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Starting Your Farm

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.

Chapter Five

“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.

Or

2) you dislike the nature of the work you found yourself doing. It isn’t what you thought it would be.

Or

3) you like the work you but can’t handle it all.

Or

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.

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