By John Reid Blackwell
Cliff Slade is on a mission to prove that it doesn’t take a hundred acres of land to make a living farming.
One acre can do it, Slade insists, if you’re smart about it and you’re willing to put some serious elbow grease into it.
Slade and other researchers at Virginia State University are attempting to demonstrate that assertion at the school’s Randolph Farm, a 416-acre research and educational farm near the VSU campus.
Researchers and students have planted a 1-acre plot at the Randolph Farm with a variety of vegetables and produce, including collards, kale and cabbage.
“This is not a get-rich-quick scheme, but it can be done if a person is willing to work,” said Slade, a 59-year-old retired agricultural extension agent who works the same land in Surry County that his father farmed.
“You have got to get off your butt and get out of bed early in the morning,” he said.
VSU calls it the 43,560 Project, because that’s the number of square feet in 1 acre. Slade wants to show that a farmer can gross $1 per square foot on 1 acre — or a total of $43,560 — which he said could be four times the return of a typical large-scale commercial vegetable production.
“This has the potential to create some great opportunities to bring profitability back to small farms,” said Slade, who is the vegetable/produce specialist for the small farmer outreach program at VSU.
The average farm in Virginia is about 171 acres, based on the most recent data available from a 2007 census of agriculture.
The average per-acre market value of farm products was about $358, but that includes all types of products such as livestock. The value of production per acre can vary widely depending on what a farmer raises.
The VSU research is generating significant interest.
At the school’s open farm day on June 27, hundreds of farmers, extension agents and farmer hopefuls from across the state came to see the 43,560 plot and to hear Slade preach about the virtues and the potential pitfalls of small-scale farming. The practice is enjoying something of a renaissance as more American consumers, restaurants and grocery stores have jumped on the “local foods” and organic foods trend.
Speaking to the crowd at the open farm day, Slade was quick to point out that the kind of small-scale, intensive commercial farming being demonstrated at VSU is not for the hobbyist or lightweight.
“If you are lazy and have money, invest it in the stock market and do something else. This is not for you,” he said.
About half of the research plot is leafy vegetables, but researchers and students also are growing fruits, melons and tomatoes. The goal is to produce one vegetable head or stalk, or 1 pound of produce, per square foot.
That type of farming is intensive and expensive. Slade tagged the cost of production at about $10,000 for the 1 acre. The land was fertilized with pelletized chicken litter and mushroom compost.
“This is very interesting, because it seems like I could quadruple my production,” said Tracy Porter, a King and Queen County farmer who visited the 43,560 plot during the field day.
Porter said he farms 6 acres with his family, growing vegetables that he sells mostly to local customers.
The type of production being demonstrated by VSU is “doable,” Porter said.
Small farmers “can’t compete with the big commercial farms, but you can produce a quality specialty crop,” he said.
The hard part, and where many farms might fail, is in finding ways to sell the produce.
“The key challenge is marketing,” Slade said. “You have got to be a good salesperson.”
A 1-acre farmer cannot expect to compete by growing the same type of produce that large-scale commercial farms produce, he said. “Most of the time, you have to raise vegetables and varieties that are different than what you can raise out of the grocery store to make yourself successful.”
“I tell everyone they need to find a niche,” he said. “We have to go from field to retail” or direct to the consumer.
Slade identified four channels: on-farm sales to people who like to pick their own produce; sales at farmers markets; sales to independently owned restaurants; and sales to Community-Supported Agriculture organizations, or CSAs, which are networks of individuals who support local farms by paying at the start of the growing season for a share of the harvest.
Virginia has seen dramatic growth in the number of farmers markets in the state, from 88 markets in 2006 to 230 in 2013, according to the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Forestry.
The farmers market trend “is still growing,” said Mike Cullipher, who raises about 70 acres of vegetables and fruits on his family’s farm, Cullipher Farms in Virginia Beach.
“But it is like most things. When you see a trend develop, a lot of people who have not done it in the past will start to do it,” he said. “We have seen a lot of small farms start selling” at farmers markets.
Cullipher called the VSU project “ambitious.”
His farm raises a wide variety of crops from asparagus to strawberries, and he said strawberries typically have the highest yield, of around 15,000 pounds per acre.
“We are curious to see what they come up with,” Cullipher said of the 43,560 Project, which he has not visited, though he has read about it.
“I am not saying it can’t be done, but it takes an extremely high level of management to do it like that, and stay on top of it,” he said. “If they can do it, and it is successful, then we can all learn from it.”
The small-scale farming model won’t succeed without some preparation work long before the first seeds are planted, Slade told the crowd gathered for the open farm day.
For instance, farmers must make sure their land has the right pH chemistry to grow vegetables. They also need to invest in irrigation such as the drip-irrigation system being used at the Randolph Farm.
It may take several years of work for a 1-acre farm to produce a profit. Slade suggested starting out with a half-acre or a quarter-acre.
“A lot of people will jump in and want to do 2 acres,” he said. “They work themselves to death and try to sell a whole lot of produce that they have not marketed beforehand, and then they get disenchanted and quit.”
The model being explored at VSU “is viable for anyone who is willing to put in the time and effort that it is going to take — first of all to raise a crop and, two, to market that crop,” said Tony Banks, assistant director of the commodity marketing department for the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation.
“I don’t think it is something that somebody can decide today they are going to do next year and expect to achieve that revenue goal in year one,” he said. “It is a learning process, and they are going to have to work their way up to it.”
“There certainly have been plenty of folks and organizations over the years and even books written about making significant income on a small plot of land,” Banks said. “It is feasible, but most of those (farms) do require a lot of attention to marketing, which a lot of people are not necessarily too inclined to do.”
VSU is not selling the produce from the 43,560 plot. Instead, the food is being donated to food banks and gleaning organizations.
Part of the mission of VSU’s Randolph Farm is to experiment with alternative crops and farming methods that Virginia farmers could utilize, said Jewel Hairston, dean of the VSU School of Agriculture.
The 43,560 Project “focuses on producing things that farmers can also produce, to make money with a reasonable investment and high demand,” Hairston said.
“This is the land-grant mission at work,” she said.
Other research projects at the Randolph Farm include different types of alternative crops or livestock such as goats and aquaculture — or raising fish in farm ponds.
The school also is testing ways to grow chickpeas in Virginia as part of a partnership with Sabra Dipping Co., which has a factory in Chesterfield County that makes hummus spreads. It also has a research and development center next to the plant.
Slade says his goal is not to turn everyone into a backyard commercial farmer but to provide more ways for small farmers to produce income using a small piece of land.
“While this is not going to be for everybody, I think within a few years we will have well over 100 farmers (in Virginia) who will do well with this,” he said.