Labor hours and acreage
There was an interesting bit in the newest Illinois Fruit and Vegetable News this week about the amount of labor used on various sizes of small farms. Pretty easy to see how economies of scale work. It's interesting for those of us that already farm and probably should be required reading for those wanting to get into farming.
How many acres of vegetables can I farm?
This is one of the most commonly asked questions I get from new growers considering how they can become vegetable farmers. While it is difficult to give one answer than covers all situations, we can look to case study research to help us get an idea of how to answer the question. Research from the University of Wisconsin (http://www.cias.wisc.edu/wp-content/uploads/2008/07/grwr2grwr.pdf ) attempted to shed light on this question. The cases they looked at were varied, but limited in overall number of farms. So we look to the data to help give us an idea of what a possible answer might be. Labor hours on the market gardens in the study with fewer than three acres ranged from 933 to 2,994 hours per acre, and averaged just under 2,000. Three- to twelve-acre market farms in this study ranged from 402 to 1,443 labor hours per acre and averaged just under 850. Farms under six acres averaged 1,000 labor hours per acre, while farms over six acres averaged 707 hours per acre. What is interesting in this study is that the smaller farms, though exhibiting significant labor cost per acre, tended to sell value-added specialty items to a targeted clientele. This shows us that size and scale are not only related to the amount of labor we have to devote to vegetable farming, but they are also related to what market we intend to pursue. We may not need to grow 25 acres of crops if we intend to work with only a few specific restaurants or vendors that pay a premium for the produce we can provide.
Reading through the report this is taken from (done covering three years and published in 2005) notes a lot of interesting things. First, there was a lot more usage of equipment on larger farms. That in and of itself probably accounts for a lot of the difference in acre/hours between the large and small farms. Second, income per hour was very different:
Table 6. Hourly wage of owner for three
farm sizes over three years
Net cash income hourly wage
(net cash income/hours worked)
Farm scale Range Average
3 to 12 acres $2.26-$16.92 $7.45
>12 acres $3.46-$14.90 $11.36
Remember these are figured in 2005 dollars. Although the smaller farms had a higher income per acre, the higher number of hours needed to bring in that income ate up that advantage and lowered the hourly wage.
While one can read a lot into this data, the one thing that stands out to me is that there is no better investment in your operation than machinery and automation. Our mantra for years has been "Work smarter, not harder" and modifying equipment to work in a small scale has been a huge part of that. The other thing I see is that it would be, from an economic standpoint, better for me just to get a job at a convenience store and forget farming. That shows that there are other forces at work besides pay involved in being a farmer.
There is a lot of other interesting information in the report - I'll include a link.
Here is a link that might be useful: Creating a livelihood on a fresh market farm