Economics of homestead dairy goats

We often state that raising our own animals and doing our own milking & cheesemaking saves us money, but how true is that? And would it be economical to sell raw milk (we’re not licensed to sell any other dairy product)? I recently did some calculations to offer a rough answer to that question, which should be of interest both to folks considering homestead animals and to anyone else thinking about the economics of farming. All the following calculations are for one goat bearing two kids in a year.

Also, while our milk and meat are NOT certified organic, I do consider their value roughly comparable because we’re using higher-priced organic feeds that affect the caluclations. A truly certified producer would have even higher costs than this due to other red tape & costs that we aren’t dealing with for the animals.

GRAZING
From kidding through the end of fall, the goats live on pasture with a portable shelter that is moved once a month and grazing areas changed weekly. So they have access to lots of fresh, diverse browse that limits the amount of purchased feed we need to use. During the winter they live in a more established structure in a set paddock, with higher needs for purchased feed, though we try to get them out onto another pasture when the weather is practical.

FEED RATIONS
We feed our dairy goats a grain mix as well as alfalfa and grass hay. The amounts vary during the year, with very little hay being fed out during the grazing season and far more during the depth of winter when little else is available. Does who are pregnant or lactating get a daily ration of mixed grains to ensure good nutrition for gestation and milking. Kids are left on their mothers until fall butchering, taking away some of our milk supply but producing a tastier meat and reducing our milking schedule to once a day, thus saving a lot of time and bother.

FEED SOURCES
We purchase our hay from several local growers who sign our organic certification paperwork that no herbicides or other such things have been applied to the hay. (The organic paperwork ultimately relates to the produce, since hay ends up in our compost piles and is therefore an input to vegetable fields.) We custom-mix our own grain, buying certified organic grain in bulk through Littrell Feed & Seed in Audrain County.

FEED COSTS
Buying in bulk, our organic grain mix ends up costing around $.32/lb. This is roughly twice the cost of a conventional goat premix, such as this one from a dealer in Chillicothe which costs around $.15/lb. We feed up to 3lb/day in winter and early spring, reducing that to around 1lb/day when grazing conditions are good. So at an average of 2lb/day year-round, that’s $233 or so per goat.

Hay ranges from 1-2 bales a week per goat in winter to very little in summer. Last year we went through approximately 35 bales per goat (grass & alfalfa), so at $4/bale that works out to another $140.

Then there’s the cost of driving around to get this feed. Assuming two trips to fetch hay of around 30 miles round trip each, that’s 60 miles x $.50/mile (for time, wear, gas) = $30. Also include a visit to the feed dealer at 66 miles round trip, two times a year, for another $66. (We actually pick up feed more often than that, but these trips are not exculsively for just one goat. For the sake of this calculation, we’ll consider two trips per year.)

So overall our feed costs are $233+$140+$66=$439. Plus, there are a number of other expenses including water, the occasional vet bill, milk filters, power for the electric fence, and so on that collectively bring the annual expenses closer to at least $500, probably closer to $600.

MILK PRODUCTION
Milk production varies significantly over the course of the year. Because we leave kids on the doe through the season, we get about half her true production, balancing that loss with better meat and easier management (milking once vs. twice a day, plus the option to leave the kids on and skip milking for a day if we’re extra busy). So from May through December we’ll estimate an average of 1 quart per day per goat, accounting for the natural drop in production going into the winter. So for a milking season of 240 days, that’s 60 gallons (closer to 100 if we weaned the kids). This is a conservative estimate; many goats can give far more than this.

COST PER GALLON
Considering just the actual money spent per year (not time or infrastructure), we spend $600 to produce 60 gallons of milk, for a cost of roughly $10/gallon. For comparison, organic cow milk at one local grocery store goes for $6-$8/gallon depending on brand, and non-organic local goat milk is higher than that.

Of course, if we weren’t keeping the kids on, we’d be producing 100+ gallons/year for a cost of $6/gallon or less, which is at least competitive. But the kids each yield around 30lb of meat (deboned), so in a good year we’re also getting 60lb of meat from two kids. I actually have no idea what meat costs overall, since we almost never buy it, but a search on Localharvest.org turned up a general range of goat kid meat prices of $5-$15/lb depending on cut (not organic). So the value of two very good, milk-fed, ranged kids, could easily exceed $300.

So for an outlay of approximately $500, we’re getting $480 of milk at average prices, but also maybe $300 of meat. So we’re making/saving maybe $300 for doing this ourselves, more if you consider our products equivalent to top-of-the-line ranged organic products. I think we need to judge relative to organic prices, since our feed costs are double that of conventional feeds; if we just fed out cheap GMO corn & beans, this would be a lot more lucrative. As it is, we’re getting a positive return on the monetary investment, if we were to buy all the equivalent organic or comparable products at retail.

OTHER BUDGETS
Of course, all of that doesn’t count any of the time spent doing this, or the infrastructure needed. I spend an average of 30-45 minutes/day doing chores including milking, feeding out hay, changing water, checking fences, etc. Then there are the occasional tasks like moving grazing paddocks, trimming hooves, and so on. Vet bills for the occasional problem take a toll. It takes a fair amount of time to handle the milk. And all this time we could be spending growing more vegetables for sale in order to pay for others’ cheaper milk & meat. Plus it takes a fair amount of money to get started in goat-raising and milking; we had no fencing, structures, or equipment when we started.

MAKING CHEESE
On the other hand, we don’t drink our milk, but turn almost all of it into value-added products such as yogurt and cheese. Depending on how you calculate the time budget for that, we’re almost certainly saving ourselves money there. Let’s say we turn 2/3 of our milk into cheese. 40 gallons will produce about 40lb of cheese. Locally, Goatsbeard Farm charges around $5 for a 5oz round of chevre; that’s roughly $15/lb. So we’re producing $600 worth of cheese as opposed to $240-$400 worth of raw milk. Again, the time budget to do this makes a big difference, but the numbers at least set the context.

MANURE & LAND MANAGEMENT
Goats produce another highly prized product that is difficult to attach a value to: manure. Much of the manure goes directly into the paddocks, adding fertility to the soil and improving the value of the land. Some of the manure is deposited in the mobile goat shelter, and this is what we collect for our compost piles. As far as we’re concerned, this manure is priceless. We know what went into the animals, we know that the animals are healthy, the goat bedding makes hot composting relatively easy, and thus we’re happy to use this on our vegetable plantings. In addition, the goats help to manage brushy land that’s not good for much else. They love plants such as poison ivy and multiflora rose, and they help to turn overgrown brushy land into better pasture. Again, an improvement in the value of the land.

MAKING SALES
Although the numbers work reasonably well for home production, if we wanted to sell raw milk, we’d have to charge a lot to account for the time investment, potential for losses, marketing costs sales tax, and more. So while it makes sense to do all this for ourselves, it’s not at all clear that the numbers make sense to do this commercially. With enough goats, certain economies of scale would start to kick in. More goats might mean that we could justify the time to move the goat paddocks more often, meaning even less need for hay and grain.

Part of what makes all the work & cost worthwhile is the pride in independence, the value of truly fresh food, and the confidence in its sourcing, treatment, and quality. Those are all ethical judgements with no clear price, though we value them highly.

Coming some other time, a similar calculation for chickens and eggs.

Buying food in bulk

While we produce much our own food year-round, we certainly can’t produce all of it. Rice, flour, sugar, butter, spices, noodles, and other basic staples aren’t in our realm, and need to be purchased. We’ve moved further and further into purchasing these items in bulk, along with many toiletries, which saves money, time, and packaging. It also helps us remain independent from shopping trips, as we always have lots of an item on hand.

Our favorite bulk ordering location is Hy-Vee. Through the Health Market department, we can order almost anything else we need in large quantities, getting a 10% discount from retail. This saves us meaningful money, and Sara there is very professional and helpful. We had tried several other outlets, but were not pleased with the quality of the customer service or the products. We gave up each after a few rounds. Hy-Vee is far preferable to us (at least the Broadway location; we haven’t used the newer stores).

Our standard purchases include laundry & dish detergent, coconut milk, soy sauce, raisins, nuts, rice, flour, and so on. It’s worth looking into for anyone trying to save money or be more efficient in their shopping. Rather than a weekly trip, once every few months we make an order and show up a week later to pick up our shopping cart full of boxes. Everything is already tallied on a printed order sheet with a single bar code; one swipe of the cashier’s unit and we’re rung up and paid. The time saved alone makes it worthwhile, much less the money and bother. The look on the cashier’s face is usually priceless as well; clearly planning ahead is a concept foreign to modern culture.

It does blow a hole in the monthly budget, and that needs to be planned for. We view it as a kind of import-CSA; every so often we pay a lot, then save up the next few months for the next round. Overall, you’re not paying any more than you would otherwise (less, with the discount), and you have the items always on hand, rather than having to think about weekly shopping lists.

Winter food supplies

We made it through December without touching almost any of our preserved food supplies. We had stashes of fresh winter tomatoes, potatoes, sweet potatoes, radishes, cabbages, cooking & salad greens, carrots, radishes, turnips, soup beans & cowpeas, onions & garlic, and more to dip into throughout the fall and early winter. The only frozen or canned item we’ve used in any quantity is meat and a few jars of pickles, and we still have most of our meat stash left. At the start of January, we still have some of these “fresh” items remaining, but will finally start to dip into the rest.

Many folks think of winter as the “hungry” time for households like us; it’s actually spring. Lots of items will store into the new year, but won’t last until March. Yet it’s not until April or even May when substantial new produce begins to be available again, so we have to plan our food stores to last that long. This is why we’re so glad to have made it into January without touching our preserved stock. We’ve also stopped milking now, meaning the fresh cheese and yogurt is gone, and we’ll have to be more stingy with our purchased milk.

Here’s an overall look at what we have put up for the remainder of winter through spring, everything grown/butchered/made by us, except for the fruits, which were picked locally in season, and some of the canned tomatoes, which we purchased fresh from a friend to supplement our poor harvest.

IN THE CHEST FREEZER:

Broth (duck, venison, goat, chicken)
Fruit (blueberries, strawberries, peaches, raspberries, elderberries)
Prepared (various chutneys, soups, relishes, and more)
Vegetables (peas, corn, edamame, green beans, okra, zucchini, roasted tomatoes, greens)
Meat (Venison, goat, chicken, venison sausage)

CANNED/PICKLED
Applesauce
Tomatoes Tomato juice
Sauerkraut
Tomatillos
Pickled okra
Cucumber pickles
Dilly beans

JAMS/PRESERVES
Peach butter
Strawberry jam
Apple butter
Blueberry jam
Raspberry/apple jam

DRIED
Apple rings
Cherry tomatoes
Sauce tomatoes
Onions
Green peppers
Mustard greens
Scallions
Strawberries

And, of course, there are still dried beans, cornmeal, garlic, and the like. But we’re pretty happy with this diversity of farm- or locally-sourced food put up for the rest of the non-growing season. We do use a variety of storable purchased items like noodles, flour, rice, spices, and so on, but the base and bulk of our diet throughout the winter is our own food. The supplies above make for wonderfully tasty and variable menus for months, and we’re pretty independent from a store in any given week.

Early winter food supply

It’s mid-November, and we still haven’t needed to start tapping our frozen/canned winter supplies except for a few quarts of strawberries. In the ground, we have salad greens, cooking greens, leeks, cabbage, bok choi, turnips, carrots, radishes, herbs, and more. In indoors/cold storage we have potatoes, sweet potatoes, onions, garlic, green peppers, hot peppers, winter tomatoes, dried beans, dent corn, and more.

For the rest the winter and next spring, we now have 30lb of venison in the freezer, another 20 or more expected from our second kid, 7 or so chickens to butcher, possibly a goose, a small turkey, and possibly another deer. We have a chest freezer stuffed with locally sourced strawberries, blueberries, peaches, and other fruits, along with six months of our own vegetables. We have rows of canned tomatoes, pickles, jams, applesauce, and more. We have 3lb of farm-made hard cheese waxed and aging, with more to come as we’re still getting 2 quarts a day off the goat. 40lb of locally grown wheat berries await grinding into flour as needed.

The only foodstuffs we’ll be buying this winter are basic staples like oats, sugar, butter, oil, raisins, salt, spices, orange juice, and so on. All these store well, and we tend to buy most in large quantities. We’re certainly not completely food-independent, but we sure can go a long time without needing to visit a store. And so much of our basic nutrition this winter will come from our farm or farms we know personally. That’s a fantastic feeling in an era of faceless, processed, well-travelled pseudo-food.

Time management vs. disruptions

Recently when I wrote about our weekly schedule, one thing I didn’t really get into was the overall time management we use to keep up with everything. Keeping this place running takes some choreography, especially because many of our crop management techniques rely heavily on keeping ahead of problems like weeds and insect outbreaks. For example, it’s much more effective to keep things weeded and maintained on a regular basis as compared to the task of cleaning up an overgrown bed or field row. We really try to keep ahead of these things; it’s just so much more efficient to do things right in the first place.

The past week has thrown a serious wrench into our management plan, as all this rain and heat means the weeds are exploding, while we haven’t been able to do much about it since last weekend. As it turns out, running the farm tour last weekend was very poor timing given what came next, because the 2+ days we spent preparing for that could have been spent getting ahead on all the planting, weeding, and maintenance that are now a week or more behind. But, of course, we couldn’t have known weeks ago when we scheduled it that those two lost days would be followed by 10″ of rain, damaging hail, illness, and more.

I mention all this simply to illustrate the nature of running this kind of farm; you just don’t take days off very often. We do get mini-breaks a lot, an hour here or there, but it just isn’t practical or possible to ever stop working during the growing season because the task list is so susceptible to disruptions and distractions.

Weekly farm life

Now that market sales are ongoing (we’ve been at market about two months), our lives have settled into a form of weekly routine. I thought it might be interesting for customers and readers to consider what that routine looks like. Our week really centers around the Saturday farmers market, so that you could consider a new week to begin on Sunday, but often that day still ties back into the day before, so I’ll start here with Monday.

DAILY SCHEDULE
Every day I get up between 6 and 6:30, this time of year relying on just the sun. I tend to wake up naturally earlier than Joanna, who is always up by 7. One of us gets dressed and goes down to deal with morning animal chores, which include opening the goose & chicken sheds, refilling water and hay, and most mornings doing the milking. We’ll also usually open the gates to the nearest grazing paddock. Whoever isn’t handling the animals tends to make breakfast, usually a rotation between homemade granola, yogurt, eggs, oatmeal, scones, cornbread, and so on. I make a point of finding time to read multiple sources of online news and check email; staying educated and aware is something I take very seriously (we also get over ten magazines that we read at meals, bed, snatches of time).
We usually eat lunch around noon, and are working toward shifting to a summer meal schedule in which lunch is the main meal followed by a rest, to avoid the hottest part of the day. This allows us to have a quick meal of leftovers for dinner, so that we can maximize use of the cooler evening hours. During any given day we’ll be coming back to the house every few hours for water, snacks, tools, or whatever, and take a lot of mini-breaks to balance the long workday.
Evening chores including feeding grain, checking hay and water, and locking animals away for the night. Chickens go into their shed, mother geese and goslings go into theirs, and we usually lock the kids away in a separate compartment for the night to allow Garlic to accumulate milk for morning. Milking once a day eases the burden on us, and provides fresh milk while allowing the kids to nurse during the day. We try to shower and be in bed by 9:30 with sleep by 10. Both of us do far better with a full night of sleep.
MONDAY
Since late winter, I’ve been working one day a week at Goatsbeard Farm, the excellent dairy & cheesemaker about 11 miles west of us. We’ve had a good relationship with them for a while now; our goats came from there and we’ve bred with their buck. I wanted to gain more experience with commercial-scale dairying, goat management, and cheese making, and it’s helpful for them to have reliable workers. Any steady paycheck is nice these days as well. So every Monday morning I head over there by 8, and come home in the afternoon whenever they’re done with me. Meanwhile Joanna tends to use Mondays to really focus on produce tasks and organization, since she’s the primary architect of our plantings. Having me gone means she can devote all her attention to her primary interests, tasks, and planning.
TUESDAY-THURSDAY
These days are generally open for whatever needs to be done, including planting, weeding, infrastructure projects, moving the goats, and so on. This time of year, harvest is becoming a daily task for fast-ripening items like peas, and later for green beans, cherry tomatoes, and okra. Weather plays a large role in determining the daily work, as the temperature, wind, rain, and soil conditions really dictate what we can and should do. We’ll often end up planning a few days in advance based on the weather forecast, trying to maximize our efficiency with comfort. For example, we’ll try to reserve physical tasks for mornings or cloudy days, while targeting easier tasks for afternoons or hot days. There are always indoor tasks, like updating our records, office/business needs, cooking & preserving, and so on that we try to reserve for rainy or hot days.
FRIDAY
This is our main harvest day for market, as we prefer our products to be as fresh as possible. We’ll usually start first thing in the morning, with a steady progression of harvesting product, washing, sorting, bundling, & packing it, then storing it in refrigerators. So far we’ve generally been finishing this around midday or early afternoon, after which I’ll pack the truck with all the non-produce market items (tents, tables, scale, etc) and try to have everything ready for Saturday morning. Most weeks we wash the truck out on Thursday, one of the many, many practices we keep records for as part of maintaining our organic certification. Whatever time is left on Friday when everything’s ready for market goes into the general labor pool of tasks.
SATURDAY
I get up at 5 on Saturdays, which gives me enough time to load all the produce into the truck and eat a quick breakfast while skimming news. I leave by 6 in order to get to market by 6:30, and setting up the stand usually takes me until at least 7:30. Sales start at 8, and I’ll start packing up around noon. Right after market I go to bank to deposit the day’s take, and then do whatever errands we need around Columbia, including small grocery runs for things like butter and juice. I get home any time between 1 and 4, depending on errands, usually fully exhausted. The rest of the day and evening I tend to lie around; for some reason selling at market thoroughly drains me of energy.
Saturdays for Joanna follow a similar pattern to Mondays; a day in which she can focus on her primary interests and projects. Whenever I get home, we tend to take the rest of the afternoon/evening off, relaxing with magazines, watching a movie, taking a walk, or whatever.
SUNDAY
Sunday tends to follow the same pattern as mid-week, a general work day that can be dedicated to whatever needs doing. I tend to still be moving slowly in the morning, so we often make a nicer breakfast and get off to a late start. Otherwise it functions as a kind of transition between weeks, as we unload and clean the truck and market containers (if we didn’t do it Saturday) while getting started on the next round of work.
OUTSIDE RESPONSIBILITIES
Serving on two boards (CFM and SF&C) means that I generally have multiple evening meetings per month, as well as a fair amount of email and/or computer work to take care of, as I maintain both organization’s websites. I really don’t like being gone in the evenings, as I get home late and take a long time to settle down, but that’s the nature of the commitment. I fit the office work in wherever I can, often in snippets of time while I’m resting between outside chores.
COOKING
Probably the largest chunk of non-farm time we spend relates to cooking. We don’t cut corners in our cooking; food is just too important to us. So I estimate we spend several hours a day preparing daily meals from scratch, plus the time we put in preserving food nearly year-round, making basics like bread, yogurt, and cheese, butchering meat for fresh consumption or storage, and so on. It sounds like a lot, but is still less time than the average American family spends watching TV, and is far more rewarding while saving us a lot of money.
TIME OFF
Rarely do we take full days off; about once a month we’ll pick a day to stop everything and go do something fun, usually exploring some part of mid-Missouri by back road, foot, and/or canoe. We try to take shorter breaks here and there, like a few hours to fish in an evening or a half-day trip somewhere combined with farm needs like an auction or purchasing trip. We have far more flexibility in our daily schedule than most careers, such that we can take an hour or an afternoon here and there as needed to rest or recuperate, and that makes up for the otherwise 24/7 nature of the work.
BLOG WRITING
And, of course, there’s writing this blog. I’ve developed a system that works pretty well for me, in which I sit down over the weekend (usually Sunday evening) and write up a series of posts that are pre-cued for the following week, a process which usually doesn’t take more than an hour. I don’t view this blog as a instant news source, just a steady diet of information, ideas, and updates that can be written ahead of time in most cases. I’ll often pre-stage ideas as saved outlines, then fill them out days to weeks later when I have a chance. Then on Thursday evening I’ll find a few minutes to write up the Market Plans post for Friday morning, which I’d like customers to start using for pre-market information. I’m consider shifting this to Thursday morning to give folks more heads-up on product, but I like being able to make last-minute decisions about what’s ready to harvest.
MAKE IT THIS FAR?
So that’s our weekly life in (somewhat) brief. It’s a busy and tiring schedule, as are all small businesses, but with all the benefits of independence and variety that make self-employment.

Working with Goatsbeard Farm

Eleven miles west of us lies Goatsbeard Farm, our local artisan goat dairy and cheese-makers. The proprietors are good friends and have been willing resources for us from the beginning of our own goat herd. All our goats have come from their herd, and we’ve bred with their buck. Keeping a reasonably closed herd is a good way to manage disease and other issues, and we’re very happy to have a good working relationship with them as we build our experience.

One of the best aspects to running a small, diversified market farm is the contacts and connections we are able to make with our colleagues and peers. We’re all pretty scattered around the region, our vegetables, goats, and so on separated by seas of corn and soy and overgrazed cattle pastures. However, we manage to keep a pretty good network of cooperating friends who can share work, ideas, assistance, and materials as needed. For example, our milling days have been attended by several farmer friends who exchange their work for some useful lumber. One friend in particular and I have been exchanging work days on each others’ farms for a long time, travelling back and forth over an hour’s separation to give full days of work on tasks that can’t be done along while our significant others are away at off-farm jobs.

We’ve built an especially steady and helpful relationship with Goatsbeard, getting advice and support on our animals in exchange for help at their place. Now I’ve taken the next step in that connection, starting employment there. Since early this spring, I’ve been working one day a week as a general farmhand, managing the animals, helping with dairy tasks, and general farm labor as needed. It’s an arrangement that benefits everyone. For me, it’s some reliable income that is appreciated, and a chance for more hands-on experience with running a full-time dairy & cheese operation, something I have no other way to learn. For them, it’s another reliable employee who can be called on any time, and who makes their life a bit easier through delegation of basic work (they use many such part-time employees to keep the operation running). Our farms also complement each other well; we’ve been supplying regular truckloads of firewood and lumber for their use, while getting cheese, milk, and more in return. We keep good records of these transactions to make sure we’re balancing the books right.

In any case, I think I’m getting the best end of the deal, earning useful money while really getting an education in full-time animal management throughout the season. Spring is naturally a busy and exciting time, as kidding is going full-blast and milking & cheesemaking is just starting up. There’s a great deal to learn, and I’m doing my best to absorb everything for our own future use. And, as Joanna puts it, this arrangement keeps me from getting to aggressive in expanding our own population for the next few years while we really need to be focusing on growing our vegetable production, which is still the only product we’re actually allowed to make a living on at our scale. So in the meantime, I’ll be over at the dairy every Monday, working with 60+ goats and amassing knowledge and ideas for the future. And this year, we can still look forward to kids from Garlic in April and a steady home milk & cheese supply through

fall.

Best cheddar yet


Over the summer, we made and waxed a series of 2lb rounds of cheddar from our goats’ milk, and set it them the cellar to age. Over the winter, we’ve been opening and testing them, with varying levels of success. None have been bad, all have had a decent sharp flavor, but most were too dry and had a crumbly texture that I don’t like. I want my cheddar firm but sliceable, creamy rather than crumbly. We opened the last round recently, and THIS is what cheddar should taste like. Just the right texture, excellent flavor, the whole deal.

How did I achieve this? I have no idea. Joanna utterly failed to force me to keep good enough records of my cheese-making processes to know what I did differently on this batch from others. She’ll just have to do a better job next year.

Home cheese-making is pretty easy, with a modest investment in some equipment and starters. You don’t even need your own animals, as long as you have access to raw milk or even milk from an independent dairy. You just need milk that hasn’t been ultra-pasteurized and ultra-homogenized; the “chalk water” from a chain store isn’t going to cut it. Look at it this way: if it comes in a glass bottle, you can probably make cheese from it.

Sourcing used materials

I recently wrote about our approach to sustainability and attempting to find used materials whenever possible. Auctions and Craigslist are great for this.

We got this huge load of fencing recently for about half the price of new, used off of Craigslist. This will end up enclosing a significant amount of the vegetable field you see in the background. By April that fencing will be in place and ready to keep the deer and coons out.

Restaurant auctions are great, too. Usually we can get sets of food-service-grade lidded containers for packing and storing product, and at the last one we scored an excellent stainless-steel prep table with built-in sink that will be used for poultry butchering. Again, far below used and with no added impacts.

Balancing frugality with efficiency

Farming can obviously be expensive, particularly start-up costs. Though our land was once farmed, most buildings and fences are gone, and we are mostly starting from scratch when it comes to buildings, fencing, equipment, and so on. One of the core issues we’ve faced is balancing frugality with efficiency; when is it worth spending more money to save time or effort?

For example, we made a conscious decision to buy some of our machinery newer, especially a tractor. I’d never owned a new vehicle of any sort prior to moving to Missouri, having gone through a whole line of used vehicles that cost constant headaches, time, and repair costs. I probably saved money on them overall, but I’m not sure what the headaches and time were really worth. Neither of us are skilled mechanics, and the prospects of being reliant on an older tractor that we couldn’t repair was not very pleasant. I’ve known too many people who lost a harvest or missed a planting window because something went wrong mechanically that they couldn’t fix in time. So we felt a newer tractor was a worthwhile investment, and found a small, simple model that would be easy to work on even for us.

On the other hand, we’re pretty hard-core about buying most non-mechanical items used. Almost all our clothes come from consignment shops, and we frequent garage sales, auctions, and especially Craiglist. The core philosophy here is to do without until we can find it used. This is a skill we learned while living in rural Virginia and refusing to go to Walmart. Everyone around us, even the liberal Walmart-haters, still went there because they felt they had no other choice. We simply amassed lists of what we needed and did without until the occasional trip to a larger city where we had better choices of where to shop. Ever since then, we’ve rarely found items that we just had to have without waiting for the right opportunity to come along. It helps to be good at planning and thinking ahead. I don’t see “doing without” as self-denial, I see it as a rational acceptance that the world doesn’t exist to serve us personally, and as a counterbalance to the prevailing instant-gratification culture in the modern world.

There are also environmental and ethical concerns to balance. On one hand, buying something new has to account for all the energy and materials used in its manufacture, whereas something used caused no new mining, logging, or exploitation. On the other hand, new items are frequently more energy-efficient or otherwise beneficial. My newer small truck has a much cleaner-running and efficient engine than a 20-year-old oil-burning rustbucket, and our new wood stove is fully EPA certified and burns much cleaner than the old one. On the other hand, my used clothes are just as serviceable as new ones, and caused no new demands for sweatshop labor, poorly-grown fiber, and long-distance shipping. Our used fencing and self-milled lumber fits into this category too (which raises the point that probably our single biggest new-consumption is hardware, which can be pretty hard to find used and often has a ticking clock on the project it’s needed for).

Fundamentally, the concept of sustainability to us isn’t so much a benchmark, but a thought process. Everyone has their own arbitrary standard that they stick to; we have friends north of us who are off the grid, cook on a wood stove year-round, and otherwise make our pretty green operation look consumptive as hell, whereas we’re a drop in the bucket compared to the sprawlvilles around Columbia. But I think sustainability really means thinking through your actions; actively evaluating how and why you make the economic decisions that you do, and having a decent justification for your decisions. We can’t all live the same, but we can all live smarter.

I feel that I could offer a reasonable justification of our purchases and lifestyle to just about anyone, and that our actions, ethics, and philosophy are all pretty internally consistent. That consistency is important to me; it drives me nuts to see market farmers advocating the benefits of healthy local foods with a big McDonalds bag sitting next to their stand. Then again, we take such things more seriously than most and I’m sure there’s folks out there who could rip us a good one (like the fellow on the Columbia Tribune’s food forum a few weeks ago who felt that I needed to bicycle my goods to market to earn his “green” respect). And I have a lot to learn about mechanical things so I can do a better job of sourcing those used. Sustainability is a journey, not a finish line.