Starting Your Farm: Chapter 5
The Small Farmer’s Journal has decided to run editor and publisher Lynn R. Miller’s book Starting Your Farm as a serial series. Below is Chapter 4.
“And who can gradually claim the right to point to all accumulations of small gestures over the days and months and years that bloom into something as quietly satisfying as a field of garlic or a mud house or a small farm, and all that which has been labored for, not simply bought or found or taken.” – Stanley Crawford
AFTER THE FARM IS BOUGHT
In the first four chapters we’ve presumed to take you through the temporal steps of buying a farm. And we began this discussion with the process of deciding what farm you wanted. In the last segment we finished the actual purchase scenario. In this final part of the series I’d like to touch on some critical considerations which just might help, over time, to determine your purchase as a success.
If, after a while, you come to judge your purchase a failure it could be because you didn’t take the requisite precautions and got snookered. Or it could be for altogether extraneous, or outside reasons. Either way we aren’t going to concern ourselves with that now. But, it is possible that the purchase became a failure because you either;
1) could not make an adequate income from the farm to justify (or “pay for”) the purchase of it or repay operating loans.
2) you dislike the nature of the work you found yourself doing. It isn’t what you thought it would be.
3) you like the work you but can’t handle it all.
4) most important: you couldn’t afford the live-stock, equipment, and/or seed etc. that you deemed necessary to give the venture a try.
All these possible problems can be addressed right after purchase, during your first days as a farm owner. But in truth, they should have been factored into your considerations from the beginning.
For example: Intelligent inquiry and computations should have been made, from the outset, to determine if beans at 18 cents a lb. and milk at $10 cwt. would add up to revenue adequate to handle debt service, taxes, operating expenses and a living wage.
(Most farm economists will hasten to save you the time and tell you it can’t be done- but they’re academic ostriches who see only in terms of common denominators when considering highest costs and lowest income. And extension agents are hide-bound to “enterprise data” created by those store-bought ag. economists to justify the rural terrorism of our federal U.S. and Canada farm programs. How can we accept advice or counsel from the government when it continues to work to destroy the farm community? We must trust our suspicious instincts and go to successful individual examples and small farm advocates for counsel and direction. We must come to accept that success can be affected more by a romantic outlook than by abstract accounting or modern measures of efficiency. What you do is important, how you do it is also important but WHY you do what you do is most important of all.)
And that same inquiry should have gone far enough to suggest to you that if you lock yourself into beans at 18 cents per lb., and milk at $10 per hundredweight you’ve made a big mistake because you’ve limited your options from the very beginning. Your farm has to be special, unique, and alive in ways that industrialized agribusiness does not allow.
If you’re saying “okay, tell us those ways…” Good, you’re listening.
But I can’t (or won’t) tell you those ways here and now because that would be a sidetrack. Just, please, hear this: The ways are out there, they are as varied as the people using them and they are as various as the blades of grass from North Dakota to Texas. And those ways might give you whatever level of cash income you need to pay the freight but you have to meet the train at the station, so to speak. You have to take a hard look at what is important in your life and practice a true frugality and thrift. That doesn’t mean doing without. It means appreciating what you have and understanding how what you value comes to shape your life.
The excesses of this half of the twentieth century have made such consummate gluttons, and lazy bums, out of many of us. We fill our lives with such a lot of gadgets, and trash and services that we do not need. I am reminded of a couple that moved to an out-of-the-way Iowa farm and were upset at not being able to a garbage service to pick up their trash every week as had been the case in the city. They had difficulty making the farm pay for plenty of reasons but close inspection of their books disclosed that 65% of their personal living expenses were non-essential and wasteful (i.e. timeshare payments on a lakeside condo, membership in a video-of-the-month club, jewelry purchases, mobile phone service for the new pickup truck, farm consultation services, payments on a radar dish for the television, payments to the neighbor’s teenager to was cars and mow the lawn, etc, etc.) Just makes me wonder why they moved to the farm in the first place. Fact is that folks these days cannot pay the bills on this kind of silly frivolous greedy lifestyle even with high paying city jobs. But we’re getting off to the side of what we want to talk about.
FIRST THINGS FIRST
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. Your casual momentary observations cannot take into consideration how all these aspects of your new farm fit into the year and operation of that farm or into your own future needs. Until you have to move the cows or sheep from field A to field D during the summer cropping season how can you be expected to understand the true value what you thought was a wasted piece of field for that lane? And maybe when you drain that wet area you’re going to have an effect on plants all around it which shelter and feed small animals that figure into the control and balance of rodents that might grow in numbers, without predators, to cause expensive damage to the hay and crops. How were you supposed to know that damming that gully would be a colossal mistake when snow melt created massive runoff that filled the pond and cut the dam out and flooded downhill improvements? And after taking down all those old sheds you’ve found yourself short of time and money to replace them with better facilities, and now wished you had just fixed them up for the time being.
This is not an argument against action. It is just an admonition to take it easy in the beginning because you don’t really know that farm, yet. And many of the things you’ve inherited in its design have been built as the result of someone else’s trial and error. They may not be perfect but they just might be there for a good reason. Many is the new farmer who saddled himself with big avoidable cash outlays because he was in a hurry to “improve” his place and made some costly mistakes.
The first thing you should do when you’ve bought a new farm is a take a vacation! Right there, on that farm, vacation. Relish the place, visit with it. Walk every corner of it. See it from every angle. Court it like you would someone whose love you want returned. Relax in her embrace. Sit on the fence and tell this new place all your dreams. Sit under a tree and listen to all this farm can tell you at a glance. And realize how truly insignificant you are in the life of this place. That’s what you’ve really bought is a chunk of time with this place. Think about how awesome your responsibility is to the shape and color of the place for the foreseeable future. This is no time for arrogance. This is the time for relaxing in humble reflection about the future of this place and your time with it.
Another frequent mistake born of haste is your choice of counsel or advice. We’ve touched on that, somewhat, already. But allow me to add a little.
You are justifiably anxious about your new farm purchase. You want it to work. So you go to those places and people who have their shingles out to sell you products and services and advice. 95% of the time these people will give you the “commercial” line of what farming is all about. And their advice will have you working towards an agri-business approach or deciding that you made a mistake in your purchase of a farm. Both conclusions are unfortunate and unnecessary. 4% of the time you will have smiling fast-talking folks selling you schemes for making a fortune off your new farm in just a matter of months but it does require an initial investment… new farmer beware. A simple rule of thumb is that if it sounds too good to be true it probably is. And if you’re lucky, occasionally you will find yourself talking with happy successful small farmers who are too busy to offer you any counsel, too humble to figure they have anything to offer you, and maybe just a little protective of what they have going on. This is the source you should cultivate. But keep yourself open to go your own way. That’s what the ‘independent’ part means.
If you’ve found you don’t like the work, give a close look to how you are doing the work. Perhaps you have an opportunity to change the system and make it work for you. I’m remembering the late Parker Sanborn, of Main and how he quit making hay on his Jersey dairy farm, stopped feeding expensive supplements, cultivated the best of pastures, selected cows for longevity and milk production on pasture- and fell completely in love with the day to day nature of his work. And for Parker the economics, and the peace, followed suit.
Although it may not be for everybody I have to add here that for me all the past ugliness of farming seemed to slip away when I switched to working draft horses. When I worked tractors I hated every minutes of it. I just wasn’t suited to the mechanics, the fumes, the vibration, the noise. After twenty some odd years I still relish every moment with the horses whether plowing or mowing or whatever the job. Someone once observed of me that it looked like I was a farmer to have an excuse to work the horses. That’s going too far because I love every aspect of farming but it certainly pays big dividends to be so rapturously happy with HOW I farm.
So here you are with a brand new farm, in a position to make decisions about how you farm. Choose carefully my friend, I hope you err on the side of what you are attracted to, rather than on the side of another “practicality”. That is what I mean when I say that romance is important.
Another very big mistake folks make when they buy a farm is to set the stop watch to go from the first day. When you first day. When you first decide to be a farmer you must somehow learn to realize that the process of building a farm is as the quote at the beginning of this piece has said, the result of “…accumulations of small gestures…”. If you are determined to have all the fields just so, the livestock right now, the implements and buildings done on day one, and cash available to pay for each day’s passing- you are courting certain disaster no matter how rich you might be. For, if you haven’t the money to begin with, borrowing it will put up almost insurmountable pressure against you and your future efforts and deny you the true wealth that comes of building the accumulation of small gestures slowly. And if you are rich, throwing your money at the process will remove you even further from the earned sense of place and accomplishment.
It is here that you must bring real intelligence and innovation to bear on the job of getting the farm started and keeping it solvent. Notice I said “keeping” instead of “getting”, because I honestly believe that after you’ve bought your farm and before you’ve started farming it, you enjoy a moment of true solvency. Yes, even if you bought the farm on a payment plan and owe money against it, you’re still solvent. Solvent because what you owe is balanced against the value of your farm, something real and tangible. But the minute you borrow money for operating expenses you become insolvent because you owe money against something that had no value to anyone else. If you are able to purchase one cow or a small tractor without having to borrow any money you will have saved twice the value of what you have bought. This is because if you borrowed the money, it would cost you half again to twice the amount to repay the loan. And if you borrowed money that first loan would affect every decision you make until you owe no more. You will keep paying in ways you can never image, but most telling you will pay with your independence.
Someone three years back thought he might consider borrowing some money to purchase some beef cows. The banker told him,
“Your credit is good and we look favorably on the fact that your equipment and cattle are all free and clear but we’ll have to see a farm plan detailing how you’ll be fitting these new cattle into you farm operation before we can lend you this money.”
“Why?” asked the rancher, “I’ve been doing this for years. You know my reputation as a stockman. I’m not going to be doing anything unusual with these new animals.”
“I know,” answered the banker, “but we’ve got an ag man at the main branch who has to look at all these farm loans and he might want to suggest some changes to your operation that would be beneficial.”
“Now why would I let some banker I don’t know tell me how to run my cattle on my ranch?” Asked the applicant.
“Well, in truth it might be your ranch, but until you pay off this loan the cattle are rightfully ours and we do have the right to oversee the operation.” Answered the baker.
That man withdrew his application for the cattle loan and retained his solvency. But more important he was able in three and a half years to acquire the cattle from ranch receipts without having to borrow the money. If he had borrowed the money, he figured he would have had to make payments for 5 years if he was to keep the loan from hurting operations. With annual fees for rewriting the loan added on to the interest, that man would have paid the bank in five years twice what the cattle were worth.
Almost as an afterword, I must add here that if you find yourself with a new farm and the necessity of working a non-farm job to help defray the expenses until things get to the scale you deem right that is just fine. Try to make that outside job something you are good at and enjoy. And remember that there is nothing demeaning about having to do your farm part-time. Some of our greatest farmers were and are part-time: Thomas Jefferson, Herman Melville, and Wendell Berry to name a few.
You’ve bought the farm, now be careful and wary of yourself. Doubt your first impulses. Doubt your fears. Allow yourself the luxury of imagining all that your farm might be before you do anything else. Imagine all that it has been, and try to understand why. Your farm is a lifetime adventure.