September 15, 2008 / 11:07 AM / 11 years ago

Green Living: Small farmers wear a lot of hats

LONDON (Reuters Life!) - Matt Gerald starts work at 4:30 a.m. on days when he has a farmer’s market. Other days he sleeps in until as late as oooh...5:30 a.m.

Workers at an organic farm at Dezevci, eastern Croatia, May 27, 2008. REUTERS/Nikola Solic

Gerald runs a small organic flower farm in Bar Harbor in the U.S. state of Maine with just one full-time assistant. He sells some 17,000 lilies and 9,000 tulips a year, and also manages two of Maine’s 77 farmer’s markets.

The East Coast State has a disproportionately high percentage of the 4,385 farmer’s markets (USDA, 2006) in total in the United States.

Farmers like Gerald tend to sell nearly 20 percent of their goods through farmer’s markets, said Davis Taylor, Professor of Economics at Maine’s College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor. But not many of them also manage farmer’s markets as an additional income stream.

“I usually work until about five in the evening, setting aside about one hour a day for yoga practice or contemplation,” said Gerald who is currently building himself an eco-home in the little spare time he has left.

“The first 10 years of farming I strove to grow more and more with as much diversity as possible. The second 10 years I’ve tried to streamline the operation as much as possible, sticking to crops I know well. I’m learning to grow less more efficiently. My annual gross has decreased and I have fatter pockets in the fall.”

Gerald has “a pretty good business,” Taylor said. “For small organic farmers cut flowers is likely the most profitable revenue producer.”

Like many farmers, Gerald has to wear so many hats he gets confused sometimes - planner, buyer, planter, grower, marketer, vendor. But it has its compensations.

“I do have the pleasure of remembering the carrot I have for dinner when it was a seed in a packet,” he said.

One of his hats is fuel-provider.

“I’ve got arms like thighs and thighs like tree trunks,” he jokes when asked where his wood is from.

“We process about 40 cords of wood, about five thousand cubic feet a year. I enjoy cutting and splitting wood as a form of contemplation. With the price of energy where it is now, wood heat is the only option for my off-season greenhouse production.”

As well as his paid employee, Gerald also has young volunteers working on his farm.

“I provide field space and make available all the resources of a working farm and sometimes provide start up capital. They get to try their hand at farming without having to go into debt. And they volunteer some hours on my projects,” he said.

Maine has a high number of organic farms and networks of farmer distribution and marketing outlets...including farmers’ markets and restaurants selling predominantly local food, said Taylor, who specializes in sustainable community development.

“People’s food dollars stay close to home, and the resource of ‘money’ is now recycled within the community rather than shipped off to distant corporate coffers,” Gerald said.

“People are catching on that locally produced food tastes better and is more nutritious. This has led to a steady increase in small farming, and it’s good to see young farmers succeeding.”

Taylor said that access to the coast and the availability of inexpensive and a favorable local culture that is supportive of small farms and people living off the land has made Maine a focal point for the homesteading, back-to-the-land movement.

Gerald bought his farm “at a liquidation price” in 1986. “I have lived in the office/laboratory ever since,” he says. Now he is in process of building “a proper house”.

“I have cut all the trees I need for the structure and am waiting for them to milled into timber. I will be using stone from the farm as well,” he said

Workers labor in the fields of an organic farm at Dezevci, eastern Croatia, May 27, 2008. REUTERS/Nikola Solic

The house will have solar hot water, passive solar heat and a biomass boiler for back up. It will have a septic tank and leach field.

Using local wood and power and water is important to Gerald’s He believes we should all be doing what we can to “vastly shorten the distances that food and energy travel.”

Gerald’s produce is mainly grown in four large greenhouses. “”Without them all we’d be doing is feeding the deer.”

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