Starting a 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.
With the average age of an American farmer being 57, much of the nation’s farmland will change hands in the next two decades. To help address this issue, many states and regions are creating land links: programs that help connect farmers, especially beginning farmers, to farmland for rent or sale. Land links are usually online databases that display listings from landholders and landseekers describing what the participant is looking for in a match and what they can offer. The land link program puts this posting online (minus any personal or contact information) and facilitates communication between participants.
“Isn’t it nice?” I offer to my supper companions, “to see our beautiful horses right while we’re eating? I feel like I’m on a Kentucky horse farm, with rolling bluegrass vistas.” I sweep my arm dramatically towards the view, the rigged up electric fence, the lawn straggling down to the pond, the three horses, one of whom is relieving herself at the moment. “Oh, huh,” he answers. “I was thinking it was more like a cheesy bed and breakfast.”
A friend had recently purchased 11 acres of ground and wanted to know if I thought that was enough ground to set up a viable farm to support his family. We have a fairly large farm of 24 acres in our area, probably considered nothing more than a garden to large-scale farmers. Yet from this farm we have been able to support our family entirely from our vegetable and fruit production. It was from this background that my friend asked for my input to assess his chances of becoming a farmer. To answer his question I sat down and wrote a letter outlining some points that I considered important for him to succeed in his quest. Following is that letter that I mailed off to him:
A long time ago I decided to stick my neck out and buy a small farm. I knew I had to do it. I was consumed by dreams of a place of my own. Dreams, and plans, and more dreams. Over thousands of late nights I had destroyed countless paper napkins and scraps of paper drawing little designs of where the farm house would be and the relationship of the chicken house to the garden and the barn…
En route to a remote pasture where the Belgian draft horses, Prince and Tom, are grazing, we survey the vast green landscape, a fine mist hovering in distant low lying areas. We are enveloped in a profusion of sweet, earthy balance. Interns and other workers start their chores; one pauses to check his smart phone. Scattered about are many animal-powered rustic implements. This rich and agriculturally diverse, peaceful place is steeped in contrasts: modern and ancient.
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.
Let’s assume the beginning ‘farmer’ has absolutely nothing. Nothing but a will to farm and a reasonably normal body. 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. 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.
Every beginning horse farmer at some point will find himself in need of procuring that first team. After land, this is certainly one of the most critical purchasing decisions you will make in the development of the farm. The animals you choose can make your farming glow and hum with moments of blissful certainty, or contribute to frustration, bewilderment, loss of resolve, and God forbid, horses and people hurt and machines wrecked.
This issue I am going to invite you to lean over the fence rail and listen-in to a conversation that took place via email between myself and Ben Saur, whom I visited with last fall at the Farmer-to-Farmer gathering in Dorena, Oregon. Ben is just getting started farming with a team of Fjords in Hood River, Oregon. Following Farmer-to-Farmer Ben emailed with several farming related queries. The questions Ben asks get right to the heart of what it takes to get started in farming.
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.
In New Jersey — land of The Sopranos, Jersey Shore, and the Turnpike — farmland is more expensive than anywhere else. It’s not an easy place to try to start a career as a farmer. But for a new generation of farmers inspired by sustainability, everything seems possible. Even a farm powered by draft horses.