24th Annual Ecological Farming Conference in Pacific Grove, Calif.

Getting small
Three farmers tell how they scaled back their operations to maintain their sanity, recapture their love for farming, and improve their bottom line.

By Dan Sullivan

S p o n s o r B o x
The Ecological Farming Association

The Ecological Farming Association (EFA; formerly the Committee for Sustainable Agriculture) is a nonprofit educational organization that promotes ecologically sound agriculture. Its special events bring together people from all over the world to share ideas and experiences in producing healthful food from a healthy earth. Members share a new vision for our collective food system, where strengthening soils, protecting air and water quality, encouraging diverse ecosystems and honoring rural life are all part of the food-production equation.

EFA has been at the forefront of sustainable agriculture education for almost 25 years. Its innovative programs—including the recent 24th Annual Ecological Farming Conference Jan. 21-24 in Pacific Grove, Calif.—bring together growers, researchers, activists, and industry-related businesses to share the most recent advances in sustainable food production and marketing.

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"Getting smaller, a shorter workweek, and a smaller crew enabled us to really start developing relationship with our employees. Before, there were people out in the field who I didn’t know from Adam."










Eero’s Gold

“I didn’t so much downsize as reorganize,” said Eero Ruuttila of Nesenkeag Farm in Litchfield, N.H. of his decision to flip his marketing focus from 80 percent wholesale and 20 percent direct market to mostly direct sales following a slow-and-steady slide in wholesale produce prices that put the farm in jeopardy. “I dropped my biggest wholesaler, which was 40 percent of my business,” Ruuttila recalled. “Making that switch is what saved the farm and made it viable.”

By scaling back production volume and working in rotations of green manures and cover crops, Ruuttila said, he’s now giving his land the rest and fortification it needs (not to mention himself). And by developing direct relationships with chefs and eaters, Ruuttila said he commands a better price for his produce, which helps him pay his highly skilled Cambodian field workers a more livable wage.

"Just the daily feedback and enthusiasm of the chefs means a lot to me— I could have been shipping cardboard to the wholesalers."

Ruutila prides himself of developing niche markets for items not traditionally found in the marketplace by paying attention to the nuances of surrounding communities. For instance, a market for pea tendrils (the young tops of pea plants) has turned one of his favorite soil-building crops into one of his most lucrative cash crops.

Direct marketing is not only about commanding higher premiums, Ruuttila explained, but also about an equally rewarding return on investment that’s only possible when dealing with customers face-to-face.

“Just the daily feedback and enthusiasm of the chefs means a lot to me,” he said. “I could have been shipping cardboard to the wholesalers.”

Dale scales back

Ironically, Dale Coke of Coke Farms in San Juan Bautista, Calif., got into organic farming with a modest quarter acre of strawberries in 1981 after a serious illness in his 28th year forced him to reevaluate his career choices. Fast forward to the ’90s. With Cisco and Safeway among his customers, Coke’s business had expanded from a quarter acre of strawberries to more than 500 acres producing salad mix, strawberries, and a host of other specialty crops, and he’d taken on the additional burden of acting as a reseller for other growers.

All work and no play: Presenter, Dale Coke of Coke Farms, waits to share his views on the "get big or get out" phenomenon.

Volatile market forces—including changes in the salad packing industry brought on by raised health department standards—combined to send the albatross crashing to earth. “For the first time I had trouble being able to make payables,” Coke said. “Every week I would be looking to see if I had enough money to make payroll. I decided to cut back. It wasn’t satisfying, and it was getting to the point where it was no fun.”

The first thing Coke did was to exit the middleman business, renting out his elaborate packing facility to another grower. Next, he cut loose the salad mix operation. Finally, he eliminated those specialty crops that did not absolutely thrive in his growing climate. “I whittled down from 100 crops to maybe 25.”

By focusing in tightly on fewer crops, carefully tracking labor hours and other costs, and then channeling resources into those crops that are making a solid return on investment, Coke said he’s improved profitability as well as his quality of life. “We plant once or twice a week throughout the growing season until November,” he said. “We harvest what’s out in the field when it’s ready, and it goes into a cooler. My preference is to sell out of inventory.”

Coke even took three years off to pursue other ventures while his wife and sister ran the produce business. “I bought my sister out last year, so my quality of life got a little worse,” he quipped.

Jerry’s partner in time

“I’m still learning how to get smaller, how to improve my quality of life and be profitable,” said Jerry Brownrigg of Heirloom Organics in Ramona, Calif., attributing his renewed enthusiasm for organic farming to the fact that he has a solid farming partner to share the burden. “Every farmer is going to have a different way to do it.”

"We decided to get lean and mean and get back in there."

For Brownrigg and his partner, it all came to a head when “prices were in the dirt, we were producing a mesclun mix and losing money…and we were spending less time farming and more time managing crises.”

Together, the two farmers decided to apply the brakes, scaling back from farming 200 acres in four locations to farming 40 acres in two locations.

“We decided to get lean and mean and get back in there,” Brownrigg said, professing his and his partner’s love for farming and their commitment to finding a successful model. Alas, he said, they found themselves working harder than ever to make ends meet.

What the two farmers ultimately discovered, Brownrigg said, was that it wasn’t as much about cutting back on volume and acreage as it was about developing a whole new philosophy toward farming. So they set about drawing up a set of “socially sustainable” goals—including some that flew in the face of traditional agricultural models—as well as strategies for achieving them.

Brownrigg and associate: Jerry Brownrigg found that for him job-satisfaction came from fewer acres and a partner that could help shoulder the responsibilities.

The first was to establish a 5-day work schedule for themselves and employees. “In agriculture there’s this massive inertia toward the 6-day workweek,” Brownrigg said. “Everybody wants the hours and wants to buff up their paychecks.” But it’s not necessarily the most productive model, he said, particularly by week’s end when huge slides in productivity typically occur. The solution: better pay and fewer, but more focused, hours. “We had to create a balance for ourselves so we would be better farmers and we would be better workers.” The 5-day week is a goal they now hit about half the growing season, he said.

“Getting smaller, a shorter workweek, and a smaller crew enabled us to really start developing relationship with our employees. Before, there were people out in the field who I didn’t know from Adam. That’s a crappy feeling. Now that we’re smaller, we can develop personal relationship with our employees, be involved in their lives, and respond to their needs.”

Another major goal was allowing for time away from the farm, which meant one partner running the show while the other recharged his batteries, typically by visiting other regions and countries, immersing into other cultures and drawing information and inspiration from the farmers there. To allow for these sojourns, he said, “each of us has to know every aspect of running the business. When one person goes away and the entire operation is in the lap of the other there are going to be slip-ups, but it’s making farming socially sustainable for us.”