Realities and Viability of Small-Scale Veganic Farms
May 15, 2023 | Jimmy Videle
Perhaps you have thought about diving into the possibility of starting a small-scale veganic farm? As amazing as the dream is, it is important to investigate the realities and viability of the enterprise. Below is an idea of what you might be getting yourself into and solutions for how to move forward.
For the selling of fruits, vegetables and herbs direct sales are always the most profitable. Community supported agriculture (CSA) is where a partner family supports the farm by paying or bartering for a weekly delivery of seasonal produce. Through farmer’s markets where perhaps ten (on the low end) to forty (for some of the largest) vendor’s sell a variety of products one or two times per week. Depending on proximity to population, on-farm kiosks can also be very lucrative options.
Weekly on farm kiosk at La ferme de l’Aube 2022 (Photo: Jimmy Videle)
Sometimes direct selling to restaurants and/or fine grocery stores can be an outlet when a farm has an abundance (or can create an abundance) of a specific crop weekly, such as mesclun salad mix or cherry tomatoes. The least profitable manner, but can be a way to eliminate waste, is to sell direct to large scale grocery chains, yet the price that small growers receive may be only half what they can get from CSA’s or farmer markets.
If a specific farm has the skill-set other production arenas exist, like the selling of farm saved seeds and/or seedlings for personal home gardens. As well as transformations like preserves, canned goods (like tomatoes, salsas, hot sauce), dried goods and the increasingly popular lacto-fermentations, like sauerkraut and kimchi.
Diversity in the gardens, sometimes up to seventy different crops, leads to a more sustainable income stream, for even if one or two crops fail, like does happen to every small-scale farmer every year, there are many more that do come to fruition. The diversity of ways to generate income is equally important, for if a farmer’s market has a rainy Saturday, at least there is the opportunity to sell extra to the CSA partners or other outlets.
But profit is not merely income, it is income minus expenses. While production yields and sales are important to achieving goals, learning how to become a solid business person and control (or fix) expenses is equally if not more so.
It has been stated in the highly influential book, “The Market Gardener” by Jean-Martin Fortier that income on small-scale diversified organic farms can reach $32,400-$64,800/ acre and a 40% profit. La ferme de l’Aube, a less than ½ acre veganic farm in Québec, showed income of $47,000/acre with a 60% profit. Veganic small-scale agriculture has the advantage of limiting expenses thus increasing profits even further. By contrast a monoculture corn or soy farm has a gross income of no more than $800/acre with around a 30% profit margin.
Mont Tremblant Farmer’s market (Photo: Jimmy Videle)
In the veganic method, the majority of the fertility attempts to be achieved on-farm through plant-based composts, cover crops and end of season in-bed composting. By eliminating the need to buy in compost and pay for the increasing costs of delivery much can be saved. Organic farms bring in composted manure (cow, sheep) and fertilizers (dried chicken, sea composts, blood and bone meals) as their primary fertility sources. For these there are external costs that are not internalized, such as, the costs to raise those animals, slaughter the animals and of course their lives, where it is impossible to put a price tag on their suffering. There is land that is needed to feed those animals all being currently subsidized, making products of animals unrealistically cheaper. Additionally, the veganic method uses no insecticide, herbicide or fungicide, so these costs are eradicated. For the small-scale operation, of one acre or less, two owners could run it alone and highly efficiently, which eliminates any extra personnel costs. The profits go direct to the owning farmers.
Variability of the Marketplace
Montréal seedling sale 2019 (Photo: Jimmy Videle)
Farms that are located closer to larger metropolitan or urban areas have the highest potential of direct sales for higher income and profit. Farms that are located further away (over two hours) and must rely on smaller municipalities will see lower income and profit. Yet, even in these smaller markets, farms can still provide a substantial income to the farmers, like in the case of La Ferme de l’Aube.
Where direct selling from small-market farms gets tricky is that its’ variability of income from week to week is dependent on the weather on selling days, especially in the case of farmer’s market and outdoor festival sales. For the years 2018-2019 La ferme de l’Aube had a seedling sale in Montréal (two hours away) one Saturday per year. On both days, the weather was agreeable, and sales exceeded $6,000 in one day. If there were to have been inclement weather, sales would have faltered dramatically. The same can be true with weekly farmer’s markets and on-farm kiosks. On days when the weather was clear the farm sold out of fruits, vegetables and herbs every week. On days when it rained, the farmers took home produce, to either be eaten, distributed to the community food bank or in extreme cases composted.
A Call to Change and Five Proposed Solutions
For La Ferme de l’Aube start-up costs were $64,000, which included: permanent greenhouse, two tunnels, construction of barn and cool rooms, irrigation, fencing and small tools. This value has probably gone up to around $100,000 today as costs of everything from construction to horticulture supplies have skyrocketed. So how does one coming straight out of agricultural school or wish to change métiers, afford to begin? Not to mention the land which has gone up astronomically to purchase and is close to impossible to rent. There needs to be intervention.
1. Offer a no-interest forever payback loan to all first-time veganic farmers to pay for their initial infrastructure.
Driving around the countryside one sees vast hay and monoculture crop fields used primarily for animal agriculture feed. There are properties with vast grass front or backyards. These are golden opportunities for land availability for first time growers using the best possible veganic methods.
2. There should be governmental initiatives for these larger farms to rent their land to these young farmers.
Average income per acre of corn, soy ($700-800/acre) or hay ($200-$300/acre) are vastly less than what a diversified small-scale veganic farm can make. In urban areas the same could apply to those with large yards that can be converted over to growing operations.
The average age of Canadian and US farmers from the most recent census of agriculture is 56 and 58 respectively. The number of farm operators continues to drop across North America. If we continue with this trend, we will run out of farmers in the next fifteen years unless we do something now.
3. Encourage our younger generations to explore the time-honored tradition of becoming farmers and lower the pension age specific to farmers to 55.
Those farmers that have been running farms for 25 and 30 years have done their share of public service. Governments do not look at this occupation as such and it is a shame, for those that put food on the tables of the citizens, residents and immigrants of a country deserve special treatment.
It is not uncommon for most farm owners to make $5-6/hour factoring all the work they put in. This is a huge reason why we are losing farmers; it is more cost effective for their time to work for someone else, even for a neighboring farm where they could make twice that per hour.
4. Redivert subsidies from animal to plant-based farmers
Subsidize the farmers from the vast pool of monies that should be completely diverted from animal agriculture, if they don’t make enough to cover personal costs, so that they don’t need to work elsewhere in the short off-season when they need time to recuperate.
La ferme de l’Aube sold to 40-50 families a week and only 20-25% were within 10 km, the rest were further afield some as far away as 40 km one way.
5. Have national, provincial and state-wide advertising campaigns that encourage residents to buy from their local farmers
If residents were offered a tax break to buy their fruits, vegetables and herbs locally during the season it would allow the farmers more time on the farm and less time looking for clients. It could also spur more small farms into being. For if every 1-acre farm could generate $40,000+/year and supply 80-100 families with seasonal produce the number of necessary farmers and opportunities would increase dramatically.
This is a blueprint of what could be possible. Changing our agriculture system to a 100% plant-based one is essential for the health of the planet and to eliminate the suffering of billions of animal beings. Taking care of those mentally, physically and financially that have fed us, feed us currently and will do so in the future is an imperative. We cannot afford to wait a single day longer.
Jimmy Videle is the author of The Veganic Grower’s Handbook (The Veganic Grower's Handbook – Lantern (lanternpm.org), and co-founder of NAVCS-Certified Veganic North American Veganic Certification Standard – Serving USA, Canada, and Mexico (certifiedveganic.org)