Small Farm, Real Profit
By Josh Volk
You don’t need a large space to be productive or to make a decent, sustainable living as a farmer. Across the United States, from urban rooftops to rural holdings, farmers are proving you can grow on a small scale just about anywhere with decent soil, water, and people.
Cully Neighborhood Farm is an encouraging example. This successful urban farm operates on 1/2 acre in Portland, Oregon, and markets its mixed vegetables through a CSA program whose members purchase a share of vegetables. Friends Michael Tevlin and Matt Gordon started Cully in 2010 on an urban lot attached to a church property.
After attending church council meetings and talking to the church leadership, Michael wrote up a proposal for a lease. The agreement allows Cully to operate on the land as long as the workers deliver some produce to the church’s food pantry, help the church’s school cultivate a portion of the land as a garden for the students, and generally maintain the site. In the first year, they farmed only 1/4 acre and sold produce at a small farmers market. In their second year, Michael and Matt helped start a garden-education program for the church’s schoolchildren; the Cully Young Farmers Project was funded by a grant from the East Multnomah Soil and Water Conservation District. After two seasons, Michael moved to California, but Matt has continued the farm, slowly growing into the space and experimenting with various markets.
Education wasn’t part of the friends’ initial vision, but it fit well with the site and their desire to give back to their community. The project dovetails nicely with their original intent to have a small urban farm close to where they live, and to demonstrate a productive use of vacant land in a neighborhood with many large lots and yards.
What follows is a snapshot of Cully Neighborhood Farm’s 2016 and 2017 seasons — and here’s a sample budget (PDF) of the 2016 growing season. Perhaps it will motivate gardeners with bigger aspirations to start growing for their communities; show overwhelmed farmers that scaling down is an option; and encourage people who are already engaged in small-scale farming to keep up the great work.
Cully Neighborhood Farm: The Basics
One corner of the property is the children’s garden, which is run separately but supported by the farm. Students use the children’s garden for most programming, but all the participants take a full farm tour at some point during the season. Each class visits the garden about once a week during spring and fall.
The small-scale urban farm grows for its CSA members (60 of them in 2017) and provides produce to the neighborhood farmers market. CSA members mostly pick up their shares at the farm, but seven shares are boxed and delivered to the employees of a nearby nonprofit. The CSA season runs from mid-May to mid-November.
All labor is part-time at the farm, allowing everyone to have other jobs and participate in other activities. During the busy season of May through October, the small-scale farm is run by three or four people per workday, and there are two workdays per week, Monday and Thursday, which are also the CSA distribution days. During the season, Matt puts in 20 to 30 hours per week, mostly on those two days but some on other days to manage irrigation. During December, January, and February, Matt works an average of 10 to 15 hours per week on farm-related activities and hires a bit of extra help. Labor ramps up during spring and back down in fall.
Municipal water is a major expense for Cully Neighborhood Farm. In 2016, the farm paid about $2,000 for water, and workers spent a significant amount of time switching water from one section to another because of the limited flow from available spigots.
The farm’s water is fed by typical garden hose spigots and runs first through a submeter to get an accurate accounting of the quantity used (so it can be paid for separately in the water bill). The water is then distributed to the different areas of the farm through ¾-inch polyethylene tubing. Battery-operated timers ensure the water doesn’t run too long; pressure regulators ensure the pressure is optimal for the application method — both drip irrigation (T-Tape) and sprinklers (K-Rain and Wing Sprinklers from DripWorks). The drip is set up to run about twenty 75-foot lines at a time, and each bed has two lines (it’s 4 feet from the center of one bed to the center of the next bed). The sprinklers will water four or six beds at a time, and only one 75-foot line of sprinklers can be operated at a time. Everything must be watered twice a week during summer.
The farm uses Logan Labs in Ohio for soil testing and subscribes to OrganiCalc to get recommendations for amending the soil. Based on this advice, Matt adds feather meal for nitrogen; soft rock phosphate for phosphorus; agricultural lime for calcium; gypsum for calcium and sulfur; Azomite or kelp for trace minerals; and occasional small applications of Solubor for boron. All of those materials are available locally through several farm supply stores that specialize in serving small organic farms.
Matt also adds at least 1/4 inch of compost to beds before planting, and plants cover crops in beds when they aren’t being used for cash crops. He buys compost from a local company that breaks down yard and kitchen waste. His cover crops of choice in the cool season are crimson clover or a mix of cereal rye and vetch. The clover can be seeded until the middle of October; for later seedings, he uses the rye and vetch. In summer, buckwheat and Sudan grass are his preferred cover crops.
Tools and Infrastructure
Bed preparation. Matt uses a broadfork in combination with a BCS walk-behind tractor equipped with a rotary plow and a 30-inch power harrow. To preserve soil health and structure, this small urban farm has moved completely away from using a rototiller. Matt is also experimenting with using silage tarps after initial tillage to help germinate and kill weed seeds. Matt uses a garden rake to even out beds. He mows before harrowing when there’s a lot of plant material on the bed. He uses a Berta 34-inch flail mower attachment for the BCS walk-behind tractor.
Greenhouses and propagation. Matt is fortunate to live just one block from the farm, and he has a generously sized backyard with a 20-by-20-foot unheated greenhouse. The greenhouse has power, so he uses electric heat mats and a small germination chamber. There’s space for a total of 10 seedling trays on the mats and nine in the germination chamber; temperature is regulated by a thermostat with a soil probe. The probe turns on the heat mats when the soil temperature drops below the set point, and it turns off the mats when the temperature rises above that set point.
Plants in the greenhouse are watered by hand and with automated overhead irrigation. Matt has hanging Ein Dor sprinklers from DripWorks running on DIG battery timers. He monitors these during the week and makes adjustments, depending on weather and seedlings’ needs.
A thermostatically controlled exhaust fan and vents provide automatic cooling, and shade cloth and side roll-ups help ventilate and cool the space in summer.
Soil amendments. For spreading amendments, such as feather meal and lime, Matt uses a Scotts drop spreader with a 22-inch-wide spread pattern. This works well for individual beds and doesn’t spread any material on adjacent beds. If he’s spreading larger areas, Matt uses a push-type broadcast spreader that holds up to 60 pounds of material. He spreads compost with a wheelbarrow and a shovel and rake.
Seeding and planting. An Earthway seeder serves as Matt’s primary means of direct seeding. He puts transplants in the ground by hand and uses a small shovel to start larger holes for plants such as tomatoes. He marks lines for planting with the Earthway seeder and determines spacing by pulling a reel tape measure along the length of the bed while planting. The small urban farm has also been experimenting with the six-row seeder from Johnny’s Selected Seeds for arugula, carrots, salad turnips, radishes, and other crops.
Crop care. Tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, and other heat-loving crops at the farm are helped along by a 20-by-48-foot unheated tunnel with roll-up sides. In the field, Matt uses Agribon AG-19 (1/2 ounce per square yard) floating row cover for frost and insect protection.
Matt builds trellises for tomatoes in the field with T-posts. In the hoop house, he runs twine up to a piece of 1/2-inch conduit hung along the length of the roof. When the tomato plants get too big to just pinch, Matt trims the branches with bypass pruners.
For cultivation and weeding, Matt uses a standard garden rake, a variety of hoes (wheel, stirrup, collinear, and others), and a propane flame weeder.
Harvesting and distribution. Because this is a small-scale farm, Matt can harvest crops by hand with a variety of tools: lettuce knives, folding knives, and bypass pruners. Harvested crops go into Rubbermaid Roughneck storage boxes (10-, 14-, and 25-gallon), Ropak Stack & Nest totes, and 9-inch-deep bulb crates.
Cully Neighborhood Farm’s washing and packing area has a repurposed bathtub on a 2-by-4 frame, and a spray table with a top of lath supported by a 2-by-4 frame. Salad greens are dried with a 5-gallon hand-crank salad spinner. Matt also keeps an extra refrigerator in his garage when he needs to store produce for a few days or weeks, but most of it goes out the door the same day it’s harvested with no additional refrigeration.
Delivery and sales. CSA shares are distributed on the farm. Harvested crops are laid out in bins with labels that let folks know how much to take of each item. Matt has an 11-pound kitchen scale for weighing items.
Office, communication, and record-keeping. Matt uses Microsoft Excel for crop planning and printing out to-do sheets for greenhouse seedings, field plantings, and maps. He keeps farm records by making notes on the paper to-do sheets and maps. He pays particular attention to recording planting and harvest times on the maps, and harvest weights by the date and crop. For bookkeeping and invoicing, he uses QuickBooks. He downloaded the TimeTrack app to his iPhone and uses it to record the hours he works at Cully Neighborhood Farm.
Josh Volk has managed small farms around the United States for 20 years. This excerpt is taken from his book Compact Farms: 15 Proven Plans for Market Farms on 5 Acres or Less.
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