Small-scale farming does not have to mean measly profits.
Lisa Helm, founder of Dayton Urban Grown, presented “Proven Strategies for Profitable Urban Ag” during the virtual Pasa Sustainable Agriculture Conference on Jan. 21. Helm’s session focused on how to garner the most profit from less than 2 acres.
She said small-scale farmers need to focus on methods with low cost of entry and high profit margins.
By using these methods, Helm makes $20,000 annually on one-tenth of an acre. That translates to $200,000 per acre.
Working small acreage limits equipment needs and labor costs, but it also constrains crop selection. Corn and potatoes aren’t the best options for tiny scale, Helm said.
The Northeast — with a large fresh-market customer base but also high land prices — may be a particularly suitable region for tiny farms.
Regardless of size, she said, a farm is a business and needs to be treated as such.
“It does take a real go-getter to start their own business and do what it takes,” she said. “You’ve got to be out there and put the work in.”
Helm suggests prospective growers work a season on a farm to gain experience and see if agriculture is a good fit. Farming for profit, even at a small scale, is different from having a backyard garden.
“Seek out people who are doing what you’re doing successfully, and learn from them,” Helm said.
New farmers will want start small, even by Helm’s standards. She recommends beginning with a quarter-acre or less.
“A lot of people bite off way more than they can chew,” she said. “Get something totally dialed in and in control before you start scaling up.”
To make the most of a little land, Helm says growing intensively with tight rows is a necessity.
That approach can squeeze six rows of plants within 30 inches, compared to six rows of plants within 15 feet in a typical farm field.
And tight rows work for small-scale growing because those farmers don’t need tractors to fit between rows.
Bottom line: Intensive growing increases yield per square foot, which leads to increased profits.
To keep weeds to a minimum, Helm suggests mulching beds with at least 1 inch of compost before seeding. Spreading three sheets of newspaper on the beds before adding the compost improves weed suppression.
Helm prefers planting relatively large starts over seeds. By growing starts in a separate area, beds will be able to have more crops per year, which can lead to more profit.
And interplanting, or planting a second crop while the first one is still growing, is the way to go for small acreage. The strategy keeps the soil covered with living plants — a plus for soil health — and stretches the harvest window for each bed.
For example, leeks take a while to grow to size. So spinach, which has a shorter growing period, can be planted in the same bed and harvested before the leeks are ready.
“Keep plants in the beds as much as possible,” Helm said.
With limited space to grow, small-scale farmers need to choose the right crops. The exact selection will depend on the market, but the most appealing will be high-value, fast-growing plants that have a long harvest period.
“We could probably plant the whole farm in lettuce and have the market for it,” Helm said. “And carrots go super fast.”
Roots, such as ginger and turmeric, tend to get good prices, as much as $20 per pound, she said. Herbs, especially basil, also get good prices.
Helm likes to offer uncommon vegetables, such as heirloom tomatoes. Distinctive offerings limit competition and can attract a higher price.
“If you have a small space, you want to concentrate on things that are a lot more profitable to grow,” she said.
Markets that are direct to consumer tend to work best for small-scale farming, but the right restaurants can add sales as well.
“Work with what you have,” Helm said.
Growing year-round can also increase profits for small acreage.
“There’s a lot less competition in the winter and a lot more demand,” Helm said. “Thanksgiving and Christmas markets can be really profitable.”
A small-scale farm may not produce as many bushels as a 100-acre grain farm, but with the right methods and markets, it can be profitable.
“It’s really doable,” Helm said.