What I do for money

And how much I make as a small-scale farmer

I’m a big fan of transparency, and when I was starting my small farm business was aided a lot by other people being really up front about how their set-up works for making money. So with that in mind, here’s a quick look at what I did yesterday — for example — and how much I made.

First of all, this first season, I’ve experimented a lot with offering different products at different prices, all to the same handful of small restaurant clients. That’s kind of another subject in itself, but the thing I really want to emphasize is that you have to try and experiment and adjust. No one else’s formula will work exactly for you (and sometimes even my formula doesn’t exactly work out).

Anyway, the basis of my business at this time is two main things: romaine lettuce and microgreens. Now, I planted my lettuces with the best of intentions.

But let’s play Find The Lettuce:

Pretty well-hidden, no? Here’s another more obvious/less extreme shot:

Okay, we can at least see where it is here. The point I want to make is that “good intentions” don’t get you very far in gardening. Weeding does.

Or does it?

What I’ve actually realized with my romaine lettuce (which is why it’s become one of the legs of the business) is that I can just let it go.

Because fuck weeding.

It’s hot outside now. It’s not a joke. I can crawl around on my hands and knees for hours every few days like some kind of penitential prayer that gets me nowhere, or I can just go out there when I’m ready to harvest and have at it with a pair of scissors and a bin to shove my winnings in.

When the bin is however full I’m feeling like making it (could take from 15–30 minutes), I come inside to do my work. I set up a simple sorting and bagging station like this on my kitchen table.

I’ll walk you through it. First and probably most importantly, I fire up the “grunge” playlist from YouTube. I feel like I “know” Eddie Vedder in a way I never did as a teenager now — over lettuce. Second, you’ll see my big blue harvest bin top right. This means it’s full of insects (okay, not full, but a few = enough) so you leave your stock in there until you’re ready to sort small piles. To the right of the mat is the unsorted stock. On the mat is the sorted stock. In the red bucket at bottom goes the rejects, anything that is too spotted, wilty, yellow, black or a weed.

This is where I do my weeding. Indoors listening to grunge, eating lentils.

Not out in the field like some damn fool — like I did at first. Then I also tried bagging out in the field. Stupid. But that’s how you learn.

Anyway the clamps at the bottom left are holding open a plastic bag into which goes my sorted piles. I never wash anything — but it’s not dirty and the chef I sell to doesn’t care because he has to wash everything anyway. Eliminate all unnecessary steps.

So after about an hour for a bin that’s 3/4 full loosely packed, I end up with approximately this:

I grow organically, and though not certified, charge $25/kilo — that’s a little over two pounds.

So for an hour inside plus a short stint snipping in the field, I end up with earnings of $41.25 for about 1.65 kilos of Romaine lettuce. As far as I can tell so far, this game should hold up for most of the season (touch wood). We’ve already topped out at our peak temps (more or less) and the Romaine is holding well in the field, re-growing when I cut it for leaves, and new ones are coming up. No signs of going to seed so far.

Which is good, because with two deliveries per week, I’m making between $80–100 per week in Romaine lettuce for between 2–3 hours of easy indoor work. But it took me a long time to get to this set-up.

Plus I end up with the non-monetary value of a little bit of food created for my birds in the form of the non-saleable lettuce and weeds:

This small quantity of greens makes virtually no difference in over-all feed consumed/cost, but it does give them a little bit of vitality which they need, so it’s still a good side-benefit on some level.

I’ve gone into the microgreens side of the business at length elsewhere, so I won’t cover that too much, except to say that it’s all grown inside so there are no weeds. (See Luke Callahan’s guide for the best introduction to microgreens out there.) And all the harvest and packing goes on inside.

Except, I have also been trialing just buying big-ass bird seed bags of black sunflower seeds and throwing them by the handfuls into soil flats. It’s not not working, but the germination coverage isn’t quite as even as I’d like it. Everything always is an adjustment when you swap out major variables, like in this case the steady temp and light source of my indoor operation. Here is the outdoor kit:

The eight on the left are the first try and the four on the right the second a few days later. Germination is happening more evenly in the newer trays. I think those ones are going to bring in some nice weights per flat for my finished product.

So yesterday I harvested I think two and a half flats total of indoor crop for this much bagged yield:

I know the psychedelic camera effects are a big help!

It’s 466g of sunflower and 467g of Hong Vit radish (from Johnny’s in Maine — a big winner, this variety. Ten times better than any other I’ve seen). Just over a pound each, for people still stuck on “Imperial” measures, and they sell for $35.00 each.

I have my per kilo rate: $25 for lettuce, $75 for microgreens (as sold to restaurants in bulk). So to get my price per bag, I multiple the number of grams * 0.025 for lettuce or 0.075 for microgreens. I was using a ratio calculator for the longest time to calculate prices until I realized how much simpler it was just multiplying by the appropriate decimal. Now, I want to add that when I make my multiplication, I usually round down to the nearest 25 cents. I don’t want to dither people over a few pennies, but when you’re making many small transactions all the time, you can’ let the quarters slip past you. At first I was discounting like crazy to set up the good exchange rates with my buyers. Now that we know each other, I still bring in freebies and goodies, but now I chase the quarters. Equitably though. Most of the time it’s rounded down, unless it’s like $11.90 then I bring it up to $12. There’s just something about how much more satisfying it is to work with whole numbers and 1/4's. Seems more balanced or just somehow. It doesn’t in the end earn me more or less money, but it makes more sense for my own reckoning.

Anyway, the other way I sell microgreens is in boxes of 30g each. Right now I’m only selling to another farm my boxes for $2.00 which they put in as an add-on to their weekly baskets at $3.00. So they’re not making a ton of money from me, but it’s cool for them to be able simultaneously help me while offering new product options. Not only do I get to sell product, but I get to tap into their client base without having to build it up myself.

So I sell a branded product, under my company name, with a little card I had made up. Something like $22 for 500. It doubles as a business card or as a blank lable I affix with a glue stick to the PLA plastic containers (made from corn) I bought. Something like $65 for 250. I’m not 100% sold on the corn-plastic option.

Is it really more environmental when it can “taint” the normal plastic recycling stream and it’s almost certainly produced with GMO corn and takes an industrial composting facility to technically break it down?

I’m not super sure. The price for this container isn’t so bad, but I know also a lot of people up here just don’t care about that level of detail. When I run out, I’m not sure if I’ll just go with a conventionally-recyclable container at a lower price or what. There’s simply no good environmental plastic solution available commercially yet. For all you people wanting to “hack” and “disrupt” things with “startups” — for pete’s sake already, get going! That industry really needs it.

As you can see, the containers are marked 30g. Selling for $3 each direct to the consumer, that’s $100/kilo. Not freakin bad.

So, to review: that’s $41.25 for the lettuce, $70 for the bagged microgreens, and with another ten boxes here, that’s $20.

Add in 30 fresh organic garlic. Starts out like this:

Trim the dead bits of the leaves, the roots and brush lightly in the hand to remove the bigger bits of dirt:

3 for $5.

In my opinion, it’s too low of a price for the actual value of my particular garlic.

But you don’t always get paid the value of things. If you want to sell, you usually have to create a perceived imbalance between the actual value and the asking price if you want people to pay the cost.

If they don’t pay you, it doesn’t matter what you think the value is. It’s a tricky subject I’ll come back to another time…

In Magic World, where people pay “Fair Prices” for “Organic Products” purchased “direct from the farmer,” these fresh garlic heads sold as whole plants (leaves are edible, especially finely chopped, and the stems have many uses depending on how hard they’ve become) are worth $2, and another nearby farm told me $2 or $2.50 even. But they’re well developed. I’m just getting started, and my buyer already buys tons of other stuff from me. So rather than chasing an extra potential ten bucks on 30 garlic, I’m willing to play ball at 3/$5.

But check how good they are (maybe you don’t know how big a two dollar Canadian piece is, but I assure you, they are “dope”):

How much are you willing to pay for three whole garlic plants like this? What if your business was in re-selling food products through value-added processes (ie, restaurants)?

Anyway, I think I’ve made my point. Let’s add up the numbers.

$41.25 lettuce

$70 bagged microgreens

$20 boxed microgreens

$50 garlic

That’s $181.25 for four hours harvest and preparation.

Like I said, it took me a while to become this “lean” in my farm start-up, and I’m sure I will find other ways to improve my kaizen system down the road. But for now, I’m settling for “sufficient” if I can basically work under 10 hours per week, and make around $350.

Sure, I could work “harder” and make “more,” but why? Like they say in the Silverchair song:

“You say that money isn’t everything/
But I’d like to see you live without it.”

I swear that line came up at the exact same time I wrote that sentence. Like money is great, but at a certain point, how much do we need? What’s sufficient?

We have a two earner household, and I’m also working another job 1–2 days per week. In my opinion, when you add that all up, $350 for basically a day’s labor split up over a few days is a super good deal.

I have some personal financial goals for the project though, including — at least — “breaking even,” so I’m going to add in some short weekend sessions at a local park’s new farmer’s market where I sell only my high-value products at their best prices direct to the customer (mostly visiting tourists): microgreens in $3 packages, and garlic $2 each. I’ll bring enough to make at least another $100 each session, but spend no more than two hours getting set up for my sales. I will try to sell all of it as quickly as I can — starting at the hour that I’m ready — and go home the second I finish.

Which for me is what really this whole “farm life” idea is all about: setting up harmonious systems that give you what you want and need out of them, rather than slaving away pulling out every single weed in your entire garden because somewhere someone told you that’s what organic farming is all about.

Screw that. There is no authority but yourself. Find your own way.

Or pay $5 for my ebook and try mine!

Ha, ha — had to try!

What do you do for money?