Economics of an Alabama Small Farm Homestead

When I took a trip to Alabama a couple of months ago, I visited a small farm about an hour’s drive south of Birmingham. The proprietor of Rora Valley Farms, Noah Sanders, makes a living for his family mainly by selling vegetables from a garden plot, plus raising chickens for selling eggs and meat. I was curious as to how he manages to do this, since the usual model of agriculture is to operate at large scale, with big machines efficiently  plowing and harvesting hundreds and thousands of acres.

I had read online about a low tech, compost-intensive method of farming developed in Zimbabwe called Foundations for Farming. This method  has proven extremely successful in southern Africa at mitigating food insecurity; I posted a longish description of it at   “Pfumvudza” Planting Technique Revolutionizes Crop Yields in Zimbabwe.   Noah is listed as the U.S. representative for Foundations for Farming, which led me to contact him.

The Modern Homesteading Movement

The most fundamental aspect of his operation is not the specific crops he grows. Rather, it is the overall vision than he and his wife have for their lives and their family. Trying to start up a small farm is not something folks do just for the money. There are much, much easier ways to make a buck.

The Sanders are part of a small but growing homesteading movement. It is hard to pin down precisely what that means these days, but in general it denotes a lifestyle aimed at self-sufficiency. Thus, homesteaders grow a large portion of the food they eat, and often install solar panels and rain catchment systems to reduce dependence on the electrical and water grids. Raising chickens for eggs and meat is common. All this can be done in a suburban or even an urban back yard; nearly anyone can put in a garden, and some cities allow a few egg-laying hens to be kept (but no roosters, because of the noise nuisance). More typically, homesteading is done in a rural setting, on maybe 3-10 acres. Most of that acreage would be pasture, to support some larger animals, such as goats, sheep, and pigs, all the way up to cows.

Besides producing more of what you consume, part of the homesteading ethos is to consume less. Instead of buying yet more made-in-China stuff and watching hours of contrived mass media and movies, homesteaders are found making cheese or canning vegetables, or maybe just sitting on the back porch watching the ever-entertaining chickens. To keep overall investment down, a homestead dwelling itself is typically no-frills. You are more likely to see pine boards than designer ceramic tile when you look down at a homestead kitchen floor. Hopefully all this producing more/consuming less allows the adults to spend less time working away from home, and more time with their families. Most homesteaders still need to drive off to work “in town” to make ends meet. Holding down an outside job plus running a farm operation plus doing home-schooling can lead to stress and burnout, even for a strong young couple. A homesteading ideal, therefore, is to be able to support oneself entirely from home-based activities.

A big driver for homesteading is to raise children in a situation where they can see their parents daily working productively, and where the children themselves make genuine contributions to the family’s welfare, rather than being merely consumers that cost the family time and money to entertain and occupy them.   This small-scale, subsistence-type agricultural activity runs contrary to the conventional wisdom that economic welfare consists of increasing specialization and then exchange of goods/services that are produced by efficient specialists.    

Noah Sanders was motivated to homesteading partly by these familial considerations, but also by a desire to give expression to his Christian faith. In my conversations with him, it was clear that he is intentional about living out Jesus’ command to “Love your neighbor” in concrete ways.  He aims to be a genuine help to the folks he comes in contact with; operating a market farm to produce high-quality food products seemed like a good way to accomplish that.

In addition to doing farming, Noah teaches others how to do it. He posts blog articles and podcast links at Redeeming the Dirt. He offers courses and one-on-one coaching through his Redeeming the Dirt Academy.  He also has a book out, Born-Again Dirt: Farming to the Glory of God.

Noah attended a Foundations for Farming workshop in Zimbabwe in 2013. Using mainly hand tools, he employs the intensive composting techniques he learned there to coax high vegetable yields from his relatively small (1/4 acre or 10,000 sq ft) growing area. By working with the natural soil chemistry and microorganisms, he is able to avoid the use of chemical fertilizers. He also runs a few head of cattle, and some sheep.  He lets the chickens feed themselves naturally from pecking in the grass and dirt outdoors, in addition to feeding them grain.

Part of Rora Valley Farms garden area, in late November.

The Importance of Direct Marketing

He cannot, however, produce these items for lower cost than the mega farms that supply the supermarkets, particularly if his time is to be fairly compensated. The math is clear. He must be able to sell his products for prices appreciably higher than the factory food sold in the mass markets. This is Marketing 101: Differentiate your product, demonstrate its superior value, don’t try to compete on price alone. The only way to make this work is to sell directly to consumers, not through some middleman. Thus, in addition to growing his produce, Noah must market it himself.

In some sparsely-populated or low-income areas of the country, there might not be a sufficiently large, prosperous customer base to make this work. Fortunately for Noah, there are in the greater Birmingham metropolitan area some dozens of householders who appreciate having access to his naturally-grown, local produce. He started off by bringing his wares to a farmers market in Birmingham. A farmers market can be a great startup opportunity for farmers and for part-time producers. However, this is a less-than-ideal venue for marketing produce long term. It is hard to gauge in advance how much to bring to the market on any given week, and what to produce for next month. Also, farmers markets consume a lot of time sitting there and interacting with casual visitors who don’t buy much.

In most marketing situations, you have to sell yourself as well as your product. Conversations with customers eventually led Noah to a more sustainable marketing model. Over time in the Birmingham market, he developed contact with a set of customers who came to value his products from his farm, products that were part of his homesteading story. Some of these customers started coming to the market specifically to buy from him.

Nowadays, he sells only to this set of repeat customers. He interacts individually by text with his clients, and drives around every week or so, to deliver specifically what they have ordered. This is much more efficient than loading up a truck, driving to a market, sitting there all day, and running short of some items and not selling all of other items. Knowing these clients, he can plan his next rounds of crops to grow more of what they tend to want. If something happens on the farm (e.g., last month’s unseasonable cold) that makes it impossible to provide as much produce as usual, he can inform his customers by text, to better match their orders with his production. This direct-to-consumers marketing model now allows Noah to support his family entirely from his activities on his farm, which fulfills the hope that he and his wife had when they embarked on their homesteading adventure over ten years ago.

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