Starting Your Farm
Where to begin? How do you get in the proverbial ‘door?’ Instead of saying out loud “I want to learn how to farm, I want to learn everything you know.” Save it as answer to a future question. Instead introduce yourself to that farmer and offer this; “How may I help you with your farm work?” And if the answer is, “I need those pumpkins loaded carefully on this wagon, can you handle that?” You say “Yessir,” and do it.
Thanks to the many resources available in the new millennium, it is relatively easy for new and transitioning farmers to learn the business of small-scale organic vegetable production. Economic models of horse-powered market gardens, however, are still few and far between. To fill that information hole, I asked three experienced farmers to join me in tracking work horse hours, expenses and labor over a two-year period and to share the results in the Small Farmer’s Journal.
I am certainly not the most able of dairymen, nor the most skilled among vegetable growers, and by no means am I to be counted amongst the ranks of the master teamsters of draft horses. If there is anything remarkable about my story it is that someone could know so little about farming as I did when I started out and still manage to make a good life of it.
It is always fascinating and at times a little disconcerting to watch how seamlessly the macro-economics of trying to make a living as a farmer in such an out-of-balance society can morph us into shapes we never would have dreamed of when we were getting started. This year we will be putting in a refrigerated walk-in cooler which will allow us to put up more storage-share vegetables.
Working with horses can and should be safe and fun and profitable. The road to getting there need not be so fraught with danger and catastrophe as ours has been. I hope the telling of our story, in both its disasters and successes will not dissuade but rather inspire would-be teamsters to join the horse-powered ranks and avoid the pitfalls of the un-mentored greenhorn.
We had been looking for a few years before we found our land. We had been hoping to find an old homestead, with an old house and barn, but all the ones we looked at were either in a bad location, or would’ve needed so much repairs that it was too much for us. So finally, our realtor-friend said to us, “Did you ever think of just buying land and building new?” We had thought we couldn’t afford to do that, but realized that building a very simple, new house would cost about the same as restoring an old one. So he showed 10 acres for sale that he knew of. (Actually, it’s in two adjoining five acre parcels, but we wound up buying both of them.) The land was for sale because it was too steep & hilly to farm “conventionally,” the big equipment was at risk of rolling on the slopes.
The SFJ library owns a lovely old leather volume, “How the Farm Pays” which features a curious and thought-provoking treatise on farming 100 years ago. We offer the introductory remarks, originally presented as an interview of the authors, here for your review. Hope you find this as interesting and useful as we have. SFJ
But to all who really want to farm – to accomplish something in developing a high agriculture along sane and wholesome lines – I would say, “Do not have too large a territory.” Not that I advise a really small one, but simply one within reasonable bounds. For beyond a certain limit it is not the size that counts. Not far from where I am now writing, for instance, is a farm of eight hundred and fifty acres, of which certainly seven hundred are arable land; and at about the same distance in another direction is one of only seventy acres that produces more than the big one.
How do you learn the true status of that farm with the “for sale” sign? Here are some important pieces of information for you to learn about a given selling farm. The answers will most probably tell you how serious the seller is.
Assuming that you’ve found a farm you want to buy, next you’ll need to determine if you can buy it. If you have sold your property, and/or saved your money, and have the means to buy the farm you are sitting pretty. If you do not have the full price of a considered farm, in cash or any other form, you will likely have to look for financing.
You might think that your new farm is fenced all wrong, or that a certain tree is in the wrong place, or that a wet area would be better drained, or that this gully would make a good pond site, or that a depression in the road should be filled, or that the old sheds should all come down right away. Well maybe you’re right on all counts. But maybe, you’re wrong.
One day my stepfather brought over a magazine he had recently subscribed to. It was called Small Farmer’s Journal published by a guy named Lynn Miller. That issue had a short story about an old man that used a single small mule to garden and skid firewood with. I was totally fascinated with the prospect of having a horse and him earning his keep. It sorta seemed like having your cake and eating it too.
Prior to last year, I had felt I knew the nuances of the land quite well and fancied myself as knowledgeable about the course of the natural world. Outdoors was where I felt the most comfortable. The fresh air and endless views of fields, hills and valleys renewed my spirit and refreshed my mind. I didn’t think there was much that could fluster me when it came to the land. Until I became an organic farmer.
Does farming pay? Can a young man of brains and ambition, who has his way to make in the world, find in agriculture a fair field for his efforts? These questions have been asked from time to time for as long as I can remember, though more often and more earnestly of late years, when combinations of capital and the tendency to do business on a large scale have narrowed the field of individual enterprise. Many young people, chafing at the idea of being mere cogs in the industrial wheel, are looking earnestly for some opportunity through which they may become masters of their own business.