Financial Management on Black Sheep Farm

By Brenda Hsueh

My name is Brenda Hsueh and I am the owner and farmer of Black Sheep Farm. My farm is located in beautiful Grey County, in the southwest corner of the Township of Chatsworth, right on Grey Road 3. The property is around 40 acres in size, with about five acres of pine bush, 10+ acres of rolling hills, five acres of pond and wetlands/grasslands, six acres of hay field and a five acre vegetable plot (with one acre plots in a four year rotation). I’ve been here since 2009 and wouldn’t dream of leaving!

Brenda and her then-puppy, Luna, in 2014

Brenda and her then-puppy, Luna, in 2014

My life before farming was spent in Edmonton, Alberta (born and raised there), then Mississauga/Toronto in Ontario. After graduating from the Arts & Science program at McMaster University in Hamilton, I started work at an entry level position in the financial industry in Toronto. I worked in bilingual customer service for a mutual fund company, where I took the Canadian Securities Course and learned about various investment products. From there, I went to a bond rating agency where I worked on databases and collected and corrected a lot of financial data. That’s where I learned the beauty and power of spreadsheets and I haven’t looked back since.

Over the 11 years that I worked in Toronto, I bought a pre-construction condo, moved into it, and when I exited the financial industry to go into agriculture, I sold that condo to buy my farm. In the years that I owned the condo, I prioritized paying off the mortgage, so that I could be as debt free as possible when I could finally realize my farm dream.

I didn’t know at first that I had a farm dream. I just knew that global agriculture was broken, that the environment needed to be saved, and that I loved to eat. When I left the financial industry, I wasn’t sure if I should enter the world of food security NGOs, or actually become a producer of food. After a growing season spent at Everdale Environmental Learning Centre, working in the fields, at farmers’ markets, and with their community outreach programs, I knew that food production was where I wanted to be. So I bought a farm and named it Black Sheep Farm.

This growing season is my seventh at Black Sheep Farm. My first growing season in 2009 was noted by the locals as the wettest and coldest year on record…until 2014 came along. Before that, 2012 was the year of drought where I cried over lost vegetable production for the first time. It turned out that the cold and wet of 2014 was even worse for vegetable production, but by then, I didn’t cry over the weather any more. I feel a bit like the Star Trek movie series, where the even/odd movies suck (depending on personal preference)…one good growing year, then a bad one, and back to good again.

My original farm plan for 2009 involved a farm business partner, a vegetable CSA, raising pigs and sheep on pasture, and a series of long-term projects involving permaculture plantings. That all fell apart when my farm business partner decided in early March not to join me in the venture. So the business plan was re-written and I hoped for the best. Well, as I said, 2009 had a cold and wet growing season, so there wasn’t much harvest volume until September. I sold whatever I could scrounge at local markets for most of the season, but over six abundant weeks from September to October that year, I sold vegetable packages into Toronto. By the end of the season, I squeaked by with just over $7,000 in gross farm product sales, so I could apply for my farm business registration number. In the years since then, I have worked both with a farm partner and on my own, and am currently enjoying sole management, with part-time field help, to grow one acre of vegetables for a 30 member equivalent CSA. There are certainly many ups and downs to farm life, but I’m staying out of debt and managing financially with around $24,000 per year in gross farm sales, and between $1,000 and $10,000 in off-farm contract work (depending on the year and what contract work is available).

I like keeping track of numbers. When I entered the world of farming, it was partly as a challenge to find out if there really was such a thing as sustainable farming. To me, this means sustainable ecologically (and not just maintaining the status quo, but working to improve soil health and increase biodiversity), socially/psychologically (no burning out!) and financially (no need for off-farm work). The challenge is ongoing, but results could never be measured without record keeping and regular evaluation.

Over the next few months, I will be writing for the blog on farm financial management. I’ll start with whole farm budgeting (farm enterprise costs, as well as household costs); how/when to track expenses; annual income versus expense evaluations and; how to use all this information to plan for the future, whether that be the next year or five years later. Without a really good picture of your farm finances, it can be hard to tell if you’re economically sustainable or not. It’s a lot more obvious when farm income is your only income, but can be really surprising if you do have off-farm income to pull you through. Knowing your numbers can help you decide on buying new equipment, whether you should apply for loans, or even if you can cut back on production for a better work/life balance. I hope you’ll enjoy reading about how to manage farm (and life!) finances over the next little while and will be encouraged by how easy (and satisfying!) it can be to track your own numbers.