The Book For Making A Living On Less Land

In farmer Josh Volk's new book, we see just how big a small farm can be.

by Jesse Frost
PHOTO: Storey Publishing

At A Glance

Title: Compact Farms: 15 Proven Plans for Market Farms on 5 Acres or Less
Author: Josh Volk
Publisher: Storey Publishing
Target Audience: small-scale market farmers looking to make a profit and become more efficient

As a farmer, there is almost nothing I love more than visiting other farms and farmers to see how they do things. I always come away inspired, ready to get back to my farm and start tinkering. And that feeling is exactly the feeling I got reading Josh Volk’s new book, Compact Farms.

In it, Volk explores how 15 different small farms—all under 5 acres, all in North America—approach the technical elements of small-scale farming. He discusses their marketing, bookkeeping, labor management, irrigation, fertility and so on. It is a very nuts-and-bolts look at successful small farms, which every farmer regardless of skill level and experience will enjoy.

What I really appreciate about this book is how varied those approaches can be. Volk shows you the 30-inch bed system of Four Season Farm in Maine but also the 60-inch bed systems of Cook’s Farm in Ohio. He takes you to farmers who keep their operations clean and tight, but he does not neglect a few others whose farms are a bit on the wild side. So from Hawaii to Canada to North Carolina, this book, in one sitting, shows you that almost no two farms do things the same way, but that a small farm does not mean small business.

Of course, I would be remiss to not point out the dynamic illustrations of Steve Sanford that bring Volk’s writing and the stories of these farms to life. Although there certainly is a lot of good photography throughout, each chapter opens up with an illustrated bird’s eye view of the farms where you get to see the layout of each as it pertains to the farmer’s houses, gardens and orchards. A lot of ideas for a farm could be accumulated solely from seeing how farmers set things up, and act as perfect complement to the inspiration Volk achieves in these stories.

It should be noted, however, that this is not a book for the livestock farmer. Not really. Although chickens make some cameos and you do get to see into the inspiring system of Groundswell Farm, where farmer Zoë Bradbury utilizes draft horses, Volk highlights small-scale market growers whose primary focuses are vegetables, flowers and fruits. That said, it is definitely a book for anyone who keeps a garden and hopes to make a living doing so.

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The Final Word

Ultimately, Volk uses this collection of small farms to demonstrate how a farm does not have to be big to be successful. It can be 2 acres of rooftop in New York City, like Brooklyn Grange, or a tenth of an acre of “peri-urban” gardens like Volk’s own CSA farm in Oregon. And I feel as though Volk has nailed it in describing them as “compact farms.” It is the perfect description. “Small farm” often denotes a small operation, but what the farmers in this book show us is that, with the right tools and proper management, big things can indeed come in small packages.

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