We’ve stated before that in order for natural farms to feed the world, we need a lot more of them. And in order for those farms to appear, legions of young people need to trade in their cubicles for pastures. Lots of people have been inspired in recent years to give serious thought to becoming farmers and fixing the big pile of broken in the nation’s food supply.
This article is my personal plea to those who are thinking about farming but are waiting for something. If you’re waiting for the right time, the right epiphany, the right financial situation, the right attitude from loved ones, the right business plan… take this advice from someone that’s made the plunge: DO NOT WAIT. Here are the reasons why:
1. You don’t need that much money to start farming
When people think about starting a farm, many envision a laundry list of expensive big-ticket items needed to get started. Land, bank barns, silos, combines, tractors, hay balers, diesel trucks, gooseneck trailers; we’re convinced (by sources unknown, maybe TV?) that starting a farm means an investment of hundreds of thousands of dollars. The result is that would-be farmers write off farming as something to do in retirement after they’ve saved a small fortune working in a 50 square foot cubicle. But what if I told you there was a different way?
Believe it or not, you can start your farm without buying land, silos, combines, farmhouses, and all those other prohibitively expensive things. First let’s talk about all the things you DON’T need to buy: combines, hay balers, silos, bank barns, chain drag harrows, seed drills, bush hogs, heavy duty tractors, irrigation systems, gothic-framed glass greenhouses, soil test kits, high tensile fencing… I really could go on forever talking about what you don’t need.
Let’s say you want to break into the business doing pastured poultry (1,000 birds) and a market garden (2,000 sqft intensively planted). Here’s what you’re looking at for your expenses in the Virginia area, as an example:
Poultry processing equipment and portable shed: $5,500
Poultry feed: $4,000
20′ x 100′ hoophouse/greenhouse: $2,500
Basic tool budget (table saws, leatherman, chainsaw, drill, etc.): $2,000
Misc. expenses (brooder, compost carbon, broiler pens, feeders/waterers, seed, rain capture equipment): $2,000
Poultry Stock: $1,000
20 acres rented pasture: $40/acre/year, $800
You’re reading that right: for less than $20K you can be in the farming business with two enterprises (see this article to see how this estimate held up two months later). Of course that amount of money isn’t nothing, but it certainly isn’t the quarter-million dollar behemoth you’d have to scare up (usually by going to the bank with your first born child as collateral) if you were going into the conventional farming business. Between your own savings, family, friends, or even Kickstarter, you can scrape together $20K in under a year.
2. The country’s aging farming population is a tragedy. And a unique opportunity
America’s farmers are graying rapidly; the average age of a farmer in this country is 57. When these guys decide they’d like to retire, they face a grim reality: their children have often abandoned the countryside for jobs in the city (or, increasingly, a never-ending run on the grad school treadmill), and the only people knocking on the door to relieve them of their responsibility are the real estate developer or the rep from a factory farming outfit.
Farmers hate to see their lives’ work turned into fifty McMansions piled one on top of the other, and they’re all but begging for some young folks to get themselves into their fields and keep the land productive so they can enjoy their golden years secure in the knowledge that the land they’ve loved for decades will continue to be a farm.
All over this country, farmland can be rented from retired farmers for next to nothing. The $40/acre/year quoted earlier is on the HIGH end of the spectrum in central Virginia; it’s what you’d pay for premium hundred-cow-day grass that’s been established pasture for decades. If you’re willing to adopt some neglected, worn-out pasture and restore it with animal impact and managed grazing, you’ll pay about half that. And woodlots? A lot of farmers will throw that in for free.
What this means for you is this: the biggest capital expense for starting a farm – the land – just got thrown out the window. Instead of waiting 20 years to save up a nest egg that you’ll pour into a $500K plot of 100 acres, you can start farming that 100 acres today and the next five years for the same price you’d pay for a used Honda Civic.
3. You don’t have to move to the boonies. In fact, you shouldn’t
Lifestyle comes in a close second to finances as a barrier to young people becoming farmers. Farming means selling your condo or leaving your apartment right in the middle of all the action, and moving to a place where there are more cows than people and getting to the nearest decent restaurant requires a plane ticket.
If your goal is to procure 1,000 acres, mortgage yourself and your mother to buy all the livestock in the world, and sell your corn-fed supercows wholesale to ConAgra, then you are probably going to have to move to a place where the mayor, the sheriff, and the postmaster general are all the same person.
Natural farms, on the other hand, are small because we’re focused on intensive management of every square foot of the property to produce world-class food. Small scale farming is viable because we sell directly to consumers, and ONLY because we sell directly to consumers: it gives us 100% of the dollar spent on the food we produce. By comparison, conventional farmers selling wholesale receive only about 12 cents of every dollar spent on the food they produce, which is why they must produce in such large (and ecologically irresponsible) quantities.
Since the natural farm is small it can afford the higher per-acre cost of being near a major town or city. The closer your farm is to a significant population center, the easier it is to market your products, which leaves you more time to spend turning your little acreage into an ecologically productive paradise. The farther away it is, the harder it is to market, which gives you less time to farm your great big acreage that’s quickly turning into a neglected, overgrown wasteland.
And speaking of direct marketing…
4. Yes, you can make a decent living
Natural farming means low startup costs, low operating costs, and selling at retail prices. These are the basic ingredients for a fairly decent business. You’re probably not going to get rich doing this (and that certainly isn’t the point), but in a few years you will very likely work up to what would be considered a decent salary even in the city.
Sylvanaqua Farms recommends Joel Salatin’s advice to avoid farmers markets as retail outlets, and instead devote that time to setting up buyers clubs. These arrangements are much more flexible and profitable for the farmer, and infinitely more convenient and high-touch for the consumer.
Whether you go the unconventional route with buyers clubs or the more well-trod path of farmers markets, the bottom line is that there’s a good living to be made in natural farming as long as you’re willing to put in the effort to direct market. Beyond making a decent living, there’s also:
5. The benefits of the farming lifestyle
These are almost too many to list, so I’ll just talk about what I’ve encountered personally.
I was plagued by health problems related to stress and sedentary lifestyle when I worked as a technology consultant, even though I worked out regularly. Insomnia, moodiness, nutritional deficiencies, immune weakness, erratic appetite, chronic fatigue, allergies, occasional weight loss, and (TMI warning) insurrections in my GI tract were all problems I had to contend with routinely. Since moving to the farm they’ve all disappeared – literally every single one of them. Here’s why:
I eat three real, cooked meals, from scratch, every single day. No more shoveling boxed cereal or some other breakfast charlatan into my face so I can beat traffic for an 8am meeting that no one’s going to remember the results of anyway. And speaking of traffic and meetings: I don’t have to deal with either anymore. I haven’t driven my truck in four days, and we have a special word here for meetings: Dinner. Oh, and I don’t hate Monday anymore.
One of the first things I did when I moved to the farm was adopt a “European” work schedule, wherein I’ll work early in the morning till about noon, take a four or five hour break, then go back out until just after sunset. I don’t work Saturdays except for routine morning chores, and Sundays are devoted to fun projects. Fresh air and exercise are built into our lives by simply being outside for several hours a day and doing things by hand: we turn compost with pitchforks, hand-till garden beds, stack hay by clean-and-jerking it (we’ll wait for you to stop giggling), and we walk about 2 miles a day just being at work.
We keep our animals in great health with plenty of fresh air, sunshine, good food, low stress, and the ability to live their lives as nature intended. When you apply these practices to your own life, you’ll be amazed by how great you feel.
6. You’re not getting any younger
There’s a scene in Good Will Hunting where Chuckie convinces Will to do something with his genius (warning – language): “Tomorrow I’m gonna wake up and I’ll be 50. And I’ll still be doing this shit. And that’s all right, that’s fine. I mean, you’re sittin’ on a winning lottery ticket and you’re too much of a pussy to cash it in. And that’s bullshit.”
That statement was certainly true of me a couple of years ago as I thought of my agriculture project as something to do after I’d advanced even further into my current career, saved up a giant pile of money for ten years, and become comfortable enough to switch careers.
When you think about it, it’s rather silly to think that doubling down on your current habits will make you more comfortable with changing them later. That’s like trying to quit smoking by moving on to heroin. Silly as it may be, it’s exactly that type of thinking that’s keeping most people out of farming. The financial commitment isn’t that bad and the lifestyle changes are actually positive. It’s that horrible thing called comfort that keeps people from taking a leap of faith.
Based on conversations I’ve had with lots of older folks who’ve commented on my wife and I starting Sylvanaqua Farms, I can tell you that only one of two things will happen if you decide to wait.
1.) You will never farm. You will wake up tomorrow, in your cubicle, 50 years old. The nest egg you were building to switch careers? Gone, paid in tribute to the rat race. Lost in the bigger house you “needed” when your second kid came along, the new car you “needed” to replace your ancient 5 year old BMW, the occasional unexpected medical bill (yes my fellow twenty- and thirty-somethings, these happen when you get older), years of daycare and tutors, the meals from all those restaurants you can’t even remember…
2.) You will farm, much later in life than you’d anticipated, and you’ll wish you’d done it when you were young. This isn’t me guessing here. Three older couples at the Polyface IDS seminar I attended in July told me the following: As young people, they thought their lack of financial cushion would make farming too stressful and risky. But, as young people tend to do, they didn’t think of how they’d be looking at the world as graybeards. So now they want to get into farming, and they have money… but they’re still risking it all. The only difference between now and 20 years ago is that they have much more to lose, less time to learn, less physical and emotional stamina, and less time and ability to recover if disaster strikes.
No doubt about it, farming is risky. But stalling for a decade or two only makes it worse, or guarantees you’ll never do anything. Take a year or two to plan, (re-)educate yourself, prepare for what’s coming, then dive in!