Chelsea Green Publishing

Chelsea Green Blog

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?

From Grist.org:

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.
Related Articles:


The New Farmers’ Almanac: A Collection of Essays for Beginners

What agrarian future can we realistically build together? This is a question the Greenhorns hope to answer in their latest book, The New Farmers’ Almanac 2015. Greenhorns is an organization for young farmers—a non-traditional grassroots network with the mission to promote, recruit and support the entering generation of new farmers. It exists to celebrate young […] Read More..

How to Achieve Resiliency Through Radical, Self-Reliant Gardening

In today’s world the marketplace distorts our values and our dependence on petroleum keeps us from creating truly sustainable agriculture. So, how can we achieve true wealth and at the same time make society around us more resilient? The answer, Will Bonsall believes, is greater self-reliance in both how we grow our own food, and […] Read More..

Bramble On: The Ins and Outs of Growing Raspberries

Fresh, ripe raspberries picked straight from the garden in the morning. What could be a better start to your day? According to Michael Phillips, author of The Holistic Orchard, growing your own berries is entirely possible for anyone with a bit of space and a passion for the fruit. Brambles grow from the north to […] Read More..

Turning Meat into Money: How to Raise and Sell it Ethically

The consumer demand for grassfed, pasture-raised, and antibiotic-free meats is on the rise, putting farmers and ranchers in a unique position to make a decent living on meat that is produced ethically. But, how exactly do you turn meat into money without resorting to the large-scale industrial techniques of today’s confinement-operations? Look no further than […] Read More..

How to Grow Strawberries Indoors

It’s strawberry shortcake season, which means strawberry harvesting season. But for those of you with no outdoor space for gardens, fear not—you can plant, weed, and harvest all from the comfort of your own home! That’s right: it is possible to grow strawberries indoors, from small spaces. According to R. J. Ruppenthal, author of Fresh […] Read More..