Down to Business: Salute your Solution

The Sustainability Stool has three Legs.

  1. Ecology
  2. Social Justice
  3. Economics

Meaning that for any venture to be truly sustainable, it must support Ecological health (everyone breathes) while not sacrificing Social Equity by stealing from Peter to pay for Paul (the US with 85% of the wealth in 20% of the hands fails this) or forcing someone else to move like factory “growth” in India’s commercial districts displacing thousands of the poor.  The final leg is one that many environmentalists get queazy on with the whole aversion to capitalism and all:  It needs to make money or it will fail. (grants don’t count, but they can help w/startup).  We can beat around the bush and talk about barter economies and time banks (both absolutely vital for the decades AFTER this one), but the rub is that for the next decade or so money is the primary means of exchange.  My answer to the Queazy Leg (and hopefully the other two) is what this post is about.  While this may one day provide an income for us, in the mean time I need to make money to self-fund my ideas.

The farming year is shaping up to be a Big One.  I am a STRONG advocate of farmers planning for profit.  That means setting some real revenue goals and determining what they need to grow to get there – in systems thinking we call this backcasting: where do you want to be in 20 years and what do you need to do to make that future happen; everything I do on this blog is my answer to that question… but I digress.  For 2010 gross revenue goals,  I put mine at $13,500 for produce with another $1500 in compost sales, and $1500+ in tours and workshops.  Chump change or waaaay too much depending on where you are on the home gardener > professional farmer spectrum.  With a goal in mind, you then pull up records of last years sales (or reasonable assumptions [CONSERVATIVE] if you are new) and get to work.  The Organic Farmers Business Handbook is a huge help in this process. I will spare you the details, but I know that potatoes are my “cash” crop, but that my sandwich shop needs more diversity, but has the most room for growth since I am their only grower thus far.  Both my restaurant clients have fairly set menus and traffic, meaning that to make more money with them, I need to grow longer not more.  I.e. I can sell 150#’s of potatoes a week to one client.  If I can sell for a month, that is 600#’s and $900.  If I can sell to them for 8 months… well then I am rather far on my way to my revenue goal aren’t I?  Growing on this scale also helps the other side of my business plan: this is a part time business with about 10 hours of field time a week (on average – don’t check my time card in April or August!).  Harvesting 200#’s of potatoes a week is easy enough and can be done with hand tools, some sweat equity, and a VW Golf for a delivery vehicle.  Harvesting 5000#’s of potatoes in a week for wholesale means buying a “real” tractor and mechanizing my harvest ($20,000): not an option.  That arithmetic –less over longer– is what has been driving my research over the past several months and is really the only way for me to increase revenue given my time constraints.  Add it all up and I have committed “orders” from my two restaurant clients for over $11,000 if I can stretch the season to the extent I hope.  This will take alot of work,  some new tools, and more than a little money – hence the rest of the post and my business planning.

Quick Tunnel pic from Johnny's

Longer means that I need to get in the soil earlier, stay in the soil longer, succession crop, get funky with my cultivar selection, and look real hard about harvest extension / storage.  Some of this can be planned around (cultivars and succesion cropping), but season exstention means purchases.   To that end I purchased a low tunnel bender and 2 rolls of Tufflight from Johnny’s seeds.  The Hoopty is still in the works and is absolutely vital to the project going forward to its fruition, but siting is taking some time.  To get into the ground for 2010 Spring Spinach I opted to go small.  Two tunnels will get me 1000 sq ft of covered bed (4, 2.5’x90′ beds) for about $150/bed and the plastic ($75) should last for 2-3 years and 4-6 seasons, with the bender and hoops lasting essentially forever.   Use will look like this in 2010: Tunnel #1 Red Gold Potatoes for babies in May>field crop covering with Agribon>fall Spinach, Tunnel #2 Spinach>Sweet Potato Slips> overwintered onions.   1 tunnel 100′ long will get me 4 rows of spuds -400#’s mature or 100#’s baby.  Baby potatoes go for $3/lb.  Net profit on one crop (paid off the tunnel!), not factoring labor – and there is 9 more crops to come out of these hoops in the lifetime of the plastic.

Hoop House and Quick Tunnel growing mean that I am going to be pushing the soils harder than can be replenished naturally and in the Hoop House cover crops will not be practical.  That means compost – ALOT of compost.  For perspective that means that we are moving from measuring and thinking of compost in yards to TONS.   Much time has been spent on winter composting this year, and I have proven to myself that not only can I cook compost year round, but that I it function stacks nicely in hoop houses.  That helps with the “longer” part of the business plan.  Essentially I would like to be harvesting at least ton of compost every 3rd month, with peak in late summer and an annual production of about 10 tons (about 40 yards) total with 2.5 tons processed through worm bins.  Again, compost on this scale is significantly beyond my current few bins and a pitch fork.  Plans here include a PTO driven manure spreader, a 30hp tractor and a 40hp skid steer.  The skid loader puts bucket loads of browns alternating with greens into the spreader which is parked and flinging material out the back like an angry monkey.  When the monkey flung pile get about 4′ tall you pull the spreader forwards 5′ and let the monkey loose again aerating and mixing the materials.  Making windrows 100′ long this way is not overly hard – let it cook until temps start to drop, then repeat about 20′ away (the turning radius of a skid loader), but it goes faster as you are just scooping  up the compost from the old windrow rather than driving to a pile of manure and then a pile of leaves.  That is ALOT of money for equipment and would be impossible, but luckily I live a charmed life and all are available on site, though not in good working order.  I will need to do maintenance and tune-ups to get everything working, but cost should be within line with the 1.25 tons of worm compost I plan on selling ($1500).  So that means I will have fixed all the farmers equipment, learned a ton about 1940’s era tractor repair, and generated a surplus of 8 tons of compost to be reapplied to the fields.

Ok, some of you may be thinking: back up.  Where in the hell are you going to get 30 tons –60,000 pounds!– of raw compost material?  That is a GREAT question and one I have had to work to answer all winter.  First – I’m going to grow alot.  Sudangrass or summer alfalfa will generate 8 tons of biomass per acre, fodder Sorghum with its 13′ tall stalks will get me closer to 14 tons an acre.  Sunflowers and Dry Corn will be grown for chicken fodder specifically to get the stalks for carbon in the piles add all three up to about an acre of growth on site.  Another large component however will be restaraunt waste.  500# a week, every week.  Add to that the 50 truck loads of municipal leaves and the 150# of horse manure a day and I’ve got more than enough  We will also be planting a coppice nursery of willow and biomass shrubs for additional, long term, perennial biomass that will eventually take over for the restaurant waste should that or the leaf source fail.

Earth Tools: my implement dealer

To get all this material on site I will be purchasing a beat to hell dump truck with a fellow farmer.  $4000 or less won’t get us a pretty one, but it will get us a working one.  For chopping up all this material a shredder for the Grillo will be purchased very soon for $1200.  It will handle everything from orchard prunings for compost to chipping coppice wood (2″ and smaller) for the gasifier.  As the perennials biomass comes on line (and we are using it to power the whole system) we’ll need a bigger chipper.   Do not think that scaling up to this level is easy ethically – that is alot of dead dinosaurs I’m burning to make all this happen, but I gots that covered too.  More on that in a bit. 🙂

This is alot of stuff – tons of produce, tons of compost, and a decent amount of revenue.  But there is an overriding goal to all of this:  the growing, the composting, the planning– is to get us a revenue positive farm so that we can build the foundation and funding to finally move forward in 2011 with the energy side of the SAFE (Sustainable Agriculture Food and Energy) Centers which we have been trying to do since we did not get Stimulus funding in 2009.   With a market farm generating $10k+ a year in net profit, we will pay off our Hoop House in 2 years and generate enough additional revenue from tours to fund the real cutting edge work of building a novel synergistic energy/food systems that we feel will push the envelope of sustainability.  Our Mission from God (Blues Brothers fanatic)?  To build a true Energy Farm where the natural systems of nature: photosynthesis, decomposition, and carbon sequestration are channeled through permaculture to produce surpluses of not only food crops, but also fertility and grid electricity and transportable fuels like methane, ethanol, and biodiesel to power the equipment and the a part of community.  This project is the culmination of my three year journey as detailed on this blog – the tens of thousands of pages read, the hundreds of people met and networked with, the thousands of dollars and hours spent in experiments and reskilling.  Making food, energy, jobs, fertility, community in one system on under 5 acres with resource loops reaching out into the village.  And every component -from winter composting to gasification, to biodiesel, to small scale ag, either myself or one of my Co-op partners has already done and proven.  The only thing left is commit the time and money to put it all together.  All major expenses are covered -I have sourced over $20,000 in Slow Money financing in the community-  but expect a funding push soon to help with incidentals like a Worm Wigwam, the Grillo Shredder, etc.   If you would like to contribute – send me an email at one.straw.rob (at)

2010 is the year of the Tiger –36 years ago I was born a Tiger: courage and hard work will be rewarded.

This is the year.

Let’s get down to businss and be the change!!


13 Responses

  1. Holy Mother of God. You are one ambitious person. I am in awe.

  2. I like your plans. You’ve thought a lot about this, I see. Although I’ve not addressed earning an income from our farm (yet), I too wish to increase and build my compost production this year. I’m looking for ways to do so with limited capital outlay (I’m cheap and don’t have much to work with anyway). If I’ve got to fork 12 tons of compost out of the barn with a pitchfork after I move the cows out and have pigs aerate the bedding, I’ll do it. But, for the scale I would like to develop for making compost from local resources that generally go to waste, I’m looking for a loader tractor and a working manure spreader (my ancient one is broken). I’ll be keeping an eye on your progress.

  3. Rob,
    You are a great source of inspiration to me and my friends. We have some similar, yet smaller scale to this point, projects coming up this year. I will be posting some about them soon.

    You, sir, are a true american hero.

    Best of luck to you.


  4. Hey Rob,
    Have you ever thought of growing mushrooms? I know you are crazy busy right now, but they would be very profitable. They could either be grown in logs, or even in wood chips/sawdust. If you already have the restaurant connections you could probably sell them with your potatoes to those places.
    I’ve heard you can feed the leftover mycelium to worms, or even to fish in an aquaponics system, so the waste from it can be used to get you even more profit. Just another idea for ya, like you don’t have enough on your plate.

    • The farm owner is very bullish on growing them in the Hoopty for all those reasons. I have done the kits in the basement and they thrived on total neglect- my kind of crop.

  5. very impressive
    do you have any ideas for a proposed organic farm near Chennai( hot+humid)
    plan to set up one on a small/medium scale
    all the best

    • Muthukumar,

      Given the location I think you would not have much need for plastic covered low tunnels 🙂 If you would like to email more about it, drop me a line at one.straw.rob (at) with your goals and wishes for the farm including scale. I’d love to help however I can.


  6. Rob, awesomely impressive as usual. I have just one thing to note here. I’m not claiming any authority on this subject, but I know you’re a good researcher, so I’m confident you can delve into this yourself. I’m currently reading the Humanure Handbook. (Not that I’m ready to go there, but eventually it seems inevitable.) One very interesting claim in this book is that turning a compost pile doesn’t seem to make a whole lot of difference in the speed of composting. Jenkins claims that proper levels of moisture are by far the more important criterion for speed of decomposition and heat generation. He cited some study that found the additional aeration that results from turning compost only lasts a very short time (like less than an hour). I think he also recommended putting some large structural elements, such as branches or pipes, into the pile so as to keep it from becoming compacted. It really made me wonder whether the labor of turning even a small home pile would ever be worth it, let alone investing in equipment to handle larger compost piles. Seems like you might want to look into that claim before you invest in equipment.

    • Thanks Kate! I am not sure if I have ever stated it here, but I am convinced that water is the biggest limiting factor in the vast majority of home composting operations. I have a hypothesis that the reason the Jean Pain’s brush compost heats for 18 months is primarily due to the VAST amounts of water in the piles: he soaked the chips for 48 hours submerged in water before building his piles.

      To me, the turning of piles accomplishes two things – it gets a more evenly finished pile that is also 100% pasteurized – without turning the outer 6″ will never get to 150 degrees so it will be weed seedey. Also that outer edge will not be broken down very well as the thermophilic bacteria will have never gotten there and it will be primarily fungus and macro-decomposers like pill bugs, etc that break it down which takes longer. You’re inside will be cooked and your outsides not. A thick mulch like the biodynamic folks use solves most of the issues by putting almost 100% of you compost materials “inside” the pile.

      In so far as the commercial grade composting goes, my plan of using leaves and “stalky” large plants like sunflowers, sorghum, and corn means I gots LOTS of lignin and cellulose to break down and the raw form has low surface area for the buggers to get at it. Without a chipper and then bacteria punching holes into the material for the fungus to get to breaking down those harder substances it takes about 4-6 years for the piles to break down sufficiently to plant in judging by the unturned 6′ tall piles on site.

      For manures and wastes closer to 25:1 C:N ratios that have high surface area (relative) such as a leavey grass mix run through a mulching mower turning prolly makes little sense. My father has never turned a pile in over 50 years of composting. He often gets anaerobic gorp, but there is also always some good humus in the bottoms of his piles by the end of the season.

      It comes down to the labor>time continuum. I need compost produced at a fast clip meaning I need to add labor since I am reducing time. The equipment is on site and needs to get fixed sometime anyhow so this is excuse enough.

      I have been thinking about experimenting with heavily mulched, unturned, piles at home. This may push me over to see how it “turns” out!


  7. I’ve been away for too long. This post was the first stop I made at my usual haunts, I haven’t even put anything on my own blog yet. I find it inspiring that some of the my own transformation as of late is mirrored in what you have said regarding economics.

    I’m a classic case of the lefty hippie who never wanted to “sell out” oddly enough my educational background is in business (long story), and I used to sneer every time I walked past the bookshelves stocked full of the latest and greatest management and business theory bestsellers. What I have come to appreciate (though a baptism of fire) is that “business thinking” (whole system efficiency, return on investment, total cost of ownership, etc) are very powerful tools with no ideological bias. They can be put to use for good or evil with equal effectiveness, and we as a community are only doing detriment by ignoring their potential.

    More importantly, the vast divide between us sustainability geeks and the corporate world is due in part to a language barrier. We speak in terms of altruism and long term viability. Most of the corporations who grip the leashes of power are more concerned with the mechanics of posting a profit to shareholders for the next quarter.

    To create an attractive transitional model it is important that we learn to be bi-lingual. We must not say that investment in long term strategic stewardship is gathers greater returns than short term greenwashing, we must be able to demonstrate it. We must be able to speak to their bottom line, and to do that we have to learn to speak economics.

    Its been quite a winter and I hope spring is treating you well Rob, thanks again for the thought provoking post.


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