Micro-Farm Labor: What’s it Take?

Micro-Farm Labor: What’s it Take? post thumbnail

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 my CSA share for 72 hours of farm manager labor, but this does often increase depending upon the skill level of the farm intern and the availability of working share labor. Our internship program is, shall we say, an advanced-level “immersion” program. In addition, we literally could not operate the farm without additional working shareholder labor. So we piece our labor picture together and we keep really excellent labor records. I recently looked over these records and thought I’d share some important figures so that you prospective, small-acreage farmers can get an idea about how much time it takes to conduct annual operations of an established micro-farm. These figures would not be applicable to an initial start-up year, where labor would likely be far greater.

First, here is a little background about our farm. While we have a ¼ acre plot, our cultivatable space is only about 4800 sq ft.  Our climate is generally dry, with summers being very hot and with a relatively short growing season from April through September. During the summer season, we provide produce to about 28 CSA members with some produce to spare for sale at our roadside farm stand. We have a high tunnel covering 595 sq ft of cultivatable space in which we conduct winter cultivation for an 8-member winter CSA. We use non-certified organic, bio-intensive methods where we do a lot of soil-nutrient building, intensive succession planting and intercropping. We use the tools in our GYO CSA Tool Suite for all our planning. We have a couple of 6’ by 8’ greenhouses in which we raise our bedding plants. Our soil has high clay content so we must use the roto-tiller, but we generally use it only once a year because of all the intercropping that we do. We have a sprinkler system for germination of direct seeded crops and a drip irrigation system on a timer. Everything else from seeding to transplanting to harvesting to box preparation is done by hand.

In our 5 years of operation annual labor averages 1632 person-hours for the 7-month main season, from March through September, and 128 person-hours for our 3-month winter season from October through December. Despite the changing nature of the tasks throughout the season, this averages about 233 person-hours per month during the main season and 43 person-hours per month during the winter.

Different farms, of course, have different labor requirements depending on size, production methods and markets, among other things. But for a minimally mechanized, bio-intensive, micro-farming operation such as ours, the labor requirement I’ve described distills down to an average of 53 person-hours per workweek from March through September and 11 person-hours per workweek from October through December. The main season labor requirement could translate into one full-time farm manager and either a part-time paid assistant or several working shareholders. The winter requirement could be a very part-time farm manager.

For our operation, the intern performs the lion’s share of the labor but we make every effort to schedule adjunct labor so that the intern doesn’t work more than an average of 40 hours per week very often. Our working shareholders perform any adjunct labor needed during the main season. Non-management, working shareholder labor needed in 2013 averaged 58 person-hours per month from March through June and about 32 person-hours per month from July through September. Due to the decreased workload during the winter, adjunct labor is unnecessary.

This gives you an idea of the labor requirements of a minimally mechanized, bio-intensive, micro-farming operation. In my mind, farm labor should be financially sustainable for everyone involved, meaning the compensation for laborers, including the farm manager/owner should translate into a livable wage or at least minimum wage. But is this even possible to do on a minimally-mechanized, micro-farming operation in our current economy? In my next blog (which I hope to post in a few weeks…) I will try to answer this question by closely examining the key underlying factors.

By Tracy Sweely