by Raymond Charles Babb
We just received the SFJ and were looking forward to reading the article “Making the Plunge” by Bob Williams. After reading it I was a little disappointed. When I first glanced at the title in the table of contents I wanted to skip the other articles and immediately read this one. His writing is fine and the ideas presented are certainly admirable; however, I was hoping there would be some “nuts and bolts” to Alan Ellis’ questions “How can I get started and small farm?” I fairly rushed to pen and paper to offer my thoughts which, hopefully, will directly answer that question at least in part.
For those who need to have someone with “qualifications” speaking, I offer the following. I hold an earned Bachelors, Masters and Doctors degrees from American schools. I have taught from the junior high level to the graduate level at universities (rank of associate professor). I have written and published, am a Wisconsin licensed psychologist and real estate broker. There are a few other qualifications but of diminishing importance. However, perhaps my best qualification is that I am a “small farmer” and do so with horses and I also deal in farms in my real estate work. I have met scores of people who have tried almost everything to get into farming with little or no money. I think I have tried nearly everything to help them get started and prosper and I think I might have something to offer that may help other people with the same question.
Let’s assume the beginning ‘farmer’ has absolutely nothing. Nothing but a will to farm and a reasonably normal body. To realistically think about simply buying a farm, stocking and equipping it, is out of the question. To think about Farmers’ Home Administration getting you started is possible, but I don’t recommend it. If you do choose to go the FmHA route you will rarely know where you are at, will not be independent, and you will find their demands will be contrary to the philosophy espoused by the Small Farmer’s Journal. Besides that, FmHA is simply lousy to deal with. If you have an hour sometime, I’ll be happy to elaborate on the issue.
Let’s return to the nuts and bolts of getting started with an empty pocket, a full desire and an optimistic mental set.
The very first thing you must do is search out a farmer, preferably a farmer who farms close to the way that you want to farm. The closer the better, but any farmer in need of help will do for a start. To get started you can begin to work for any farmer at all, BUT, you must begin to search for one who approaches the style of farming that you wish to pursue, i.e., if you think you eventually want to raise beef, then find a rancher who raises beef.
Ideally you need to locate a fellow who will supply you with housing — preferably that has a second set of buildings somewhere on his farm that you and yours could live in and use some of the buildings to raise stock in and your pay would, in part, be feed. There is no good reason to work only for cash — ask to be paid a reasonable wage but be flexible on trading wages for building a barn use, feed, a huge garden area, etc.
Thus, your primary goal is to find a farmer that needs your help, will give you a couple of buildings and will pay you an honest wage which would be divided into cash and feed for your future stock, plus allow you to plant a big garden. This fellow will not be as hard to locate as you might think, but what you absolutely must be willing to give in return is your very best efforts, reliability, loyalty and all those things which make for “damn good help”.
I want to stress that point for a number of reasons, the main ones being that the kind of “help” that you are is very likely to be the kind of farmer that you will be down the road. If you shirk the crummy jobs of farming, such as cleaning the chicken coop or the calf pens, you will be cheating your employer and cheating yourself. Every job is not all that bad if you roll up your sleeves and get started.
The second reason you need to give your all to your boss is because he is giving you a start — you owe him a heck of a lot more than the pay you will get. You, in fact, are a student — he is your teacher, and yet he will pay you to learn. You must watch him, ask questions, do as you are told and learn everything you can. Very shortly you will be on your own and you will find that the more you learn now, the better you will be when you have only yourself to rely on. Understand this — you can learn even from his mistakes. In fact, sometimes his errors, his blunders, his breakdowns, will be your best lessons.
At this point you will be started — you began with nothing, you now have a job, shelter, opportunity, a teacher and a hope.
The next thing is to begin to acquire what you eventually are going to need. This will be both stock and machinery. An important item here, as well as in the future, is to deal on a CASH basis. You MUST NOT borrow to pay later. I don’t want to give all the reasons for everything I’m recommending — you will have to trust them. Pay as you go, EXCEPT for a SINGLE exception (later stated) is the best. Trust it, don’t question it.
We will assume you eventually wish to dairy. You may, in fact, wish to raise hogs, beef, bees, horses or whatever, but chances are you will be producing one or two things which will be a major source of income.
Don’t misunderstand — you will probably want a variety — because to live reasonably well you will need a flock of chickens, a milk cow or two, a sow or two, a few hives of bees and certainly horses, but realistically you also will need to have some reasonably reliable source of income; a milk check, feeder pigs, beef or whatever.
Your task now is to begin to acquire those things that you will need for your independence.
Essentially what you need to do is to be awake and be aware to opportunities and then act on them. Auctions are a very good place to pick up real bargains, but you need to be awake and ready to act. Keep in mind these principles — you don’t buy anything that you cannot pay cash for. You do not buy anything that you really don’t need. (This will be a little difficult, because you may not need something now that is a bargain, but you will need it later.) You must not buy JUNK. You must be able to see beyond minor repairs and dirt as well as to be able to see beyond the immediately obvious use of something.
Let me give you an example. Not long ago, I was at an auction and they were selling a large round lick tank. A lick tank has internal wheels that turn, by cow or horse tongue power, into a vat and brings up a concentrate usually of protein, minterals, vitamins, etc. Usually it is rectangular or round, stands about 2 1/2 feet high and everything is covered but the very top of the wheels, which are licked and consequently turn and bring up the concentrate. At any rate, no one was bidding on it and I already had one at home, but I knew it was a bargain, so I bid and bought it for $15. Why? Because by taking off the top and setting aside the wheels I have frequently needed tank for water, feed storage, etc. It was obviously a lick tank, but it was also a water tank in disguise and a very good one. The bottom is a heavy gauge steel — much better than a regular galvanized tank. How many of those at the auction would have given more if a conventional water tank was sitting there?
The point is, you buy what you need now, or in the future, that isn’t junk and is a bargain, and you forsake all others. Thus you have begun to buy quality stock and machinery for cash.
Let’s again assume that you wish to dairy. If you bought a beautiful Spring Holstein heifer you will pay, at today’s market, about $1200. But for you it is foolish to buy her because it will probably take you a long time to save the $1200 and our goal is to get you independent farming as fast, but as sound, as we can. It may be better to begin by buying calves. You have the buildings, you are paid partly in feed and you don’t have $1200, but you do have $50 to buy the calf — a heifer calf, not a bull calf. Every $50 you get, you buy a calf and begin to raise it the best and cheapest way you can. Cheapest meaning that you don’t get sucked into high-priced, off-the-farm feeds that will leave you busted before you begin. $1200 will buy one Spring heifer which will probably give you one calf plus the milk, cream, cheese and butter. BUT $1200 will buy you 24 calves, which in a short two years will give you the independence and means to live plus the milk, cream, etc. that you will need.
Probably about two or three years will be all you will need to acquire the things necessary to move away from the man you have been working for. Everywhere you can, you must pick up anything you can that you may or will need. Obviously, if someone is going to throw something away — take it, even if it seems of limited value. If it’s free or dirt cheap — take it. If it’s repairable, repair it, because you probably will need a pickup and really nothing more in the line of automobiles or tractors. But even if it is not repairable, you must be able to see beyond what it immediately is. An old unrepairable pickup is a wagon in disguise. You are going to need all the trailers and wagons that you can lay your hands on. The back end of a pickup makes a beautiful trailer for fencing, hauling rocks, feed and what have you; if the box is shot, the axles and tires can be made into a four wheel wagon running gear reasonably easily. The seat will work in a horse-wagon, the lights can be saved for your future pickup, the battery can be sold for $3 which can buy you six new burlap gunny sacks which, if properly stored, will give years of service and when worn out can serve to wipe and rub down horses, and then can be used to wipe off machinery, and then either burned in your bee smoker, or to start a fire in your wood burner, or to be used as a mulch or screen to hold dirt in a ditch you are attmepting to heal over.