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Sept/Oct 2009 – One potato, two potato

Scaling up production comes with its own issues.

Unless you are possessed of a sort of Confucian contentment about your farm, you’ll be familiar with the impulse to increase production. The scale does not matter. No sooner does the small farmer sell eggs from a half dozen hens than she is spread-sheeting costs and revenues of a dozen hens. The market gardener, noting that early spuds sell off the roadside stand by noon every day, wonders if two more rows wouldn’t be a good idea. And the farmer with a 40 hp tractor covets the 50 hp tractor.

As Treena Hein points out in an article in this issue (see p 22), scaling up production affects every aspect of the farm, including business and personal matters.

My wife and I, having expanded the farm in the last four years, know whereof we speak. Four years ago we ran 40 ewes, two sows and a boar, and grew a couple of acres of grain. Annual revenue was $15,000. We now have 60 ewes, 12 sows and two boars and this year are growing, along with another farm couple, over 40 acres of grain. Our gross revenue last year was $67,000.

It may be too soon to say whether the effort and costs of scaling up have been worth it, but here are my observations:

Negatives:

  • Increased risk: we now have thousands of dollars in crops and products at risk to weather, power failure (meat in freezers) or simply to market trends. In pre-expansion days, we could off load excess lamb with a couple of calls to friends. Now, we are faced with selling over 100 lambs, 130 feeder pigs, and tonnes of grain per year. A lot more is at stake.
  • Less. . . fun: harvesting an acre or two of barley with the old combine was kind of circus-like. Who really cares if you get the crop off before the fall rains set in? Although our grain production now is picayune compared to most Canadian farms, it has the potential to make (or lose) us thousands of dollars. I laugh less at screw ups.
  • Need for labour: whereas the wife and I could simply muscle our way through haying season and barn clean outs before, we now need regular part time help. We’ve lost some independence.
  • No holidays: Taking more than a few days away would require launching a military-scale preparation 10 days before. No fun.

Positives:

  • More opportunity to make money: The profit on a few sides of pork just didn’t amount to much. Sell several hundred sides a year at a small profit, as we do now, and you’ve got a decent amount of money.
  • More experiments: with a few acres in a crop, or just a few head of livestock, it is difficult to run comparable trials. We now can watch and learn from using different growing programs (no-till vs till with the grains; formulated livestock feed vs what we make on the farm for the livestock). We are learning more, faster.
  • Better farming: increased production has allowed us to have more and better breeding stock, yielding consistently superior market lambs and hogs.
  • On balance: the expanded farm is less fun but more satisfying. You have to be a farmer to understand.