Micro-Farm Labor: What’s it Cost?

by admin on February 14, 2014

Comin croppedBy Tracy Sweely

In my previous post “Micro-Farm Labor: What’s it Take?” I reviewed the labor requirements for a minimally-mechanized, micro-farming operation such as what we have at our pilot study farm, HeartEye Village CSA. This post explores the labor-related issues for financial sustainability given the labor requirements of using minimally- mechanized farming methods typical of urban farming operations.

Drawing upon production and financial planning tools to simulate operations in the Small Farm Financial Sustainability Study that we conducted in 2011, I realized that a minimum set of attributes were required for such a farm to be financially viable. These requirements were a minimum of ¼ acre (10,890 sq ft) of cultivation space with intensive intercropping to maximize yields, with half of the cultivation space (5445 sq ft) under winter production using high tunnels.

The labor projections used in the study were based on a limited sample. Labor from two growing seasons were used: from a previous season, when labor tracking was less rigorous and from the season in which the study was conducted. Meticulous labor records were kept during the study period and in the 3 years since the study began, providing a better sample and allowing more dependable labor projections to be made.

In the previous post, I reported that an average of 53 person-hours per workweek during the main season for our 4800 sq ft operation have been necessary during post-start-up operations. Scaling up, the hypothetical micro-farm using ¼ acre of cultivable space from March through September would require 2.27 times more labor (10890/4800), or an average of 120 person-hours (53 x 2.27) per workweek. While winter production at HeartEye requires only 11 hours per work-week for 595 sq ft of cultivation space under the tunnel, the ¼-acre farm would require 9.1 times more labor (5445/595) or an average of 101 person-hours per week from October through December.

If 40 hours per week attributed to the farm manager is deducted from the total person-hours needed per week, 80 adjunct person-hours per week would be needed from March through September and 61 adjunct person hours per week from October through December. The total adjunct labor for the entire 10-month growing season would be 3334 person hours ((80 x 31 wks) + (61 x 14 wks)), or an average of 74 person-hours per week (3334/45). This translates into two full-time assistants to the farm manager or a combination of paid assistant and many working shareholders.

Integrating the updated labor figures into the original study and assuming that adjunct labor would be paid at the minimum wage of $7.64/hour, financial projections for this model are financially sustainable only when the farm manager is paid 10.04/hour. Part of the adjunct labor could potentially be bartered out by using working shareholders. If a combination of one full-time paid assistant and about 20 working shareholders (working approximately 2 hours/week) is used, compensation rates would be:

Paid Farm manager at $11.17/hour

Paid assistant at $7.64/hour

Barter working shareholders at $6.32/hour

While this projection sheds light on the wages a financially conservative micro-farming operation may be able to afford to pay, it certainly does not reflect the true value of such labor. When it comes down to it, a good farm manager is worth their weight in gold and they should be paid a living wage, but larger forces determine what can realistically be paid in any given micro-farming operation. Economic forces like the wages laborers require in order to sustain their lifestyles or what rate working shareholders are willing to barter out, not to mention what prices produce can be sold for, are some important limiting factors. These forces will vary regionally, and in many cases substantially from the model I have outlined here.

In addition, yield projections in the original study have been conservative based on beginner farmer skill level as well as the challenging climatic conditions for the location of the pilot study farm. Certainly if a farm is located in a more hospitable climate, which many are, yields and thus potential income could be significantly greater than what is modeled in these projections.

For our purposes it is important to be conservative in our estimates so that we can model the most challenging conditions a new micro-farmer might face. Given that we have little control over larger economic forces and climate conditions, the question becomes how must  methods be altered to increase the income potential at the minimally-mechanized micro-farm so that it is possible to pay a living wage to those who labor upon it?

Our next stage of experimentation at the pilot study farm will go beyond the use of intercropping to achieve increased yields without increasing cultivation space or labor needs. The method we will be testing in the upcoming season goes beyond intercropping by “stacking” cultivation space.  Last year one of my readers e-mailed me about a type of soil tower that is a larger version of the clay “strawberry pot,” (thank you Peter!).  These towers save water and have an internal composting system that stimulates soil microbe activity. Our calculations indicate that these towers increase cultivation space between 2 and 3 times depending on layout and scale of operation. Although harvest and CSA box prep labor would clearly increase with scale, very little commensurate increase in labor would be necessary for annual soil preparation since no tilling would be required and weeding would be minimal.

Of course, since we have no experience with these soil towers I am not yet in a position to recommend them. But for anyone interested I'm including the link below.  I plan to post updates as we move forward with our research using these towers so please check back throughout the year as we examine their benefits, limitations and potential for contribution to our developing model of a financial sustainable micro-farm.  

Link to Garden Tower website:

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