kissing pigsBy Tracy Sweely

As Joni Mitchell reminded us so long ago, "You don't know what you've got till it's gone…" But, at what has seemed like the 11th hour of the demise of the small family farm, consumers are finding their way back to wholesome, great tasting produce grown by their local farmers. Farmers, for their part, are reaching beyond direct-to-consumer marketing into the “experience economy” and discovering new areas of lucrative offerings at their fingertips. This happy coincidence demonstrates that the recently rekindled romance between small farmers and consumers may be on its way to a lasting love... the second time around.

According to agricultural censuses conducted by the USDA, direct to consumer sales of produce increased 60% between 2002 and 2012. (NSCA, 2014). Between 2007 and 2012 such growth had slowed to 5% (ibid.). It has been suggested that such a slowing may have been due to a plateau in consumer interest or to non-direct sales growth (USDA, 2015:1). But other indications demonstrate continued growth in direct-to-consumer food demand. For example, between 2006 and 2014 farmers markets grew 180%, food hubs grew 288% and farm to school programs grew 430% (USDA 2015:1).

Rather than a waning interest in local food by consumers, the slowdown may have been in part due to the economic downturn that began in 2008 (Runyon, 2015), as well as erratic climate conditions that have touched virtually every region of the country. Goodwin and Goldthorpe (2013) found that instability in the economy and climate were the primary self-reported challenges by small farmers in Florida. Since these factors have affected the nation as a whole, they may have inhibited a majority of small farms, those with annual income less than $350,000, from expanding their direct-to-consumer operations. An unstable economy and climate may have prevented farmers from risking their operations and loyal customer bases until the economy improved and they could incorporate methods to better buffer climate. Consumer demand does not appear to have declined at all. But how are small farms managing risks while meeting continued growth in demand?

Farms that rely on direct marketing to consumers have higher survival rates than those accessing intermediated markets, regardless of whether they are new or established farms (USDA, 2015:13). Within the classification system of local food business models, direct marketing of produce to individuals via a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program provides the most advantages to the farmer. The CSA model allows farmers to capture the greatest amount of value and marketing margin for their products (Bauman et. al., 2015:3-4). In addition, the personal relationship inherent in the CSA model can generate a level of customer loyalty that increases the pricing-power leverage these farmers have (Bauman et. al., 2015:3).

Disadvantages consist of the relatively low share of consumer dollars spent in agriculture markets versus other types of markets, low sales volumes and potential size-, location- and seasonality-based limitations on the ability to scale up efficiently, not to mention the need for implementing new Federal food safety rules. New food safety regulations under the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) will likely result in increased costs to small farmers. Associated costs are primarily for implementing new product labeling requirements and for increased labor spent on documentation requirements for manure-based fertilization processing and application.

One response to mitigating risks has been the development of multi-farm CSAs, where risks for small and new farmers are spread among several farms. In early 2010, the North Central Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education organization funded a multi-farm CSA handbook (Perry and Franzblau 2010) and a model for multi-farm CSAs has been developed at the University of Florida (Nistler n.d). While this model overcomes some disadvantages to small farmers, FMSA rules could possibly inhibit the multi-farm CSA opportunity because of specific “facility” determinations and rules.

Other strategic directions that local farms are taking advantage of include branching into "agri-tourism," "agri-tainment" and "agri-cational" activities. Such activities include u-pick, corn mazes, farm dinners, tours, classes and workshops, and farm camps for kids. Farmers markets are also beginning to go beyond simply providing a venue for farmers to sell their produce by also providing live musical performances and food courts where customers can get a quick meal while they shop for local produce.

Agri-tourist, agri-tainment and agri-cational activities comprise additional income streams that allow farmers to meet their bottom lines by meeting consumer interest in farms and farming and consumer desires for social, entertainment and educational opportunities. Such activities can have a wider profit margin than does vegetable production alone because they provide opportunities to move products up a progression of economic value (White 2012). Beyond this, even though society has become more information- and technology- (and thus "virtually-") oriented, a surprising effect has been for people to desire more hands-on experiences (ibid; Ghosh 2015). Fabian Rigell of Secret Cinemas, as quoted by Ghosh (2015), states:

"People are absolutely desperate to connect, and to feel experiences in this age where we’re constantly bombarded with information on what’s cool and what’s happening. They want an adventure, so the things that remind people of their childhood.... People want to have experiences with integrity, in which they feel connected."

In fact, a recent study by the Journal of Consumer Science found that "nostalgia marketing" makes consumers spend more (Billig, 2014). Researches of the study pointed out that advertising campaigns were especially successful for products such as food (ibid). Farmers are ideally positioned to take advantage of this "experience economy" by tapping into nostalgic desires, especially of Baby-Boomers, for a bygone, pre-technological way of life (White 2012).

Wondering how to get started working consumer "experiences" into your farming operation? Just Google “agri-tainment,” “agri-tourism” or “agri-cation” and let the fun begin!


Bauman, Allie, David Shideler, Dawn Thilmany, Merrit Taylor and Blake Angelo. January 3, 2015. “An Evoloving Classification Scheme of Local Food Business Models.” Extension: Issues, Innovation, Impact.

Billig, Aubrielle. "Nostalgia Makes people Spend More, Study Finds. Small Business Trends." August 19, 2014.

Goodwin, Joy N. and Jessica L. Gouldthorpe. “Small Farmers, Big Challenges: A Needs Assessment Of Florida Small-Scale Farmers’ Production Challenges And Training Needs.” 2013. Journal of Rural Social Sciences, 28(1), 2013, pp. 54–79.

Ghosh, Shona. "The New Nostalgia Trend: it's all in the reference." Marketing. February 9, 2015.

National Sustainable Agricultural Coalition, “2012 Census Drilldown: Organic and Local Food,” May 16, 2014,

Nistler, D. B. “Expanding Your Market: The Multi-Farm Community Supported Agriculture Model,” n.c. University of Florida, IFAS, Extension, Clay County, Green Cove Springs, Fl, USA.

Perry, Jill and Scott, Franzblau, Local Harvest: A Multi-Farm CSA Handbook. 2010, North Central Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education.

Runyon, Luke. “Are Farmers Markets Peaking? That Might be Good for Farmers. February 5, 2015. NPR. The Salt: What’s on your plate.

USDA, “Trends in US local and regional food Systems: A report to Congress.” January 2015,

White, Randy, “Defining Agritainment as the 4th Level of Economic Value.” August 4, 2012. White Hutchinson: Leisure and Learning Group.

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.

Click here to see the results of our 2014-15 research examining this tower growing system's benefits and limitations. For anyone interested in more information or purchasing the system click on the ad link in our sidebar to the right.  

Micro-Farm Labor: What’s it Take?

January 1, 2014

By Tracy Sweely I hold the unique and curious position of being a Working Share Farm Manager at our ¼ acre pilot study CSA farm, HeartEye Village CSA, handily operating in the challenging climatic conditions of the Colorado Front Range. We try to be creative in modeling the sweet spot of financial sustainability. I trade […]

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Growing Season Busy-ness

May 29, 2013

Hey All, just an apology for neglecting this blog… Our growing season is in full swing and the season’s busy-ness has, of course, taken a priority. I’m hoping that at some point soon I’ll catch a break and be able to post a relevant blog for you all. Until then, here is to a productive […]

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Beginner Farmer Beware: Just How Hard IS Farming Anyway?

February 4, 2013

By Tracy Sweely As consumers of food in the US we’re spoiled. There is just no ifs, ands or buts about it… The industrial food system has been subsidized for so long keeping prices so low, most people don’t have a clue about the real costs of producing it. But the situation is even worse […]

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Wonders Never Cease: FSA Offers Small Farm Loans!

January 17, 2013

THIS JUST IN! USDA Finalizes New Microloan Program Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack unveiled a new microloan program today that will expand access to credit for small farmers and ranchers and beginning and socially disadvantaged producers. The microloan application process is simpler and requires less paperwork than traditional operating loans. Additionally, the requirement for managerial experience […]

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“Gulp!” In More Ways Than One: Water Rights a Local Case

January 13, 2013

Posted by Tracy Sweely Maybe it’s just because I don’t know enough about this subject, but even in its cheery cartoon format this scares the bejesus out of me. Clearly, the up close and personal reason is that as a farmer in Colorado, I’ve suffered drought conditions in the last several years. But I’ve been […]

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Seed Shopping Fun and Glory: The Seed Stock Crisis and Preserving Our Seed Heritage

December 26, 2012

By Tracy Sweely Remember the Wish Book? You know, long before the Internet, Sears and Montgomery Wards used to come out with a special Christmas edition of their catalogue, and us kids would be SOOO excited. We’d circle in big bold marker all the things we knew that we literally couldn’t live without. I don’t […]

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It’s Not Thanksgetting

November 27, 2012

By Tracy Sweely I LOVE Thanksgiving. It is by far my favorite holiday and always has been. Even during my identity-experimenting youth, during that super-skinny period of my life when I was a vegetarian, I never passed up a traditional Thanksgiving dinner… That is how fundamental the holiday is to me. Clearly, one reason is […]

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FFGC Functions Best in Safari Browser

November 14, 2012

We have noticed that the FFGC functions most smoothly and with faster load times when using the Safari Browser. If you do not have the Safari Browser you can download it for free here.

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