BridgeI recently read Making Your Small Farm Profitable by Ron Macher. It is kind of a basics book, covering a lot of decision-making that should ideally happen before you get into farming. Like what you want to farm, and how you’ll go about it. But there were two points in the book that I thought were worth repeating. The first one is this.

According to The Farm Management  Handbook, every 100 feet of unnecessary distance between the  house and farm adds up to 14 miles of travel a year for each daily round  trip. If you have a barn about 1,000 feet from your  house and can move it 500 feet closer, you will save about 700 miles of walking each year.

I’m acutely aware of how much walking I do on our farm, but I’d never thought of adding up how many miles I might be walking in a year! Now, of course, it’s not trivial to just move one’s barn 500 feet if it’s already built. 🙂 But, if you are building a new outbuilding, this is certainly a wise consideration!

He goes on to discuss the shape and layout of fields, considering not only foot traffic, but how it will affect tractor workflow; how many times you’ll have to turn at the end of each field while plowing or mowing, etc. I will say if I’m in the far field and realize I’ve forgotten a needed screwdriver up at the house, oh boy! It feels like a long walk and a waste of time to go get it! Having an ATV alleviates some of this walking, but there is still the issue of getting off of it to open up and close gates, to keep animals where they belong. So I don’t always use it if I’m just carrying a few things and intend to only go down to the field once.

Our property is a long rectangle, with the house on one of the narrow ends, up on a hillside. The pastures are crossed by three AG drainage ditches. A few summers ago, when we were first getting this place under control, Kirk, somewhat on a whim, tossed a couple of old barn floor joists across the ditches to serve as plank-bridges. They enabled us to walk from the house straight down the center of the property, instead of walking to the end where there are culverts to get over the ditches. It didn’t take long to see the efficiency in these bridges or get into the habit of using them daily. Now we’re replacing them with “real” foot bridges, and have placed man-gates at all of these crossings. This simple design change has made a huge difference in daily on-foot chores, and I often think how glad I am that Kirk thought of it.

This notion of saving steps reminds me of another issue that has been in the back of my mind. I had attended a farming conference last winter, and one of the speakers reviewed the study results from a research farm. I’ll dig out my notes at some point and write more about who he was and what he said. But his key take-away was this: fuel is one of the most expensive costs on a farm. And fuel costs don’t just appear where you think, like buying gas for the tractor or the chainsaw.

Where it starts to add up are when you count all the trips to the store you make to buy a spare bolt to repair something, or the costs of paying laborers to drive to your farm from somewhere else. Of course the laborer’s fuel isn’t precisely your cost (unless you are driving to your own farm and living somewhere else), but it’s part of the carbon footprint cost, and part of the question of overall efficiency of the farm and whether its outputs justify its inputs.

This is probably a lesson from factory farming that we need to keep: efficiency in motion is key. We need to think of our farms as little factories, and add up all of the tiny incremental costs of walking and driving to and fro, and make sure that we manage them closely. Because they are deal killers in profitability otherwise!