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Before the Farm Plan
by Richard Alan Miller ©2002
Most homesteaders today, especially those who are just starting out or are still in the dreaming stages, feel a vague (and often not so vague) sense of dissatisfaction with conventional modern life. Something seems to be missing not found with life in the city. Farming requires a lifestyle not possible in city living.
It's desirability often has to do with the family, and a sense of belonging to a community. Farming bolsters a sense of accomplishment, of somehow become more in charge of one's own life. Country living requires (even demands) self-sufficiency, a different form or relationship to self, neighbors, and friends, of becoming more independent.
This is the general reason why most have moved from the city to the country - for lifestyle chances, the moral codes of ethics, and the rules of conduct. It is not for the financial advantage, or the promise of a better source of income. And, while alternative agriculture (like herb and spice farming) does offer more income potential than conventional farming, it still does not compete with living in a city.
With spring around the corner, and buds beginning to show on trees in most regions of the country, urgent thoughts of "what am I going to plant?" become a primary issue. For those of you who plan a project with alternative crops (like herbs and spices) for the first time, an overview of the herb and floral trade and business plan on what you need to do becomes critical.
Questions like "what should I plant?" and "how much money do I need?" must have answers before April. Before you can even begin approaching answers to these types of questions, however, a bigger need exists for a comprehensive approach to developing specific herbs as cash crops.
There are ways to make money on a new homestead, obviously, but they don't involve farming (per se). Money is made not in becoming a raw material supplier, but in the marketing of these farm products, or somehow processing them (in cottage industries, to add value). This alone requires careful selection of what crops to grow, and how you plan to market them.
Most alternative crops, like herbs and spices, are niche markets. This is what distinguishes them from storable commodities (such as wheat and alfalfa). If there are surpluses (like Echinacea and Ginseng right now), these crops cannot be given away at any price (even at a loss). This is why it is important to have a business plan before starting any new venture.
POINTS TO THINK ABOUT
BEFORE DEVELOPING YOUR FARM PLAN
1. New crops should be cultivated on two-acre trial plots for at least two years before expanding to full production. A smaller plot size will not give you accurate production and cost data critical for success.
You must become thoroughly familiar with each crop before you invest further money and labor. Each crop has its own idiosyncrasies.
2. Successful small herb farm ventures use what is known as a polyculture scheme, where six or more crops are grown, rather than relying on just one crop. This gives the small farmer protection against saturated markets and stability in marketing and cash flow.
If one crop market becomes oversupplied, that crop can be easily rotated out of the farm plan without affecting other crops. New herb farms should start with about 12 acres, consisting of six crops of two acres each.
3. Often the land you own is not appropriate for the crops you wish to grow. An example would be land that lacks irrigation. Better land may be available for simply the cost of taxes, water ditch costs, and often ten percent of gross sales.
This is known as sharecropping, and it is an excellent way to conserve funds for crop development instead of tying up funds to buy land. With a lease-option, you may even be able to buy the land from profits earned on the crops. This is the old-fashioned way farmers acquired land.
4. The need for farm equipment requires thought. If the cost of acquiring equipment is prohibitive, there are plenty of small farms in most communities that are already well equipped. Often farmers are willing to "custom farm" your fields at about $25 [U.S.] per acre for each pass of equipment over the fields.
If there is an established market for the crop, a "custom farmer" will take payment in crops; for example, the standard rate for hay is 40 percent. Crop selection is often based on the availability of specific tools. There is no sense in growing chamomile if a flowerhead harvester is not available because the cost of picking flowers by hand is prohibitive (except in areas where labor is cheap).
5. Consider adopting organic farming techniques. Very few chemical herbicides and pesticides are registered for use on herbs and spices. While the illegal use of chemicals on herb crops does occur - such as Sinbar on mints to control grasses - such use will not be possible in the near future.
This becomes true especially when exporting to important markets such as Germany and Japan where laws are much tougher than in most countries. Many crops need CITES documentation to show proof of origin.
6. Your crop selections should be designed for export. Selling locally only recirculates money within a given community. Exporting, however, whether it is out of the county, state, or country, brings new revenues into the community. Exporting also boosts pride in the community.
When you produce a product that was previously imported, you are helping to balance trade deficits. This is where small farm agriculture will find stability.
7. If you export, transportation becomes the single largest expense other than labor. This is why most herbs and spices are sold in a dehydrated form. A truck that holds $2,000 of fresh produce can be filled easily with dehydrated herb worth more than $10,000.
Transportation costs often make the difference between closing a sale with a distant port, or not. For the buyer, the bottom line is landed cost, even though most herbs are bought on a F.O.B. or freight-collect basis.
8. Often the value of a crop can be enhanced by on-farm processing prior to shipping. This is why many traditional spice crops are distilled for oil, a value-added product worth more than the raw herb it was distilled from.
Often the best way to enter a new market is to set up as a cottage industry business where a focus is adding value to the herbs grown on the farm. With value-added products, even a small acreage can generate a good net income, and marketing options are broadened.
9. Currently, many farms have too many acres of herbs in cultivation. This was how farms got into trouble in the first place, contributing to oversupply in some herb markets. The first question a farmer should ask is "What are my annual income needs?"
As herb and spice crops can net as much as $3,000 [U.S.] per acre, the answer to this question will dictate how many acres will be needed once the farm has expanded to full production. Rather than simply maximizing revenue by planting every available acre, it may be better to leave some large parcels unplanted, freeing the farmer to spend time on critical activities such as marketing and value-added projects.
10. What should be done with excess, unplanted land? Farmers should consider putting the land into timber or grasslands, creating topsoil for future generations. Topsoil is a threatened resource in many areas and is only created, by and large, from forests and grasslands.
Man needs to assume a responsibility for the health of our soil, and we farmers need to see ourselves as the stewards of the soil to ensure our children's future.
NOTE: This article was taken from Getting Started: Important Considerations for the Herb Farmer, Richard Alan Miller, c2000. For this and other books, PDF downloads are available from www.herbfarminfo.com. You can also visit Richard Alan Miller's website at www.nwbotanicals.org
FOR MORE INFORMATION
For general information on additional books, manuscripts, lecture tours, and related materials and events by Richard Alan Miller, please write to:
OAK PUBLISHING, INC.
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Phone: (541) 476-5588
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DrRam@MAGICK.netIn addition, you can visit Richard Alan Miller's home page for a listing of his writings, also containing links to related subjects, and direction in the keywords Metaphysics, Occult, Magick, Parapsychology, Alternative Agriculture, Herb and Spice Farming, Foraging and Wildcrafting, and related Cottage Industries. Richard Alan Miller is available for lectures and as an Outside Consultant. No part of this material, including but not limited to, manuscripts, books, library data, and/or layout of electronic media, icons, et al, may be reproduced or transmitted in any form, by any means (photocopying, recording, or otherwise), without the prior written permission of Richard Alan Miller, the Publisher (and Author).