"We need to wean the American food system off its heavy 20th-century diet of fossil fuel and put it back on a diet of contemporary sunshine."
- Michael Pollan
|| Building a Profitable Small Farm
|Paul and Sandy Arnold, at the Farmer to Farmer Conference, inspired growers to become efficient, keep good records, and earn enough money to live well. English photo.
Through Record Keeping, Season Extension and Winter Growing
Paul and Sandy Arnold of Pleasant Valley Farm (118 South Valley Rd., Argyle, NY 12809; email@example.com) were the “Farmers in the Spotlight” at MOFGA and Maine Cooperative Extension’s 2010 Farmer to Farmer Conference in Northport, Maine.
Both grew up in suburbia. Paul worked in the nursery business for about six years, then farmed for two years in his father’s backyard and sold at farmers’ markets to see if he really liked the vegetable business. He also worked for a vegetable grower for a year to learn that skill. “There were no internships back then,” he said. In 1988, he bought land.
Sandy met Paul in 1989. She had earned a B.S. in botany, worked at a garden center for 10 years and loved outdoor work. She also worked as a project coordinator for a lumber company and as a resident maintenance manager for an apartment building.
This article combines a description of their farm and farming practices that they wrote with comments they made at Farmer to Farmer.
|View from the top of the slate roof of the Arnolds' house overlooking the farm. Photo courtesy of Pleasant Valley Farm.
“The first thing in vegetable farming is to set your goals,” said Paul. “Since the start of our farming career over 22 years ago, our goal was to make farming a full-time venture, to not work off the farm, and to raise a family with a good quality of life.
“I didn’t know that farmers didn’t make money at farming,” he added. When people tried to discourage him, he said, “Just get out of my way, because this is what I’m doing.”
Key factors to profitable farming, said the Arnolds, include inexpensive startup (paying as you go); good business management; soil improvement; good but simple record keeping; season extension; and paying attention to marketing, business and growing. “We’re always thinking about how we can do well for our customers.”
Their mission statement also includes educating other farmers by mentoring, having interns, presenting workshops and more.
“We were able to accomplish our goals in a matter of four years and become profitable by using a combination of good business management techniques, good record keeping, season extension and creative marketing.”
Farm and Family Economics
|Paul flail chopping winter rye for mulch. Photo courtesy of Pleasant Valley Farm.
Both came to farming with skills and savings. Paul started putting money away when he was 21 years old and was working about 90 hours a week during the busy season and 40 during the off season. He had saved $30,000 by the time he was 27, while making $6 per hour. He used $10,000 of that as a down payment on his farmland and kept $20,000 in investments, for security.
Sandy, “always a workaholic,” had saved even more. About $10,000 went toward the house, as did some of Paul’s savings, so they were able to build without a mortgage. Anything after that – additions to the house, barns, equipment – was paid for with farm income as they went.
“It has been a cash flow operation,” said Paul. “We have used certain types of loans… very short-term ones.”
Building a Farm
The Arnolds wrote in 2010, “Pleasant Valley Farm is located in a valley in a rural town 25 miles northeast of Saratoga Springs, New York, and we have been operating it as an organic fruit and vegetable farm since 1988.” They have two children, Robert, born on Thanksgiving Day, 1992, and Kimberly, born on Christmas Day, 1995. Both are home schooled and help on the farm.
|Paul harvesting beans and squash in July in a 34- x 144-foot Rimol high tunnel. Photo courtesy of Pleasant Valley Farm.
Paul originally bought about 40 acres of land, protected to the northwest by trees, with a southeast slope for good frost protection – putting them in a climate similar to one about 150 miles south. They’re also in a rain shadow, so they don’t get the hail and deluges that nearby areas get – but they have had to put in irrigation. He and Sandy added about 20 acres of adjacent land to the farm a few years later. Two mortgages on the land were their only debt in the early years. In 1998, they started renting their neighbor’s farm 1/2 mile away.
They started growing on 1 acre. The land had been in continuous corn for 30 years, fertilized with 15-15-15 regularly by the previous farmer. “We are still working off the phosphorus and potassium that was on this farm,” said Paul. “After 20 years we haven’t had to add any, and we’re still running at 400 pounds of phosphorus per acre, even with double cropping.”
During the early years, Sandy was still working off the farm and running an apartment complex, so Paul lived in a pop-up camper on the farm in the summer, while Sandy kept the apartment 20 minutes away, bringing meals back and forth. In the winter, Paul worked out, on construction jobs.
They got married in 1991, stopped working off the farm in 1992, and built the house, with Paul’s father’s help. They designed the house to look like a 1800s farmhouse, with a slate roof, so that it would look like it had always been on the property.
|Paul and Sandy at a Saratoga Springs July farmers' market. Photo courtesy of Pleasant Valley Farm.
In 1997, they added a furnished two-bedroom apartment over the garage to house interns and guest bedrooms for frequent visitors. “It took us 17 years,” said Paul, “but we finally finished the house” – without taking out a mortgage.
They put their barn complex in the middle of their fields so that whenever they had to get to it, their maximum walk was halfway across the farm.
“At that time,” said Sandy, “we had a lot more time than we had money. We got buildings (including barns) free from a local town that were from the 1800s. We took them down and put them back up.”
“My dad had all these skills,” said Paul, “and so did I, to do the block work and build buildings. The lower part of the barn became a root cellar.”
They even put the slate roofs back on the rebuilt barns, since nearby Granville is the slate capital of the world and slate roofs are indigenous.
Their potting shed is attached to their greenhouse and is also a winter washing station, and they utilize hot water heat because it’s cheaper than hot air heat. Their first summer washing station cost $200 for a roof and some benches, but in 1995, when they were pushing the season more and washing produce during the cold fall and spring, they enlarged, enclosed and insulated the washing station, putting doors on both sides. They can heat it in the cold months but open the doors in warmer weather. Now they are putting in a concrete floor and updating everything to stainless steel to eventually meet GAP (Good Agricultural Practices) certification for food safety. They run the washing station from April to Thanksgiving.
They installed a barrel washer so that they could drive a wagon up to it, put carrots and beets in one end, and have the produce come out the other end clean, onto a stainless steel table where two people can sort the produce.
They also purchased a cooler, which is adjacent to the washing station, so crops quickly move from the washer to the cooler – often by setting crates on rollers and rolling them to the cooler.
Paul’s father was an integral and very important part of creating Pleasant Valley Farm from the very beginning, constructing and working with Paul and Sandy until he passed away suddenly in 1999. “It’s really important to have someone like that on the farm,” said Paul, “because you as the farmer, all you do all day is run around and put out fires, do urgent things that need to be done. You’ve got this third person who has all these skills to do everything on the farm, and he just does important things. You’re looking at this and thinking, ‘If I could just put this irrigation system in … I wouldn’t have to stand here for hours watering …’ and you don’t have time to put it together. He had time … So the farm went from nothing in 1988 to, when he died in 1999, [we] just had leaps and bounds of moving ahead with systems that he had built and put in all these things that would save time every day.”
In the past six or seven years they’ve put more than $300,000 worth of improvements into the farm – all paid for; they carry no debt. Recent or planned improvements include a new equipment shed, solar heat for water, and a heated workshop where they can park their vehicles to make sure they start in winter and can get to markets.
What Does Profitability Mean?
“Profitability to us means each year being able to pay all of our bills, maintain what we have, pay for health insurance, invest money back into the farm, invest in IRAs for us and the kids each year, put money away for retirement, and have a comfortable lifestyle with yearly family vacations,” said the Arnolds. They now take three to five weeks of vacation each year.
“It helps to pay the kids wages, as the money stays in the family, and they don’t really get taxed, so that helps us out,” said Sandy.
Paul noted, “If you just give them $700 a year IRAs at ages 6, 7 and 8, and don’t do it any other time, compounding, it will be worth a million by the time they’re 65 [at 8 percent interest]. We’ve been putting in more than that for them, to save for their retirement.”
“Good business management is probably the key factor to our success,” wrote the Arnolds. “We treat our farm as a business so that farming becomes a lifestyle that we thoroughly enjoy. A good accountant that specializes in farms is very important. If the accountant is well versed in farming, taxes can be greatly reduced and the farm can be set up to be most beneficial in terms of type of business, health insurance, employees, expenditure categorizing, etc. Part of good money management is knowing when to spend money and when not to. Accountants can play a part in determining this, but also our own records help us to justify expenses for improvements on equipment or purchasing equipment to make labor more efficient and crops more profitable.”
The Arnolds occasionally had short-term loans in the early years, and 0 percent credit cards, paid on time, ran their farm for years. “We have paid no interest in years and years,” said Sandy. “The tractors we’ve bought over the years have all been on 0 percent. That helped build up good credit.
“Our goal from the beginning in the early years was to reinvest $10,000 each year back into the farm, and it was critical to know what would give us the best return on our money in order to continually increase our profitability,” said Sandy.
They worked their way up from farming 1 to about 8 acres; now they’ve cut back to about 6.
“It’s just a matter of figuring out your marketing,” said Paul. “Four rows of carrots was good in the first year. Then we were up to putting in 16, 18 rows of carrots a week as things went along. How do you get big? Every year you just add a little bit more.”
“But you want to maintain what you have,” said Sandy.
“Our business management techniques involve a lot of attention to detail. Knowing what crops are worth spending time on is important, since there are only so many hours in a day. Time management is critical to making the most of our day and ensuring that what we are doing is profitable. This doesn’t mean that we avoid doing things we enjoy or not growing a few crops because they have a low return per hour or acre; farming should be fun, but we strive to make everything as profitable as possible. One example of this is parsnips; we read once that parsnips are one crop that a farmer should grow because they taste good, not because they make you any money!
“In order to maintain a profitable farm year to year, stability of income is important, and we achieve that by our diversity of crops. In any given year, there are always a few crops that do not do well, while others do better than average. Also, to increase farm net [income] to follow along with all other cost of living increases, we choose not to grow more acreage, but to merely raise a few prices by 25 cents to gain a 5 percent increase in total income. Increasing our lettuce price alone in 2002 from $1.50 (where it had been for over five years) to $1.75 gave us the 5 percent! [In 2007, the price was $2 per head.]
“No matter what the size of a farm, the challenge is for the farmer to hold onto as much of the money that the farm generates as possible. A smaller farm has some advantages of being able to utilize equipment that requires a minimal capital outlay and low maintenance costs. The overhead is less and easily controlled. Other advantages of smaller farms are less dependency on labor; both finding and managing employees are challenges. It is known that when the farmer is working with his employees, then they are much more efficient and therefore bring more profit to the farm. The larger the farm, the more the farmer becomes a ‘manager of people’ rather than a ‘dirt farmer.’ Simple and effective systems can be utilized, and you can grow the business with your abilities rather than being limited by your capital.”
Soils and Crops: Mulch Is Key
“We own 60 acres and rent our neighbor’s 120-acre farm, both of which have somewhat limited tillable soil for good vegetable production,” wrote the Arnolds. “We use a total of 6 acres for vegetable production, 1/2 acre for large fruits [apples and pears] and 1⁄2 acre for small fruits [blueberries and strawberries], and keep another 4 acres in cover crops for rotation.”
One of their strengths is the diversity of crops they grow, said Paul. “We grow 40 or so different things. It’s always a good year for something and a bad year for something else.”
Their extra land is in hay. A neighbor who has beefalo hays this land, and the Arnolds buy some of that hay back for their two horses.
Sandy advised future farmers who are seeking land to consider proximity to markets; affordability; soils; water; services; and the prior use of the land.
“We did want to have it organic,” said Sandy, “so it was a three-year transition before we could consider it organic.
“Soil management is a key factor on any farm,” the wrote. “A thriving farm business depends on good crops, and healthy crops can only be derived from fertile soil. We purchased only land in 1988, and most of the soils were depleted of organic matter (2 percent or less) and were totally out of balance. Annual soil tests and spreading what organic nutrients that are deficient is vital. Due to our small size, we were able to utilize a technique of layering large quantities of hay mulch over the vegetable fields in our early years in order to rapidly increase the soil tilth. This helped release the locked up nutrients and allowed us to produce high-quality, high-value crops like lettuce and spinach after only two years on soils that had achieved over a 4 percent organic matter reading. Through the years, we have continued to use rye straw or hay mulch on our long-season crops like tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, squash, parsley, Swiss chard, Brussels sprouts and strawberries. With good rotation, mulch is spread on all the fields, and with cover-cropping, compost, and being attentive to necessary soil test result amendments, our soils have continued to improve.
“We’ve had to watch nutrients, especially micronutrients, because they were very lacking.” They use cover crops – mostly rye – during the winter, and rotation. Their long rotations seem to have kept Colorado potato beetles at bay for more than 10 years.
They mulch not only growing crops, “but we would throw [mulch] on in the fall and then turn it under in the spring.” One system involved chopping grass or rye with the flail chopper into a wagon, using a self-unloading forage wagon to drop it onto the field, then planting winter squash. This added organic matter and eliminated weeding. After the unloading wagon died, the Arnolds unloaded mulch by hand.
In the early years, by putting down 4 to 6 inches of hay every year at the end of October, the organic matter increased quickly and crops grew much better. When they didn’t produce enough hay themselves, they bought straw from a local farmer, thus keeping organic matter between 3.5 and 4 percent.
Planting through straw helps control diseases, and keeps water and crops clean. “If you mulch around your Swiss chard,” said Paul, “you’re going to have very clean Swiss chard, it’s going to be easier to harvest and get ready for market.”
The Arnolds said they never had trouble with soils not warming up enough in the spring to plant crops such as tomatoes through the straw mulch. “Most plants like warm tops and cool feet,” said Paul.
They now use BioTelo mulch (allowed for Certified Naturally Grown – CNG – but not yet for certified organic producers; available from DuBois Agrinovation in Canada; www.duboisag.com). “It completely breaks down by the end of the season because it’s made from cornstarch,” said Paul, “so we don’t have to pick it back up.”
“It’s approved everywhere in the world for organic production,” said Sandy, “except in the United States.
“I think things mature a little faster now that we’ve switched to the BioTelo,” she added.
The Arnolds mulch spring and summer-planted crops and other cole crops for winter marketing between the BioTelo rows. In summer, rye is available, and “it’s right when the weeds are growing the fastest,” said Paul. “We just put down the rye straw and walk away.
“Same thing with garlic – plant it, mulch it, come back in July to dig it, so there’s no work to it, no weeding, but also you end up with better ground than you started with. Now you can plant other things that really need heavy organic matter.”
They do some cover cropping in the summer, including buckwheat between lettuce and spinach plantings, turning it under with a rototiller, but most of their cover crops are winter rye and clovers. They bought an overseeder a few years ago to spread cover crop seeds on beds in large fields. The overseeder drops the seed and rolls it in; it’s not a drill. They have tried hairy vetch mixed with rye, but Paul likes clover better because it keeps going after he chops off the rye – a benefit if he isn’t using the field until summer or fall. To deal with tall, heavy rye, their old dairy flail chopper works well.
Around August 1, after laying down BioTelo and planting crops, Paul hand seeds rye at 300 pounds per acre and red clover mixed in at a high rate between rows. He does not incorporate the seed but irrigates to keep it moist. This forms a beautiful, low-growing mat of green for the rest of the season – so “I’ve got my cover crop down,” said Paul, and he doesn’t have to weed between crop rows.
“In the spring … if I chop off the rye, I’ve got clover coming up and I can just let it grow there until I’m ready to plant vegetables later.”
Likewise, when fall-planted broccoli and cauliflower are finished, he can quickly and shallowly rototill in the crop residue in the spring; the black plastic is almost nonexistent. “Then I’ll overseed oats in that area, so we’ve got our cover crop on the whole field until we’re ready to use it again.”
For strawberries, the Arnolds switched from a matted row to an annual bed system in 1998, growing 3,000 ‘Chandler’ plants in a 60- x 100-foot area. They plant plugs in the fall on raised beds with black plastic or mulch. They produce their own plants by cutting off daughter plants before they root, putting them in trays and keeping them under a mist system, or, preferably, they buy cuttings from Canada. Plugs are set 1 foot apart.
“They’re multi-crowned,” said Sandy, and the plants do not runner until after they produce in June. “You don’t get any gray mold on the berries with these” as is common with matted row plants that runner. Plugs planted in the fall produce few to no runners; the few that do form are cut off in the fall.
They have found that covering their strawberries with row cover over winter works better than with straw.
The annual system “did so much better,” they said, yielding 19,000 to 25,000 pounds per acre (extrapolated).
“The strawberries are an important part of the farm, with income coming in in June, but it’s also an important part of the farm to have one more thing that gets mulched and then gets turned under in July and then gets moved to a different part of the farm the next year, adding organic matter to the soil as we go along. Yes, it’s an expense to buy the straw, but it’s more of an expense to have things not grow well, like high-value crops of lettuce and spinach.” Sandy explained that after the strawberries and mulch are turned under, fall lettuce is planted, “because that [soil] has the highest organic matter in it. It’s beautiful soil for the fall.” (Readers can get a copy of the Arnolds’ strawberry handout by requesting it from firstname.lastname@example.org.)
One problem that did result from their liberal mulching on the farm was worms: “We can’t grow beans and peas on the main home farm, because [the worms] eat them as fast as we plant them. So even though we transplant onions and transplant corn, [the worms] will pull the transplants down the hole, and they’ll be missing. We had to transplant some onions five times until we finally figured out how to stop the worms from eating the onions.” They applied soybean meal, giving the worms something else to eat so they’d leave the onions alone.
When they talked to Di Cody, the commercial sales representative at Johnny’s Selected Seeds, she said, “That’s it! All these organic farmers are always calling up and telling us what bad germination of peas they had,” but in fact the worms are eating the seeds as fast as they’re planted. The Arnolds discovered this by going out one night just after they’d planted and seeing worms covering the soil and taking the peas down into their holes. “The only way we’ve been able to grow peas,” said Paul, “is to grow them in 200-cell Speedling trays and transplant them out in the BioTelo or grow them on the rented farm.”
They now have a round bale chopper that chops and blows straw where they want it, greatly increasing the speed of mulching. On their rented land, which is sandier and where maintaining organic matter is more difficult, they’re going to blow purchased chopped rye straw on it in the fall and till it in in the spring.
Compost became commercially available around 1999, so the Arnolds bought a manure spreader and started applying it. Since the P and K concentrations on their farm are so high, though, adding more compost added more of these nutrients – as well as crabgrass. “You always have to be careful bringing stuff onto the farm. We’ve gone to very little compost use because our nutrients are too high.”
They do get some compost from Pennsylvania mushroom facilities. “They truck all the straw and horse manure from Saratoga Springs,” said Paul, “where the racetracks are… and when it’s spent, they bring it back up on the return trip and sell it as compost, so we get 70-yard loads for $700. We don’t use a tremendous amount because we don’t want the excess nutrients, but we like this because the compost has no weed seeds.”
They maintain their hay fields with granulated organic fertilizer and lime when needed.
They took soil tests every year in the early years. A few years ago they purchased a blended fertilizer to address low boron and zinc, and they added aragonite and lime and increase soil calcium. They calculate what each of their 20 or so vegetable and hayfields needs.
When side dressing crops, they use about 60 pounds of N per acre from organic peanut meal or soybean meal, “which is about all most of our fields need because we have enough P and K.” Sandy added that sulfur is important to keep up, too.
Their startup equipment was inexpensive to buy and maintain. For cultivating up to 4 acres, they used a high wheel cultivator, Dutch push hoes and wheel hoes. The Dutch push hoe runs just under weeds, “and you are just walking down the rows as fast as you can.” They still use Dutch hoes for weeding and for incorporating fertilizers.
The wheel hoe works well for plants that are more vertical, while the push hoe works well for more horizontal plants, such as lettuce and spinach.
As the farm grew, the Arnolds switched to tractor cultivation but still do hand cultivations.
For seeding, they started with an Earthway, then got a Planet Junior, and are now using a Jang (carried by Johnny’s) more, because it’s easy to change seeds in the Jang and it’s more versatile than the Planet Junior. They still sow a lot of Brassicas with the Earthway. When seed starts getting caught behind the plates of the Earthway, it’s time to replace the plates or the whole thing, they said.
For transplants, “In the early years we did soil blocks, then started moving away from that to Speedling trays,” said Paul “We also use Winstrip trays, and we mix our own soil, because it’s more cost effective. It’s a simple mix of perlite, compost, peat moss and some organic fertilizers.”
Their new polycarbonate greenhouse, built in 2003, has rolling, radiant-heated benches. “We put row covers over the tops of the benches,” said Paul, “so we don’t heat all that air space” when starting seedlings in the spring. They’ve grown salad mixes on the heated benches in winter, profitably.
For harvest, they use custom wheelbarrows that Paul’s father made by removing the bowl part of a traditional wheelbarrow and putting in a large wooden bottom and high wooden sides to create “voluminous carrying capacity. With only one wheel, you can go down the narrow paths when harvesting lettuce,” said Paul.
They still harvest carrots with a fork, because they need only small amounts each week for market – although for their big fall harvest, they use a carrot lifter.
The Arnolds spent little on new equipment at first, because they were paying mortgages on the land, putting money back into the farm, and having children. By 1998, they had the money for large purchases. “The first four years, we spent $3,500, the next six, $9,300, the next four, $36,000,” said Sandy.
One early purchase was a $1,000 barrel washer built by farmer Dick DeGraff. “We could calculate from our records that the barrel washer paid for itself in only two weeks!” said Sandy. Similar good business expenditures over the years included a walk-in cooler, field tiling for drainage, basket weeders, a potato planter, a tater point to dig potatoes, and a manure spreader for spreading compost.
Their first tractor was a used, $200 Farmall 200, with a $75 cultivating set in the front. Then they got a Super C and added basket weeders.
They later bought a Farmall 400 specifically to run a flail chopper that mows, chops and blows rye or grass – their mulching system.
“In our ninth year , we finally bought a new Holland 1630, 28-horsepower tractor with a loader and 5-foot rototiller ($21,000) when the farm was making enough money to justify the higher debt. It’s important not to incur early unnecessary debt,” said Sandy, “and it’s amazing what you can live without during the start-up years. We know how to save money, but also know that we have to spend money to make money, provided we’ve calculated the return on our dollars spent.”
In 2006, they purchased a John Deere 5325, 67 horsepower tractor to operate a new Buckeye water wheel transplanter. So they now lay black plastic mulch, put straw between rows, and then put plants in – even transplanting onions into BioTelo. “We put the BioTelo down at close spacing because we have a smaller tractor,” said Paul.
They like the versatility of the Buckeye; the Rain-Flo transplanters are welded and are less versatile, said the Arnolds. They have the wheels from a Rain-Flo because they like the way the tines can be changed. “We do one, two, three or four rows, and we can do 6 inch, 8 inch, 12 inch, 18 inch… It’s very fast for us to switch.”
“In our early years, we realized that irrigation was essential because we felt the farm was losing at least $10,000 each year in lost sales due to inconsistent seedings and low yields,” said the Arnolds. Living in a rain shadow, one year they got 1 inch of rain from April to September.
They dug a $7,000 pond in 1991, put a $7,000 irrigation system in the next year to cover 4 acres, and increased their gross income by $30,000 in the first year of irrigating.
They started with drip irrigation before the pond was dug but later turned to overhead. Sandy’s father, an engineer, designed the system for getting water from the pond to the fields. “Flip the switch in the barn, and we’re irrigating,” said Sandy. “That saves a lot of time from moving around pipes. We also went with electric pumps instead of gas because operating those costs so much less per hour, and maintenance is so low.”
They can irrigate the 4 acres on the home farm in two days, at a cost of less than $20.
“We’re spending a lot of money up front,” said Paul, “but the cost of maintaining or running this system is minuscule, so it’s not onerous for the farm to have dry years – it’s actually a better time, because then we control everything on the farm, everything gets planted when it’s supposed to.
“Everything is overhead irrigation, because we do a lot of seeding, a lot of transplanting. As soon as you put something in, you want to irrigate it. The only drip now is on the blueberries and in the high tunnels.”
The farm that they rent does not have electricity, so they use a gas pumping unit and aluminum pipes to irrigate there. They roll out round bales of straw and set the irrigation pipe on top of it so that they don’t have to weed around the pipe. They also plant squash or cucumbers through the straw next to the pipes to make use of that space.
The Arnolds knew they wanted good weed control from the beginning. “Our policy was not to let things go to seed. Good weed control also increases harvest efficiency, yields, and everyone’s morale; we enjoy working on a farm that everyone can be proud of in terms of organization and visual appearance.
“So after we harvest a crop and before we turn it under, somebody will walk up and down the rows with a bucket, looking for [and removing] anything that has a seedhead, and then we’ll turn the crop under. That’s how we’ve gotten ahead.”
When weeds do get ahead of them, as in a wet year, they’ll do some stale seed-bedding.
They use a Lely tine weeder, which they love and are revamping to be more like a Williams Tool (www.marketfarm.com). “We run it over all the crops,” said Sandy.
Sandy explained that they keep seeding, harvest and timing records – the last being done minimally.
“Some of our management decisions are made by a ‘hunch,’ but many are based on the records that we keep on our farm. Record keeping is very valuable for running a farm business. Maintaining very simple records works well in our farming system and it requires minimal time outlay. We keep field seeding records in a notebook,” which they keep in a lidded container and take to the field when seeding, and where they record the date of seeding, the field, variety, row footage and spacing. “From these few numbers, the square footage of each crop grown can be calculated.”
Most of their fields are 100 feet long, and most of their beds are about 550 square feet. They can tell how many feet of each crop they put in each week, total those at the end of the year to get linear feet of each crop, and then calculate the square footage of each crop.
“For example, many of our crops are planted in beds which have four rows planted 14 inches apart and are 100 feet long and have 2 feet between beds; each of these beds is therefore 550 square feet. We also use a simple spreadsheet in a notebook in the washing station that is filled in each harvest day showing the product, quantity packed for the market (bunches, heads, pounds, etc.), and the quantity that returns from the market. From those few numbers, a total quantity sold of each product can be determined at the end of the year, and therefore its total approximate value.
“These simple records help us utilize two rules that we employ in our management. The first rule is what we call the ‘$15,000 per acre rule.’ What that means is that each crop is expected to have a minimum gross value of $15,000 per acre if extrapolated out. This calculation is determined by using our records that show the square footage of each crop that is grown on and the actual dollar value that each crop produced for the entire year.”
Many of their crops make more, and they now actually use a $20,000 rule.
“The extrapolation is necessary because we do not grow an acre of most crops and we need to have a system to compare them evenly. Planting most crops intensively in rows 14-inch on center is important to utilizing small acreage to its fullest extent on our farm. If a particular crop is not making us $15,000 [now $20,000] per acre, then we must once again make a management decision on that crop to raise its value. Some of the options to accomplish this are by: improving our production and harvesting techniques; changing the variety; packaging or displaying it differently; increasing the price; or extending its growing season. Another option is to discontinue growing the crop, which we rarely do because that would reduce our diversity.
“To give an example of how this rule has worked for us, we will examine pea production. In an average year, our records showed the following:
SUGAR SNAP PEAS:
Income = 538 pints @$3/pt. = $1,614
Field space = 2,700 square feet
Since 1 acre = 43,560 square feet, the actual acreage planted is 2,700/43,560 = 0.062 acre Then to extrapolate to show the value of the crop for one acre: $1,614/.062 acre = $26,032 per acre.
Using these same formulas and our records, the values of the other peas were:
SHELL PEAS: $10,337 per acre (at $3 per quart)
SNOW PEAS: $48,214 per acre (at $3 per pint)
“Thus, we decided to stop growing shell peas because the market would not bear a high enough price to make it profitable to grow according to our standards and there were no other options available. (We do, however, grow some for ourselves each year to eat and freeze!) We increased our plantings of sugar snap and snow peas [‘Oregon Giant’] to accommodate what quantities the markets would bear. All numbers will vary by each farmer’s spacing, so specific calculations should be done by each farmer to determine his/her most profitable crops.
“Each year we evaluate some of our crops during the winter based on those simple records we keep two days per week when we harvest; the calculations take only a day or so to give us the final data. We are beginning to use our computer more and more, but for the most part, pen, paper and a calculator give us the valuable data!”
Since the biggest expense on the farm is labor, “The second rule that we employ in our management to maintain profitability is the ‘$30 per hour rule.’ What that rule means is that each employee, while harvesting and preparing produce for the markets, must be earning a minimum value of $30 per hour for each crop.” The Arnolds calculate this by having each employee record, once or twice a year, on a spreadsheet in the washing station, everything he or she does during the day.
“For example, an average worker can pick 25 pounds of beans in an hour, and for us, that is a value of $75, since we retail them at $3 per pound. Beans therefore meet our criteria and are profitable enough to grow.
“Raspberries, however, are a different story, since an average picker can maybe pick only 13 half pints in an hour. We sold them for $2 per half pint; thus the value was only $26 per hour at best. Since our customers love organic berries, we were able to raise the price to $2.50 and could still sell all we were growing (now $33.50 per hour). Raspberries are still a low-value crop when compared to most of the other crops we produce, so we therefore leave them to harvest last each market harvest day, and we pick as much as time allows before the truck pulls out for the market. In this way, we are maximizing our income for the market by harvesting the most profitable crops first.”
Although the Arnolds don’t aim to pit one picker against another, their harvest records help them identify, say, who picks blueberries fastest. “So if we need some blueberries fast, we know who to send,” said Sandy.
The Arnolds believe that knowing the cost of production for each crop on a small farm is unnecessary. “If you’re trying to sell wholesale,” said Paul, “you need to know your cost of production. But with these little bits of things that we grow, that would be a nightmare to keep track of.”
Efficient Harvesting and Washing
Knowing that labor is their biggest expense and knowing which crops take longest to harvest and prepare for market helps the Arnolds decide where to spend money on equipment, and where to try different techniques.
“We want our labor to run between 20 and 25 percent,” said Sandy. “Most farms are near 50 percent.”
When Paul worked at a nursery, he learned that labor is not a “go on,” it’s a “come on” – i.e., “Come on with me, I’m going to show you how fast to work.” He knew he wanted to be with the workers on his farm at all times, leading them to be efficient. “We do a lot of things in groups, and I’m setting the pace.” He’s always thinking about how long a process takes and how he might do it faster.
“When we first started getting into potatoes,” said Paul, “we used a fork, because we needed a little bit each week. Then we saw this tater point [a $22 attachment that looks a little like a V plow], used to dig sweet potatoes in the North Carolina area; we incorporated that on a chisel shank that we had built; just run down, and it goes right through the potato hills and knocks them right out, and then people pick them up. We did this for years and years before we bought a real potato digger.”
Washing root crops was also labor intensive, until they bought a barrel washer made at Grindstone Farm in Pulaski, New York. They first used it in the field, but later put it in a stationary spot where it’s attached to a winch, so Paul can pick it up at an angle, put crops in one end and have them move down to the lower end. As the crops move, they rub together, and the barrel rotates and sprays water on them. Workers use a wooden pusher at one end to help move the crops through, and someone at the other end can pull the last bit of crops out. “We figured out we washed 400 pounds of root crops in an hour with three workers,” said Paul. “That saves so much time that it paid itself back in two weeks.”
On a trip to the Midwest, they saw some farmers washing crops in 300-gallon bulk milk tanks, with a 3-inch PVC pipe going down into and around the inside of the tank. The pipe had holes drilled in it. A Jacuzzi motor blew air down through the pipe and made the water bubble. The Arnolds now wash their spinach (four to five 5-gallon buckets at once), arugula and mesclun this way, skimming them out with a pool skimmer once they’re clean, and putting them into a green basket with holes for draining, then in a washing machine, using the spin cycle to dry them. They spent $200 on the system, “and every week that has paid for itself 50 times over,” said Paul. The system also removes field heat from crops quickly. They wash the cleaner crops, such as arugula, first, then other crops that are dirtier.
They no longer bunch their carrots. They did initially, but it took a long time to get the rubber bands around the greens, and then customers just snapped the greens off. “Our customers know us,” said Sandy. “They know our carrots are fresh, and we get to keep the tops in the field. It’s organic matter.”
For crops that are bunched, Paul’s mother makes groups of 25 rubber bands while watching TV, so that no one has to keep count when bunching produce.
Once cleaned, some crops are placed in Buckhorn crates (www.buckhorninc.com); others, including cucumbers, yellow squash and zucchini, go into wooden bins that the Arnolds made so that two fit inside each Buckhorn crate. When they get to market, they just pick the top bin out and set it on the display table and then take the next one out and set it on the table. They power wash the crates and bins every week.
Nets Vs. Pests
The Arnolds use ProtekNet Bird Control Netting to keep birds and squirrels out of strawberries. “It’s cheap, doesn’t take much time to put on or off,” said Sandy.
To keep flea beetles off arugula, they use Biothrips Insect/Pest Control Netting, which has “95 percent light transmission, water goes right through it, you can see through it. There’s no heat buildup in it, and we can walk right by and see what’s going on. When the leaf hits on the top, [flea beetles] will bite through it, so we will be hooping that next year.”
These nets are available from Dubois. “If you want a specific size, you must order it in November,” said Sandy, noting that a roll about 7 feet wide and 820 feet long covers eight beds for them and costs about $370. “It’s not cheap. But it lasts seven to eight years.”
They use the 65-gram ProtekNet with larger holes to exclude cabbage moths from Brassicas. This netting doesn’t need any support and lasts at least 10 years, probably longer. “Just drape it over the crops,” said Sandy. “[You] don’t have to seal it [for cabbage moths]. Just hold it down with rocks or soil.”
“Season extension has been important to our farm since it makes certain crops more profitable and it extends our growing/selling season. Our traditional farmers' markets begin May 1st each spring, and season extension has given us the opportunity to provide customers with an abundance of produce in May, which is in high demand after a long winter. Selling early crops also produces an income of much needed spring money. Having produce for the first markets gives us the advantage of getting customers in the habit of coming to our table first, and hopefully sticking with us all season long.
“Likewise, season extension allows us to have the greatest amount of diversity for our October and November markets. Creating a colorful display filled with a diverse supply of abundant, fresh, quality produce draws customers every week.
“Through the use of floating row covers and season extension houses, we have been able to extend the seasons successfully. Row covers have been used extensively on our farm to enhance growth and protect crops in the spring and fall from light frosts. Some of these crops that benefit from row covers are: peas, radishes, beets, spinach, lettuce, carrots, potatoes, Swiss chard, beans, cucumbers, squash, turnips, herbs and rhubarb.”
They still had 1/3 acre of lettuce under hoops and row covers in November.
“As an example, by placing row cover over our 30-foot by 27-foot bed of rhubarb as soon as the snow has melted, production starts one to two weeks earlier (May 1st in our area). We only harvest rhubarb for the month of May, and with the row cover, our yield was 774 bunches @ $2.50, hence $1,935, which extrapolates to over $104,000 per acre!”
“Since 1992, we have been building season extension houses on our farm. We have termed these structures ‘fieldhouses,’ because they are temporary, sit directly on our growing fields, and lend themselves easily to rotations. We have utilized two homemade designs that have worked well for us; they are all 14 feet wide by 96 feet long with a 6- to 7-foot height in the center. We have built two plastic-piped fieldhouses with an approximate cost of $600 each and two metal-piped ones with an approximate cost of $800 each (materials only for both). The metal-piped houses can remain up all winter, since they can withstand snow loads. Each house takes two people about 4 hours to construct.” (See http://newfarm.rodaleinstitute.org/features/0503/arnoldsgrow.shtml for a description and photos.)
“Many different vegetables can benefit from being grown in a fieldhouse. We have trialed lettuce, spinach, peppers, tomatoes, beets, Swiss chard, basil, and interplanted radishes and scallions. We choose to extend the season on a particular vegetable due to the fact it is in high demand by customers, it is a high value crop, and we would not be able to have it at that time of year if it were not grown in fieldhouses.
“For example, lettuce is seeded weekly in 200-cell Speedling trays in the greenhouse starting in February. Then in March, we transplant 600 lettuce plants each week for three consecutive weeks into one fieldhouse. Planting them 12 inches between rows and 8 inches in row gives us a total of 1,800 early, marketable heads of lettuce. Therefore, this one fieldhouse provides us with lettuce for the month of May, and the lettuce has a value of about $4,000 in gross sales (extrapolates out to $129,000 per acre!).”
They made a “popper” with metal pegs to pop transplants out of the Speedling trays quickly. The seedlings are placed in a tray to go out to the field (or fieldhouse), while the Speedling trays don’t go to the field. While the industry standard is to use Speedling trays about four times before they’re worn out, the Arnolds use theirs about six times a year, and they’ve lasted 12 years so far.
“Similarly, we start spinach in the greenhouse in late February in 200-cell Speedling trays. As with lettuce, spinach is seeded every week then transplanted into two fieldhouses with 5-inch spacing between plants and 12 inches between rows. We generally use the varieties ‘Tyee’ and ‘Remington’ for transplanting, but several other varieties are trialed every year. We plant one fieldhouse with spinach over a one- to two-week period, and each fieldhouse produces a crop valued at about $4,700 gross if we pick [large] leaves only and sell them at $8 per pound (extrapolates out to $152,000 per acre!). The spinach leaves are re-picked about five days apart for five to seven times. Our timing of transplanting crops into the fieldhouses and out in the fields provides a continuous supply throughout the year. These fieldhouses have given us a great return over the years, especially since the structures are used over and over each year.”
They charge about $9 per pound for spinach in the summer and $12 in the winter. They fertilize these heavy feeders with organic soybean meal or peanut meal.
“In 2006, we started a new venture utilizing high tunnels, with one completed in early 2007 and another completed in May 2008. They are permanent Rimol high tunnels (one 30 x 144 feet and one 34 x 144 feet) with extended posts to allow us to have the sides open up extra high. Ventilation is very critical in tunnel growing, and the automatic roll-up sides and very large end vents give us good cross-ventilation. Drain tile lines (4-inch) were installed in stone on landscape fabric around the perimeters, which remove all the surplus water that is shed off the large structures and keep even moisture inside for the growing area. Sheets of 2- x 12-inch rigid foam insulation were placed on the outer edges to help with winter growing temperature fluctuations and inhibit water penetration. Both tunnels are unheated, except that one has an emergency backup propane heater. We did most of the construction ourselves and chose to build them to last our lifetime, utilizing no wood. Everything is steel or aluminum except the coverings. Both have polycarbonate knee walls, and the second tunnel has polycarbonate ends; polycarbonate sliding doors were installed on both tunnels, which make access very easy in all seasons.
“We are learning how wonderful these high tunnels are for growing crops in for year-round production. Our summer crops have included transplanted beans, basil, tomatoes, summer squash and cucumbers, most grown with great success. Winter markets are growing and expanding all around our area, with seven within an hour’s drive of our farm! For fall, winter and spring production, we are growing spinach, lettuce, mesclun, Asian greens, arugula, kale, mustards, turnips, broccoli raabs, bok choys and chard.”
All of their equipment, including their largest tractor, can fit inside the tunnels. One summer they grew cowpeas as a cover crop in a high tunnel. “They like drought,” said Paul, “so you don’t have to pay too much attention to them.”
They’ve used the same system in their tunnels of BioTelo mulch combined with straw, with great success. They’ve planted summer squash and zucchini in early May and have crops by June 1. They’ve transplanted beans, cucumbers (mostly pickling types, because they produce more money per square foot than bigger cukes) and basil. They remove the straw to plant the winter crops and then put the straw back in the paths.
“We are experimenting with different hoop and row-cover structures during the winter, and even with very cold winters (5 to 16 below zero), all crops have survived (including Johnny’s ‘Five-Star’ lettuce mix) with two to three layers of covers and no supplemented heat. We harvest weekly for the two Saturday markets that we attend, and the greens in the dead of winter are increasing our sales by about $1,200 each week. That production will increase by the end of February as the days get longer and warmer, and each year, our system will be improved as winter growing becomes more and more popular, and more research is done.
“Along with winter growing, we utilize our 20-foot by 30-foot root cellar, buried on two and one-half sides under our large barn, to store unwashed crops. In the spring of 2007, a specialized cooling system was installed, which maintains a constant high humidity and cold condition (85 percent relative humidity and 34 to 36 degree). We increased production on crops that will store well for winter sales, and are learning more and more varieties of produce that last well under the right conditions. Late November harvested kale, lettuce and Swiss chard stores for over six weeks! Cabbage and leeks are lasting well into March, and the carrots, beets and potatoes will look near perfect in midsummer when the new crops come in. Other crops we store are: radishes, celeriac, turnips, rutabagas, Brussels sprouts, celery, kohlrabis and cauliflower. Our root cellar holds about 24 tons of produce with a value of over $85,000. The $10,000 cooling system paid for itself in a matter of months! Other crops that we store for winter sales are winter squash, sweet potatoes, onions, apples and garlic, each in their own preferred environment.”
They store many of these items in woven plastic bags recycled from breweries, which get hops in them.
The Arnolds sell their Certified Naturally Grown (www.naturallygrown.org) produce at three area summer farmers' markets, two winter [Saturday-only] farmer’s markets, and a small amount to several local restaurants. They also grow some perennials and herbs from seed to sell in the spring – although they’re getting away from these as they focus more on winter markets.
“Preparing our produce for markets incorporates many rules and details to ensure consistency of product, customer satisfaction, and efficiency in preparing,” wrote the Arnolds. “Since we sell at farmers’ markets and there is a lot of competition between vendors, drawing customers to our table is important for our continued success. In order to do this, we only want to send the best to the markets and have a table full of products that we are proud of. When we hire employees, it’s important for us to know if they are ‘detail’ oriented or whether they have a ‘this is good enough’ attitude; we’ve learned that matching personalities helps maintain a positive atmosphere on the farm. We all know that happy employees are the best kind!
“Marketing is very critical to the success of our farm. We feel that we need to be better marketers than growers to be successful. Good production techniques may produce an excellent product, but if we have no place to sell it, then there will be no benefit to our farm. We have, in a limited amount, utilized all types of marketing over the years, but have relied on farmers’ markets in recent years as the outlet for selling nearly 100 percent of our products.
“At a farmers' market, we are not only selling our produce, but we are also selling ourselves. It is very important that at least one of our family members is present at every market, as customers want to know the farmer. We have policies that are customer friendly that keep them coming back each week, such as a 100 percent satisfaction guarantee on all our produce. We try to give 110 percent service to all our customers by giving them more than what they expect, such as special orders, growing advice, recipes and brochures.”
Paul said he knows most of his customers’ names. Sandy gives her employees a small handbook about how to work at the market so that they represent the farm well. They use extensive signage and give out recipes so that customers know how to use their produce.
A good tarp system that will protect the produce, us and customers from the hot sun or rain is critical, said the Arnolds. Before their farmers’ market was in a permanent building, they used a white tarp for cloudy days and a silver one for sunny days. “A silver tarp totally reflects the sun and gives dense shade underneath,” they wrote. “Colored tarps tend to cast unnatural colors on the produce. We added a brightly colored red and white awning several years ago, which brightened up our stand and assisted customers in finding us.” Everyone else at the market had white awnings.
“A lot of time and effort should be put into your table displays. Fresh, high quality produce should be displayed and kept well stocked throughout the market. Freshness can be maintained by misting the produce with a spray bottle; misting vegetables like carrots and potatoes also enhances their color and makes them more appealing. Displays should be done with color and eye appeal in mind; spread brightly colored items throughout the table to draw attention to everything. Getting to know your customers by name and growing what they want is valuable information. Growing a diverse selection of produce not only helps to make a colorful display, but also promotes ‘One stop shopping’ for the customers.”
Much of their produce, such as spinach, is pre-bagged to save time at the market.
Being flexible and creative helps, too. One year when their broccoli wasn’t going to make it, they bunched the leaves and sold them, making more money than they would have by selling the heads.
Their winter market keeps improving, in the diversity of crops they offer and their customers’ reliance on them. The Saturday before Thanksgiving is one of their biggest market days. They now have year-round income, can hire year-round workers, can work less in summer and can take more vacations because they can afford them and because they have employees present to handle the farm.
“I’m only spending 25 hours a week harvesting and selling” in the winter, said Paul.
“We can make almost as much money on our winter markets as our summer markets,” said Sandy, “and it’s a lot less labor.”
“In summary, inexpensive startup, good business management techniques, good record keeping, soil management, season extension, winter growing and creative marketing have helped us to make a living on small acreage,” wrote the Arnolds. “Other factors for our success are having personal goals and a Mission Statement to help us achieve the quality of life that we want for our family. There are many other aspects that are key issues in managing a profitable farm, such as: trialing varieties; knowing insect and disease life cycles; managing money and debt; operating a time-efficient irrigation system; and managing labor. Farming with all its challenges and hard work gives us the lifestyle we thoroughly love and find rewarding.”
Sandy urged growers to go to conferences, visit other farms, and “learn how to keep the profits. Attention to detail is really important; conferences are great.” She noted that for $100, farmers can listen to recordings of a year’s worth of organic conferences through www.organicvoices.com.
During the discussion, Paul said that everything they do on the farm and at the market is for the customer. “If they ask if you can take a $100 bill, ‘Yes.’ Everything is ‘Yes’” – including the answer to “Are you going to be here next Saturday?”
“I have never missed a market in 23 years,” said Paul. “That loyalty of mine to them comes back as their loyalty to me. They all understand that I love them, I’m there for them” – whether it’s snowing or pouring rain. Sometimes when other farmers ask the Arnolds why their crops are not selling as well at the market, Sandy said she’ll tell them, “Your workers aren’t engaged. They often just sit there. Experiment with having them smile and greet the people.”
Their population base is about 30,000 in Saratoga and about 15,000 in Glens Falls. Most of their customers are within a 15- to 20-minute drive of the market, and the Arnolds travel half an hour to each market. “We spend 11 hours a week selling and marketing all the farm produce,” said Sandy.
Asked whether their children want to stay on the farm, Paul asked how many in the audience knew exactly what they wanted to do when they were 18. If their children do not want to take over the farm later, the Arnolds will put it into a trust so that another young farmer can take it over. Their kids have grown up with a work ethic, having been given the choice of doing various jobs on the farm and being paid, but not having the choice of doing nothing.
Paul’s vision of a farm from the beginning was that whatever was on the family table was food they’d grown. By homeschooling their children, they got to eat 21 meals per week together. “One of the things that was driving me to farm,” said Paul, “was that I didn’t like to commute. I would do anything … to be home with them, and I wanted this farm to make our living. So with the kids, it was natural for them to do homeschooling” – despite others’ comments that the kids wouldn’t be socialized, etc. They cram school in during the winter months. The kids don’t resent working on the farm; in fact, their friends also work on the farm.
Pleasant Valley Farm is certified through the member-run Certified Naturally Grown (CNG), and the Arnolds, NOFA-NY members, take NOFA-NY’s Farmers’ Pledge. CNG does random residue testing on the farm, with no notice. “CNG fits well with us because we are a small, diversified farm,” said Sandy.
They donate 3 to 5 tons of gleaned produce to food pantries annually – although the amount is shrinking as they produce less waste each year and feed some waste to the couple of pigs they raise.
They communicate with their customers about twice a month by email, showing them what’s happening on the farm through a newsletter with photos.
Two of their biggest competitors at the markets are people they taught to farm. “We don’t worry about competition,” said Paul, because more and more people are coming to the market. “We need more farmers,” said Sandy. “Competition just makes everybody rise together.”
One Maine grower said he felt that the Brunswick Farmers’ Market was saturated before he and his partner even started there. They ended up leaving that market and moving to Portland.
“It takes two or three years to build a customer base,” said Paul.
“Once they come, don’t give them a reason to change,” said Sandy. “Don’t sell them something you’re not proud of.”
They guarantee their produce, or return the customer’s money. “We’ve given money back when we didn’t even grow the produce” that the customer complained about. “They’re our customer. If they felt they bought it from us, we’re going to give them their money back.”
One participant said he learned in a Tilling the Soil of Opportunity class that a complaining customer is likely to become your best customer.
When people ask why their blueberries are so expensive while they’re 99 cents at Price Chopper, Sandy explains that their berries are produced according to USDA standards, that they don’t get any subsidies, that they pay their workers a fair wage and that they have to charge that price in order to keep farming. Customers often say, “Oh, that’s a good reason. I’ll take three!”
“Sometimes people just want an explanation,” Sandy continued. “I’ve heard farmers say, ‘If you don’t like the price, just go someplace else.’ That’s not what they want to hear.”
One grower asked why it’s more efficient to pick something like chard, and then bring it to the washing station to clean and bunch it, when she is able to pick and bunch it in the field as she goes, and dip the bunches in water. Paul responded that for a single harvester who knows the quality she’s looking for and who is harvesting small amounts, that works. But with multiple harvesters who are seasonal and not highly trained, the crop gets out of the field faster, especially in the summer heat, if it’s picked and immediately brought to the packing shed, cooled and bunched there – removing any inferior leaves at that time. The highly trained year-round help can put them on a scale at the washing station to make sure they weigh the same. Paul and one other person he’s trained do bunch kale in the field.
For recordkeeping, Maine farmer Amy Sprague recommended the website www.reqall.com. The site has voice recognition software, so you can call on your cell phone, say you’ve done something in the field, and the program will send you an email with that message.
The Arnolds like to have two or three full-time, paid interns. The lodging, food, Internet, paid stipend and other benefits have to add up to at least minimum wage. Most get $600 to $800 per month for their basic stipend.
Pleasant Valley also has six to eight part-time, hourly employees. They get Worker’s Comp through Farm Family. Jim Gerritsen noted that Maine has an exemption for some farm workers for Worker’s Comp, if the farm is raising and selling its own crops. Instead of Worker’s Comp, he carries a liability policy through Farm Family. If you set up as an LLC, Gerritsen also noted, your children can’t work on the farm until they’re 18.
Their business is set up as a sole proprietorship, with Sandy as Paul’s employee and with a salary of $5,000. They set that system up years ago to make her health insurance a farm deduction – “He’s on my policy,” said Sandy – and to enable Sandy to put that $5,000 into an Individual Retirement Account. Their kids are also paid $5,000 or $6,000 per year. The Arnolds meet with their accountant the first week of each December to see if they should spend any more money on seed, fertilizer, etc., before the end of the year to reduce their taxes.
Jim Gerritsen noted that paying a salary also enables workers (including family members) to qualify for Social Security after they accumulate 40 points.
For more information about farm business, “read Richard Wiswall’s book,” said Sandy.