With the coming of the new year, we’ve reflected on the things that have gone well and not so well in these first six months of farming. It important for us to share what we’ve learned in order to reduce the learning curve for new farmers, so here are a few of the most important lessons we’ve learned since we received our first animal in August.
1. Don’t be a Tough Guy
My friends and family members often come to the farm for a couple of days to get fresh air and exercise by helping with chores and building projects. They’ve helped build practically everything on the farm, from the pastures to the hoophouse to the brooder, and they’ve all had two things in common: their help was indispensable, and they’ve tried to be tougher than necessary.
People, especially men (which is why this point says Guy instead of Girl; women know better), arrive on the farm from the city thinking they need to prove a certain degree of hardiness. They often go about it the wrong way, usually by doing one of two things: 1.) refusing to use basic safety equipment like work gloves and eye/ear protection, and 2.) doing things the hard way.*
When people did this on my farm (including me, in the early days), the results were predictable: I nearly chainsawed into my own leg going one-handed after high log that didn’t even need to be cut (and I have the hole in my jeans to prove it); one friend aggravated an existing fracture in his hand driving hoophouse posts; another friend got a splinter in his eye using a handsaw to cut plywood; another threw out his back carrying a gigantic tree stump that he could have simply rolled down a hill; and a cousin spent a weekend as an invalid after getting a wood shank through his un-gloved hand while splitting firewood.
This is all fine if you’re only working a holiday in the country, but it’ll kill you if you’re planning to farm for a living. A professional farmer’s most important asset is his or her body, and injuring it is just as bad as blowing a piston in a tractor. Breaking a hand, losing an eye, getting unnecessarily sore, or slowly going deaf by refusing to wear earmuffs when working with power equipment will cost you money in terms of lost or slowed productivity, if not medical bills.
So wear the safety gear and learn to do things the smart way. After a year, you’ll still be tougher than 90% of the population anyway.
*The only two things required to prove you’re tough enough for farm work: 1.) Don’t whine, 2.) Don’t drag your ass.
2. Don’t be Perfect
Ecological farming is not a unified discipline. The Big Organic people differ significantly from the Small Organic people, both of whom are reviled by the Beyond Organic people, who share an uneasy alliance with the Slow Food and/or Pasture Systems people, who themselves are often seen as myopic and non-holistic by the Permaculture People.
The world of ecological farming is full of tribes united in their hatred of conventional agriculture and divided in practically every other way. If you’re coming into farming as a total neophyte, as I did, then you’re probably going to start with research. The information coming from that research will quickly turn into a firehose that knocks you in every imaginable direction before pinning you to a wall, paralyzing you with indecision as to exactly what kind of farmer you want to be.
Here’s the onion of the matter: doing ANY kind of ecological farming is better than NOT farming ecologically, and you always have the option to change your operation in the future. This is why, even though I’m in love with Permaculture, I’m starting out with pastured systems. Corn-fed pastured broilers aren’t as sustainable as heritage free-rangers, but they’re infinitely more sustainable than conventional pasture operations and give me a source of income that will allow me to convert to permaculture in the near future. And, of course, both options are much better than doing nothing.
Of course, not all of the confusion will surround the big questions like “what kind of farmer do I want to be?” The real devil is in the small decisions you have to make much more often: opaque or translucent greenhouse plastic? RIR or Barred Rock laying hens? 12 ga or 14 ga aluminum wire for the pigs? Organic compost or raw milk on the pastures? Overseed in Spring, Fall, or both… or not at all? Get the birds vaccinated for Marek’s, or no? Nipple waterers, game waterers, or make something by hand? Do I really need the nestboxes with the special plastic lining? Water the animals with ponds or an intricate system of interconnected rain barrels? Burn the brush pile or bury it for raised beds?
Again: do SOMETHING. You’ll get some decisions right, and you’ll get some decisions wrong. Your experience will lead you in the right direction over time.
*Ladies, I recognize the sexist nature of this image. So… uh… here.
3. Don’t be a loner
Farming is like any other business. There are skills you have to develop that are particular to your chosen field – e.g. animal husbandry, botany, carpentry – and there are more general skills that you’ll need to make sure you can actually sell your products/services and stay out of trouble with the law – e.g. social media marketing, basic accounting, public relations, salesmanship. Each of these things has to be kept in balance in order to achieve stasis in your business.
Many a middling, struggling* entrepreneur at once boasts and laments about “doing it all”, “wearing lots of hats”, etc. while the story of every lasting (e.g. 50+ years) and successful business I’ve studied involved an entrepreneur that surrounded him/herself with other talented people. Farmers tend not to be this second kind of person. In fact we tend not to be either person. We don’t enter farming to collaborate with people and start a business… we enter farming to escape people, enjoy the beauty of pastoral solitude, and maybe write the millionth freaking city-to-farm memoir wherein the author waxes redundant about “OMG I fell in cow poop!” and “OMG the rooster crowed!”
In one of the few books of this type worth reading, Joel Salatin makes an important point that there are “people that farm with money, and people that farm for money.” The former are hobby farmers and, while I wish them well, this article isn’t for them. This article is for people who, like me, want to make a comfortable living from ecological farming and JUST ecological farming. To that end, I’ll say that farming is just like any other business, and the more successful among us will be those that surround ourselves with talented people. The more good people you surround yourself with, the more surface area fortune has to latch onto.
In my own operation, my wife and in-laws are everything. My wife is the empress of regulatory compliance, PR, and value-added products. My mother in law is the expert in horticulture and customer networking. My father in law is a general contractor and the reason nothing I’ve built has yet fallen down. My brother in law is something of an expert in avant garde methods of fundraising and crowdsourcing. So while my own talents lie in animal and pasture/forest production and strategic planning… they’d mean nothing if we couldn’t comply with state food regulations (my wife), secure loyal and repeat customers (mother in law), build facilities that didn’t fall down (father in law), or obtain seed funding through Kickstarter (brother in law).
Beyond that, I frequently rely on the help of friends and other family members to lighten the load or speed things up on physical tasks. When you’re accustomed to working by yourself, you’ll be amazed at how incredibly easy things seem to get when you add just one more person. When you get farming, be aggressive about getting help and complementing your weaknesses. You’ll be the better for it.
*Being financially successful does not mean you’re not struggling. If you’re working 60+ hour weeks, can’t take a vacation (without working), and don’t seem to have time for anything that isn’t work or materially-oriented play… your soul is undergoing atrophy, and you will pay the price sooner or later.