.
Many, many years later I never thought that I would actually be living that surrealistic child hood dream but alas, I am a farmer. My picture is quite different though then the one I recall, but then again my farm, an aquaponics farm, is the farm of the future and the farm I remember from my childhood days is nearly a thing of the past. Instead of rows upon rows of crops blowing in the wind, there are rafts upon rafts of greens floating in my troughs. Although aquaponic farming is a relatively new concept, the family practice of farming is not.
There are many advantages to the small family aquaponic farm from being able to minimize set up and operational costs and overhead to fostering a connection with your community by building a tribe and becoming the face they know and trust to grow their food. As Sylvia Bernstein, who delivers the business and marketing portion of our aquaponic farming classes points out, developing a tribe is the key to a solid marketing plan that builds a dedicated group of patrons that have given you permission to market to them. It builds trust and it enables the farmer to supply the ever growing demand for locally grown food. However, there are large aquaponic farms beginning to emerge and along with that comes some hefty amounts of needed capital and some tremendous numbers when it comes to operational costs and overhead. While of course a large commercial operation has the potential to generate a much larger revenue stream, what cost does that operation exact? The capital investment alone can easily be several hundred thousand dollars and in fact there is a company that is offering a franchise farming opportunity with a half million dollar investment. The problem is that there still are no proven large scale operations or models unlike the small commercial aquaponic farm, family farms like the Green Acre model with manageable start up and operational costs that can also easily be self funded. And if self funding is not an option, small business loans or investor funds are an option and considerably easier to secure and with much less risk then a mega-farm that requires a half million or more just in start up capital.
If we consider the operational costs for a large farm, leasing the greenhouse space alone can be a tremendous monthly expense. Leasing 100,000sqft of greenhouse space can be a $20,000 to $25,000 monthly expense without even considering any operational costs too. Between the lease, labor, payroll liabilities, daily farm operational costs, utilities, marketing, taxes, etc, a farm this size would need to generate at least $50k a month just to operate the farm. Holy fish poo! That’s a lot of lettuce to sell! Certainly there are large conventional and hydroponic farms at this scale, but this size operation is still unproven in commercial aquaponics and the recent collapse of a large commercial venture does little to help support the viability of large scale farms.
That is why at Green Acre and in our Aquaponic Farming class, we focus on the small farm approach. One built and managed by a small group of people whether its family or friends, but one that is a model that the owner operators can slowly grow over time. There’s several other compelling reasons the family farm approach works. There is much less risk with the drastically smaller initial investment and smaller farms also have more flexibility with less infrastructure and that flexibility allows for nimble transitions in an ever changing market place. While a large farm may be better suited for wholesale bulk sales, it also secures only a fraction of the retail pricing the small farm can secure by being able to sell to end users at markets or through CSA’s. It would likely be impossible to sell the production from a 75,000sqft system at your local farmer markets! The need to sell wholesale to large chains also means more hurdles to overcome with food safety requirements and certifications. The small family farmer can also stay engaged with their customer that actually has a face and a name and when it comes to both start up and operational costs, if the farm can be built on the owner’s home property, these too can be minimized. Perhaps one of the greatest advantages of the family farm is that the owner operator input is not only a source of “cheap” labor but they are guaranteed to be the best, most engaged, most dedicated employees the farm will ever have and staying small maximizes their daily, hands-on participation.
Operating a successful small family farm business is no easy task but it is possible and at this time much more practical then a large scale operation that this industry has yet to see succeed. And even better yet, with a road map and guidance from those that have been doing it, it eliminates the guess work, minimizes the errors and helps insure success. Start small, dream big and get good guidance from real farmers with practical, real everyday farming experience.