What are the benefits of getting bigger?

A reader of mine up in Canada who is doing a similar sized project wrote me with a couple of questions, including the one above. This question of relative benefits of different sizes is something I’ve put a lot of thought into, and that I feel is very personal in many ways. I’ll give a short answer here, and hope to get back to it in future posts.

It’s hard to talk about the benefits of getting bigger without talking about the benefits of being smaller too, but I’ll try. Probably the number one benefit of getting bigger is a narrow kind of efficiency, commonly referred to as “economy of scale.” As I understand it, in financial analysis of businesses there are the “fixed” costs, which basically don’t change if you produce more or less, and then there are the “variable” costs, which are directly related to how much you’re producing. One thing that economy of scale means is that by producing more you are able to spread out the fixed costs. In English, the time I spend doing accounting, or crop planning for the farm isn’t really going to change whether I am growing 1/10th of an acre, or 100 acres, as long as I’m basically buying the same set of inputs and using the same plan, just scaled up. It doesn’t take me any more time to order a five pound bag of seed than it does to order the 1 oz bag, so the fixed cost of ordering the seed is the same regardless of scale, although the variable cost of the seed itself changes.

If I scale up to 100 acres I’m now paying 1/1000th of the fixed cost per acre that I was when I was growing only 1/10 of an acre. If the production scales I’m grossing 1000 times as much but my fixed costs are the same. Suddenly my fixed costs, which were 10% of my gross, are just a small fraction of a percent, completely negligible.

Another benefit of scaling up is the ability to take advantage of lager equipment, especially where internal combustion engines are concerned. It takes me 2-3 hours to do the bed preparation by hand that a tractor would do in a minute or less. I probably spend a couple thousand dollars in bed preparation per year which is basically all labor, but also includes a couple hundred dollars in hand tools. The tractor labor and fuel would cost me a fraction of the price, quite literally something like 1/50th of the cost, or in the ballpark of $40. The problem is that the tractor itself, with the implements, costs, $10,000-$40,000, even used . You can see that over a long time this would pay off, but in the short term the tractor is much more expensive. However, if I’m working 100 acres, now my bed preparation costs are 1000 times greater and the up front cost of the tractor pays for itself in the first season.

Trying to get beyond the pure economic arguments, there are a few reasons I think about growing my own farm. One reason is to include more people, essentially creating a larger community. This creates possibilities for collaborations, cross pollination of ideas, and also daily companionship. Another reason someone might want to get bigger is just that they aesthetic, and perhaps loosely bunched into that is the desire to work with larger equipment, larger scales. This is very pervasive culturally I think, whether there is any actual benefit to being larger. Think about the number of folks who drive a vehicle much, much larger than what they actually need (the oft cited Hummer being the extreme example). In an economic sense this is silly, as it’s adding cost unnecessarily. We all do it to some extent though, none of us really just gets by on the minimum we need to survive. The way the farm feels might be just as important as relative economic performance (although that will also have an impact on how it feels, it’s all connected).

That’s a vastly over simplified view of benefits. I haven’t really talked about drawbacks, or why I choose to be the size I am. I’ll hope to get more of that up in the future.

Foxglove Farm Workshops

photo from Foxglove Farm's Pastured Livestock Workshop Announcement

For the past few years I’ve been teaching workshops up at Foxglove Farm with Michael Ableman. Once again we’re doing a workshop this September, this time with David Cohlmeyer.

Foxglove Farm, on beautiful Salt Spring Island in British Columbia, is an amazing spot with great facilities for workshops, and lodging options for out of town guests. They’ve stacked their lineup this year with amazing instructors.

Joel Salatin (pictured above) kicks things off next week with a workshop on livestock, and if you’re lucky there’s still space available.  Other workshops with amazing instructors are on topics such as gardening, cheese making, and mushrooms. They’re also doing a series of movie and pizza nights and the annual festival is a fantastic event that I was lucky enough to attend last year. Check out the full schedule of this year’s workshops at Foxglove Farm’s website.

New Greenhorns Book

greenhorns book

Yep, somehow they let me slip a little farm story into this great book of stories from young farmers around the country. I just got my copy in the mail yesterday so I haven’t had a chance to read all of it, but the stories I have read are fantastic.

My friends Zoë, Katie and Maud and I are all going to be at a book signing at Powell’s on Wednesday, May 9, please come and see us there. I had no idea that books have trailers, but if you want to see the one for this book go here.

If you can’t make that, Zoë is doing another reading the following night which is sponsored by Friends of Family Farmers as part of the FarmON series (you’ll have to search for details from them, not sure where the info for that is, just a rumor maybe?)

Cargo Bike Review

cargo bike shadow
Riding to the farm with a big load of boxes

I got to test out a Bullitt cargo bike with electric assist for the farm a couple weeks ago and I’ve finally gotten around to writing up a review which is here or you can get to it through the review tab above. It’s an amazing bike and one that will replace my car for farm deliveries soon!

Hedgerow Workshop

I’m not actually directly involved in this one, but it’s connected to a project that I’ve been working on for the past year. The project is on a beautiful 58 acre property in Sherwood, Oregon which is taking the best aspects of Permaculture design, Biodynamics, co-operative business models, community thinking, and slow money investing, the Manav Foundation is starting to offer workshops (Manav translates into English from Sanskrit as Humanity).

The workshop should be in depth and is May 18-20.  Details can be found here. It is being taught by Jude Hobbs and Jenny Pell.

Bicycle and Farm Overlap

Bullitt at the Farm

I just added three bike inspired reviews to the reviews section of the site. They’re also inspired by two of my birthday presents (I had a birthday earlier this month), which in turn were bike inspired. And all of that bike inspiration is partially due to the farm where I’ve been testing out cargo bikes for delivering the produce. I’ll have reviews of those bikes up when I get a chance to finish writing them, along with my thoughts on how bike delivery works for the farm.

In the meantime, check out my reviews of the Biologic BikeMount for the iPhone, their BikeBrain App, and Motorola’s S10-HD headset. They all work for the bike, but I’ve also been using them with my Farm Hand Cart – even more exciting!



Below is a piece of a repost from when I launched my original site back in 2007.  This predates the current “very small farm” out on Sauvie Island and is instead referring to the trial grounds in my backyard.  Five years later I’m still growing most of those same chicories and enjoying them more than ever. The interest in chicories is definitely growing.  NOVIC is going to do variety trials this winter here in the Northwest, and I was just talking to Carol Miles from WSU who is going to be trialing chicories in Washington. The Northwest Agricultural Business Center hosted a season extension workshop in Mt. Vernon two weeks ago that I was fortunate to be invited to present at.  Carol, as well as a number of other very experienced growers participated and part of what I showed were my winter CSA shares, grown outside, that rely heavily on chicories to offer a good salad green that can also be cooked in the winter.

My varieties initially came primarily from Seeds From Italy, which has an excellent selection, and very high quality seeds. I’ve recently been getting more seed from Wild Garden Seed.  Frank Morton, the breeder at Wild Garden is a friend and another chicory fanatic having been a long time salad greens grower. I think that here in the Northwest we’re still in the early parts of the learning curve in terms of variety selection, best growing practices, and also in developing a solid market.  These greens are so good in the winter, although I don’t think they’re great at other times of year.  That might limit their appeal to folks who aren’t used to cooking seasonally, but seasonal eating is also starting to catch on a little more. They’re a perfect addition to CSA shares which emphasize seasonality anyway.

Here are my notes from back in 2007

Thursday, December 6, 2007

It’s December and I am completely excited about the outrageously beautiful, and delicious chicories that are growing on the “very small farm” right now.  This is a selection of them, two radicchios, a catalogna, a frisse, and an escarole.  There are a few more out there that aren’t in the photo, equally beautiful and really flavorful.  The cool weather has really mellowed any bitter and most of these aren’t bitter at all.  I’ve grown some chicories, and enjoyed them but last year’s trip to Italy was very inspiring, especially an escarole salad we had at a little agritourismo outside of Sienna.  So, this year I went a little crazy and decided that I wanted to experiment with a lot of varieties in the fields and preparations in the kitchen.  They are a little tricky to grow, but mostly just in the uneveness of maturity and size.  In the winter garden this might actually be a real advantage, since things aren’t really growing anyway.  It’s a real advantage if they can all be planted in the late summer and then mature over the course of about five or six months, starting in October or November when the summer lettuces are finished.  The downside is definitely low yields and lots of rot to dig through, but welcome to winter growing outside.

Pest Management

Justin from Bugs in the garden asked me to write an article on What is the best way to handle insect pests organically on the garden scale?  His site, and the accompanying app have beautiful illustrations of some of the common pests, along with information and photos. I wrote the article, which is now in the Q&A section.  I’ll also mention that Justin made a generous donation which helped move his request up in the long list of questions I have in the queue.

Remembering Andy and a repost

Andy and Dan
Andy teaching Dan Gross to drive the tractor at Hidden Villa

I apprenticed on a small farm that was run by a farmer who, at that time had been farming for almost as long as I had been living. The farm was an amazing place, a small CSA run by this amazing, generous, eternally positive guy, Andy.  It was in the middle of a 1600 acre ranch run by an educational non-profit, and provided some of the backdrop for the farm and wilderness programs there.

Andy knew everyone there, knew seemingly everything about that property, and lived in a little house on the creek at the upper end of the ranch with his wife Carolyn and his two young sons Forrest and Ray.  I spent most of my time working on the farm, but what I remember most are the people there, especially Andy.  It feels like most of the time I spent with Andy was driving up and down the ranch with him in a Clubcar Carryall II, stopping at the milk house to top off his huge mug of coffee with the cream skimmed off the top of the big milk jugs, and then proceeding to spill half of that coffee on the bumpy dirt road that ran the length of the ranch.  The entire time Andy told me stories, mostly farming stories, often the same ones he had told me earlier in the week.

I spent a year there and I was anxious to do the next thing when I left, though sorry to leave many good friends behind.  I made sure to come back for visits whenever possible, although those visits got farther apart as the years wore on.  Andy was great about keeping in touch and keeping me updated on the happenings at the ranch, and with the family.  For a few years we’d meet up at the Eco Farm conference every year and room together which was an opportunity to catch up.  The farming connection continued but over time I came to visit more to just see Andy, Carolyn, Forrest and Ray, hear about their trips in the Sierra and what was new on the ranch.

Forrest ended up going to school in Washington and then moving to Portland so Andy would come through every so often and when I got lucky he’d stop for a quick visit.  On his last swing through town we were lucky enough to have him bring Carolyn, and Forrest and Forrest’s girlfriend Holly over for dinner.

On Wednesday evening another farmer friend and mentor Michael Ableman, and his son Benjamin, came for a visit on their way down to California.  When we got home from a dinner out Tanya checked the messages and there was one from Carolyn telling me that Andy had passed away on Tuesday.

I’ve been thinking about Andy a lot ever since.  I’ve also been thinking about all of the other good friends I made, especially the ones I’ve managed to keep in touch with.  I also thought about this blog post I wrote back in 2008, coincidentally with both Michael and Andy mentioned.  My good friend Dan Gross, who I also met at Hidden Villa said of Andy,

Andy taught me even more about how to talk to people than he did about farming, even though he taught me so much about farming. While I was at Hidden Villa I always felt bad to ask Andy a question because he spent an hour answering it to me.  I felt like I was wasting his valuable time when he took all that time to answer me.  Now, as I get older, I strive to listen and engage friends and family as Andy did to me. 

Andy absolutely set an example I’ve tried to emulate.  I’ll miss him every time I think about him, but I’m so happy that I got the chance to work with him, to learn farming from him and so much on top of that.

The following post was about Michael’s farm, but it could just as well have been about Andy’s…

Michaels Farm

Michael’s Farm – Tuesday, May 6, 2008

    My first “formal” farming apprenticeship was ten years ago, 1998.  I went to work for Andy Scott at Hidden Villa in Los Altos Hills, California, and spent a year absorbing stories, asking questions, and working hard.  It was one of the best years of my life.

A few years later I was at the Ecological Farming Conference, talking with Andy and Jim Nelson from Camp Joy Gardens, a small farm I’ve always really admired.  One of us, I don’t remember who, started talking about how great it would be to apprentice on someone else’s farm for a season, just to step back and do the physical work and not worry about all of the details of planning and selling and so on.  Everyone agreed, it would be great.  I just remember standing there with two farmers who had both been farming for practically as long as I’d been living, both so accomplished and both still engaged in learning more.

It was probably that same year that I met Michael Ableman.  He was hosting a monthly discussion series on agricultural topics at Fairview Gardens and I was farming about an hour North.  I had been really inspired by his book,From the Good Earth, when a friend at Hidden Villa showed it to me, and subsequently his book On Good Land about his experiences at Fairview.

Michael Disking

We’ve run into each other a handful of times since that summer, always with an invitation to come up and visit.  Finally this spring I made the time to go visit for a month, help out around the farm, and exchange farming ideas with another farmer who has been at this a couple of decades longer than myself.  The result was one of the best months of my life, a chance to temporarily shed all the accumulated layers of responsibility that have built up over the years since my first apprenticeship, and to just focus on learning from someone else’s farm

Snow on branches

It ended up being incredibly cold and wet most of the month.  There was snow when I arrived in at the beginning of April, and then it snowed and melted, and snowed again.  I didn’t mind though, I just enjoyed getting the opportunity to be an apprentice again, to watch and learn from an incredibly accomplished farmer.

In the month I was there we planted an orchard, fixed tillers and tractors, put together new equipment, skidded logs, seeded, covered and uncovered, mapped fields, put down a plan for the whole season on paper, and then changed it all again.  We baked bread, ate lots of spinach and carrots, watched Benjamin race down the road on his bike, again and again.  We counted and recounted, even when there wasn’t any reason to count.  We moved rocks, lots of rocks, we dug holes and filled holes, Such a diversity of work in one month.  Such is farming.

So here’s a big thank you to Michael, Anne, Jeanne Marie, Benjamin and Aaron and to all the farmers who have come before me, and after me, and that have been so generous with their time and knowledge.  There is such an amazing community of farmers out there and it is truly one of the best parts of farming, that and the scenery.