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The Business of Organic Farming: An Interview with Richard Wiswall

If you’re thinking of starting a new life on the land, or if you’re already a farmer with an established business (however small, however big), you’re probably looking for some business tips. Right?


With the economic downturn and increase in the desire for a relationship with our food, farming has become a popular lifestyle among young people opting out of the corporate world. And while these people are new to life on the land, others have made a life of it for generations. But either way, growing food is rife with politics and economic stresses. Look at the dairy farms in Vermont filing for bankruptcy, the family businesses going under in the midwest, and the monopoly of small farms by corporate agriculture! It sort of looks dismal out there. And while sure, it may be satisfying in the short term, can farming actually pay the bills? Yes! Contrary to popular belief, a good living can be made on an organic farm. What’s required is farming smarter, not harder. I talked to farmer Richard Wiswall, author of newly released The Organic Farmer’s Business Handbook: A Complete Guide to Managing Finances, Crops, and Staff—and Making a Profit, about how he manages an organic farm, and what aspiring farmers can do to make some dough. Makenna Goodman: In your book The Organic Farmer’s Business Handbook, you explore the ways organic farmers can not only make their vegetable production more efficient, but also better manage their employees and finances. How have you managed to do this on your own farm? Richard Wiswall: As a manager or owner of a farm, it is ultimately your responsibility to keep the farm in business. Time must be made for running a sustainable farm, economically as well as ecologically. Long range planning, employee management, and financial management don’t just happen on their own. An effort must be made by the farmer to manage these responsibilities. Just recognizing this duty is the first step to better management. I make time for employee management. I look at the week’s projects and daily tasks that need to be done and try to budget employee hours accordingly. I spend a bit of time mapping out the day, and develop contingency plans if something goes awry (never happens). I know roughly how long each task should take and share that information with employees. On their first day of work, employees are given a job description/personnel policy that outlines work on Cate Farm. Employees are paid by the hour, but the farm is paid by the piece (by each head of lettuce or pound of tomato). Production per hour is important for the farm to succeed. It is also stressed that no matter how small or insignificant a task may seem, it is still important to the overall success of the farm. Employment at Cate Farm is a team effort, and in that spirit, we pay our employees well. As for financial management, years of trial and error is an effective but expensive learning experience.  I now set aside one or two half-days a week to tackle desk work. (Otherwise it would happen at 10 o’clock at night). I have developed systems to make office work as efficient as possible to save time and money. I use a computer when appropriate, but I’m a big fan of a sharp pencil and pad of paper.
Read the whole interview here.
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