Sustainable Growth and the 5 Gallon Salad Spinner

Start small; scale up

The popular line these days is that you can’t get into farming without a huge capital investment up front.

It’s just impossible to do–you need vast acreages of land, big equipment, storage facilities, transportation–and then you take whatever money you have left and farm ’til it’s gone.

[Do you know the joke? Asked what he was going to do with all his vast lottery winnings, the old man replied that he’d most likely “farm ’til it’s gone.”]

That may be true with the “conventional” large-scale system of agriculture–if you didn’t inherit family land or buy it back in the 1970s at the latest–then scale up opportunistically as your neighbors went out of business or retired, you’re out of luck.

In these times, pretty much the only way to start such an operation without a massive lottery jackpot is to take out a massive bank loan–one that, if you could get it (which is highly unlikely), you’d never get out from under.

But there are different ways to farm, and ways to do it that don’t require a massive bank-financed operation.  It starts with recognizing the two major commodities that we deal with on an everyday basis: money and time.

In my farm business, I found that most projects required some of both–but the application of my time tended to decrease the amount of money I had to spend.

If there was a piece of equipment I needed, I could take a small amount of time to go out and pick up a shiny-new toy for a goodly sum of money.  Or I could spend more time and less money trying to find one used to fix up.

If I was willing and able to spend a lengthy amount of time doing the job of that equipment by hand–and with salvaged materials that, in turn, took time to locate–my cash outlay would be slim to none.

Starting small and expanding slowly also helped me avoid begging for credit from bankers who were utterly confused about my use of the term “farm” (which at that time only referred to corn and soy operations in SE South Dakota) and unconvinced that my little enterprise was anything more than a hobby.  No one grows vegetables as a business, they asserted, except in California.

But I’m glad that no one seemed the least bit interested in lending to me because after those weird meetings, I realized that if I wanted to do this, I was going to have to grow slowly, methodically, and the whole thing had to cash flow.

The first year I offered CSA (that’s Community Supported Agriculture) shares in my farm, I had ten members and a little kitchen salad spinner.  Although my business was named “Flying Tomato,” greens were one of my specialties, so that spinner got a good workout.

The little spinner that could

The spring deliveries typically contained at least two bags of greens each week–salad mix and spinach, lettuce and arugula, cress and chard.

Because the little spinner only held, at maximum capacity, about half a gallon bag of greens, I would be standing there at the tailgate of my truck spinning and packing greens for almost an hour after harvesting and washing them.

The spinner had no drainage, either, which meant I’d constantly have to open the thing up and dump out the water, then rinse it out to remove the built-up grit.

And that was just for the CSA deliveries–I’d be doing it again on a larger scale for farmers market days–many days I’d just have to quit with what I had at the point when I needed to pack up and get on the road.

The next season, I expanded production, took on twenty CSA members, and I took that little spinner and retired it back to my kitchen.

And I took about half of one of the members’ share payments at the beginning of the season and bought a five-gallon professional salad spinner with bottom drainage.

My partner built me a steel mesh wash table out of scrap metal, a couple sections of hog panel, and some t-posts–a bit of wood fencing in front of it to keep my feet out of the mud.

That table got me away from using my tailgate as a wash station (and kept my back tires from getting mired in the mudhole I created), and the salad spinner has lasted me up until my recent move.

I had outgrown it in the last year though, when I was producing so many greens that I’d only do a half-cutting on a bed in order to get them all washed, spun, and bagged for market or deliveries.

The markets for my greens had also expanded–so it would have been possible to sell more had I the time to keep up with that demand.

I was starting to think I’d better look for a used washing machine to clean even bigger batches of greens while I was out in the field harvesting more–a technique some of the larger market farms use when they scale beyond hand-operated means of processing.

The point of all this is that you don’t have to have the full professional set of tools to start out.  You don’t have to have a huge amount of land (and a huge debt) to begin farming.

There are all kinds of ways to start small and build up slowly–keeping out of debt and taking time to identify the “sticking points,” where one small scale-up in your equipment or one little tweak in your methods can make a huge difference in efficiency.

It starts with a few seeds, one bred sow, maybe a couple of buckets or a bit of panel fencing reclaimed from an overgrown hedgerow.

Or, in my case, a quarter of an acre and a little kitchen salad spinner.

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