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Superior Farm Staff Leadership

Effective farm staff management can make all the difference. A long-time organic farmworker named Jessica told me, “When you are the boss there is not much incentive to change.” I’d like to prove that there is great incentive to improve management. Poor management hurts everyone — it makes farms less productive, and it can make employees miserable. It’s also very difficult to address the problem.

Workers don’t have any power in the relationship. They fear bringing up conflict for fear of losing a good recommendation in the future or the chance for a promotion. There is typically no structure in place for employees to contribute ideas about how they are being managed.

Drawn from interviews with organic farmworkers from around the country and my own experiences on multiple farms, here are some thoughts about managing farmworkers from their perspective (some names in this article have been changed).

Empowerment

A lot of the workers I talked to expressed great appreciation for the ways that farmers empowered them in their jobs. The best bosses assume their workers are capable of learning and performing tasks, even contributing new insight into the direction of the farm. Continue Reading →

From Grass to Glass: Organic Dairy Farming

Maybe it’s a chance remark heard from a fellow farmer or an epiphany that comes while attending a farming conference. It lands on fertile ground and a way of looking at things, a way of being in the world, shifts. For Evan Showalter a book his father picked up — Gary Zimmer’s The Biological Farmer — launched him down the path he’s on, which includes providing milk for Organic Valley’s Grassmilk brand.

Evan Showalter produces Grassmilk for Organic Valley on his Virginia farm. Photo by Russell French for Organic Valley.

He came to the book in 2007. At the time, Showalter, of Port Republic, Virginia, in the Shenandoah Valley, had returned from working in construction and landscaping to the dairy farm where he grew up. There, he had managed a renting farmer’s conventional dairy herd of 80 to 100 cows. As he and his father considered the prospects for dairy, Showalter decided not to buy that herd and to focus instead on produce and corn for silage and grain; he also continued haymaking. He took over renting from his father in spring 2008.

Showalter, who had planted genetically modified crops and sprayed glyphosate because that was what he knew, was interested in biological farming, so Zimmer’s book came to him at the right time. When he returned to the farm he began to phase out synthetics and by 2009 began to apply for certification for some areas of the farm.

Between 2009 and 2011, Showalter began routinely testing soils and working with consultants. He saw a rapid shift in soil balance as he sold crops and had no animals on the farm to cycle nutrients. Continue Reading →

Slow Money: Shared Risk Investment

Slow Money Founder, Author Woody Tasch Discusses Community-Based Economics, Soil as Foundation for Societal Health

Almost a decade ago a book was published that seemed perfectly attuned to its time, as an economic crisis created by Wall Street’s excesses churned the emotions of the entire nation. It was called Inquiries into the Nature of Slow Money: Investing As If Food, Farms, and Fertility Mattered. The title was obviously inspired by the Slow Food movement begun in Italy by Carlo Petrini, who wrote the foreword. The book’s author, Woody Tasch, turned out to have an extensive background in the more idealistic byways of finance capital. He pioneered mission-related investing as a foundation chair in the ’90s and went on to chair a nonprofit network of angel investors who put hundreds of millions into early-stage sustainability-oriented businesses. He was also the founding chairman of another socially responsible project, the Community Development Venture Capital Alliance. Clearly no newcomer to the world of money, Tasch knew well all of its hazards and pathologies, the capital flows racing around the world at the speed of light that can upend a nation’s economy almost overnight, the charitable organizations that devote much of their budgets to swanky New York offices and so on. Continue Reading →

Biointensive Growing for Smart-Scale Farming

Conventional thinking holds that vegetable farms must be fully mechanized and produce on a certain scale to provide a livelihood, except in extraordinary circumstances, but Les Jardins de la Grelinette (Broad Fork Gardens) in Quebec, busts this myth, using biointensive growing methods.

For more than a decade Jean-Martin Fortier and Maude-Helene Desroches have operated a phenomenally successful “biologically intensive” microfarm using biointensive growing methods.

By choice they use only hand tools and a small walk-behind tractor and employ only one or two workers. Yet with less than 2 acres under cultivation and one greenhouse and two hoop houses on their certified organic farm, this husband and wife team grosses around $150,000 a year.

Of that impressive sum, they’re able to count more than 40 percent as profit for family living. Jean-Martin and Maude-Helene are in their 30s and have two children.

At a half-day workshop I attended in the company of well over 100 farmers, Jean-Martin summed up some of their achievements. Continue Reading →

Book Excerpt: The Simple Has Been Made Complicated

The following is an excerpt is reprinted from SOIL: Notes Towards the Theory and Practice of Nurture Capital by Slow Money founder Woody Tasch.

We live in a world in which the complicated has been made simple and the simple has been made complicated.

Pushing the power button on your computer, simple. Having an authentic conversation with your neighbor, complicated. Buying a bag of potato chips, simple. Growing potatoes in your front yard, complicated. Owning a diversified portfolio of gold stocks, simple. Making a loan to a farmer down the road, complicated.

So, forget about matters of the Thoreauvian or fiduciary kind and think about the farmer down the road. And about Newman’s Own.

How beautifully simple. Giving away all the profits:

Our “100% of Profits to Charity” commitment is one of two founding values upon which Newman’s Own is built (the other being “Quality Will Always Trump the Bottom Line”). It’s a very important part of our story, it’s in our DNA, it’s why we exist, it motivates all of us, and it’s the true heart of Newman’s Own. We are proud of this commitment, and, especially in these times of so many promotional programs tying business sales to social purpose, want to be clear and unambiguous about what we mean when we say “100% of Profits to Charity.” It’s not something we just thought up to boost sales, it’s not a play on words, and one shouldn’t need an accounting degree to understand it. We have been doing it for close to 35 years, and as of May 2017, have donated over $490 million to thousands of deserving organizations around the world.1

Continue Reading →

Wool Artist Supports Fiber Farmers

Lani Estill at the Warner Mountain Weavers shop in Cedarville, California.

Lani Estill met me at her shop in downtown Cedarville, California, and showed me pictures of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. We sat in the store, surrounded by brilliantly colored yarn, soft and earthy colored scarves, hats and rugs, and Estill shuddered as we scrolled through picture after picture of the pile of plastic the size of Texas in the Pacific Ocean.

“The sixth-graders wrote essays about it today,” said Estill. As is common in rural communities, she wears many hats. In addition to being a fiber artist and rancher, she is also a substitute teacher at Surprise Valley Joint Unified School District, where her son attends school.

“Some companies boast that they make products out of recycled plastic. But it is still plastic. It still goes into our rivers, oceans, land and our bodies,” she said. Continue Reading →