August 2005
Featured Articles

Alternative Farming and Profitability

by Robert Spencer

Normally I write about rabbit farming or the Agribition Center and I have been known to write and speak on goat production. Prior to the job I now have as Facilities Manager, I was a Small Farms Specialist with Alabama A & M University. That is how I have developed a reputation for being knowledgeable on production and marketing of goats and rabbits. It was during that time I learned about meat and dairy goats, hair sheep, pastured poultry, organic fruit and vegetable production, aquaculture, rabbit production, and countless other forms of what I call ?Alternative? agriculture. During that time I came to realize alternative farming may not be profitable, but it sure can be enjoyable.

For the past 4 years I have been raising both meat and dairy goats, and during the past year I have been raising meat rabbits and show rabbits. It is not often you run across an ?agriculture expert? who also farms! I have seen enterprise budgets for meat goat and rabbit production, talked with other producers, and had my taxes done every year, including the farm portion. I have my taxes done and it always amazes me at the how much money is spent on my farm and how little money is brought in. I have yet to experience a profit in five years. And here I am, a Small Farms Specialist, telling people to get active in farming.

During the past five years I have talked with and visited both small and large-scale farms. Most of the farm situations I have dealt with involve either retired couples or part-time farmers with families; neither is expecting much more than a supplemental income at best, but they do enjoy the lifestyle of farming.

During those same five years I cannot remember any farmer who bragged about the huge profits earned from farming. It was just a living, or something to do as a tax write-off. Some people refer to themselves as hobby farmers; those tend to be the ones who cannot include farm incomes or expenses on their taxes. It always amazed me at the number of people who worked a full-time job (what I call a real job) and farmed either part-time or full-time. I was also surprised at the number of people who had bought ten to twenty acres, had a full-time job, but were looking for some type of farming practice that would supplement their income. I often told them (jokingly) that there was really nothing in the way of ?legal? farming that would result in profits, but what ever they do, make sure they enjoyed it, ?cause it was going to be hard work with limited financial rewards.? I enjoyed meeting those people who processed raw agriculture products into value-added products, and were proud of what they had done, despite the process and work involved.

After looking back on all that, my advice to those who are agriculture producers or potential producers is as follows.

(1) Make sure whatever you do is enjoyable.

(2) Keep up with all expenses and incomes relevant to your enterprise(s). This includes mileage to informative meetings and the Co-op or feed store.

(3) Maintain organized records on all relevant incomes and expenses. Your accountant will appreciate it and make an effort to find all the ?write-offs? they can.

(4) Attend as many seminars and meetings as possible. You?ll be surprised at what you can learn.

(5) Visit other farms and farmers to learn what does and does not work for their situation.

(6) Take time to reflect upon your operation. Ask yourself are you enjoying it and is it going the way you want it to? If not, it may be time to reorganize and make changes.

Finally, (7) there is nothing wrong with making mistakes, as long as you learn from them.

While I have transitioned from working with individual farmers to working at an agriculture exhibition facility, I continue raising goats and rabbits on my small acreage. I often threaten to ?sell it all? and move back to civilization, but doubt that will happen any time soon. After all, I enjoy seeing that spring crop of kids, seeing the litters of rabbits born, and knowing that after I get home from work I don?t have to go anywhere to get away from it all; I?m already there.

While farming is hard work with limited opportunities for profitability, I learned farming offers a quality of life and develops work ethics that cannot be bought, found, or learned.

I can honestly say working with farmers and farming situations was something I really enjoyed. Happy farming!

Robert Spencer is Agribition Center Facilities Manager at Alabama A&M University.