Micro-Farm Labor: What’s it Cost?

by admin on February 14, 2014

Comin croppedBy Tracy Sweely

In my previous post “Micro-Farm Labor: What’s it Take?” I reviewed the labor requirements for a minimally-mechanized, micro-farming operation such as what we have at our pilot study farm, HeartEye Village CSA. This post explores the labor-related issues for financial sustainability given the labor requirements of using minimally- mechanized farming methods typical of urban farming operations.

Drawing upon production and financial planning tools to simulate operations in the Small Farm Financial Sustainability Study that we conducted in 2011, I realized that a minimum set of attributes were required for such a farm to be financially viable. These requirements were a minimum of ¼ acre (10,890 sq ft) of cultivation space with intensive intercropping to maximize yields, with half of the cultivation space (5445 sq ft) under winter production using high tunnels.

The labor projections used in the study were based on a limited sample. Labor from two growing seasons were used: from a previous season, when labor tracking was less rigorous and from the season in which the study was conducted. Meticulous labor records were kept during the study period and in the 3 years since the study began, providing a better sample and allowing more dependable labor projections to be made.

In the previous post, I reported that an average of 53 person-hours per workweek during the main season for our 4800 sq ft operation have been necessary during post-start-up operations. Scaling up, the hypothetical micro-farm using ¼ acre of cultivable space from March through September would require 2.27 times more labor (10890/4800), or an average of 120 person-hours (53 x 2.27) per workweek. While winter production at HeartEye requires only 11 hours per work-week for 595 sq ft of cultivation space under the tunnel, the ¼-acre farm would require 9.1 times more labor (5445/595) or an average of 101 person-hours per week from October through December.

If 40 hours per week attributed to the farm manager is deducted from the total person-hours needed per week, 80 adjunct person-hours per week would be needed from March through September and 61 adjunct person hours per week from October through December. The total adjunct labor for the entire 10-month growing season would be 3334 person hours ((80 x 31 wks) + (61 x 14 wks)), or an average of 74 person-hours per week (3334/45). This translates into two full-time assistants to the farm manager or a combination of paid assistant and many working shareholders.

Integrating the updated labor figures into the original study and assuming that adjunct labor would be paid at the minimum wage of $7.64/hour, financial projections for this model are financially sustainable only when the farm manager is paid 10.04/hour. Part of the adjunct labor could potentially be bartered out by using working shareholders. If a combination of one full-time paid assistant and about 20 working shareholders (working approximately 2 hours/week) is used, compensation rates would be:

Paid Farm manager at $11.17/hour

Paid assistant at $7.64/hour

Barter working shareholders at $6.32/hour

While this projection sheds light on the wages a financially conservative micro-farming operation may be able to afford to pay, it certainly does not reflect the true value of such labor. When it comes down to it, a good farm manager is worth their weight in gold and they should be paid a living wage, but larger forces determine what can realistically be paid in any given micro-farming operation. Economic forces like the wages laborers require in order to sustain their lifestyles or what rate working shareholders are willing to barter out, not to mention what prices produce can be sold for, are some important limiting factors. These forces will vary regionally, and in many cases substantially from the model I have outlined here.

In addition, yield projections in the original study have been conservative based on beginner farmer skill level as well as the challenging climatic conditions for the location of the pilot study farm. Certainly if a farm is located in a more hospitable climate, which many are, yields and thus potential income could be significantly greater than what is modeled in these projections.

For our purposes it is important to be conservative in our estimates so that we can model the most challenging conditions a new micro-farmer might face. Given that we have little control over larger economic forces and climate conditions, the question becomes how must  methods be altered to increase the income potential at the minimally-mechanized micro-farm so that it is possible to pay a living wage to those who labor upon it?

Our next stage of experimentation at the pilot study farm will go beyond the use of intercropping to achieve increased yields without increasing cultivation space or labor needs. The method we will be testing in the upcoming season goes beyond intercropping by “stacking” cultivation space.  Last year one of my readers e-mailed me about a type of soil tower that is a larger version of the clay “strawberry pot,” (thank you Peter!).  These towers save water and have an internal composting system that stimulates soil microbe activity. Our calculations indicate that these towers increase cultivation space between 2 and 3 times depending on layout and scale of operation. Although harvest and CSA box prep labor would clearly increase with scale, very little commensurate increase in labor would be necessary for annual soil preparation since no tilling would be required and weeding would be minimal.

Of course, since we have no experience with these soil towers I am not yet in a position to recommend them. But for anyone interested I'm including the link below.  I plan to post updates as we move forward with our research using these towers so please check back throughout the year as we examine their benefits, limitations and potential for contribution to our developing model of a financial sustainable micro-farm.  

Link to Garden Tower website:


Micro-Farm Labor: What’s it Take?

by admin on January 1, 2014

Labor_woodcut_flat_cropBy Tracy Sweely

I hold the unique and curious position of being a Working Share Farm Manager at our ¼ acre pilot study CSA farm, HeartEye Village CSA, handily operating in the challenging climatic conditions of the Colorado Front Range. We try to be creative in modeling the sweet spot of financial sustainability. I trade my CSA share for 72 hours of farm manager labor, but this does often increase depending upon the skill level of the farm intern and the availability of working share labor. Our internship program is, shall we say, an advanced-level “immersion” program. In addition, we literally could not operate the farm without additional working shareholder labor. So we piece our labor picture together and we keep really excellent labor records. I recently looked over these records and thought I’d share some important figures so that you prospective, small-acreage farmers can get an idea about how much time it takes to conduct annual operations of an established micro-farm. These figures would not be applicable to a start-up, where labor would likely be far greater.

First, here is a little background about our farm. While we have a ¼ acre plot, our cultivatable space is only about 4800 sq ft.  Our climate is generally dry, with summers being very hot and with a relatively short growing season from April through September. During the summer season, we provide produce to about 28 CSA members with some produce to spare for sale at our roadside farm stand. We have a high tunnel covering 595 sq ft of cultivatable space in which we conduct winter cultivation for an 8-member winter CSA. We use non-certified organic, bio-intensive methods where we do a lot of soil-nutrient building, intensive succession planting and intercropping. We have a couple of 6’ by 8’ greenhouses in which we raise our bedding plants. Our soil has high clay content so we must use the roto-tiller, but we generally use it only once a year because of all the intercropping that we do. We have a sprinkler system for germination of direct seeded crops and a drip irrigation system on a timer. Everything else from seeding to transplanting to harvesting to box preparation is done by hand.

In our 5 years of operation annual labor averages 1632 person-hours for the 7-month main season, from March through September, and 128 person-hours for our 3-month winter season from October through December. Despite the changing nature of the tasks throughout the season, this averages about 233 person-hours per month during the main season and 43 person-hours per month during the winter.

Different farms, of course, have different labor requirements depending on size, production methods and markets, among other things. But for a minimally mechanized, bio-intensive, micro-farming operation such as ours, the labor requirement I’ve described distills down to an average of 53 person-hours per workweek from March through September and 11 person-hours per workweek from October through December. The main season labor requirement could translate into one full-time farm manager and either a part-time paid assistant or several working shareholders. The winter requirement could be a very part-time farm manager.

For our operation, the intern performs the lion’s share of the labor but we make every effort to schedule adjunct labor so that the intern doesn’t work more than an average of 40 hours per week very often. Our working shareholders perform any adjunct labor needed during the main season. Non-management, working shareholder labor needed in 2013 averaged 58 person-hours per month from March through June and about 32 person-hours per month from July through September. Due to the decreased workload during the winter, adjunct labor is unnecessary.

This gives you an idea of the labor requirements of a minimally mechanized, bio-intensive, micro-farming operation. In my mind, farm labor should be financially sustainable for everyone involved, meaning the compensation for laborers, including the farm manager/owner should translate into a livable wage or at least minimum wage. But is this even possible to do on a minimally-mechanized, micro-farming operation in our current economy? In my next blog (which I hope to post in a few weeks…) I will try to answer this question by closely examining the key underlying factors.



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