How To Make $100,000 Farming 25 Acres by Booker T. Whatley. (Emmaus, Pa.: Rodale Press, 1987. 180 Pages. $24.95 cloth. $17.95 paper.)
By Lyn Frazer
Vol. 10, No. 3, 1988, pp. 22-23
As a book title, “How To Make $100,000 Farming 25 Acres” is not exactly a modest proposal, especially in these times in the farm economy. Booker T. Whatley, a former horticulture professor at Tuskegee University, has a plan for the small farmer, and in this book, with assistance from the editors of NEW FARMmagazine, he tells it.
Whatley is a nationally known expert on the small farm who may be familiar to readers of MOTHER EARTH NEWS and ORGANIC GARDENING. In retirement now, he travels the country giving as many as fifty seminars a year to share the ideas he has developed for turning the small farm into a profitable enterprise. Whatley’s monthly “Small Farm Technical Newsletter” has 20,000 subscribers in fifty states and twenty-five foreign countries.
The heart of the book is “The Guru’s Ten Commandments”–the complete model of the successful small farm according to Whatley. He adopted the nickname after initial amusement over being being [sic] designated a alone guru in Alabama” in a WASHINGTON POST article several years ago. Indeed, the parts of the book written by Whatley do exhibit a quality of religious exhortation, along with sly humor most often directed at government “experts,” and a vast fund of hard-headed common sense and wisdom in the quirks of human nature.
Whatley’s model for the small farm (which he defines as between ten and 200 acres) is based on crop diversification, careful management, and aggressive marketing. Whatley says it is impossible for the small farmer to concentrate on soybeans or cotton on the same basis as farmers working a thousand acres or more. He suggests that the small farmer turn instead to a variety of high-value crops, which might include strawberries, blueberries, grapes, honey, rabbits, lambs, and quail. The diversification plan should include at least ten different products, with something available for sale in every month of the year.
Equally important to Whatley’s concept is setting up the small farm as a “pick your own” operation with a “clientele membership club” of at least a thousand members; the club provides a guaranteed supply of customers and a guaranteed annual membership fee in exchange for the right to buy produce for 60 percent of supermarket prices. To ensure this membership pool, the farm must be located on a paved road within forty miles of a population center of at least 50,000 l persons. Whatley believes that the customers must come to the farm and he is confident that the availability of homegrown, contaminant-free, high-quality produce will attract them there.
According to Whatley, the traditional farmers’ market is of little value to the small farmer because too much time and money are tied up in picking and transporting crops to market. When Whatley talks about a profitable small farm, he means much more than just subsistence living. “I see farming as a business, not a lifestyle. I’m talking about a good living for the farmer, maybe even a Caribbean vacation once in a while.”
The clientele membership club idea is the most controversial of Whatley’s rules and the least frequently tried by farmers who are adopting some of his ideas, but to Whatley it is an integral and indispensable part of the model. “The CMC is literally the lifeblood of your diversified farm… People say it would be so hard to get 1,000 of these people. My reply to that is, well, everything’s hard. Life is hard.”
Whatley’s answer is to go after people who share a desire for healthful produce and are willing to put time into picking and putting up good food for their families, people who “have the same philosophy as the ant–they believe in preparing for winter.” According to Whatley, it is the farmer who selects his clientele, and he has only himself to blame if he does not put enough effort into choosing the right kind of members.
For the Whatley-style farm to be successful, the farmer must also be a good salesperson, and the farm should come to play a role in the lives of its club members. Whatley thinks the farm should be made a place of beauty which city people can visit with their families to enjoy a little since of country life. Going out to the farm to pick vegetables can become a family outing or even a mini-vacation. He suggests promoting this aspect with such sidelines as picnic areas, refreshments, and even a petting zoo for the children.
Whatley wants the farmer to foster a sense of ownership among his club members end to develop a persona! relationship with each of them. “This whole approach to farming is extremely people-oriented. You have to like people to do well at it,” says Whatley.
HOW TO MAKE $100,000 actually offers more of a starting point for small farmers to begin farming successfully than a step-by-step blueprint. Whatley realizes that it is unlikely that any farmer will be able or willing to follow all of his “commandments,” but he believes that many combinations of ideas and plans can come from his book. Almost half of the book is made up of essays by or about small farmers who have taken Whatley’s basic ideas and tailored them to fit their particular needs. These farmers are raising kiwi fruit, shiitake mushrooms, herbs, watercress, trees for furniture-making, and soybeans for tofu. They are raising sheep for wool and making cider and goat cheese. They are setting up game preserves, running gourmet farm restaurants, and renting out bungalows for country vacations. Whatley seems to enjoy this creative aspect of his farm model. No detail which might make the farm more profitable is too small for his attention.
The most visible and extensive Whatley-style farm came about as the result of an article about Whatley which appeared in the Wall Street Journal in 1984. The day after the article was published, Whatley received a call from Tom Monaghan, president of Domino’s Pizza. The friendship which developed with Monaghan led to the creation of the Booker T. Whatley Farm at the corporate headquarters of Domino’s Pizza near Detroit. The farm, which was recently completed, will grow vegetables to be used on the pizzas as well as serve as a demonstration project for Whatley’s ideas. Monaghan and Whatley also hope to initiate a summer training program for high school students interested in becoming farmers.
One segment of the population which Whatley has not been able to reach satisfactorily so far is the black small farmer. He says that he has more Canadian subscribers to his newsletter than he has black subscribers in Alabama. Whatley believes that this is because young blacks in the South who were children of farmers watched their families struggle in vain to live off the land and have therefore looked elsewhere for economic opportunities. Whatley knows of only one young black farmer who has attempted to set up a farm following his principles.
While Whatley blames government policy for disinheriting and ignoring the small farmer, he places much of the responsibility for success on the farmer himself.
The government needs to get out of agriculture, he says, but the farmer must learn to be a good manager. “It is my position that the farm problems of this country will be solved when and only when mismanagement is made a federal crime….Farmers need to spend less time on their air-conditioned tractors. What they really need is an air-conditioned office where they can do their planning, thinking, and managing.” A more valuable machine for the farmer may be the computer, where he can keep careful records of his customers, crops, and sales. Whatley has no patience with farmers who “take an amateurish approach to a serious business.”
Whatley truly believes, and many readers will end up believing with him, that hard work, common sense, creative thinking, and the Guru’s Commandments can’t help but produce a profitable small farm. Whatley’s personal goal is no more modest than the title of his book. “I want to save 100,000 small farms, make them productive and economically viable. Then I’ll be satisfied.”
Lyn Frazer is an amateur horticulturist and a bookseller in Montgomery, Ala.