Scale is a hot topic when people discuss agriculture. In the media, and in certain circles, “big farms” is a derogatory term often associated with ecological destruction and social injustice.
What is a big farm and what is a small farm? The U.S. Department of Agriculture considers you a Small Farm if you sell less than $100,000 of crops in a year. Given that most farms are lucky to make a 10% profit on their sales, that means that Small Farmers usually have a second job.
A farm can be small in size, but still not be a Small Farm. All over the country there are 5 and 10 acre farms that sell far more than $100K each year. They grow high-value items, or have events each year like pumpkin patches or pick-your-own fields, or both. Many of these small-sized farms reduce their expenses in creative ways as well, such as teaming up with local colleges for internship programs that provide them with low-cost labor.
And some farmers tend immense amounts of land that produce relatively low value commodity crops. If you grow just one or two crops, you are at the mercy of the weather and the market. These are the farmers that rely heavily on government subsidies and crop insurance to help keep them in business.
How big is Terra Firma Farm? It really depends who you ask. For almost ten years, we have been farming 200 acres. Some folks have told me “that is huge.” Meanwhile, most of the farmers around us farm at least twice as much land; our neighbors across the street, more than 10 times as much.
Until a few years ago, we felt that our size was “just right”. We had found the right balance to keep our CSA boxes full and varied most of the time, our employees busy most of the time, and the bills paid on time.
Three years ago we had the opportunity to purchase a nice 40 acre field with a big old barn on it and a very reliable water supply. We intended to “swap” it for one of the fields we rent, and keep on farming about 200 acres. The new farm will become certified organic in June of this year.
Then the drought hit home last fall, and we saw the water level in our wells drop as low as we had ever seen them. We had to fallow a significant amount of land last summer and fall because we didn’t have enough water to go around. We realized it would be foolish to give up farming any land, especially if it has a reliable, year-round water source.
So beginning in June, the size of our farm will jump to 240 acres. We are busy installing the irrigation system on the new land, and will soon start work to turn the vintage redwood barn into our new produce washing facility. You will all get the opportunity to come see the new place in the fall, since next year’s strawberry field will be planted there so that’s Farm Day will be held.
We think it will be the same old Terra Firma. Just a little bit bigger. Not too small, not too big. Maybe just right.