Fresh & Local
Acreage and Economic Viability
Column #35, Published May 18th, 2012

There is currently a food revolution going on. Locally grown food is making permanent inroads into the food we eat, and the way we think about food.

I have a friend named Michael Olson who hosts a nationally syndicated radio show called Food Chain Radio. (web site Michael is the one who has the great line that I have used: “The farther we go from the source of our food, the less control we have over what's in that food.”

Several months ago, Michael discussed farm size on his radio show. He correctly pointed out that for decades economists told farmers to “Get big or get out!” More recently, other voices began telling farmers to “Grow small and stand tall!” So Michael asked this question: “Which will feed the world: big or small?” That is actually a very interesting question.

When I was in college, one of my agricultural economics classes studied a paper published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture that purportedly showed that a U.S. farm in the late 1970s needed to be a minimum of about 350 acres to be economically viable. This was definitely the “Get big or get out” era.

Last week, the Piedmont Environmental Council mailed to every address in the five-county Northern Piedmont area a copy of their Buy Fresh Buy Local 2012 Food Guide. The guide contains a directory of the 130-or-so Northern Piedmont farms that participate in the Buy Fresh Buy Local fresh foods program.

The guide does not provide any information on farm size, but I am familiar with some of these farms. Of the farms I’m familiar with, I don’t believe that any of them are even 100 acres. In fact, one full-time farm I know of is only 4 acres.

So, what happened to the 350 acre minimum? At the beginning of this column each week, I reiterate that there is a revolution in agriculture going on. That is not hyperbole. Acreage is no longer the key, and maybe it never was. Yields are really the key, and if you can get big yields from small acreages, then a large acreage is not a requirement. Intensity equals viability, not acreage.

Large acreage is really a two edged sword. There may be operating economies of scale, but they also require huge amounts of capital to be tied up in land and machinery. An intensive 10 acre farm with minimal off-farm inputs is going to have a very different break-even point than a 350 acre farm with $1.5 million tied up in land and equipment.

Back last October, I interviewed Mollie Visosky who started a local food wholesale business named The Fresh Link. I didn’t have room for this in the column, but I asked Mollie what her biggest surprise was in running the business. Without having to think about it, she said, “I am constantly amazed at the huge production these growers get from small amounts of land.” There it is in a nutshell: the key to small farm viability is intensity.

There is a guy named John Jeavons who back in the mid-1970s wrote the first addition of a book titled "How to Grow More Vegetables Than You Ever Thought Possible On Less Land Than You Can Imagine." The book is now in its eighth edition, and many people consider John Jeavons to be the leading authority on intensive agriculture. (web site: Jeavons is worth reading because intensity is really the key to farm economic viability. I will have more to say about John Jeavons in future columns.

Bryant Osborn and his wife Terry own Corvallis Farms in Culpeper County. His column on fresh and locally grown food runs every Friday. He can be reached at