Nevada Farmer Employs Sustainable Small Farm Business Model that Brings Customers and Profit to Her
February 12, 2013 | Trish Popovitch
Wendy Baroli is a happy farmer. It even says so in her email signature. She’s happy for many reasons including a productive, profitable small farm, a penchant for heritage breeds and her healthy contribution to the planet. But what she seems most happy about is her small farm business model that brings the customers to her, reduces overheads and provides clients a custom farming experience that’s become a way of life.
Baroli comes from a family of farmers, Italian immigrants that farmed organically because they were too poor to do otherwise, but never planned on actually being a farmer. In fact, politician seemed more up her alley. But then she discovered the truth about politics: there’s only so much you can do from the sidelines. She wanted to be the change.
Baroli wanted to provide healthy food to local people while finding a little of the good life. It’s working. Baroli’s sustainable small farm business model based on her experience and research makes sense in the slice of countryside bordering Nevada and California where she runs GirlFarm, a custom sustainably grown food business that’s found its niche and is thriving.
It all started when Baroli worked for the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) office in Pershing County, Nevada. She saw the struggles that small farmers faced and the growing need for organic food on a local level. It wasn’t long before she began a CSA or Community Supported Agriculture group, delivering local fruits and vegetables from Nevada’s countryside to the folks in Reno. Soon the CSA model became impractical and Baroli decided that she wanted to farm. Instead of informing people what kind of vegetables they were going to receive, Baroli created a list of choices with check boxes and had customers tell her what food they actually wanted.
During her time with the conservation district Baroli also learned about the many hurdles facing modern farming. “Small farms disappear because they are not economical,” explains Baroli. “They are either too labor intensive or require way too much money up front and it takes too long to get to a place where you are at least breaking even, which is a perfectly fine place to be.”
Learning from her time with the conservation district, listening to people that buy organic produce and staying small is why GirlFarm is so successful. At GirlFarm, customers choose the produce; they pay for it in advance, harvest it and take it home in the containers they brought with them. It’s a simple but effective organic farming model that reduces costs and offers consistently high quality food to the families in The Personal Farmer Program™.
The Personal Farmer Program is how a happy farmer stays happy. It consists of customized produce and heritage meat of a quality and taste not found among larger manufacturers. The heritage meat program offers quarters rather than halves of livestock, making the best use of freezer space and providing people with naturally raised meat at affordable prices.
“Our cost of beef is not controlled by the national stockyard’s price,” says Baroli. “We don’t have an auctioneer. We don’t have someone who sets the price for our beef. We have our own foundation herd and as long as we are producing and feeding our own foundation herd sustainably on our own farm why should we charge the same price as the stockyard sets?”
GirlFarm’s Personal Farmer Program is offered to 25 families each year and the waiting list to be involved is long. The 95 acre farm offers Jacob sheep, Dexter Beef, Berkshire Pork and a plethora of heritage breed turkeys all serviced on site by an Egyptian rooster named Napoleon. The only part of the meat business done off site is the processing.
Baroli receives the money for The Personal Farmer Program up front avoiding the need for large annual business loans. Most traditional single crop farmers have a lot of rotating debt and Baroli’s model of custom diversity reduces that debt, but doesn’t eliminate it altogether. “The reality is every single American is in debt,” states Baroli. “Most of them are in debt to other people not to their business. The small organic farmer is in debt to their business and if that’s the only debt that they are carrying? That’s healthy.”
The best part of the sustainable business model of personal farming on the GirlFarm is Sundays. Every Sunday during the growing season the 25 families who have essentially bought a stake in an organic farm get to come to the farm with their children, their baskets and their shears and gather their own food. The families love to volunteer on the farm. GirlFarm offers a full sensory experience to the families it serves.
The families of the personal farmer program have a wonderful opportunity not to just understand where their food comes from but be a part of the actual growing process. Most families stay with the program year after year. For those who opt out, Baroli can find new customers on her waiting list. GirlFarm hopes to stay small and sustainable but is thinking of growing their own grains to feed their poultry, avoid GMO seeds and perfect the poultry side of their personal farmer experience.
Baroli knows it wouldn’t take much for her to expand her operation, but she also thinks it is one of the biggest mistakes a small farmer could make. It doesn’t take long for a sustainable farm with an unsustainable business plan to fail. Failing business in Nevada is what turned one of Baroli’s friends from an office worker to a beekeeper. Former casino employees may find a better life in the fields. According to Baroli, keeping things small and local is great for Nevada’s economy.
“Nevada is not typically considered an agricultural state but we actually are. It’s actually the only thing that truly holds our state together. […]No matter how you go, clear over to southern Nevada and Las Vegas, there is agriculture in almost every single community. It’s like a little string of pearls across our state and you don’t really think about it until you string them altogether. […] We will never be Kansas, Colorado or Iowa, but we don’t need to be. To be healthy economically you can decentralize if you pick your market and we definitely can do that here.”
Wendy understands that in order for a small farmer to be successful they must stay small. Outgrowing your own expectations is wonderful, but outgrowing your customer and target location puts strain on your entire farm and thus your life’s economy. Organic farming is a small operation, but a profitable choice in Nevada’s wrecked economy and many have found a second chance to make a decent living in planetary stewardship. Office workers turned into beekeepers and politicians turned into organic personal farmers. What happens in Vegas may stay in Vegas, but what’s happening in Nevada agriculture is a story the whole country needs to hear.
Corrections: An earlier version of the article stated that Baroli worked for the ‘Conservation District’ when in fact she worked for the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) in Pershing County, NV. Additionally, GirlFarm is technically on the Nevada/California and not in Nevada exclusively as the article previously stated.