This is a guest post and entry in Round 1 of the Farm Dreams writing contest. The prizes for this round include:
First Prize: A $300 gift certificate toward any purchase of Featherman Poultry Processing Equipment, including pluckers, knives and more!
Second Prize: A 164' roll of electric poultry netting from Kencove valued at $140!
Third Prize: A large heirloom pack of assorted seeds from Baker Creek (northern or southern region) plus a copy of Jere and Emilee Gettle's recently published book The Heirloom Life Gardener.Valued at $125!
Fourth Prize: A $55 gift certificate good toward any purchase at Lehman's!
Round 1 ends began January 15 and ends March 15 so GET BUSY WRITING and email your entry to us today!
So You Wanna Be a Farmer, eh? by D. Seedorf
In an effort to be more conscientious about your food, you’re already shopping farmer’s markets, joined a CSA,or you buy direct from a local farmer. You‘ve figured out that there is more to healthy food than a USDA organic label. Where it comes from, how it’s grown, who grows it, the environmental impact or all of the above are areas that our government doesn’t necessarily assure us of. Now you can’t stand it any more, you can hear the land calling to you. You find yourself driving down country roads just to get a glimpse of a herd of cows, horses, or a flock chickens. You feel this stirring in your soul that you are meant to be a farmer BUT; you have no experience, you have no money, you’re upside down in your mortgage, worse you’ve filed bankruptcy or there is some other “reason” (i.e. excuse) you tell yourself why you’ll probably never have more than a ¼ acre and a semi shaded deck with which to pursue your calling.
Well, that was once me. I used to feel like I was teetering on depression because I wanted to farm so much that I couldn’t stand it, and yet every where I turned, there were road blocks. My grandmother actually owned 60 acres with two vacant houses and because of family dynamics/politics/disagreements, I was not going to be allowed to use any of it. Even rent it. We were in an upside down mortgage, my lawn care business tanked, and foreclosure was imminent. So, yes I was depressed and now looking back I had myself to blame for much of my circumstances and in large part, I was just learning some life lessons that most people go through but handle better than I did. Here I will describe my recommendations for pursuing farming along with most of my mistakes. I say “most” because I’ve made so many that I’d be hard pressed to recall them all.
So Where are YOU?
Even if you find your self in similar territory, farming on some level is a possibility, where ever you are. If you are so fortunate as I could have been, and have potentially free or cheap access to land, take it slow. I made the mistake of announcing that I intended to recreate Polyface farm and I was a little overbearing. So if you’re dying to farm and you have potential access to land, ask yourself a few questions:
- Am I/can I make a trip at least once a day to tend things? If not, then you don’t really want to farm bad enough or you need someone else to help you when you are unavailable. If someone else is generous enough to let you use their idle land, you need to make an appearance at LEAST once a day or even maybe twice a day is better.
- Can I afford the extra commute? If it’s more than a few miles from your home or work, it may not be economically feasible to spend $20 a day in fuel to tend an off site garden. I tried and nearly went broke.
- How much can you/ he/ she/ they handle? Start modest, don’t show up with a trailer loaded with a tractor, plow, a flock of chickens and five goats. Just start with a few rows or beds of vegetables and grow from there.
- Don’t get swept up in the excitement of reading somone’s blog or after visiting a farm and hope to immediately recreate what they’ve accomplished. They’ve either been working at it for quite sometime, or they have extensive resources from a successful business career they left behind. Friends of mine who have mentored me a great deal have been farming for about 8 years, and they tell me repeatedly that they are just now getting things figured out.
“But there are no land barons in my family, I don’t know anybody and I live in a subdivision or an apartment.”
- Well you can still do something, even if all you have is a balcony, you can start a small container garden of tomatoes and peppers on your deck/balcony. After our bankruptcy/foreclosure, we were renting from my in-laws and had the worst lot in the neighborhood. There was a large flower bed by the driveway that I planted a small Square Foot Garden in. It was the only spot that got enough sun that I could grow in without tilling up the front yard. We had a container garden on the back deck with herbs and lettuces.
“I really want to raise clean, healthy meat and eggs too.”
- Unfortunately some municipalities have zoning ordinances that block even owning one chicken however, if you’re on good terms with your neighbors, or if they just pay absolutely no attention to what’s going on around them, they would probably never say two words about a couple of hens. We acquired our current flock from a couple who had 1.96 acres and 40 hens. Our county says you must have 2 acres and animal housing structures must be 200’ from the property line. Their coop was practically in the neighbor’s back yard and it stunk to high heaven, no wonder they got complaints. If they had not had so many, kept the coop cleaned out, and maybe passed some free eggs over the fence, they might not have had to sell their chickens.
- If you are dead set on raising your own meat, few ordinances consider rabbit as livestock. Rabbits are cheap and easy to raise, even if you are an apartment dweller. If the thought of keeping a number of rabbits in cages seems too inhumane (I do have a bit of a problem with this) consider the conditions the animal whose meat you bought at the grocery store. I’m certain your garage, basement, laundry room etc. could be more sanitary than any feed lot or chicken house. Consider this, before World War II, there was no such thing as a meat chicken, the common person was more apt to eat rabbit.
“My HOA/neighbors/local government are all blocking me!”
- Well rather than giving them all the proverbial bird and risking some serious backlash, be content with just being a farm hand for a while, ask a farmer if you can just come help. The experience itself would be worth it, some might even agree to pay you with food. This is how we got our first taste of pastured chicken. The farm we bought our milk from, would reward anyone who helped process chickens with one bird for four hours and two birds for working the entire day. The level of satisfaction could not be equalled when we ate that first bird, except for the first chickens that we raised.
- Don’t be surprised if there are some that may actually charge you! Farmers make their living farming and unless you are going to be a full time apprentice, having someone come out to throw some scratch out to the chickens, gather some eggs, or slop some hogs for a day can actually be a hindrance. Their time is just as valuable as any lawyer, doctor, teacher, or mechanic. Everyone I’ve ever met, loves to teach anyone willing to learn but, if doing so takes away from their schedule, you should be willing to compensate them for it and do exactly what they instruct you to do!
- Check different websites like; Eat Wild, Local Harvest or here in Georgia, Georgia Organics for nearby community gardens, co-ops, or events.
“ What about land? I really want to be doing it for real.”
- First of all, get out and look to see what is available and what you can afford.
- Rent, buy, or lease? With the depressed real estate market, there are a lot of land owners out there who would love to sell but not at the current values. You may be able to find someone to rent land to you or even agree to a lease purchase as we’ve done.
- How much land do you think you really need? How much can you handle? I was chomping at the bit to farm my grandmother’s 60 acres, but I’ve found that 8 is enough. Wasn’t that a T.V. show? Any way, sorry.
- Do you still need to commute to regular J-O-B? I’m a full time firefighter, I work 24hrs on and 48 off. A schedule pretty conducive to farming, but if I’ve been up all night running calls and need to hurry home to relieve my wife, how was that 50+ mile commute going to be?
- Would an hour commute be worth 40 acres? Could you afford the gas at nearly $4 a gallon? See the previous question and no I couldn’t.
- The most important thing you can do is to be patient. The first great deal you find probably isn’t. If I had pushed for it, I probably could have gotten my wife to go for a 20 acre property that was fenced, had a barn, and the owner would finance. When she saw the single-wide mobile home, the look on her face said it all. I knew she wouldn’t have been happy, and if mama ain’t happy...
- Alright, that last one wasn’t the most important, if you’re married, this is. Consider your spouse. How much is she or he on board? When we met, my wife never in a hundred years would have thought she’d be taking care of chickens, cows, homeschooling but now she is. She does enjoy it, but living in a single wide with three kids an hour or more from family, and me gone 24 hours at a time was a line she just wasn’t willing to cross.
- Sometimes, opportunity knocks in your own back yard. On my drive to and from work, I’d pass an old farm with a house, barn, 8 acres and several out buildings. There was one of those big 4’x4’ for sale signs in the front yard. I never considered it because my credit was shot and I found that if the sign doesn't say “For Sale By Owner,” then chances are they want you to come pre-approved. One morning, on my way home, I noticed that the sign changed to for lease and there was a different number on the sign. As it turned out, the lessor had just bought the property as a tax shelter with capital gains money and he would not be able to sell it for two years without penalty. He agreed to a five year lease/purchase and has paid for most all the materials I’ve needed for repairs to the 70+ year old structures. He’s even bought us some fruit trees.
The land deal is going through, what next?
That is going to depend on your long range goals. If you're as limited as I am, then I’d say your first goal is to feed yourself/your family.
- The very first thing I did was to start a garden. Even though we moved here in September, we were able to grow carrots, radishes, spinach, lettuce, cabbage and more. I had a friend with a tiller come out and till our garden up for us. This used to be a dairy farm and the soil is excellent. The loafing shed in the pasture was full of manure from the previous occupant who had horses.
- The fastest return I’ve found in raising any livestock has been with broilers. It’s been argued that meat chickens are not the most sustainable product, but they can be the most profitable. As a friend of mine has said, “You’ve gotta make it pay first.” If We bought day old Heritage White chicks for a dollar a piece. We raised them in hoop styled tractors on the pasture for 9 weeks and we free ranged them in a paddock for their last week. They finished out at around 6 pounds each and we sold them for $15 each. Our biggest mistake was not finding a source of bulk feed (they can’t eat grass alone). We over spent buying feed from the local Purina dealer, leaving us with about a five dollar profit per bird, but at least there was some profit and we haven’t had to buy meat for 2+ months.
- What about bigger livestock? You might be surprised at how many people will be willing to provide the funds to help buy a cow or two. After buying our laying hens, I was on my way to the farm when I ran into a friend from church at the gas station. When he heard what I was doing, he asked, “Can I have a cow?” “Sure!” was my reply. He ended up buying three 5 day old Holstein calves from a dairy farm. One was a heifer. The idea was that we’d milk her and he’d be happy to get just a gallon of milk a week. The two bulls would be for beef. I should have done a lot of research before agreeing to this arrangement. Holstein milk has the A1 beta-casein which has been linked to all sorts of conditions from allergies to asthma to schizophrenia! We had been buying Jersey milk, which is more likely to be have A2 beta-casein. The family we buy milk from has admitted they don’t test their cows and I don’t have definitive proof just yet, but why risk it? Why settle for Holstein milk when there is better? The A1-A2 question aside, Holstein milk in all has been proven to be nutritionally inferior. They are cheap, but I’ll never advocate buying commercial dairy calves. The commercial dairy industry isn’t known for producing healthy calves for sale.
- For us, I’ve decided on the Dexter breed of cow because they’re a small breed, which means less footprint, cheaper to feed (grass only) and for their size produce milk comparable to Jerseys. They are also noted for excellent grass to beef conversion. Now I just need to convince my buddy to sell the Holstein and invest in a Dexter!
- We did attempt a Jersey, I found one that was in milk so our idea was to get her as a nurse cow for the Holstein calves. It would be easier than trying bottle feeding, and more nutritious than milk replacer (formula). Turns out that just because a cow has milk, doesn’t mean she’ll just let any calf nurse, and that was the case. The Jersey, (we named her Ellie) didn’t want a thing to do with those calves. I tried milking her but she ended up drying up. I ended up trading her for our first Dexter.
- Remember when I mentioned helping farmers you do business with? Well our farm friends we buy milk from and butcher chickens with, hit me with a bombshell when they said they wanted to buy us another Dexter, one that is already trained to be a milker. This is one of the things that I love about farming, there is such a spirit of paying forward. I look forward to when I can be as much a blessing to someone as they’ve been to us.
Another important consideration is your family. If you already have a family, what is each member’s role going to be? Farming, REAL farming, is a more than just a hobby to fill idle time, it’s a way of life and your success or failure may well be determined by just how well you instill in each family member a role they must fill. You must do this carefully, so as not to make your spouse and or kids feel like serfs. I have a 4 year old daughter, a 6 year old son, an 8 year old son, and a 15 year old son from my previous marriage. Rather than tell the kids that there is some area of the farm that is their primary responsibility, we have them help us in whatever tasks we have to do. If the garden needs weeding or digging, everyone gets a spade or fork and joins in. When we give hay to the cows, everyone carries a flake. When we move chicken tractors, the kids go in to make sure all the chickens move forward and don’t get run over. We do rotate some things such as feeding rabbits or chickens because these are tasks they can accomplish themselves. I do go behind them and double check because there is usually one waterer that gets forgotten. If I grab a shovel, at least one of my kids say , “Wait for me, where’s mine?” There’s something about kids and dirt. I really only get resistance from my 15 year old, but generally he’s fine because I get him involved in helping me with something, rather than expecting him to complete a series of tasks alone.
Our other consideration was to home school. We decided that sending our kids to government run schools was not going to work for us. There are too many things that must be tended to and to add a school schedule to everything would be near nightmarish. Besides, my children are receiving an education that they never would inside a concrete block building. They are learning about the value of life and the purpose of death. The value of not just a dollar, but of food. They really understand that an egg comes from a chicken, and that a chicken had to be killed in order to eat it. They are learning about the symbiotic relationships between animals, grass, soil, worms, and vegetables. They are learning that they are a part of creation and they are it’s caretaker. For those who fear that I am raising social recluses, calm down. Just ask my eight year old about chickens or rabbits and he’ll launch into a lecture that would rival Joel or Daniel Salatin!
So there it is in something of a nutshell. In conclusion, you need to have a plan and make sure your better half is all for it. Be realistic in your short and long term goals. Be careful entering into any type of business partnership, especially with a friend. Don’t forget; when you slip and fall face down in the mud; a water pipe needs to be repaired and its -12F in February; the cow kicks over the ¾ full milk bucket; and you find yourself eating eggs at every meal, that this is the definition of fun and you wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.