An Ecosystem of Small Farms Everywhere

How might a network of small farms really work?

Last week I wrote Small Farms Everywhere, a post about the Farm Rush of capital into Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA), the departure of that capital, and the next phase, which I think will see more and more folks starting small farms around the world which are closely linked to their communities. If you have not read it already, do that first.

This week I am exploring what that Phase 2 might look like:

  1. A lot more small farms than you think
    There will be a lot of farms, and they will be all around the world

  2. A small farm ecosystem will foster diversity
    This distributed ecosystem can help preserve biodiversity and improve the character of our cities themselves

  3. Success = small farms having a culture of good practice
    We know the best practices that can give small farms a good chance of survival — it’s time to embed them into culture

  4. We can build a strong ecosystem
    There is a chance to cultivate a strong network of these farms, sharing knowledge, energy and resources - and those cultural practices

I want small farms to succeed because I believe they are powerful nodes that elegantly create connected benefits in food, jobs, community and culture. So I’m writing this in the hope that we can have conversations about how to foster a lot of them around the world. And I mean a lot! Let’s go.

1. A lot more small farms than you think

Over the next 20 years, an amplification of trends will probably take place:

  • Small CEA farms will grow a wider range of higher-calorie crops — some fruits, some vegetables. The knowledge of how to grow these crops will not be something that any one company can protect.

  • The efficiency of growing these crops will only get better. Current CEA farms are the ‘worst’ they will ever be.

  • The impacts of climate change on crop production will become more unpredictable and severe.

  • These impacts include increased scarcity of clean farmland for growing leafy-green crops and other fast-perishing crops.

  • These trends may occur more rapidly in various locales.

Across the world there will be more and more compelling reasons to start CEA farms, and water cleanliness / protection from flooding and climate interactions will become one of the most pressing drivers. I think these trends, along with cheaper technology and other factors, will mean that people will start a lot more small CEA farms than you would have thought. Probably a staggering number over the next 20 years.

Today there are around 2 million farms in the USA according to the USDA. That’s one farm per ~150 people. I am sure this number is off in some specific ways. But the order of magnitude is correct. The number of existing farms worldwide is around 500 million, and that farm-person ratio varies. But it’s not a high ratio!

New York has a population of around 9 million people. If you achieved a ratio of one farm for 10,000 people in New York, you would have 900 farms. As a comparison, there are ~13,000 bodegas (corner stores) in New York that serve this population. One farm for every 10 bodegas doesn’t sound too crazy.

There are around 300 city blocks in Manhattan, and supposedly around 120,000 across all five boroughs - let’s say just 100,000 or so blocks. 900 farms is roughly one farm every hundred blocks or so. This geographical spread does not seem very crazy either.

New York isn’t even in the top 10 most populous cities on the planet. It’s at number 11. Of course, every city is different. But (certainly most English-speakers) in the US and Europe rapidly forget that most of the largest cities in the world are in Asia, and over the next few decades, we will see more and more in Africa. There are hundreds of cities around the world with millions in population, and many of those are in regions far more readily impacted by climate change, with lower food sovereignty (their ability to grow their own food supply rather than import from somewhere else). The reasons for folks outside of the US to grow food hyper-locally are often far more pressing than in the US. So, probably lots of farms.

We may not see ‘a few dozen’, or even ‘a few thousand’ small farms. We may see tens of thousands, and eventually millions.

The scale of this trend is important, and usually under-stated. The number of small farms I am talking about here is not ‘a few dozen’, or ‘a few thousand’. It is in the tens of thousands, and eventually in the millions. The initial experimentation that we are observing is just the very beginning of a massive movement. As equipment becomes cheaper, as countries become wealthier, and as the critical issues become more severe, I think you will see the numbers of small CEA farms increase to staggering numbers.

Of course, there is no hard dividing line between a big farm and a small farm, and between a small farm with a mini-farm or a micro farm or a tabletop farm. Part of what we may see is the blurring of these distinctions further.

I think that the Farm Rush and the predominant attitude to small-scale CEA farms was built on a worldview which ignores that incredible scale.
People who thought they were being ambitious by writing huge checks during the Farm Rush were (in someways) being incredibly short-term-minded. This happens easily if you focus on a few data points (size of grocery market in US) rather than trends. It happens if you focus on trends rather than systems. And it happens if you focus on a limited geographical system rather than looking at the big picture. I say all this not to create hype at all, but because if we plan a party for 12 people and then 112 people come, we won’t have planned effectively. So let’s do that.

2. This ecosystem will foster diversity

If you start to believe (and this is still true if you knock a couple of zeros off the numbers) that we will see hundreds of thousands of small farms globally over the next few decades, then I think some new concepts emerge

  • I do not believe that a single operator is likely to dominate very much of this global market. There may be folks who manage to consolidate some operations and find some economies of scale around a hub and spoke model of multiple farms. But doing this across countries and geographies is both difficult and maybe not incredibly compelling from a use-of-capital point of view. We will see. Regardless, there will be a ton of space for non-chain farms that are connected to people and place — and these are what we should build.

  • A few suppliers are likely to achieve compelling growth by serving this market. On the equipment side, I would expect that within 10 years the number of ‘plug and play’ farming systems will mature, and (mostly-plastic ☹️ ) racking systems like a SANANBIO’s (but version 20!) will be prevalent, with specific bits of automation that increase safety and reduce labor. Bringing CapEx down, for example, increases the viability of using this equipment in less-wealthy economies, which is where the climate x population forces are becoming most intense, most rapidly.

  • On the consumables side, an ecosystem of suppliers will continue to grow — their success is less of a tech and innovation question and more of a supply + operations + materials + cost question. Companies like Re-Nuble that use waste products to create grow media and nutrients are a really promising part of a healthy system.

This ecosystem can protect biodiversity

We forget how crops have been so valuable to nation states. Kew Garden in the UK was essentially the country’s repository and R&D workshop for seeds stolen from everywhere else in the world. One of England’s prime skills was in grand theft agriculture. The Dutch were very good at it too.

Once you have had okra and liked it, you want it again. It’s really unlikely that the world’s populations, as they get wealthier, are going to stop wanting a diverse range of foods that come from varied cuisines, plants from different regions and climates.

With current technology we can grow a massive percentage of the world’s plants indoors in any place in the world now. We can grow cacao plants in Oslo and saffron in Lagos. It is not all profitable yet. But we have a path (the length of the path depends on the plant) towards:

  • being able to grow everything close to where we live

  • not needing to trade / ship food products

  • and therefore rewilding more land

  • stopping planting non-native species in wild land (e.g. cacao in Africa)

On the last point — look at it one way, ‘controlled environment’ can be as much a way of keeping non-native / domesticated plants out of native / wild environments as it is about growing kale. Of course, the horse bolted a long time ago and there are plenty of non-native plants now proliferating, but we can use technology to reduce agriculture’s invasion of land.

With all this in mind - the new small farms being built over the next few decades will be able to grow anything and everything. Plant knowledge about specific varieties is something that can and will be shared among all these farms. Ideally the small farmer in Sao Paulo who is growing Saltbush has a network of other folks around the world who have done the same, so they can plant it confidently first time and know roughly how many days it will take to be ready for first harvest.

In all honesty, there is cognitive dissonance here between what I am saying is a good thing to do based on current trends, and with my beliefs about the natural state of the world and a positive, sustainable way of getting our food. A plant like saltbush is native to Australia. It is of that place. To grow it in a plastic tube on another continent does the plant a kind of disservice. It is a transplanted alien being, disconnected from its kin, and from the biome surrounding it. So in terms of the plant’s experience, and our support of natural ecosystems it is not ‘right’. But in terms of the idea of the plant, its genetic code, you might argue this species is fortunate because it can spread its DNA and survive - and I think the current threatened state of our natural ecosystems makes it make sense to grow a wide diversity of plant species from across the world in many small farms.

Over the next 100 years as our negligence of the planet returns to us, we are going to use CEA as a way of protecting the diversity of the plant and fungi world. A distributed network of living seed banks is resilient against the removal of any one node. At some point I think it is likely we have to do a similar thing with more animal species, unfertilized bird eggs, IVF for animals etc - essentially keeping populations in artificial environments to ensure species survival. The continuous cultivation of diverse non-native food plant species within safe containers is perhaps the responsibility of all of us in the CEA world in the years to come.

The life support bubble of a vertical farm has an unreality to it that, in all honesty, I know is not the long-term answer. For me it is an emergency panic room for plants… maybe for the next 100 years or so, as we hopefully get our shit together, and the global population starts to edge down towards 2 billion. Long-long term there will be more elegant ways that are less manufactured and more integrated.

A small farm ecosystem can improve our cities

A few years ago I gave a talk at the super-fun New York Sun Works conference — it’s a hyper-energetic event with an auditorium full of kids who are building incredibly impressive projects with hydroponics and community gardens and experiments with cloning and all kinds of wild tech. I was blown away by the depth of knowledge that these students displayed and their aptitude with plant tech. It was inspiring, reassuring, energizing.

My small contribution was to talk about ‘sustainability’ and farming and real food. But central to my thesis is that the ‘real life’ of cities is a rich, messy, diverse and creative story - not a bland, corporate, glass-skyscraper story. The image that sticks in my mind (behind me on the stage) around that real life story is Wakanda - the fictional mega-city in Marvel’s Black Panther movies, with its richly varied architecture, bustling pedestrian streets, and mixture of high-technology with human-scale design.

Wakanda displays the energy of a bustling, pedestrian-oriented city

Walkable neighborhoods OMG

Land (wild land) is rich in detail. Traversing 1km of land, even in a ‘featureless’ desert, has plenty to fascinate the eye. Agriculture (or, the Western-predominant agriculture) essentially erases that detail by plowing fields. Our cities sometimes end up that way too. If you travel by car through downtown Dallas, or drive the highways of LA, the simplicity of the visual landscape is brutal. A flourishing of small farms in cities that serve their neighborhoods directly and are connected to people and place, is aligned with the view that we can achieve the rich textured visual landscapes of more lively cities instead of uniform drabness.

I don’t think we get this with a “Farm Rush” style approach to CEA, which is all about grand scale and consolidation. I think with that predominant US attitude to CEA, we get Idiocracy-style megabuildings and slums.

Almost every farming entrepreneur I have met has a vision for opening multiple farms under the same brand across geographies, normally under some kind of franchise system or wholly-owned properties. There are folders full of documentation of standard processes, marketing guidelines, system design templates. There are conversations going on between potential franchisees and franchisors about specific locations and financial structures as we speak. I am not here to get in the way of that. I think it’s inevitable that a couple of these succeed and build multiple locations within the next decade.

However I think we should neither rely on that to happen, nor pretend that this is the most positive, ambitious version of the small farm movement, given what I am saying about diversity above, and the inability of chain/franchise systems to fully reflect people and place.

The default nature of franchising or franchising-like systems is not to provide sustainable employment or interactions with community, and as part of our vision for a positive future we can do better. So throughout this post I am not talking about franchising or chains - I’m talking about a diverse ecosystem of small farms that are in positive network with each other.

3. How do we embed good practice into the culture of small farms?

People say ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’ and I tend to agree. In Be Like Animal, Be Like Plant, I talk about worldview and how it affects our decisions and actions. ‘Culture’ is partly a collective worldview and how that worldview manifests through daily activity.

What is a culture we might develop among small farms so that we can make a huge global ecosystem of those farms into a reality?

If you agree with me that there might be thousands or even millions of small farms one day, then at some point we should talk about what the culture of those small farms might be. Or, to reverse the question — if we think it’s a good idea for us to have thousands or millions of those farms, what is a culture we might develop so that we can make that a reality? What are ways of thinking and doing that might help us get there? What else would we want to embed in that culture so that these farms are great, and not terrible?

It’s worth starting with some assumptions so that we are talking about the same kinds of farms and share some common concepts. I think these kinds of first-principles examinations are useful even if they are kind of boring, to avoid miscommunication.

  1. Small farms are good for communities
    In the best circumstances, small farms provide food, jobs, education, community meeting spaces, and local commerce. And they are connected to people and place.

  2. Small farms are commercial entities of some kind
    It could be as little as 1% of their activities. But still.

  3. The craft of running small farms is established and will improve
    You do not have to invent anything new to run a small farm now.

  4. Small farms can thrive in the right place with the right business model
    Key words are ‘can’ and ‘right’.

  5. Small farms can be environmentally sustainable
    They can achieve net zero carbon emissions by using renewables and offsetting the rest. They can essentially be zero waste by using (truly) compostable or reusable packaging and other circular economy strategies for their other consumables.

  6. Small farms can provide rewarding careers
    They can operate while paying employees a living wage, providing training, and making it fun, peaceful and stimulating to work there.

  7. Small farms can just be small farms
    They can do all of the above without scaling beyond a single small location. To be clear I’m not trying to scare anyone off doing something else. I’m just saying, this model can work as is.

I want to touch on a couple of these points that I don’t think have been discussed heavily in our industry. Let’s start with the first.

Small farms are good for communities, and communities are good for small farms

I think there is something that is holding us back a little in the development of a healthy ecosystem of small farms.

Take assumption 1 above as true — that small farms are good for communities. Coming at this from the point of view of commercial farmers, I think that because, as commercial organizations, our predominant mode is transactional, we tend to generate our operational models purely by looking for ways to make our farm financially viable by finding a product or service to sell to the community. In predominant startup-wisdom best-practice we talk to the customer and we find out what they will pay us for a thing we do or make.

This is smart and makes sense. However it tends to make all interactions with community money-based. This is the fuel for our farm’s commercial survival and so there will always be a need for those activities. But there doesn’t need to be a binary between being a ‘community garden’ and a ‘commercial farm’. I would argue that complete focus on commercial activities has an opportunity cost, versus work that strengthens community ties in other ways - and that community is the thing which will support the farm if it ends up in danger.

My hunch is that small farms in communities have far more staying power if they have a practice of focusing more on helping delight and strengthen the community in non-commercial transactions, and less on pure commerce.

I don’t think that’s something that’s built into the system at the moment. I don’t think we talk about it that much. I don’t think a lot of us even really know how to do it. Some of us are starting farms in our neighborhoods where we grew up, but plenty of others are starting farms in places thousands of miles from our homes. We are not all trained on how to build businesses that are part of communities anymore. But we need to have small farms that are fully connected to and representative of people and place.

I think expertise in these aspects is something that a good ecosystem of small farms could foster by sharing knowledge and collaborating on ways of community integration, in the same ways as it might do for knowledge of farm operations.

More importantly, a small farm culture where each farm holds each other to an easily-achieved but meaningful level of work in this area. Not purely for feel-good reasons, but also because it may be the glue we need in the network to help ensure long-term survival for each farm.

This is not really a burden. I am also saying, we have an opportunity to build a lot of farms. While we do that, why don’t we give them the best chance of success by doing things that feel really good.

So the question is, how do you build that culture? I think it’s kind of crazy that the first thing I think of is ‘we need the data’. And I think that’s part of the solution, in that we need to check as we go. But it serves us to remind folks of the benefits that a community can bring to the farm itself — strong benefits that we can respond to in kind.

Some ways that a community can help a farm:

  • Individuals in the community can invest in the farm (this happened at Farm.One and was hugely helpful)

  • Voters in the community can support beneficial actions by the local government that help small farms - subsidies, partnerships, educational ties, land etc. Maybe the biggest factor.

  • The labor pool can come from the community

  • Landlords and local suppliers can provide support

  • People can help when there’s a disaster like a flood or snowstorm

These are obvious, but I don’t think we give them enough weight. I guess I’m kind of saying ‘even if you don’t care about the community, it makes good financial sense to’. So the ecosystem might build culture that encourages the farms within to strengthen their community links. The stronger your ties to money, the more you have to do things with money. The good thing for cities about most speculative money going away from the industry is that farms will instead need to create strong community ties to succeed.

The craft of running small farms is established

There are a bunch of custom decisions to make when planning a small farm that relate to people, place, and current technology. But there are also plenty of proven ways of working, that we do not have to reinvent every time. Small farms can adopt these ideas when starting, so that they can focus on farming, save money and give their farms a good chance of success. Some amount of standardization around these processes makes it much cheaper for farms to share professional services at lower cost, to help each other out, and to innovate in the areas that will really count.

I wanted to touch lightly on a couple of examples. There are many. My main point is that a healthy ecosystem can surface these things and create ways for small farms to adopt and improve them easily. And farms can share standard approaches on the inside while still having unique features that connect them to people and place.

Different on the outside, standard elements on the inside

A. Use simple corporate structures and standard concepts

Corporate: The corporate structure of a small farm can be simple. In most nations, there are lightweight business structures (like a US LLC) that can be set up rapidly and provide a sufficiently robust container for a farm. For example, creating a more complex structure, e.g. a US C Corp, that is more palatable to VCs, is unnecessarily expensive to create and manage, and small farms can avoid it.

Financial: Small farms can align around financial expressions of their businesses, and the way they talk about them with others. The Chart of Accounts (how you categorize all of your different money movements, e.g. B2B Sales, Utilities costs etc) for a small farm can look exactly the same as another small farm. The more standard the accounting, the easier it is to standardize professional services and for someone to move between farms. And most importantly, the easier it is for anyone else in the ecosystem to understand and help with a small farm’s problems.

Operational: You might start to see small farms following a set of operational principles which give them a good chance of survival and a way of creating positive network effects that eventually lower their costs.

For example, small farms have very little room for expensive management. The cost of a few hours’ time of a professional service such as a lawyer, an accountant or a marketing professional can destroy the economics of small farm. The cost of paying multiple knowledge workers on a small farm only makes sense if you are trying to become a big farm.

However, if many small farms’ operations are similar, the incremental cost of providing professional services to one farm is lower. For example, with a standard chart of accounts and up-to-date books, submitting a tax return for 4-5 farms does not take much longer than doing just one. AI will also chip away at some of these standardized data activities — again aided if the way they work is similar across farms.

Capital: This is a huge topic. The ideal is that there are simple low-interest financing options available for small farms, and that even better, small farms have other sources of capital than debt, especially sources that tie them more closely to people and place.

B. Copy and paste revenue models that work

These are some of the most popular revenue models for small urban farms. Some of these work. Like, actually work. I know, crazy.

  • C: B2C [subscription/CSA] [adhoc onsite sales] [Farmers market]

  • B: B2B [indie restaurants/foodservice] [chains] [other foodservice]

  • E: Events [onsite bev/food] [tours/experiences] [classes/education]

But wait! They don’t all work in all places with all teams. The criteria for where they work and what the key success criteria are can be shared.

New farms that open are picking one or more of these models and learning from the folks who have already done them. They are starting to establish rules of thumb around the operational costs and revenues of each type of model. Learning the marketing techniques that make each model effective. Learning the operational processes that allow you to serve your chosen model most efficiently. These techniques can be picked up by anyone.

For example, the first phase of Farm.One was strictly B2B restaurants. We learned how to plant on-demand to reduce inventory risk, how to deliver directly, how to use reusable packaging, how to invoice and manage cashflow, how to manage a product range. That specific craft around that specific business model is learnable, there are good ways of doing it and bad ways. There are ways to do it that will ensure survival, and those ways can be shared among farms.

This information can be shared in far more detail, more widely. I will talk below about intellectual property and why sharing makes sense.

C. Make considered technology choices

Again, huge topic. But we have an opportunity with all small farms to ensure we choose good tech. For example, the fractional amount of time that one person needs to spend managing X square feet of grow area will decrease. The time it takes to plant and harvest the grow area might also decrease. This will all depend on varieties and specific situations. As this process happens, we have an opportunity at every step to choose technology that improves the financial survival of our farm but also improves the quality of work and life for the people around the technology.

For most teams in most places, deciding whether you want to be a small farm or a technology R&D lab, is the kind of clear decision that small farms need to take early on to be viable.

D. Close gracefully, creating nutrients

I want to talk about death, dying and rebirth 🙂 because any healthy system has ways of processing things that die into valuable nutrients for the living.

The aim for small farms is to survive for a long time - for example at least the life of equipment. This will not always happen. Even if a small farm survives a long time, at some stage in the distant future it will probably need to close.

When you start a new business, the prospect of closure is the last thing on your mind, and planning and setting aside resources for that eventuality might seem like a downer (or might reveal that you do not have sufficient capital to do so gracefully). Businesses that do not consider closure until it is too late end up creating a burden on the community, and small farms can avoid that.

Instead, being proactive and prepared for closure from the moment of inception is kinder to planet, community, and team members.

There are four main costs to closing a small farm, which are mostly predictable and possible to set aside capital for at the outset. While the business culture in different countries might encourage founders to skip these responsibilities, the health of the global network of small farms is much improved if small farms close as thoughtfully as they open:

  1. Cost of shutting the facility - small farms can earn a reputation of never being abandoned for others in the community to clean up. When we had to temporarily shut our Bergen Street farm, it took several days of work with multiple people to ensure the racks were clean. I did the same thing at our Tribeca farm, and also removed years’ worth of junk!

  2. Paying vendors - small farms rely on vendors who are often small businesses themselves, and so can create a reputation for reliability within that community by ensuring they do not leave vendors hanging. While the financial stability of small farms is helped by arranging favorable payment terms, vendors still need to be paid.

  3. Finding homes for equipment and consumables - the best place for small farm ‘stuff’ is another small farm. The worst place is landfill. Extracting unwanted equipment for junking is expensive. The more readily small farms can place equipment at a new home, the less severe the impact of a single facility closing. Same with consumables.

  4. Paying a reasonable severance for employees, equivalent to the amount of time you expect them to take to find a new role. In countries like the US we also have to contend with the cost of healthcare.

It can be relatively simple for folks to see when specific small farms are in trouble and liable to need to start closure. Maybe there are five basic states, which I’ve color coded for how happy you might be in these states 😉 

  • Starting up - when the team is launching and ramping up production

  • Slow burn - when the farm is in full production but the team has not yet optimized operations to achieve stability or profitability.

  • Stable operations - when the farm is in a steady healthy state. the workers and vendors are being paid, the closure fund is full, and the status of the farm’s location, customers and model is stable.

  • Critical - when the farm is at full production but is financially out of balance, losing money and in danger of closure if changes are not made - at this point the closure fund should still be full!

  • Closing - when the farm has a choice between continuing operations out of hope, or starting to use the closure fund to shut down.

The discipline comes from awareness of the current state, realization that the first two states are very similar to the Critical state, and the practice of not eating into the closure fund until the decision is made to close.

Beyond covering costs and being aware of their state, small farms can also share experiences and information with other small farms that can be useful to avoid the same pitfalls. This can come in the form of qualitative discussion and the provision of data — the qualitative stuff is always as important as the data.

E. Be fully connected to people and place

I think it’s possible for folks who are starting small farms to share some common approaches to teams and working together that are positive for humans, because they are fully connected to the people in the farm and outside the farm. I think that the financial constraints of starting a small farm can mean that there is less hierarchy and less of an extractive mindset among those teams overall, which can make it easier to have farms that fully represent the culture within which they operate and of the people working there.

These are just examples. There are many other things small farms can and must do to ensure survival and a strong ecosystem, and there are many other positive qualities we can embed into a culture of small farms.

4. A strong ecosystem of small farms?

OK. So if there might be common principles that small farms follow to ensure their own success and the strength of a network, what might that ecosystem want to think about doing to get positive network effects?

I think it’s worth defining the key elements of success here. We want some way to keep the positive attributes of small farms while making it easier for them to thrive, and create positive network effects among the thousands or millions of farms that make the whole more than a sum of its parts:

  • More farms staying alive and thriving, with all their benefits

  • These farms being environmentally sustainable

  • The positive externalities of these farms growing over time

  • The people involved having a good time!

A bad situation would be - more farms opening but they all start to work like McDonald’s - carbon emissions, low-quality jobs, waste, poor-quality food.

Good networks can also produce secondary effects, for example:

  • Increase in expected salaries after small farm jobs (via education)

  • Increase in access to good capital for new small farm projects
    If we can get more farms to thrive, then the economics of small farms become predictable, and capital becomes easier to source.

So what might a strong ecosystem look like?

I think it’s possible to strive for a model of connection between farms that has attributes such as the following:

  • Non-extractive - there are network effects without rent-seeking

  • Evolving - responds rapidly to best-practice of participants

  • Configurable - can be adaptable to specific locations, circumstances

  • Global - works across broad distances

  • Resilient - adapts to changes in technology and other trends

  • Equitable - creates value for all participants without strong hierarchy

  • Connected to people and place - fosters communities around farms

There are infinite ways to approach this. I want to touch on a few aspects that I think are some of the most important - having more healthy farms; sharing knowledge, energy and resources; encouraging flows of people.

Fewer unviable farms, more healthy farms

A good ecosystem should make it harder to start a bad farm, and easier to start a good one.

Contraception against unviable farms: This almost goes without saying, but it is beneficial to discourage folks from starting farms that will likely be unviable, and redirect their efforts towards a viable business model or a different aspect of the farming ecosystem. If we keep the overall quality level and sustainability of small farms at a high level, the group benefits as a whole.

Folks who have done their own startups don’t tend to recommend, persuade or encourage others to do the same. The work is too long-term and too dependent on the energies and motivations of the founder for it to be useful to encourage anyone who is on the fence to try — they have to really want it. So I do not want to encourage any single person to start a farm.

Instead, a good ecosystem of small farms might help make it easier for founders who are going to do this anyway, offer strong standard frameworks that make success more likely, community support during standard operations, and guiding principles to help ensure small farms are positive actors.

Strong flows within, into and out of the network

A strong ecosystem might share things like knowledge, energy and resources between farms, and into and out of the network. I am keeping this somewhat abstract, because I think a good network would be adaptable to what to share.

A strong ecosystem encourages knowledge-sharing

The way we think about intellectual property is a facet of our worldview. If we see each small farm as a fast-growing startup that is driven to collect value for itself only, and driven to hold that value in the hope of creating an unassailable competitive advantage or additional revenue via the licensing of knowledge, then of course we expect it to attempt to protect its knowledge via trade secrets or patents.

However, if a small farm is happy being a small farm, there is little to no need to guard that IP, and far more collective network benefits in sharing knowledge than guarding it.

Small farms do not need to protect intellectual property — or even see it as “property”.

I have talked to a lot of startups around the world, from intensive exposure to the Japanese startup scene, to visiting folks in the Middle East, South East Asia, China, the UK, Germany and other markets. I have visited many farms and spoken to many farming businesses.

There is no value for most small farms to protect their intellectual property or even think of it as “property”. Every hour you spend doing this or paying lawyers to work on this for you is wasted energy and resource that would be better off elsewhere. I am not saying that every single invention that is created on small farms is worthless, and that some individuals might be doing things that deserve special consideration. I am saying that broadly, the activities of small farms are not IP-generating activities, and small farms are wasting their time and stopping information flow if they treat them as such.

Instead, active sharing of knowledge brings a host of network benefits. It improves the quality of discussion because it brings everyone to the same baseline. It lowers the cost of mistakes for everyone in the network, which strengthens the network because fewer nodes drop out. A small farm culture that promotes the sharing of all kinds of expertise is one that is more resilient.

And guess what, it already happens, in a casual and ad-hoc manner. Farmers at Aerofarms and Kalera and InFarm (and Farm.One) all talk to each other on the side anyway.

Side note on rituals:

I think the collective sharing of knowledge can be really fun. I am currently fascinated by ritual, and I mean that in the sense of recurring activities that we might perform that have more or less specialness attached to them. In business many of our rituals are driven by the market - quarterly reports, board meetings, tax season etc. These rituals feel shitty, mostly. Even in a high-performing year, producing the actual board materials to show the hockey-stick growth is not really the reason you got into business. Maybe you go for a drink after and that’s what makes it… fun?

Instead I believe that the way many of us used to perform rituals — maybe there is group movement involved, there is music you are making, there is creative expression, there is drama — was carefully designed to make the passing of essential information really dramatic and memorable, sometimes fun. e.g. when we had to figure out how to pass on knowledge about how to use this specific perennial grass for grain in the best way, we didn’t just write it down on some tablet, we made a whole opera-length musical composition about it, which we reminded ourselves of every 3 months. It is possible to bring some of that joy and excitement and fun back.

Sharing inside and outside of the ecosystem

  • Between experienced and less-experienced farms: The clearest benefit for networking is for less-experienced farms to learn best practices and other knowledge directly from established farms, or from stores of knowledge created by multiple farms. Any knowledge store might be updatable with built-in methodology for attaining a good level of accuracy.

  • Flows of energy between all farms. By energy I mean the human effort and attention that goes into farms and all the work surrounding them. For our purposes, let’s divide small farm work into farming, and everything else. The farming work has to be done whatever happens. The everything else has to be fitted in around the farm work.

    Going back to those non-farm tasks, like marketing, accounting etc — in small farms, the cost of professional services is out of range compared to the rest of the activities on the farm. Or another way of looking at it: To pay for the cost of an hour of an accountant, you need to sell a LOT of vegetables. Standardizing the chart of accounts helps a lot, but someone still has to do them.

    I’m not here to give answers 😉 but I think a strong network of small farms will find ways of sharing the collective energy of all the individuals working on small farms to solve that fundamental problem.

  • Between experienced and less-experienced workers: Given the multi-modal nature of work on small farms between farm work and knowledge work, it should be possible for individuals to learn skills not just from their immediate coworkers and managers, but from other people in the ecosystem too. Because there are currently not that many farms, it might be most useful for a network of farms to be based as much on connections between individuals at farms, as between just the farms themselves as entities.

  • Between dying farms and new or existing farms: 
    Dying farms can give their knowledge, energy and resources to farms that are still operating. This is of huge value. Operating farms can give support to dying farms too. I know several founders who have lost their businesses over the past few years, and during those times the ability to chat to folks who fully understand their circumstances, and to get their advice, brings much solace.

  • Between farms and other organizations:
    A strong network would be able to interact with all of the other entities that surround small farms and make them more viable. For example:

    • Local food hubs

    • Technology providers
      I think it’s a really exciting time to be developing technology for small farms, and I think these providers can be drivers of some positive standardization of processes that can help small farms be viable.

    • Information providers

    • Media

    • Government

    • Capital providers

  • Flows of people into the ecosystem: The more demand there is to work on small farms, the higher-quality the applicant pool and the more resilient the workforce. We often found non-sustainable dynamics in the applicant pool for farm work positions at Farm.One — heavily-educated folks from prestigious colleges who wanted to dip their toe into the world of urban agriculture but long-term had their sights on corporate jobs which pay far more. The sheer number of these people tend to crowd out other folks who are looking for a long-term career, and reduce the overall diversity of the applicant pool. A better global network of farms could make it easier for each small farm to attract a diverse and representative applicant pool of potential long-term employees.

    Additionally, given the ability of small farms to grow a wild diversity of crops that represent different cultural heritages, small farms are uniquely placed to attract workers who are motivated to explore or represent their cultural heritage via food, and this potentiality of small farms could be amplified and expressed via a positive network.

  • Flows of people between farms: A healthy ecosystem could make it possible for people who are trained on a small farm to find work at other small farms easily whenever those jobs are available. This sounds basic, but is structurally opposite to a common attitude to employment which creates noncompetes and other incentives not to join related companies. A healthy flow of individuals between farms allows for deeper information sharing and a greater sense of community.

  • People graduating from small farms, into related work: The best possible scenario for employees who leave small farms is for them to end up working in related corporate, capital, governmental or community structures that can further support small farms everywhere. The more folks in policy who have experienced small farm work, the better cities and governments can understand and foster the growth of small farms.

    For the employees themselves, work on a small farm should give them transferable skills, experience, and access to training and certification that makes them valuable folks to hire afterwards. Ideologically, it would also be great if small farms cultured ways of working and ways of thinking that set people up for success no matter where they go.

  • People retiring: It might seem like a far-off goal, but the healthiest reputation for small farms would be places of employment that can provide meaningful careers to folks of all ages, and to be places people want to stay for the long term. Working among people of all ages provides a richer, deeper experience than a homogenous team.

Of course, there is a ton more that could happen. These are some of the ways that came to mind most clearly, and more will emerge.

We can do this

Phew! Thanks for reading.

I am pretty sure a lot of small farms are coming. I am confident most of the folks starting and working on those farms are trying to do great things at small sizes. This movement is an amazing opportunity for positive transformation of our cities and the way we think about food and farming.

I think there are some elegant ways to achieve a strong network of these farms. I am sure you have some ideas already forming. But most importantly at this stage, I wanted to define the potential and how beneficial that network might be, rather than a specific solution. I hope that we might build a culture of small farms that helps create this kind of collaborative network, because I think it improves the viability of all farms, and has a chance of making the world a little nicer as we do it.

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