Today a friend of mine shared a post by a small farmer in West Virginia on Facebook. It was about the passion and ideals that drive one to farm, and about what to pursue and what to let go. Small sustainable farming is starting to gain popularity as a new way of life for suburbanites, city folk, as well as those who think of themselves as country but have decided to start growing food. Sadly there are a number who jump in without realizing just what it is they are getting into, and within a couple of years time they dust themselves off after falling face first more times than they can bear and go back to their old life. Maybe to try again later but they are definitely changed with a greater understanding that farming isn’t for everyone, namely themselves.
So here’s a list of free advice from a guy who is still something of a newbie with 4+ years under his belt.
#1. Consider your family first. Not mom, not dad, or grandma or grandpa (unless they are considering joining you), but your spouse if you are in that stage of life. If your spouse is not on board, just don’t do it. Garden, keep a rabbit hutch, get a couple of laying hens, but don’t move her or him onto a farm. Unless mom and dad are going to GIVE (not loan) startup money or land, keep them out of the picture too. Hopefully they’ll at the very least support you by buying your products and not expecting a family discount.
#2.Pick a passion. A passion, not several. Pursue it, perfect it, and you will profit from it. After that, add to it. I believe the very best farms are multi dimensional but don’t try to be Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms over night or in the next decade. What I mean is, pick one, maybe two products to sell (I suggest veggies and eggs). Get a milk cow and or pig for yourself, but only if you’re really able to.
#3. Be brutally honest with yourself, but don’t be afraid to fail. It’s all a risk so be ready to fall flat on your face. Hopefully you’ll fall in manure instead of fire ants.
#4. You don’t NEED a tractor. Life is easier with one, but life is even better without debt. So if you buy an old $2000 Ford Jubilee (just an expample), know that making repairs will be a regular occurrence. Friends of mine got a nice big tractor with a front end loader on a trade but it was months of mechanic bills before they could use it reliably. You do need a truck.
#5. Find someone local to hire for tractor and heavy equipment work. You can get a lot done for $500-$1000 if he really knows what he is doing.
#6. Before you do any of this, find a few local farms to support and volunteer your labor. You will learn more than any book, class or seminar can ever teach you.
#7. Be frugal but don’t buy cheap. Cheap hoses bust so get commercial grade. Rubber boots at Walmart are $20 but farmers live in boots, so get some that will last a year (I wear Bogs).
#8. Your first livestock should not be breeding stock. Dairy cows/goats are an exception, you have to breed them to get milk, just make sure that first few you buy are already bred and hire out a bull or buck or an AI tech.
#9. Price appropriately. Don’t try to match the grocery stores. Be familiar with what other farmers who’ve been around a while sell for. Anyone selling eggs for $4/doz isn’t even paying for their feed.
#10. Do not expect to be 100% grass fed or to produce all your own feed unless you have 100+ acres. We
don’t feed grain to our milk cows, but we import a lot of hay and alfalfa. If you are raising any animal for production, you will have a significant feed bill.
#11. Expect discouragement, disappointment, and sadness. But take heart. There is nothing more satisfying than to hear someone say “thank you for what you do” and then to bite into that first morsel of food that you produced.
#12. Be transparent. Tell people what you do and why. Be ready to answer lots of questions.
#13. Fence. No matter how good your fences are, add electric fence. Electric fence is invaluable in keeping your livestock in, and protecting them and your garden from predators and vermin. You will get shocked, I’ve lost count of the jolts I’ve received. You can build good strong fence from pallets.
#14. Make your own compost. No commercially produced product will ever compare to what you make yourself. Wood chips are free, leaves are free, and manure is
an invaluable byproduct of eggs, milk, and pork chops.
There’s really so much more I could say but this is a fair summary I think. Farming is a lot of work (think 12 to 18 hour days, 365 a year). There will be critics. There will be as many dissatisfied customers, or more, as loyal ones. Some folks just don’t get it. You are already brave, daring, and courageous. Make sure that you are also wise, fair, and industrious. You can do it.
Oh, one last thing, close the gate.