May 17, 2008

Starting out

Starting out farming is getting to be a pretty popular pastime...between the cost of food, the rise of locavory, and the price of oil, there's currently more demand for good, locally produced food than the market is able to supply. Folks on the PACSAC list even joke that they'd like to be on the list of full CSA's, not looking for new customers. (The site expired...folks are working on it....)
While we are far from expert, we've been at this on our own for almost 10 years, and our current, owned site for nearly 6. So here's a rundown of some of the issues we've seen and encountered in the quest to keep a small farm viable.

Access to Land
This is the issue that stymies most folks...everyone wants a big chunk of class 1 soil, 20 minutes from the city. Simple economics means that those pieces get snapped up by the horse people and taken out of production. While the current surge in commodity and hay prices may put an end to that, it doesn't help new farmers in the short term.

We rented our first farm for about 3 years...it was the best thing we could have done. I'll go into mistakes below further, but really, there's nothing more valuable than being able to ride a steep learning curve on someone else's land. It also makes you creative, since you don't want to sink a lot of money into capital expenditures in a temporary situation.

While finding land to rent can be a challenge, it is out there....craiglist has posts about it, but just being in the community and asking around at the SWCD office, extension office, feed store bulletin boards, and basically telling everyone that you meet that you're looking for a piece of ground to rent should get you some options.

Buying is a bigger leap, but it's pretty rewarding. The secret is to do lots and lots of due dilligence...this is your productive future your working with here. Kurt has a great rundown on purchasing properties...read that for soil types and water issues. Our soil is Class 3 Hazelair Silt Loam...not great for growing crops, but we knew that grazing was what we wanted to do, and we grow great grass here! Water is a bigger issue...see mistakes, below, but our farm's low water output is a limiting factor in what we can grow.

While a realtor or farm locating service might help you out, there's not a lot of money in it for them to find an affordable, productive piece of land to farm; they make their money in overpriced horse properties. Scouring listings (which we did for over a year) and talking to people (see above) will be far more productive.

I know I bugged our realtor with my repeated requests to visit the land...walking the ground, looking at the drainage, digging holes, checking the vegetation that grew there already. Looking back with what I know now, I'd have bugged her more...surprises are no fun, especially if they involve big weedy junk piles, past oil spills, or noxious weeds. We were fortunate in that we had a minimum of these problems.

Financial Viability

Everyone interested in farming has read (or should read) Salatin and Coleman, with their vision of diverse, productive farmscapes. When we started, we had visions of orchards, gardens, livestock, a certified kitchen for value added products, an edible plant nursery, and a chicken processing facility. The reality is a little different, however...both of those authors are full of good advice, but should be taken with a grain of salt. Not only are they growing in a different climate and landscape than most people, they oversimplify some issues when they become inconvenient. It does sell more books, though.

While diversity is obviously necessary to weather the vagaries of drought, late frosts, and predators, the flip side to that is if you have a lot of enterprises, you risk not doing any of them well. When we had cattle, sheep, pigs, laying hens, and broilers, there were some excellent synergies between them. The steers ate the coarse grass, preparing it for the sheep to eat the low grass, weeds, and clovers. The layers ate the fly and worm larva. The pigs took care of our large supply of cull eggs. The downside was each of the species didn't do as well as they could have (resulting in lower slaughter weights, and thus less money) since we were spread pretty thin...each species has its preferences, and if we got too busy and put off rotating the pastures, even just a day, gains suffered. This applies to weedy carrot beds and rootbound nursery stock as well...it happens to everyone, but it takes extra labor to fix, which cuts into your bottom line.

And as unfortunate as it is, the bottom line is really important. One of Salatin's great points is that it's hard to make a farm pay a mortgage. Until the land is paid off, you'll be bleeding cash every month, regardless of whether you're making any money that month. Not that its not doable, but its a big financial consideration.

Of the farmers I personally know, most are with a partner, and one of the two has some sort of off farm income, or they have some sort of arrangement where the land is owned by family. Katie and Casey are the one exception I know of...they have a full rundown of their financial starting point, which should be required reading for folks starting out. They also are just about the hardest working people I know, which is saying something...I'd be loathe to recommend anyone else dive into their situation without knowing what they're getting into.

Also, think about health care. We went without for quite a while, and its kindof the way of things with health costs as they are, but if you can't afford health care, can you afford to get hurt farming? Once we had Dalton, the equation changed quite a bit...risking our own health is one thing, but risking his just wasn't going to fly.

Where your sales will be is another consideration...is it CSA, farmer's markets, restauraunts? Probably all 3, to some degree. But they each have their strengths and weaknesses, and each counts as a separate enterprise that has costs associated with it. Read above about spreading yourself too thin (from rich's dictionary - mental overhead: n. the psychic cost associated with fretting about something that you don't have time to deal with right now)


Mistakes

I think the worst kind of mistake is one that someone else has already made. Ask questions of those who've already made them. When we first started out with broilers, The Matron (long before her blog) was a huge help with feed sources and tips. I'm always quizzing ranchers that I work with about the ins and outs of cattle husbandry. While occasionally someone may feel that you're intruding on their turf, for the most part, farm folk are pretty opinionated, and welcome the opportunity to share. Or it could just be that rural living makes them want to talk more....

That said, you will make mistakes. Lots of them. Expensive ones, if you're doing it right. Planting timing, weather, irrigation timing, market demand, driving the tractor into the barn siding. Lots of them. Deal with it, and move on.

Our major mistakes were financial (underestimating how much the mortgage + farm development would cost), hydrological (overestimating the effect of deep ripping our channels would have on surface water), and climatalogical (I didn't realize how prone we were to late frosts here...very bad for tree fruit). Not too bad...since I have a 3/4 time job that I like that pays our mortgage and healthcare, there's still time to work on the farm, and the enterprises that we've abandoned have helped the health and productivity of the land. The ripping does seem to have helped the groundwater in our well capacity. And we've learned a lot, and continue to enjoy producing food for ourselves and customers, so I guess that makes it kindof a success.

Posted by rich at May 17, 2008 11:25 AM
Comments

Rich! You're wonderful. Such a timely discussion for our predicament. I thank you for your insightful thoughts on the subject of farming, and specifically getting started. We're here, at the stepping off point, and this is a very good reminder that we are not the first. You've provided some good resources to explore, and I'm sure I'll be back with questions and more questions.

Posted by: carri at May 18, 2008 09:33 AM

FABULOUS POST! I'm linking to it right now!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Posted by: Katie at May 21, 2008 07:26 PM