Small Power: Reinvigorating the U.S. Farm System

Farms with a Future: Creating and Growing a Sustainable Farm Business

Rebecca Thistlethwaite, Chelsea Green, 2012

Farming in the United States is ebbing, and the growers who remain in business are consolidating into larger operations to save their farms. In addition, this country constantly struggles with nutrition-related diseases, and obesity rates are at an all-time high. The book Farms with a Future does not offer a total solution to these larger problems. Instead, the author, Rebecca Thistlethwaite, focuses on solutions for small- to mid-size farmers, and their essential role in today’s changing food system.

Farming is all-consuming and, as Thistlethwaite states, “If you are not prepared for some serious hard work, inclement weather, dirt lodged in every crevice of your body, and being so dog-tired that you fall into your easy chair at night and don’t wake up until the next morning, then you might look into another vocation.” She should know; she is a farmer herself, and this book was developed in order to share the lessons she learned from her profession, as well as some experiences from other farmers. Owing to the author’s history and further research, this book is a good resource for any farmer who is looking for a way to make his business more profitable and sustainable.

The book is designed as a guide for farmers, and each chapter concentrates on a particular aspect of owning and running a farm. Topics include practical business-related subjects such as identifying a niche market, human resources, marketing, financing, finding land, as well as on-farm strategies like soil testing and harvesting. Each chapter ends with a list of “Take-Home Messages,” bullet points that sum up the chapter’s main idea. The book also includes helpful charts for reference, formulas (e.g., for pricing strategies), lists of definitions, and photographs to help illustrate her narrative. The author also offers step-by-step instructions in some instances and lists of questions to use as guides. For example, in the chapter entitled “Equipment and Infrastructure,” Thistlethwaite includes a comprehensive list of questions that farmers can ask themselves in order to assess their needs before investing in equipment. The book also includes helpful online resources and lists of other publications for further reading on various topics.

Each section of the book contains one or two profiles of farmers who showcase the subject matter of the chapter. This is one of the most inviting and creative parts of the book, as it portrays real-life stories of farmers who are making particular strategies work on a daily basis. These solutions are an invaluable resource to other growers, and the stories they tell are extremely powerful to readers. They serve as examples of how farmers can actually survive with the business model they create and show which solutions they are using to continue their livelihood. Each one of the farms highlighted is using creativity and flexibility to continue expanding its business, a feature that the author considers a key factor in the farms’ success.

Throughout the book, the author also focuses on the theme of on-farm sustainable solutions. Chapters include information on topics such as conservation, alternative energy and fuels, soil and water management, and renewable resources as well as holistic goals. As the author states, “These farms have a future because they are focusing on holistic sustainability, social justice, and ecological soundness. Without any one of these legs, the foundation of the business will not be sturdy enough to weather the ups and downs of farming.” Overall, this type of approach will help to create local economic vitality, improved human and environmental health, and long-term sustainability for family farms.

The book’s final chapter addresses methods and makes suggestions on how to diversify the farm and add value to products. This step is crucial to any business, but is extremely important to small farming, as it allows growers to have more than one way to make a profit. Adding value can “be the key to the survival of your farm enterprise or to smoothing out your cash-flow stresses at certain times of the year.” The author suggests several different methods that farmers may use to diversify their business, such as agrotourism or offering educational opportunities to the public. This involves community members and creates a way for them to see how and where their food is grown. This is an essential part of the local food system; consumers who are educated will make more informed choices about their food purchasing, and can better appreciate the hard work that goes into growing and developing sustainable food.

Overall, this book provides a good reference for farmers, and could be used as a starting point for any grower who is looking to make his enterprise more successful and sustainable. The author offers many different types of strategies and solutions for farmers, who are the source of the food we eat. As the country continues to become more populated, and we move forward with the agricultural industry, we will increasingly rely on diversified, small- to mid-sized farmers, who are focused on helping consumers connect to their local food source.