One of the most important take-aways from my first year in VALOR is the importance of scale in agriculture. Since relatively speaking Americans spend so little of their income on food (around 10%), agriculture is primarily a low margin, high volume game. The overwhelming majority of agricultural concerns that we have visited who are able to make a fair living through full-time agriculture have been large.
Our trip to Loudon County, however, demonstrated that there are exceptions to the rule. Endless Summer Harvest in Purcellville, Virginia is a hydroponic farm run by Charles & Mary Taylor. It is a sight to behold! Greens of all color, shapes and variety are raised under the watchful care of the Taylors and their team. As a hydroponic operation, the Taylors raise their produce inside greenhouses, while using a sophisticated nutrition film system. They market their produce in farmers markets in metro DC, as well as to select restaurants.
The emphasis is on market. Over the years the Taylors have been able to create a reputation for their excellent produce that allows them to command up to $6/oz for their greens! They have also been able to scale up their operation so that they now grow on 12k sq. ft. of space year round! Just as impressive, they have been able to do so by relying on primarily part time labor.
Now, before some people read this post and decide to get into hydroponics, it is important to point out some of the unique advantages that Endless Summer Harvest enjoys. One, they have profound technical knowledge as Mr. Taylor is an expert gardener who works at the U.S. Arboretum. Two, Mrs. Taylor has one of the most infectious and outgoing personalities of anyone that I have met; she could sell ice to eskimos. Three, they live in close proximity to Washington, D.C., which is one of the most affluent areas in the nation.
With that being said, Endless Summer Harvest still provides an important example of what can be done with small scale agriculture. It is an important reminder that in agriculture, bigger isn’t always better.