Novaris posed a very timely question - Can small farms be profitable? One could be tempted to respond - How long is a piece of string? Rather let us look at the proposition from another perspective and hopefully not find a complete answer but a means to answer the question for yourself.
If you are asking can I make a living from agriculture, that is will farming provide an income to live on, then the first question and hence answer is:
How much income do you need to live on! If you look at the base level income requirements of say a suburban retiree couple, with a home and no debts, then the figures vary but lie between $30,000 and $50,000 per year. That income will pay your ongoing costs of rates, health care, transport, clothing, food and give you some entertainment. A lot of people can live on considerably less, it depends on your need to acquire 'stuff' and the cost of having 'stuff'.
The second question you need to answer is - What are the costs of the form of agricultural I wish to engage in? If you look around you will see there are many variations; grazing, mixed livestock, grain crops, vegetable and fruits, poultry and eggs, herbs, nuts, etc. Each activity has certain requirements in terms of the quality of the land you have, soils, water and location and distance to markets where you will sell your products.
The economics of farming are settled in a number of aspects, essentially you are a price taker, that is what you get is what you get and that depends on when you sell it and to whom and where. So how do you overcome that problem to getter a better return? Efficiency of inputs to the amount of outputs, integration or value adding to your product. You will see every form and any form of the above responses in Australian agriculture everywhere. The traditional but let us call it the response of the last one hundred and fifty years here and overseas has been to adopt manufacturing processes and techniques to agricultural production; economies of scale, single lines of product or few products and mechanisation - hey presto agri-businesses, monocultures, use of artificial fertilisers, pesticides, herbicides and a lot of oil (fertilisers, machinery motors, transport, equipment etc.) to make it all work.
As a small producer farmer you will never compete with large scale agri-businesses either in quantity or cost unless and this is the big unless you are smarter and more nimble. This is where NSF comes to the rescue. It rescues you from the tyranny of modern agriculture, land exploitation and degradation and gives you a chance to survive in the face of the ever increasing challenges being presented to us all year by year as the climate changes, bio diversity is reduced and oil which makes the modern system possible diminishes.
Why, NSF is the only sensible method and response to living and working with the land in this country. You use NSF you already have started down the road to ensuring your land remains healthy, adaptable and fertile. You use NSF you also engage your mind in a lateral way and you begin to think creatively with a new sensitivity to the real world we all live in.
Other posters in this forum have correctly pointed out that the present state of agriculture relies on off farm income, for the small farmer that is you and or your partner go and get a job, you job subsidises the operation, if you are a large scale producer you borrow very large sums of money and the banks subsidise your operation, until you run out of options to finance the operation or you get to big to not be allowed to fail. Here and there are some smart and nimble operators who survive in both arenas. Let me make clear my view, this is going to change, but it will not change quickly, but there is no doubt that in twenty or thirty years time, small communities and farmers who have balanced nature will survive and prosper, relatively. The only way to ensure you protect your land, your lifestyle and your income is to use NSF, it is that simple.
When ever I hear the opponents to NSF speak I am hearing the same vested interests in the status quo calling, the same opponents to renewable energy and pollution reduction whether it is carbon reduction or any other waste reduction. They are saying, no don't do it for less or naturally or at no cost, keep feeding us and our balance sheets, it is as Peter Andrews has described with using artificial fertilisers, you end up with a very bad addiction like a drug addict. it is a siren's song leading us on to the rocks, the evidence is everywhere if you open your eyes, and NSF opens your eyes believe me.
Our experience - we have a miserable postage stamp sized property in a cool temperate area of the New England tablelands of only about 200 acres (100 ha) we are not producing anything at the moment as we are repairing our land using NSF. For nearly three years (thanks to off farm income) we have rested the land, repaired out water way and began restoring hydrological processes to the land scape. The results have been simply remarkable. The creek that runs through our property always runs, the land is moister, the humus content in the soils has built up and the natural wildlife has returned. On the way has been the scepticism of our traditional neighbours, the inevitable fights with our local council weed inspectors and the council and moments of self doubt but we are on the up and it is great. Next year we begin a long awaited project of a true or traditional small farm enterprise, mixed livestock, fruit and vegetables. A lot of hard work awaits us and there will be somethings we try that will not work, but in the process we will not wreck the land will have enormous self satisfaction and we know it is going to work.
Equally we have got off the grid so to speak, so we are energy self sufficient thanks to solar and the odd bit of timber. We have not replaced oil but we figure in years to come a number of olive trees will provide the oil we need for bio-diesel. So it is all about thinking laterally and thinking NSF. You can add in to that any other methods to manage the enterprise, permaculture, holistic farming etc but they are variations on a theme, but the foundation is to do what Peter suggests and look after the land and work with the Australian landscape.
So we know we will feed ourselves, quite luxuriously over the years, we will have a healthy and productive property but we will not make a fortune, but we will pay the bills and make a little on the side to keep doing the good work we have started.