How can micro-farming possibly be as productive as claimed?
Essay by Lion Kuntz, March 22, 2000
I assert that intelligent designs and management practices can allow one
farmworker to provides a balanced diet to 30 CSA subscribers meats, eggs,
fish, vegetables, herbs, and fruits, for a $30K to $35K annual income (after
farm-related expenses are deducted) to the farmworker, on two acres of land.
Many farmers are unable to assure themselves that much dependable income,
and in fact often work at least part time in outside employment because they
cannot obtain the median income despite many acres of land cultivated.
I further assert that about 40 hours weekly is sufficient to manage a well
designed micro-farm, which is another challenge to the credibility of small
farmers who are expecting to give 80 hour work-weeks for more than half of
Examination of details of a micro-farm system show how productivity of 4 to
times the NET productivity (per square foot) of conventional larger
farms is obtained with so little workload.
First, the micro-farm has to be assembled in stages before the highest
productivity are obtained. Instead of buying a fairly modern tractor (which
used on a micro-farm) at a cost of about, say $15K, the micro-farmer makes
an equivalent investment in stages over several years of machinery-free
systems which have predictable lifespans of fifty years. Mostly the
worker obtains a wide variety of skills before establishing these permanent
systems and escapes major indebtedness by performing their own labors in
building the needed systems.
Something like a 2 to 4 year transition period is required to bring online
permanent living systems which will perform much of the labors that other
of farming have to pay expenses to receive. After the living systems have
matured to stabilizing micro-ecologies of whole food-chain webs the
productivity increases dramatically, while much of the workload is
from the farmworker to the living systems.
Tending livestock to provide weekly two meals of chickens, two meals of
two meals of fish, and eggs to feed as many as 30 CSA household buyers
might seem like an impressive task alone, without even counting the growing
a large variety of green groceries, herbs, and fruits on top of the
Just looking at some reasonable annual numbers, like 3120 chickens, 3120
rabbits and 3120 big fish, start to look daunting if you do not have a
management plan in mind to produce this plus a lot more. In reality there
never 3120 rabbits, chickens or harvestable fish on hand at any one time.
There are usually not many more than 800 chickens and rabbits at any one
moment, and the vast majority of them are young chicks and small bunnies.
Fish are there in the many thousands, but the top feeders and bottom feeders
are mostly spawning fish-fry to feed the middle feeders.
It turns out that distributing feed, inspecting the health and conditions,
cleaning coops and pen areas takes less than a couple of hours, at most,
This is maybe 17 hours per week total. Feeding rabbits means distributing
greens from the garden, alfalfa hay and some mineral supplements to about 80
hutches, which takes maybe 40 minutes. About 25 of the hutches have kits in
the nesting boxes which need to be observed, and a few nesting boxes per day
are removed to disinfectant baths before reuse or cleaned ones inserted for
expectant does. This takes another 25 minutes. This is about 65 minutes
Dumping the manures into carts for removal involves about another 80 minutes
Slaughtering takes practice to become skilled, but it takes somewhat less
minutes apiece for a skilled person to prepare 60 chickens, 60 rabbits and
fish for the cooler for CSA orders. This is 9 more hours, to the 17 already
spent in husbandry, for a subtotal of 26 hours.
Chickens free-range and pastured take a few minutes a day to unlock in the
morning and close-up the coops in the evening. Spreading cracked corn and
worms takes minutes. Feeding the fish takes even less time. Collecting eggs
from ducks and hens takes longer than the feeding. Make it an hour a week
combined total maintenance.
Subtotal is now 27 hours, leaving 13 hours to do everything else if a 40
work week goal is to be achieved.
Planting and harvesting from the garden go on simultaneously. Greenhouse
work on the plant starts and transplants is 2 or 3 hours weekly, and
something is harvested out of the gardens, a well-along transplant replaces
the vacant soil. Really, putting a few seeds into compartmented trays of
soil is trivial, and moving plugs to larger pots takes only moments. A lot
accomplished in the time allowed here.
There 10 or 11 hours left in our 40 hour work week.
Cleaning the livestock manures (already accounted for) means feeding the
vermicompost beds which are to become the grow beds, so regular
of the plants is accounted for in the hours of weekly livestock feeding and
Caring for the worms is 1 or 2 hours a week, but they do the digging and
of what is to become the growing beds, so there is never any time spent
the soil. We are now down to between 8 to 11 hours left to do everything
the 40 hour work-week ideal goal.
Harvesting, rinsing, and packing the produce for 30 CSA family buyers takes
at least another 8 hours per week, leaving only from 0 to 3 hours weekly for
everything else that has to be done.
Weeding never has to be done as a separate chore. The worm-bins
management program produces ideal weed-free growing soil covered by a
living mulch. There is no time spent cultivating or weeding, nor any time
applying herbicides. Such few air-borne seeds as do make it to germination
are casually pulled from the loose friable soil and deposited between rows
planting and harvesting.
Watering permanent growing beds involves turning on a bank of drip
hoses and takes literally seconds per day to rotate through all banks of
rotations during the work week. Timers could cut down those seconds to
nothing, but are hardly worth the cost.
With only 0 to 3 hours remaining in our work-week it hardly seems possible
achieve the steady reliable deliveries and marketing to maintain a base of
CSA steady customers, even if they come pickup at the micro-farm. In fact,
probably is not possible.
Anyone who has ever been involved in anything related to a business or
farming knows that this time budget has not made allowances for the
unexpected (which should be anticipated even if it cannot be precisely
identified), and that everything always takes longer than we allow for.
the-less this exercise has served to illustrate the usual time consumption
regular maintenance of a micro-farm compared to the time consumptions
expected on a larger "small" farm equipped with all kinds of modern
Because livestock require care and feeding every single day of the year, one
cannot even plan for a getaway holiday weekend without making provisions for
a substitute helper. Perhaps the neighborhood teenager saving money for
college might be available for weekend livestock feeding chores, or instead
delivering pizzas might deliver some of the CSA packages. The income
projections allow sufficient funds for a part-time helper as part of the
farm-related expenses are deducted" projection for NET income to the farm-
A potential problem here is that in order to slaughter for market the
the farmer must not have any employees, or else USDA inspection is required.
That could mean trucking birds to a USDA inspected butcher. The rabbits and
fish have local or state regulations to comply with, as does the produce for
After all is said and done, this walk through the time allotments for a
have not missed the ideal of 40 hour work-weeks by nearly as much as most
other owner-operated farm systems. A family with husband & wife, and maybe
a few kids to help around with the chores can get all this work done in
under 40 hours per week, leaving lots of time for marketing, deliveries,
expanding the customer base, making value-added products, or those
unforeseen emergencies and repairs.
Once the basic living-systems are in place and working as ecological
assemblies, it is easy to expand a little bit to encompass a helper, or
to off-load the overtime, without too much stress if they quit to go start
Most suburban commuters spend 10 hours a week in traffic on top of their 40-
hour work weeks, so one is probably better off with whatever little bits of
overtime the basic micro-farm asks of the farm-worker above 40-hours.
Those of you with sharp eyes noticed that there was not really sufficient
"catch" the fish, clean the chicken roosts, prepare for the mushroom crop,
rigorously sanitize the butchershop, unless the numbers of animals being
grown and processed is reduced to a smaller number, or overtime is required.
By making the meats, fish and eggs part of an optional deluxe package one
might trim down to no overtime and meet the ideal goal of 40 hour work week,
only half the CSA customers opt for that higher priced package.
The usual number of animals raised (not the number slaughtered) determines
the manure load feeding the worm bins making the growing soil. Fewer animals
means fewer wormbins are recharged every week. A higher mix of topsoil to
the reduced manure additives is possible, and research has shown the plants
might actually do better with less worm castings than with pure castings
mixtures of ingredients. These are the operational specific details a pool
experienced micro-farmers could contribute to on-going discussions.
A discussion group might also turn up ideas on improving efficiency in
of systems, or suggestions on neighbor cooperation in production for mutual
benefits, where one is more heavy into livestock and the other more
in plant cultivations, together feeding double the CSA customers but each
staying closer to a 40 hour work load weekly. This falls under the category
"intentional community", a phrase which is not very specific and means many
different things to many different ideologies. If enough micro-farmers were
closely located nearby, they might even be able to afford the $48.50 per
for USDA inspectors to watch the butchering, and be able to use part-time
to keep the animal quarters sparkling clean.
This is getting too close to re-inventing the food industry, rather than
nice cozy niche to enable a low-stress decent-paying healthy outdoors
of solitary micro-farming.
One more option for free help in some of the cleaning of the animal quarters
to advertise manures for sale to gardeners as "you shovel, you load". There
some nutrient exports in exchange for some weekly time savings. People
already succeed in this aspect to some extent, judging by the testimonials
published on personal webpages.
Selling some bulk "worm manures" this way also lets one get around
restrictions on selling "vermicompost" as "compost". If you haven't screened
or bagged it, it is not manipulated manures of worms (although it might
be worm-manipulated manures of rabbits, fowl, fish and vermiprocessed
garden wastes). A lot of people pay higher prices for worm castings than
will for composts, and each bin is worth between $100 to over $300 at
price variations for bulk worm castings around the country.
One person keeping 90 bins constantly rotating would earn almost $30-$35K
at the lower price of about $50/pickup load (or about $100 per bin.) Under
scenario there is less than a half an acre for the bins and livestock
but animals would have to be sent to processing plants instead of
on the micro-farm. One has to sell 13 or 14 bins contents per week on
and be spending their time feeding animals (including worm bins) and clean
animal quarters all the time. I am not partial to that lifestyle, but some
are doing it now.
Some reduced combinations and variations of all these living systems is
to be most satisfying, interesting because of variety, and pleasantly
without being too burdensome in labors. Micro-farming has potential to feed
large percentage of a balanced diet to America, without driving the micro-
farmer to the poorhouse or crushing him/her with low-paid drudgery. I know
there has to be people with experiences and ideas out there bubbling over
the urge to discuss micro-farming concepts.
IF you are interested in micro-farming as a lifestyle or
solution to environmental usurpation of biodiversity habitat, THEN we may
a common interest to communicate about.
My email addresses are: LionKuntz@email.com, LionKuntz@aol.com,
A list of about seventy webpages I maintain can be located at
http://ww.nav.to/LifeSaviors or you can begin perusing pages at
http://homepages.msn.com/VolunteerSt/lifesaviors and follow links to pages
An essay about Ecological Synergy high-productivity details
is posted at URL =
An essay about Introduction to Ecological Synergy
is posted at URL =
An essay about additional details of Ecological Synergy
is posted at URL =
Sincerely, signed __Lion Kuntz__
Santa Rosa, California, USA.
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