There’s a cartoon hanging on the bulletin board at or local farm store that reads “I lose money the old-fashioned way… I Farm!” and that’s the truth. Raising your own food provides a multitude of rewards; few are financial. I can’t begin to tell you the depth of the emotional and spiritual rewards our family has reaped from our homestead. Over time I’ll do my best to relate all of them. But we raise our food to offset the cost at the grocery store, and in the end we have to ask ourselves is it worth the effort? I’ll share some hard learned lessons to help us all make our efforts more productive, and reduce the amount of time frittered and wasted in a myriad of off-hand ways….
If you think you’re anywhere close to admiring a positive “cash flow” with your efforts, try this simple formula. Ask yourself if the value of the amazing food you’ve raised is more than the direct cost in money spent buying seed, straw, gas or feed. Don’t be in a hurry to bask in the glow of how far you are ahead until you’ve added up the time it took you produce your harvest.
To face the hard cold truth about the economics of your homestead, you should figure out a dollar value for your time. You can only tell yourself you’re farming for the love it all for so long before you ask yourself if it’s worth all the time and energy. So figure out what an hour of your time is worth and multiply it by the number of hours you work to produce your harvest. Add that to the total of all your other expenses, the cost of seed, feed, chicks, gas, electricity, a new rototiller, wear on your vehicle driving to the farm store…, and see which number is larger, the sum of all your expenses or the value of your harvest.
If, and I mean if, your food value is equal to your time-laden expense column, you’re at a break-even point and a successful farmer. You’ve only “made money” if the value of your food is 10 – 20% higher than your combined costs. Few farmers every really achieve that.
This analysis can be a nightmare for suburban homesteaders because the time we spend on all our efforts doesn’t involve a lot of machinery or chemicals. Modern farmers eek out modest livings on razor-thin margins farming acres of crops using machinery and petrochemicals. Raising chickens, vegetables, and strawberries on the back half-acre involves a rototiller, hoe and gobs of sweat equity. Time is substituted for a plow, harrow, combine and Roundup, and the homestead can become an instant black hole for energy and resources.
So if you take a look at your costs, don’t be shocked over the number of hours you put into your efforts. It can be ugly at times, especially if you’re early in the learning/experience curve. Minimizing time and effort spent means we are far more successful.
Here is a tip that can help us avoid the fritter and wast of our valuable time:
Learn everything, and I mean everything about your endeavor before you start, and respect the sage advice that you encounter. Apply every ounce of it to your personal situation you can. Don’t think you are smarter than the voices of experience. If experience says, “Do this”….. well, do it.
Seems simple doesn’t it? It’s taken three years for this blockhead to learn his lesson. And I’ve frittered and wasted gobs of hours in myriads of off-hand ways while learning.
Strawberries were a starting point for us here at Crossroads Homestead and I had enough gardening experience to know how to break through new soil and get the ball rolling. I read at a glance several university extension articles about raising berries, and “followed” their advice with my own slightly arrogant know-it-all attitude. They recommended the following:
1. Do not plant new berry plants in soil that is turned over from fallow fields or sod until that soil has been worked for one full season. This will dramatically reduce the impact of weeds in your strawberry patch.
2. Plant strawberries in well-drained soil.
3. Test your soil to make certain your profile has the correct levels for pH and nutrients. Treat according to the recommendations.
4. Remove remove foliage late in the season after harvest to reduce the impact of disease on your fruit.
I ignored all of that, turned over some sod and fired 200 plants into the ground. I knew enough about weeds, soil tests and disease control; these factors applied to large commercial growers, not my small patch. True to the extension services predictions, the grass and weeds grew all through my plants. I weeded and mulched and weeded and mulched and weeded and mulched. Fritter and Waste, Fritter and Waste, Fritter and Waste, you get the picture.
When the next year’s harvest came, we had berries, but we also had disease that was made worse by damp and nutrient-deficient soil. Did I mention that I didn’t mow the foliage from my plants, too? Lots of berries had to be thrown away as we picked, some years about half of our harvest in that patch. Fritter and Waste, Fritter and Waste, Fritter and Waste.
That patch of berries remained a thorn in my side for years, chock full of weeds, and quarts and quarts of disease ridden berries were tossed every summer. This year I’ll finally vanquish this black hole when I till those plants under before the frost reaches deep in the soil and plant vegetables next spring.
We’ve planted nearly two thousand strawberry plants since then and are hoping to do a small pick-your-own operation this year, and expand for the next. Following the advice of the extension services has completely transformed our strawberry production, and reduced the size of the black hole that ignorance (arrogance in my case) created.
So this year I’m going to this one step further, I’m going to listen to the old timers. They swear that geese will weed your strawberry patches almost clean each year. They love the weeds and won’t touch the berry plants.
I didn’t believe it when I heard it and still am a massive skeptic. But I’m following their advice, this time with a new goal in mind.
This coming spring I’ll waste time on my terms. You’ll find me sitting on a tractor, beer in hand, listening to Pink Floyd on an iPhone watching geese eat weeds.
My time spent on the homestead may not diminish and my profit margin may not increase, but drinking a beer and watching geese weed strawberries seems to me to be a most satisfying Fritter and Waste, Fritter and Waste, Fritter and Waste of hours in a wonderfully off-hand way.
- Did Farmers of the Past Know More Than We Do? (nytimes.com)
- December 2 is National Fritters Day (examiner.com)