Can our local farmers market support real farmers?

After the piece I linked to Monday, I want to present my own economic argument from our own experience at market to bolster the piece’s core economic complaint. A few years ago, some folks with MU did a basic survey of market customers, at market, including questions like where they lived and how much they spent at market. Most of the surveyed folks reported spending something like $10-$20 a week at market. Some people certainly spend much more than that, but let’s say that $20 is an average. Let’s put this in perspective with a back-of-the-envelope calculation.

Average Saturday market attendance for the last few years is around 4,000/week, which includes kids. The survey reported that most people come to the market in pairs (plus kids). So let’s assume it’s actually 2,000 separate households. Each household spends an average of $20, so that’s an estimated $40,000 spent each week. Multiply that by 30 weeks, and that’s $1.2 million dollars. Obviously, this is a rough estimate of spending at Saturday markets. But sales data from the Fayetteville Farmer’s Market in northwest Arkansas suggest that the estimate is probably of the right order of magnitude. That market has 100 member vendors, summer Saturday customer counts in the 4,000s, and total annual sales of a bit over $1 million (as reported in Growing for Market).

Over a million dollars sound great, until you split it up among all the vendors. Divide that by 80 vendors (for CFM), and you get an average gross annual income per vendor of $15,000. Even as a net income (which it certainly is not), that doesn’t come close to supporting independent farms. Obviously there are much smaller vendors making far less in gross income, and a few big vendors making more in gross income, but the core point is that there’s nowhere near enough consumer spending at the market to support more than a handful of real, full-time (not hobby or part-time) farms. Keep in mind that very few of the vendors at CFM, even most of the bigger ones, are actually farming full-time and earning a living. Most have other jobs, or spouses with jobs, or Social Security & retirement benefits, or some other outside incomes that means they don’t have to make all their living from food sales.

Another angle: From some quick online research, the average American family seems to spend $100-$400/week on groceries. If the normal/dominant consumer at market spends $20/week, that means that only 5%-20% of personal food spending is happening at the farmers market, despite the market having the vast majority of foods that fit into any normal, healthy dietary regime, and those foods easily being fresh enough to last all week to the next market. Again, this is not going to sustain any real shift toward independent small farms, especially when it’s only among the 5-10% or so of the Columbia population who’re even bothering to shop at all.

Local foods are all about the economics. Green or not, small independent, full-time farms will succeed only if people spend real money with them, and will not if they remain a cute boutique source for Saturday night’s dinner with the other 20 meals coming from food corporations. That’s the reality we’re up against, and it’s something too many journalists and non-profit small farm advocates ignore or forget when praising the local foods movement. Certainly things are better than 20 years ago, but it’s far from an economic success story in the long run.

Also, whenever considering numbers like these, remember that such sales numbers =gross, not net, and it’s hard to judge farm-by-farm what a good income is. For example, a meat vendor may bring in a high total cash-flow at market because their products are more expensive, but their net may be low. A farm like ours that focuses heavily on low-overhead methods may never be as big or bring in as much gross as an expensive tillage farm, but our net (or at least our net/gross ratio) may well be better.

Finally, to be clear, I’m not saying we haven’t come a long way toward rebuilding local foods and small farms. We have. What I’m warning against is “Mission Accomplished” syndrome, in which food writers and nutritionists and journalists expound upon how vibrant modern farmers markets and local food systems are, without ever checking under the hood to see just how healthy the admittedly improving patient really is.

Non profits in farming

Recently the Columbia Tribune published a story on a struggling non-profit farm in the area, Jefferson Farm & Garden. Despite receiving almost $2 million in Federal grants and private donations, the educational farm hasn’t opened to visitors in several years. It claims to be doing almost exactly the same thing we are, only for “educational” purposes. It really irks me that so much money is available to non-commercial enterprises when real businesses have to scratch for a living; I could sure hire a lot of workers and expand our production with seven figures of free money. For the record, here’s the response I posted on the Tribune’s web site. I’ve had people come up to me at the market and thank me for saying what I said, so I figured it’s worth re-posting here:

The following is not meant as a comment directly on JF&G, but more on the general pattern of how our society treats non-profits and actual businesses. As the co-owner (with my wife) of a small, direct-market certified organic vegetable farm in Boone County, I am somewhat bemused by the resources and budget available to a non-profit doing essentially the same thing we are.
We grow over 200 varieties of produce, fruit, beans, and small grains, along with poultry and meat & dairy goats. Over the last 4 years, we’ve invested most of our resources in our farm (including our private residence), the total sum of which is considerably less than the initial federal earmark for JF&G. Our business continues to grow and now has four (very) part-time employees. We sell our products at the Columbia Farmers Market, generating and remitting sales tax revenue. We pay property taxes on our land and home, and income taxes on our profits. We happily offer tours of our diversified operation, at $8/head to cover our basic time expenditure to do so. From what I’ve read, there is little one could learn from touring JF&G that could not be learned from touring private farms like ours.

We work very hard at our business and are proud of our success so far, though our long term economic success is by no means guaranteed. We do not apply for or receive any grants, subsidies, or handouts for our farm. The only government money we’ve ever taken is the Missouri cost-share program for our Organic certification, which pays up to 75% of certification costs (capped at $750; ours was under $400 last year).

So I am bemused to read that a non-profit farm can receive millions of dollars of tax-free money, use volunteer labor (technically illegal for a private business like ours), pay no taxes itself, and still be $3 million short. I know multiple good folks in Boone County who have the skills, experience, work ethic, and active desire to start small market/CSA farms, but who do not have the capital to do so because it is very difficult to get a loan for such a business. $500,000 would buy five of these folks 10 acres each, even at an inflated Boone County price of $10,000/acre, enabling them to start five new tax-generating businesses that would diversify our rural economy.

I have nothing really personal against JF&G, it’s a nice idea which could become a good tourist attraction if done well. But I do resent our society’s and government’s general assumption that non-profits are always preferable and more knowledgeable than private entrepreneurs doing the same thing on their own bootstraps. It’s frustrating to see money showered on anything that doesn’t commit the cardinal sin of actually trying to earn money. It’s also frustrating to know that we could earn a better salary working for a non-profit farm than for ourselves; the only volunteers allowed a for-profit business are the owners.

Liability and insurance on a market farm

Liability is a major concern for us in running this kind of farm, for all sorts of reasons in our paranoid and litigious culture. There’s product liability, in the event someone feels our products made them sick. There’s worker liability, now that we’re planning on hiring help. There’s visitor liability, an especially frightening prospect with children touring a working farm. There is liability on the farm, liability while transporting farm products, liability while set up at a farmers market (let’s say someone trips over a tent pole; it happened last year).

Then there’s the related question of insurance, not just against liability issues, but hazards. Insurance for farm equipment and supplies, insurance for harvested products in storage, insurance for crops in the field, etc. In theory, and as we’re taught in this culture, we need insurance for every possible danger that could happen or that we could be sued for. Except that the more we interact with the insurance system, and ask questions, the more we’re convinced it’s at best flawed and unreliable, and at worst an outright scam. Let me elaborate:

First, insurance has to be the only business in which a consumer isn’t allowed to read or evaluate what they’re buying. Every insurance agent/company we’ve worked with refuses to let us read the actual wording of the policy they want to sell us, instead simply assuring us to take their word for it. Only by paying for a policy can you read a policy. The only exception was an agent who agreed to let us “borrow” a copy of the policy, if we promised to bring it back soon and not tell anyone or he’d get in trouble. It’s not like these are proprietary or customized; in most cases the policies are old boilerplate. In one case, the highly protected policy we paid to see was written in 1988 and not even by the company selling it.

Second, the wording is nearly impossible to understand even for graduate-educated scientists, and offers enough vaguely-worded phrases to allow any underwriter more than enough room to wiggle out if desired. So far, most agents we’ve worked with haven’t even read some of the policies, and just rely on calls to an underwriter to answer questions. They don’t even know what they’re selling, much less be able to offer a concrete promise that the policy will do what it says it does. Multiple times, we’ve received an assurance from an agent (or their underwriter) that a policy does or doesn’t do something, and then had to correct them with the text from their own policy.

For example, two farm policies we’ve reviewed include specific exemptions that they do not cover liability issues related to pollutants, which are defined as any potential irritant or waste product used or produced on a farm, even if necessary for the operation of a farm. This is meant to include things like diesel, but is written broadly enough to include manure. Does this mean our product liability won’t cover any potential accusation of illness from the use of manure as fertilizer, even if used in accordance with NOP standards? This is not a hypothetical case, given the current national hysteria over food safety. Why would we pay thousands of dollars for a policy written to give an underwriter more than enough room to dump us for “contaminating” our fields with manure six months before harvesting anything?

Then there are the outdated definitions of “farming”. We run a modern diversified farm, whose real and potential income streams include sales of produce, wood products, crafts, processed food products, agritourism educational offerings, and more. Of these, all of which are reliant on the overall existence and operation of our farm, only raw produce is described and defined as covered under farm insurance policies, which specifically say that any other “business” not defined as farming (in the sense of growing crops) is not covered in any way by the policy. So when visitors pay for a farm tour, or buy a cornhusk doll, or eat our cornmeal, we may have no liability coverage. So much for opening a farm up for customer inspection, if the tour isn’t covered by our insurance because it’s a separate “business”. Insurance companies still think “farming” means growing a single crop and taking it to the elevator.

From a liability perspective, we’re better off shutting the gates and never letting anyone in here, even though that’s completely against the rational model of direct-market farms being open for customer inspection. And let’s not forget the outdated sense of what constitutes “marketing”. If a farm policy even considers marketing as something other than taking grain to an elevator or cattle to a sale barn, it only describes it as “operating a farm stand on the premises“. No concept of farmers markets, CSAs, or other modern farming models. So again, even the farm policies available don’t actually cover the kind of business we run.

I could keep going, but this is long enough. The point is that we’re trapped. Either pay thousands of dollars of hard-earned money every year to an insurance company for a policy that may or may not actually protect us from anything, and is worded to allow the company to define terms any way they want and weasel out of an issue, or go it alone and do our best to remove chances of liability in the first place by being extra-careful in produce handling, holding tours, and so on. That last bit is sensible, of course, but leaves us wide open to frivolous or even potentially accurate suits. We debate this constantly among ourselves, as farming is not lucrative enough to make the costs of insurance remotely comfortable, yet it’s frightening to go alone in a society where even friends can be forced to sue one another by insurance companies seeking to avoid liability.

Finally, there are the companies that just don’t cover some things, period. A certain large insurance company, whose name implies they used to cover people like us, informs us that they (a) don’t cover any farm that engages in sales of poultry of any sort (eggs, meat, etc.), even if that’s a tiny portion of the overall business, and (b) don’t offer workers comp insurance to any type of farm. Lovely.

As I’ve said before, we’ve concluded that going into business on one’s own is one of the riskiest decisions anyone could make. It’s sad that a choice which carries so much econonic and social benefit is the choice most impaired by every aspect of our culture and politics. We’d be far safer sticking to being salaried employees in an office, with a nice garden at home. And until that changes, a lot of other factors in America will stay the same.

Sorting & selling garlic

We take a very analytical approach to our garlic, in part because it is both expensive and valuable to grow. Here’s a walk through how we plan, acquire, and plant, and manage our garlic.

Good organic seed garlic, such as that we get from Seed Savers Exchange in Iowa, can cost from $2.50-$3.50 per head. While garlic can be gotten cheaper than that, we’ve stuck with Seed Savers for several reasons. A, their garlic is grown in Iowa and so is more likely to be adapted to our climate than garlic from, say, Washington state. B, we appreciate the work they do preserving heirloom garlics and wish to support their diversity. C, their seed garlic has consistently been very high quality and we feel we’re getting what we pay for.

That being said, it is expensive and garlic is reasonably easy to save for replanting, so every year we move toward saving more of our own. This has the dual benefits of saving us quite a bit of money, and also allowing us to select our garlic strains for the best adaption to our unique conditions.

This year (fall of 2008, actually) we planted twelve varieties of garlic, in varying amounts. Some of these were purchased, and some were saved from 2008. When we harvested the garlic in June, we sorted each variety into four grades by size and quality:

From left to right: Seed garlic, A garlic, B garlic, and sub-B. Seed grade is the largest and best-formed; we save this for replanting, although it would be the most lucrative to sell. A and B are market-grade heads, in which A is full-size and well formed, and B is still high quality but smaller than we’d like. Sub-B is anything that’s deformed, unusually small, or otherwise not up to our market standards. The photo is vague, at least at a small scale, but hopefully you can see the rough gradient from left to right.

Above, you see our yields for 2009. We had more Bs than we would have liked for some varieties, but overall it was a good year. The 200 saved seed heads will save us somewhere from $500-$700 on seed cost, though we’re buying some to keep expanding our plantings. The As and Bs are the garlic customers see at market, while the sub-Bs form our winter supply. Figuring on averaging two heads of garlic per week from September through March, that’s about 60 heads needed, so we’re close enough. Below, you see some of our seed garlic and our winter B garlic hung in a back room of the house for storage:
Finally, consider the As and the Bs. We sell As at $2/head, and Bs at $1.50/head. Just this past week we ran out of As for all but Shvelisi, and so have started bringing Bs instead, so if you noticed a price drop, that’s why. The garlic is the same quality, just a bit smaller, so you pay a bit less. We find it easier to sell all the As first, then start in on the Bs, rather than having a more confusing stand with multiple prices and sizes.

So if you do the math, when we’ve sold all the As and Bs by the end of the year, we’ll have made around $720 gross. Add in sales of early garlic scapes and some green garlic, and it comes out to around $900 gross. Take away the $350 we spent on seed garlic, and you get about $550 net, not counting time, labor, mulch, marketing, and so on. This is why we charge what we do; $500 net is not a lot for 8 months of care. Our costs will go down every year as we save more seed, but that will just allow us a more reasonable profit margin on it. Good thing we love to grow garlic!

Update: In all this, I didn’t mention rot. A certain percentage of heads will go bad; genetic variability means there are always a few clunkers. This risk increases the longer they’re stored, obviously, which is partly why we sell the best ones first. I mention this in part because we do our best to check sale heads for signs of rot, but it’s not always obvious at the surface, and we make mistakes. A recent customer noted that he’d had a partially bad one, which I happily replaced. Just another fact of life with produce.

Marginal cost and market bags

After posting on the problem of “free” plastic bags at market, I ran across this interesting piece from Ezra Klein on the econonics of customer freebies like bread at a restaurant. The basic idea, which is nothing new, is that consumers do not behave rationally when something is percieved to be free. He recounts multiple excellent examples of such behavior, and the effects of even a tiny charge on changing consumer consumption of an item.

The problem as I see it, is that for incremental charges to work, they have to be percieved as unavoidable. One restaurant that charges for bread may lose offended customers to all the others that don’t. One grocery store that charges for bags, one market stand, etc. If everyone at a market charged equally for bags, perhaps the effect would take place. But if we just started it, chances are we’d annoy or offend customers who might go elsewhere, even if that extra nickel was more than worth the access to our produce.

Still, it’s a great quick look at the psychology of consumerism, and what kind of factors market farmers have to keep in mind as they compete for customers in a wide-open marketplace.

Plastic bags at market

I thought this was interesting: the Berkeley (CA) Farmers Market is banning the use of plastic bags and packaging. According to the article, they’re not the only ones working toward that goal.

This is something we’ve long thought about; one of the most wasteful aspects of our farm is the big rolls of thin plastic bags we routinely give out to customers for their produce. It’s a difficult problem, because we KNOW 98% of those are going straight to the landfill and we’ll have to buy more, but they’re also an important way to protect the high-quality produce people are buying from us. I don’t want to lose a sale of, say, lettuce, because the customer didn’t bring something to put the loose leaves in. And often you really do need to separate items or protect them somehow.

I’d love to have more customers bring their own; they can be reused over and over. We already do this for our bulk purchases at local groceries; I can use the same plastic bag for rice, beans, or spices many times in a row before it gives out. I have had a few people do just that and have profusely thanked them for it. And I definitely see a trend of more and more folks only asking for bags when they really need them (like for loose-leaf lettuce). Many of our customers seem more than willing to combine multiple items in a single bag (whether plastic or cloth). The same is true for the paper cartons we use for cherry tomatoes, edamame, and the like. I’d love to see folks bringing Tupperware or other such things to market to carry bulk items home in.

While the Berkeley experiment is interesting, you won’t find me advocating for bans. I don’t think it’s a market’s role to legislate things like that. I’d rather customers and farmers make their own decision, influenced by economics and ethics. We’ve considered putting a nickel surcharge on our bags, but haven’t so far due to the hassle of it (we work in quarter increments currently). So far I feel like the core customer base of a farmers market is thinking about such things already; the Berkeley situation seems like a classic case of over-legislation to me. Thoughts?

A thorough debate on local food prices

There’s been quite a little kerfluffle online lately, after the excellent food/farm blog The Ethicurean posted a provocative and thoughtful essay from a small hog farmer accusing small farms of “gouging” customers through their pricing. The essay, and the ensuing comment thread, are very much worth the time of anyone reading this blog. You will learn a great deal from all the perspectives offered:

http://www.ethicurean.com/2009/03/31/unfair-fare/

Later, another food blog picked up on this, and got Joel Salatin to write a commentary about pricing of local foods. My thinking has obviously been deeply influenced by Joel’s libertarian approach to farming, and I thought his response was spot-on. There is some fair criticism that his Polyface Farm is, in fact, quite large and so its problems are not necessarily those of true small farms, but I think that misses the point. Even at a few acres, we run up against most of the same issues Salatin does with regards to inane bureaucracy, regulations, and limitations. In any case, read his take and the ensuing comment thread as well:

http://www.foodrenegade.com/guest-post-joel-salatin-on-why-local-food-is-more-expensive/

For my two cents, I think a core contention is whether farmers should be passing all costs along to consumers. I don’t think most people realize just how expensive it is to farm, especially at the market scale. I don’t mean inputs and seeds, though that certainly matters. I mean all the insurance and liability requirements, legal concerns, licenses, and so on, which are immensely expensive with regards to either the time to comply with them, or the money to hire accountants and lawyers to help you do so. And if you’re trying to farm full-time, add in all the basic costs of living a reasonable life that allows you to save for retirement or health care. I feel fully justified in including my health insurance costs and personal cost of living in my prices; this small business is intended to be my primary livelihood and I can’t separate that from the need to make a decent living.

If customers won’t pay the price I need to charge to make a living, that’s my problem. I chose this business and I’ll sink or swim with it. But one thing I won’t do is suffer an existence of poverty in a well-meaning attempt to serve people cheap food. My skills, effort, knowledge, and talents are too valuable to me to give away to an artificially subsidized concept of food. If I can’t make a living at this, I’ll quit and do something else, as will many other of the young small farmers just coming online.

Ball’s in your court, customers. I loved this comment from the second blog link:

Living expenses have snuck up on me, things I never paid for before. TV used to be free. I never had a cell phone until the last couple years. There didn’t even used to be an internet. I pay willingly for all these things, mostly for my own entertainment and enjoyment. How can I in good conscience justify paying $100 a month for satellite TV and cry “poor” about food, the very sustenance of my life?

One thing Joanna and I are working toward is open books; in a year or two, we’d like to make our books available to any customer at market, so they can see just how much it costs to grow each item, how much we pay in liability insurance, how many hours per year we spend wrestling with tax codes and regulatory messes, and so on. Some people seem to think market farming is like a garden with a business licence. Hah. Maybe it is if you don’t follow the rules, but it’s a classic case of ethical people taking the fall for everyone else.

Coming soon will be a long rant about the inanities of the insurance and liability issues we face as a small market farm, along with the equal silliness of the way tax codes and business structures restrict our ability to farm.

Is growing food expensive?

A little while back, there was an interesting debate on the Columbia Tribune’s food forum over a claim our local food columnist made that “food you grow yourself is almost free“. A reader felt that wasn’t accurate, and brought up a list of gardening expenses (scroll down to post 7 on the thread):

But here I am giving deep consideration to purchasing a $150 grow light from gardeners.com for seed starting. And tools…………….. omg tools are pricey, especially good ones that will last. I have a tiller; it’s even rear tine, though I still find front tine tillers are easier for me to handle and will dig deeper. Have ya priced fertilizer recently?

Below is an edited version of the lengthy response I posted, which I felt would also make a good blog entry on the economics of personal gardening and farming. Any gardeners or farmers are welcome to chip in their thoughts on this complicated issue.

Gardening is expensive? I guess I see it the other way around. A small garden requires very little expense if handled right, whereas the scale of even a small farm requires infrastructure that is not relevant to a garden. For example, I use drip irrigation because it is not practical to stand around with hose all day in my extensive plantings, whereas a small garden can easily be watered by hand or with a simple sprinkler. Real irrigation is expensive; garden hoses are cheap. I use a great deal of straw mulch, which isn’t a big expense for a couple garden beds but is at a farm scale. Gardens can be weeded by hand; most farms need or use some form of mechanical or chemical cultivation, though some (like ours) do still use mostly manual weed control. This costs a great deal of time, which is of course money. Along the same lines, the manual labor required in a household garden is not that bad, whereas the labor required in farming is far more significant and needs to be accounted for in the farm budget (whether helpers’ salaries or the value of your own time).

I think the expense depends largely on how you approach gardening/farming. You can spend $150 on one grow light, but you can buy simple shop light brackets from Orscheln or Westlakes, as well as full-spectrum bulbs to fit them, for far less than that. We use a whole wall of them and they start our plants wonderfully. Regarding tools, yes good ones are expensive, but they’re a one-time cost. And if your budget is tight, you’re virtually guaranteed to find used hoes, shovels, rakes, trowels, and so forth at garage sales for dollars at most and they will last you many years if they aren’t already broken. You don’t need more than a few simple hand tools to garden.Tillers are expensive, but you don’t have to buy them. Try renting one, or finding a neighbor who will loan/rent you one. People who own tillers use them maybe a few times a year; I bet you can find someone who will share. Moreover, you likely don’t need a tiller. Try establishing permanent garden beds, with or without sides, and a little manual cultivation is all you need. Too much tillage can actually damage your soil and set you back; try a broadfork or a hoe instead.

I have no idea what fertilizer costs, as I’ve never bought it in my life. Manure is easy to come by and virtually free. There are horse people all over Boone County who often want someone to take their used manure/bedding off their hands, and I’ve been told that Stephens College will load up your truck from their barns in an instant. To make my point, here is a partial photo of our market garden: It is composed of 45 permanent beds, each 4’x16′ (see full map here, though it’s not up to date). We established these over the last few years, using our tractor to plow the sod under once and then never using equipment again. All the beds are maintained using a broadfork once a year, with annual applications of manure in the fall, when it is spread and turned in by rake and hoe, where it is naturally incorporated by worms and soil biota all winter. We rotate our crops regularly with an appropriate mix to balance the soil’s needs. All weeding is manual; we are organic and use no purchased herbicides or pesticides. The only meaningful one-time expense was the irrigation system, which will need replacing over time as the hoses deteriorate, and the fence, which stays put. The only meaningfull annual expense is straw for mulch, some T-posts and twine for trellising the tomatoes (posts salvaged used) and of course seeds. In three years, using the methods described above, we have taken this borderline poor soil to a point where our MU soil tests indicate no need for additional soil amendments of any kind. You can have your expensive purchased fertilizer and your tiller and so on.
Outside of the garden itself, potting soil and starting flats can also be expensive, though when treated well the flats will also last years and you can often buy lots of small pots at garage sales. Try contacting garden centers about used flats and pots that they don’t want or didn’t sell, especially at the end of the season. There’s no easy way around potting soil, though some folks make their own and save a lot of money doing it. I guess I don’t know anything about plant prices, not having bought any for a long time, but they’d have to be darned high to outweigh the season-long production of a single healthy tomato or pepper plant. You might consider looking into a soil blocker, a nifty little device that creates stand-alone cubes of soil into which you plant the seeds. As long as they’re kept moist, you don’t need traditional planting flats at all. Many small farms are actively moving this way (we’re testing them this year for the first time). See an example at Johnny’s.

Out of this garden we produce most of the produce we eat year round as well as a meaningful amount of market sales (we also have a larger field that is regularly expanding). A small home garden could be a tenth of this and still produce lots of healthy, cheap vegetables.
For many people, starting up a garden can be expensive. But I think that’s more perception than reality. Like a lot of hobbies, there exists a massive industry whose entire existence is based on selling you stuff to make the hobby easier. Even good gardening/seed catalogues are full of cool-sounded gadgets that you just have to have. So I can see where people would feel that it’s expensive. I would suggest looking at it this way: For centuries of American history, the poorest people managed to keep healthy gardens with an incredible variety of produce. Prairie settlers, Depression-era households, Victory Gardens…all managed to grow worthwhile quantities of vegetables for the household using none of today’s fancy and expensive fertilizers, supplements, gadgets, and so on. They used basic hand tools, common sense, and work. So if you want to save money, research or imagine how the old-timers did it, then do it that way. Frankly, that concept is one of the core values of organic farming; the idea that farms and vegetable growing worked perfectly well prior to the WWII chemical revolution that has convinced lots of folks that they have to buy lots of stuff to make plants grow. It’s a fallacy, as human history of basic vegetable production shows.