Courtesy of Roxanne C., Philadelphia PA
Twenty six years ago, when SPIN-Farming creator Wally Satzewich started farming, the predominant model was own large acreage, produce in volume, sell wholesale. After a few very rough years of barely being able to hang on, he was told by other farmers that he’d eventually reach nirvana if he just kept getting bigger. But when he looked down the road his fellow farmers were on, he saw ruin not riches. He ended up going in the extreme opposite direction, and became an urban farmer.
Now new farmers are vulnerable to a similar type of magical thinking. Just change “big” to “sustainable”. Flocking back to the land, large numbers of them are starting farms in the belief that the superior logic and morality of their farming practices will somehow guarantee their success. Then they wring their hands when they find themselves working 12 hour days, the money doesn’t flow in, and they have to work outside jobs to keep their farms going. But that’s the experience of anyone who starts a business.
Wally did not start full-time. He drove a cab. Other SPIN farmers drive buses, do research, teach jujitsu. They master their production skills until they can grow in significant volume, consistently, at commercial grade. They research their markets, build up a customer base, set revenue targets and execute their plans. They transition to full-time farming once they’re reaching the income levels they need to support themselves solely by farming.
Most new farms don’t survive. That can be said of lots of other businesses. No one is owed a living just because they choose to farm a certain way. Those who are heeding the call to sustainable farming might also be surprised to learn that there has never been a real tradition of sustainable farming in the US. Our pioneer farming ancestors drained wetlands, cut down forests, decimated ecosystems, and polluted waterways. Even Dan Barber, celebrity chef and board member of the paragon of virtuous farming, the Stone Barns Center for Food & Agriculture, acknowledges, “We don’t have a history of peasant farming. We have a history of bad farming.”
Many of the practices being developed by the sustainable farming groups are worthy ones, but they don’t necessarily add up to a business. If you have dug yourself into a hole, SPIN might help you get back back to business.
Here is some advice you might not hear from the sustainability crowd.