Realistic Income Expectations from small farm

almcclurJanuary 28, 2008

Hi everyone. We are a military family transferring to N. California this summer and would really like to try running a small family farm there on 5-10 acres. It's something we've wanted to do for a while, but the moving every 3 years makes it less than ideal. Also, the land and houses there are pricey (for us anyway) so it would really help if we could supplement with farm income.

I know this can vary drastically, but can anyone provide some estimates on how much daily effort it would take to bring in an extra $10,000/year above expenses in an area with plentiful farmers' markets and a great organic following? We would like pasture fed chickens, a vegetable garden, and possibly a few pigs eventually.

I also have 3 young children, and my husband works, so really it will be mostly a 1 person operation. I think I could work up to 4 hours a day on it. I would just love to get your ideas and thoughts. If you are making decent money from a small farm and would be willing to share your bio I would love to read of others who are successful.

Thanks so much,


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sundae(NW Iowa)

Amanda, Do you know your area yet? Maybe a pumkin patch with a corn maze? Selling eggs from the chickens too. Check out your local farmers mkts. too. Put your heart in it and it will work, get the kids envolved too!! Growing gourds is fun for kids also!


    Bookmark   January 28, 2008 at 3:24PM
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Thank you, those are great ideas. I am particularly looking for numbers... what is a reasonable income working part time with a decent market nearby? Real life examples would be welcome too!
Thanks again,

    Bookmark   January 28, 2008 at 4:35PM
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Since you said you want supplemental income of $10,000 net from 5-10 acres I take that to mean you want to start a real business. From our experience and that of other growers around here you should expect to run in the red (lose $)$5,000 or more each of the first couple of years. You'll have to purchase equipment, supplies, fencing etc. If you really do well you could be breaking even (no profit, no loss) in 4 or 5 years. Making a profit of $10,000 will mean you'll have to take in $15-20,000. I'll be honest. If you can only put up to 4 hours/day into the business then I wouldn't even start a project of this magnitude. You don't have a clue to how much work all this is if you think 4 hrs/day will do it. But that's just my opinion from experience. Why don't you post this on the Market Growing Forum and you'll get quite a few more and maybe different responses.

Having plenty of farmers markets and a strong organic following is a mixed blessing. You'll be the new kid on the block and have to ask yourself why people should buy from you instead of the growers they've been buying from for years. If you have a community college near you they may have a department that would help you in developing a business plan. If not perhaps a business loan officer at your bank would assist. I think this should be your first project after you get your home and land.

Good Luck - Tom

    Bookmark   January 28, 2008 at 7:15PM
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I agree with Tom, I believe thats a very small plot of land, with a short time period invested. A major business plan would need to be thought out. The Market Growing Forum would probably have more feedback too.

Or buying someone else's farm that is already established with current records and bottom lines.

    Bookmark   January 28, 2008 at 9:53PM
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I've never raised hogs, but I believe you might have a problem with your neighbors if you only have 5 to 10 acres. The smell carries. Check your local codes. And efficient big agro-biz has pushed most small farmers out of the hog business.

I'd make a day of running around to the local farmers markets and up-scale restaruants and ask them what they are looking for, if anything.

Take my advice with a grain of salt as I am just starting out myself.

    Bookmark   January 29, 2008 at 9:36AM
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Dibbit(z7b SC)

As well, when raising vegetables, etc., you are VERY much at the mercy of Nature - weather patterns, what grows well when and where (summer vs. winter, cool vs. warm, what needs shade here and what can take full sun, etc.), those are all what you spend your first year - or three - learning, as well as what bugs, diseases and other pests are common. (I had never SEEN a squash bug before I moved to SC - also hadn't grown squash for about 25 years, but...., last time I grew zucchini was 30 years ago in Ireland, where they don't have SBs.) I think you would find that you have a handle on things just at the time you are transferred again.

If you have the funds, you might put up a couple of hoop houses - which let you control conditions MUCH more carefully - and grow early or late crops. And hoop houses CAN, if bought well, can have the major components packed up and moved with you. Try reading Elliot Coleman's or Ogden Shepherd's books on market organic gardening - while for a different climate, the basic principals would be the same.

You might do better to provide something that you can take with you when you next move - like the goat's milk soaps mentioned. I don't know about food items, as local/state regulations can vary - some areas you can do a certain level of business without a licensed premises, others not. Herbal pillows, dried flower arrangements and wreaths, stuff that can sell in a farmer's market or craft fair or mail-order/on-line, might be a better bet than trying to break into a market - you would have to have the unusual, be able to produce it reliably, and build a customer base, which will take a little time.

If you haven't retired from the military, in 3 years you will be transfered again, taking your product (especially organic vegetables) away from your customer base, just when they have come to rely on you - which doesn't exactly seem fair to me. Mail-order or on-line business/products, they can still buy from you.

    Bookmark   January 29, 2008 at 11:05AM
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Thank you, I will also try the market gardening forum. I also love the idea of the value-added items, which I hadn't really considered before. I know the 3 year time-frame is not ideal, but we've got about 14 more years of this lifestyle and I just don't want to wait that long to start the farming--which we've both wanted for years now.

The first few years of loss or breaking even is very helpful information too. My time at home with the kids is not very valuable, in monetary terms, so we were hoping we could turn our interests into a bit of income. I had read a couple of studies that reported average $16,000 net from pasture fed chicken and turkey operation with weekly input of 21-30 hours. I suppose since we've never raised anything but children before it might make sense to start out just making food for our own family first though. I do appreciate all the insight.

    Bookmark   January 29, 2008 at 11:15AM
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Miss_Kitty(6a KY)

I can relate to the desire to have acreage that makes money. But with that small of a time line in one place, you won't be able to do much actual farming. Gardening on a big scale takes a couple of years to build up the soil.

We raise and sell ducks. A flock of 10 Moscovie hens, and four drakes can produce 25 eggs per hen, a hatch rate of 50% and four batches of ducklings a year. I sell mine at the flea market for 2/$5. Thats 120 ducklings per hatch, and gross $1200 per year.

Now, it takes feed, 100 lbs a month, at $20 per hundred. Housing, fences, nest boxes, electric fencing to pasture the grown drakes and any replacement breeders. But that is my best poultry year in a nutshell.

I currently am down to 4 breeder hens, six young ducks (gender unknown) and 4 drakes. I lost over 50% of my peeps last year to my own dog and a hawk.

I have 36 eggs in an incubator - and am hoping that I can hatch out some early ducklings for spring. This year may equal my first year, but it will never beat it.

Good luck!

ps, it is not cost effective to keep the ducklings more than four to six weeks. I can only get $5 each from the Asian who buy them to eat. Everybody else want's peeps.

    Bookmark   January 29, 2008 at 11:35PM
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Dibbit(z7b SC)

Another thing you might have luck growing and selling would be the decorative gourds, and the gourds for bird houses/baskets, etc. You can sell them as is - although I think many of the colorful decorative ones are waxed or otherwise coated for longer "shelf-life". With the dried ones, sell as-is, clean them up to sell as Ready-to-Decorate, or decorate them yourself, and sell for a higher price. Either wood-burning tools or acrylic paint works for decorating - I think there are several books on the subject. They are less tempting to pests than the eating/vegetable squashes (maybe deer and bunnies might eat them as well as gophers, you'll have to check local wisdom), take less input from you except to water now and again, and you would have a few intense days of gathering and selling the decorative ones. As well there would be the time for letting the ones for drying totally dry out - if you sell them not dry, you would have to warn customers - cutting them before they are dry usually leads to rotting. And you have to scrub them up in bleach solution before you do anything to them. But that would be the least time consuming Growing exercise I can think of. It would allow you to get your feet wet, and see if it's presently feasible with the kids.

Since another forum was discussing buying acorns on e-bay, I imagine gourds would sell as well.

You could also try the ducks, and maybe chickens for eggs, maybe trying the hens for your own use, just to get your feet wet. Before you do either, I would VERY STRONGLY suggest you read a couple of books, and maybe find a few poultry raisers to talk to and find out how much work is really involved. Same for the goats, if you decide to try soaps - it might be an idea to buy the goats milk for the first while, and help out at the farm as much as your schedule allowed, so you can see how much time and effort is involved.

I don't want to discourage you from trying to bring in additional income, but I also want to say that I would seriously disagree with your statement that "My time at home with the kids is not very valuable, in monetary terms," because you are inculcating, I trust, the ideas and standards that will turn out "Good Kids", which seem to be more and more a rarity in todays world. It may not be money in your pockets, but it certainly is gold in your hearts. If nothing else, what you teach them now may well keep them off drugs, and out of jail. It might not, but don't shortchange your efforts. Good luck...

    Bookmark   January 30, 2008 at 4:27PM
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Really, thanks for that. I know it's important but it is not one of those things that lets you see the final reward on a daily basis. Or maybe it is and I'm not watching close enough. Anyway it's always good to be reminded.

The gourds are something I've thought about before. We grew them this year and they were fun. Also, making cheeses and soaps would be right up my alley. I think when we get there I will see if any of the local farmers would be willing to chat. I know there are a slew of farm organizations there, so maybe they would let us sit in even if we don't have a farm yet?

We are a big family of nerds so we've read just about everything there is to read on the subject. We have the magazine subscriptions and all the pertinent websites are bookmarked, but we're at that point where we would really just like to jump in. Unfortunately I don't think we could afford any land there unless I could bring in an extra several thousand a year. Much to think on. This is a great place for help. Thanks to everyone.

    Bookmark   January 31, 2008 at 10:27AM
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Dibbit(z7b SC)

Amanda, I heard on the radio this morning (while driving as a passenger on a day-trip, so had to wait 'til now to go on-line) a conversation with an interviewer and someone from a non-profit volunteer organization called SCORE. They are retired or semi-retired businessmen/women from all walks of business life who donate/volunteer their services to small business people, both those with a business and those starting out. They are a national org., and can be found locally on-line by going to and typing in your zip-code. I would think you could hook up with someone where you are now, and someone from your new location, and get help. The various chapters also sponsor monthly talks on various aspects of running a small business - some of which you wouldn't need (Workman's Comp., etc.), but others sounded like something ANY business might need. Hope this might help.

Also, even though the forum keeps mentioning goats milk soaps, you can make soaps from a lOT of other ingredients, so don't get stuck on one idea yourself - think of what you might like to have or to give or receive. Look through catalogues, go to craft fairs, talk to local business people while they have a moment, and see what THEY might like to stock - then go home and cost it out to see if you can produce it AND make a profit!

I would take any classes you can on possible crafts, offered through community colleges, local art guilds, etc., etc. I took a faux painting class (for walls and furniture, boxes, etc.)a few years ago, offered by a store that sold the supplies - still haven't done much with it, but really enjoyed the class. And dressing up old, flea market furniture can be an income producer as well - buy it for $20, spend an hour or two painting it and sell it for $75-150, depending on the market, and the effort - not bad.

Jewelry is another possibility, made from simple items that you "fuss up", if your interests incline that way.

Dried flowers, made into wreaths, bouquets, placed in frames, and sold as-is are another option - most of the flowers used for drying are tough plants, and don't have to be perfect, as fresh cut flowers do.

    Bookmark   January 31, 2008 at 6:37PM
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jrslick (North Central Kansas, Zone 5B)

I will say go for it! I am a teacher who has the summers off. I started Market Gardening for 3 years ago and really got into it last year. I easily made four to five thousand. I think ten thousand would be a little harder, but not impossible. I live in a rural area and most of my customers have small gardens themselves. I feel that I have to educate my customers. I would suggest you start small. Small is relative( I would say 40-50 tomato plants, different types of squash, potatoes, cucumbers, and different peppers.

Try different varieties, Yellow, orange, black tomatoes, Round and yellow squash, All colors of bell peppers, Blue potatoes or lemon cucs. This will get people to stop at your booth. Talk to them, give them a sample and tell them about them and then remind them of the other "Normal" varieties you have. They will by several pounds of red tomatoes and then one black one or whatever.

In an area with lots of vendors, you have to set yourself apart and you also have to grow what everyone else has.

Once I get people hooked on certain varieties, they always come back, ask for it by name and buy more. The best way to sell more produce, in my opinion, is always have good produce, be knowledgable, know your markets and always be at the market rain or shine.

I would also attend several markets, if you can. Find out the best ones during the week and weekends. In my area, the weekends are always better.

Good Luck!

    Bookmark   January 31, 2008 at 11:12PM
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Out of the box thinking here, and reeallally wide learning curve, but might bee keeping be a lucrative option?

I've no experience whatsoever (they're on the wish list) but I've read that there is a HUGE demand for hives-for-rent. Apparently something is wiping out the bees - which desperately needed for pollination. Larger operations (shipping and renting out hives) are having difficulty filling orders, at the alarm of fruit growers in many places.

just a thought.

    Bookmark   February 1, 2008 at 12:05AM
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Hi everyone. I wanted to provide an update here. We have decided to live on base in N. California because of the weird real estate market there right now. When you have to sell in 3 years those wide market fluctuations can wreak havoc on the savings.

As for the market gardening, we decided against since my dh will be gone 6 months out of the year, but we are still going to put in half of our base yard with a kitchen garden. It should be a good experiment--we figured out that we spend nearly $10,000 a year in groceries for our family of 5, and if we can grow even half that it would be like an income of $5,000 that I don't have to leave the house to make. We're not allowed to have "farm animals" such as chickens, which is silly because you can have other birds, cats, dogs, rodents, lizards, etc., but so it is.

Anyway, I guess we will have to wait a few years and revisit this dream, and in the meantime, continue to read this great forum (and the thousands of books on my reading list).
Thanks again,

    Bookmark   April 13, 2008 at 6:42AM
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Hi Amanda,
Here's an idea to keep farm life at your doorstep, so to speak, and possibly make a profit even on base housing. You can use goat based batch ingredients, bought wholesale, to make finished goat soaps and lotions. I purchase finished goat products from a homesteader who raises goats, and their stuff is fantastic and they make a decent living with it. They also supply wholesale ingredients for others to make their own products, so you wouldn't have to actually raise the goats. Check out the links and read what's involved. It's just a thought.

Here is a link that might be useful: Goat Homesteader Ideas

    Bookmark   April 13, 2008 at 11:37AM
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Sorry to hear you're still stuck in base housing, but it is probably your best deal for right now.

One thing I would like to suggest is maybe you look around your area for empty lots suitable for gardening or older farms where you could rent a barn/shed with a small lot for trying your hand at raising chickens/ducks. You should be able to get the lot or barn for a small yearly rental fee and still be able to make a small return on your investment. If you wanted to, you might even be able to "sub-let" part of the lot to other persons wanting gardening space, but who are unable to have any due to thier housing situation. The biggest down side to this is that you would be away from the chickens/ducks for several hours per day and may suffer losses from predators, thieves or them just escaping.

Just a thought for you to consider. Good luck in your gardening and home based self-sufficiency! Tell your dh that we are all proud of him and the other members of our military, keep up the good work!


    Bookmark   April 13, 2008 at 8:13PM
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When we were stationed at Blytheville AFB, the base had land set aside for gardeners, and we grew a plot. I think it was free... (I was ten years old.)

I would think that now is the perfect time to buy. Prices are down around 10% and interest rates are very low.

Buy low, sell high, right?

But having to sell in three years makes everything risky.

    Bookmark   April 14, 2008 at 10:01AM
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bruglover(Gulf States)

vancleaveterry -

Buy low, sell high is right, if you can manage it. I think prices are going to drop more than 10%, though. In some areas of the country, probably 30% or more. Now is NOT the perfect time to buy.

    Bookmark   April 20, 2008 at 6:22PM
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The perfect time to buy real estate is when you find the property you like and can afford it. Pay rent to some one or make a mortgage payment, about the same money out per year.

Its getting hard to find a farm for sale in Pa. with gas leases worth more than the farm.

    Bookmark   April 20, 2008 at 8:00PM
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