Micro-Farming

January 7, 2011

A new spin for organic gardening in the new year

By Jim PathFinder Ewing

A new year being the time to consider new ideas, let’s explore one that you might find intriguing: What if you could take your 4×8-foot organic “Jim’s plot” of a garden and make money out of it?

Over the years, various authors have explored commercially farming under 2 acres. (See Eliot Coleman’s books; also see Rebirth of the Small Family Farm by Bob and Bonnie Gregson; Acres USA, 2004, $12.)

Micro-farming is a growing trend, with millions of Americans trying market gardens. Without endorsing any particular method, some even have their own acronym: organic SPIN farming.

That stands for S-mall P-lot IN-tensive, or using a very small area to intensively grow plants for commercial purposes.

Your backyard could be an organic micro-farm or market garden.

As we’ve seen with this column, even a small space can produce a lot of produce. The key to success for anyone, though, is developing markets: What do you do with all this produce?

In a perfect world:

Our government would give as much support to small agricultural entrepreneurs (and consumers, and public health) to subsidize organic micro-farming as it does industrial agriculture.

Our state would be as zealous about nurturing sustainable self-sufficiency and public health through encouraging home growing (like Victory Gardens in World War II) as it is giving fat tax breaks to big industries.

Our universities and state ag infrastructure would be a phone call away to offer expertise and connect growers with markets and to walk them through the maze of government bureaucracy to obtain funds for business improvement or expansion.

But, utopia isn’t here yet.

The Mississippi Department of Agriculture & Commerce is moving in that direction, with its Farmers Markets initiative and sponsoring workshops around the state on small produce production and organic growing.

Private organizations, such as Rainbow Natural Foods in Jackson, and Gaining Ground – Sustainability Institute of Mississippi in Starkville, are creating outreach programs and accessible venues for education and networking.

But these trends are still in their infancy in Mississippi, despite raging interest nationwide.

In many areas, CSAs are providing those markets.

CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture whereby people buy a “share” in a farm’s season and each week get a box of produce and/or fruit produced on the farm; or from ranchers, portions of beef, free-range chickens or eggs as they are available.

It works for the farmer because CSA members contract up front, for 20 weeks or so, and hence the producers’ high cost or “furnish” money is paid when it’s needed at the start of the growing season.

It works for the consumer because the CSA member receives a mix of healthy, organic produce picked fresh and at a lower cost than normally found.

Over the years, the Jackson area has had various producers attempt CSA growing, but with limited success.

While it’s a bargain to pay, say, $20 a week or so for fresh produce, for many people, that seems too high when it adds up to $400 or more up front to contract for a growing season.

Additionally, while, for the micro-farmer, a smaller subscriber list – say 6 to 10 people – may be sustainable in terms providing produce, variety may be lacking (for example, only radishes three weeks in a row; or no tomatoes until later in the season). Transportation costs with farflung subscribers is an issue, too, as well as total income such a small subscriber base provides.

To get around these issues, some CSAs in larger metro areas swap produce. Say, a person has a lot of tomatoes, while another has lots of carrots and yet another has mizuna. They might swap what they have in abundance for a more balanced box or bag on subscriber day.

Think about it. Your “Jim’s plot” could be the start of a family or church CSA.

If you join with a couple of other church or family members, deciding who will grow what, you can feed a neighborhood or a congregation! For the elderly or ill, this could be a lifeline.

No spin: This is how movements get started.

Annette and I will be at the Mississippi Fruit and Vegetable Growers trade show in Natchez Jan. 13-14. Stop by. We’ll be manning the Gaining Ground: Sustainability Insitute of Mississippi booth.

Contact Jim on Twitter @OrganicWriter or @edibleprayers, or Facebook: http://bit.ly/cuxUdc

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