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How to Farm Sustainably and Make Money Doing It

Contrary to what most people believe, a good living can be made on an organic farm, and what's required is farming smarter, not harder.

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My goal is to highlight the necessary tools for successful and profitable farming for new and seasoned farmers alike. This first chapter starts with some "soft" business concepts, to lay the foundation for the practical step-by-step road to profitability.

The Mile-High Fence
Imagine a mile-high fence surrounding your farm or property. The fence is continuous along the outside perimeter of your land; it is open at the top so that sun and rain may enter, and it is porous for wind, birds, and insects to pass through. The air is naturally full of nitrogen, oxygen, and carbon dioxide, and the land is a living soil full of minerals, microbes, and organic matter. There are no breaks in the fence, except for one small gate. Your job as farmer is to monitor what goes in and out of that gate.

Most farms bring in lots of material like fuel, fertilizer, seed, and packaging; mix them up and change them a bit; then send them back out the gate. When you think about it, this business model isn't much different from that of a plastics factory. And yet our farms should not be places where petroleum-based inputs are turned into food. Our ultimate job as organic farmers is to use what is freely available to us in nature to generate true wealth. In this light, I see farming as one of the noblest endeavors: a real generator of healthy products using natural cycles.

The Mile-High Fence analogy is a novel way of looking at farming, placing the responsibilityfor monitoring farm inputs and outputs on the farmer. As an organic farmer, what are some things that come in and go out of your farm gate?

To answer that question, I'll start with a simple and idealistic model of a dairy farm: Sun, rain, and atmospheric nitrogen, oxygen, and carbon dioxide photosynthesize in grass that is growing in the living soil. Cows feed on the grass, drink water (from the rain), and mature and rear their young. Cows are milked, the milk is exported through the farm gate, and money from the sale of this milk is brought back to the farm. Nutrients in the manure from the animals recycle within the farm system. Milk leaving through the farm gate is mostly water, and it is produced from grass grown with free sunshine, readily available elements in the environment, and soil nutrients, most of which are replenished with applications of manure. Given enough land, young stock are raised, and the process sustains itself indefinitely.

True sustainability is thus made possible by recycling what nutrients are readily available, and using rain and the energy from the sun.

So if we have all this free rain, solar energy,nitrogen, carbon dioxide, oxygen, and microbially rich soil, shouldn't it be easy to make money farming? Sure, there are some obstacles, but a truly sustainable farm is based on these fundamental principles.

A number of years ago, the farm gate flow of my farm looked like this. Coming in the gate were:

• Borrowed money
• Seed
• Organic fertilizers
• Compost
• Fuel oil
• Laborers
• Organic pesticides
• Packaging -- labels, bags, and boxes
• Greenhouse frames
• Greenhouse plastic
• Potting soil
• Plastic pots
• Electricity
• Telephone service
• Tractors, trucks, and other equipment
• Tools
• Parts for repairs
• Money from sales of farm products

Meanwhile, exiting the farm gate were:

• Produce raised on the farm
• Laborers returning home
• Trash, and payment for the landfill
• Loan payments
• Payments for seed, fertilizer, compost, fuel oil, laborers, and all the other purchased items listed above
• Payments for taxes, insurance, memberships, and trucking
• Payments for living expenses

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