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Gentlemen farmers find the going a little rough

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Modern reincarnations of the "gentleman farmer" try their hand at organic production, and find the going a lot tougher than they imagined.

When several ultra-rich celebrities and businesspeople tried their hand at organic farming, they found the going a little rough.

Of course, they knew going in that growing any kind of crop these days demands not only a high level of skill and knowledge, but a comprehensive grasp of factors affecting the bottom line. Didn’t they?

According to an article in WSJ.Money magazine, these modern-day gentleman, and gentlewoman, farmers – who had hoped to prove the principles of organic farming once and for all – instead found it costly, incredibly labor intensive and full of confusing and often conflicting regulations.

One is Sandy Lerner, who co-founded Cisco Systems. She left the corporation in 1990, carrying home a paycheck of $150 million. In 1996, she paid $7 million for the 800-acre Ayrshire Farm in Upperville, Va., and began raising certified-organic and certified-humane cattle.

If Lerner has learned anything, it’s that rules and regulations in organic farming can be onerous and conflicting. For example, if some of Lerner’s grazing cows get poked in the eye by grass and get pink eye, and she treats the cows with antibiotics, she loses her organic designation. But if she doesn’t treat them, she may be violating rules governing the cows’ humane treatment.

She’s also struggling with feed costs that may be five or six times more expensive than what conventional producers pay, which means her customers may have to have as much money to burn as she does. “We already have some steak going for $42 bucks a pound,” she said.

Randy Williams is a Houston, Texas bankruptcy attorney raising organic egg-laying chickens, lettuce, dairy goats and fruit and nut trees. His acreage is small and his only place to sell is at a local farmers market and his law firm office. “How in the hell do people do this for a living?” he asks.

Steve Kettelle is a real-estate broker in Florida who says he’s penciled in a profit on his 5-acre organic farm, yet if the time he spent working on the farm were figured in, he “would probably be below minimum wage.”

I’m afraid Steve’s take-home pay would be higher at McDonald’s.

Farming isn’t easy, whether it’s organic or conventional. But to make it work requires an entire industry working as a team, creative research efforts, advanced technology, ample financing, a stable, organized commodity market with plenty of tools for managing price risk and a government that recognizes the importance of keeping farmers on the land.

Although the latter is debatable, that’s a pretty good description of what modern agriculture has  in place already.

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