Sunday, March 1, 2009

Email question: should i farm?

Jason sent me this message via email, and I thought it worth talking about in the blog.

"I live in Everett, and have a "real" job as an engineer, but I'm interested in farming for a whole slew of different reasons: food security, financial security, teaching my kids responsibility, money management, and entrepreneurship, making my residence work for me (and hopefully pay for itself), staying grounded, providing a heritage (and inheritance) to my kids and grandkids, staying grounded and connecting with the earth, creating a place where the cousins can congregate and have summers on the farm, etc., etc., etc. "

That's pretty close to my own personal reasons for farming. I'm also coming from an engineering background, and I'll add to your list I have an interest in cooking and in food that I can indulge by having access to the ingredients that I'd like to work with -- pastured pigs are great for salami, for instance.

"Maybe I should just jump into my questions:
1) I've spoken to a number of farmers who have said that they, in my situation, wouldn't quit my day job, but could very successfully hobby-farm. So, can you make a living at farming? I think I'd like to eventually farm full-time (or own multiple businesses - the farm being one) for my income, but for now I'd be happy if it could pay for itself with me working on a part-time basis with help from wife and kids. Do you see this as a realistic goal or should I just keep my day job? Conventional wisdom says it would be difficult to replace my income through farming."

I'm struggling on how to answer this question. yes, it is possible to earn a living by farming, but I would put the chances of someone starting a farm from scratch and making a living at it in a year or so at very close to zero. Having the cushion of an off-farm income allows you to spring back from the inevitable mistakes that we all make. You have a learning curve you'll have to climb for each thing that you do on your farm. Do you know that plowing is actually pretty complicated? I didn't. I do now. Two years later. Same comment applies to brooding turkeys. I killed thousands of dollars worth of turkeys while I learned. If I didn't have an off-farm income that would have killed my farm.

Start small, start slow, think about it being a 5 year plan before you see real income. Here's my blog entry that I wrote 3 years before I purchased the land I'm farming now. The land I'm on is within 20 minutes of Seattle, very close to a freeway off ramp, and was $6k/acre. So including equipment purchases, I came in under the 100k budget that I set. But remember that I set a budget and had that money in hand. Having a plan that you've worked out is always a good thing. I had initially thought that I'd be doing pastured broilers, plucked and bagged, but found that I could sell chickens whole and live, so my plan changed.

"2) Your blog profile mentions that you grow businesses and have multiple interests. Do you run your farm like a business that you are trying to grow and sell like (presumably) other businesses that you've run? Are you living off of money you've made previously or strictly from farm generated money?"

Nothing like public discussions of finance. This (2009) is the first year that I expect the farm to run an operating profit. In the previous two years as I learned and experimented, I ran an operating loss. To be able to sustain the losses I used savings and income from off the farm. Next year (2010) I expect to make a larger profit and start to pay down the deficit, but as with any venture, there's risk that it won't go according to plan.

"3) I've located a couple of inexpensive (especially for around here)mini-farms (5-10 acres) in the Snohomish River Valley, one south of the town of Snohomish and one just to the west. I'm guessing that they are so cheap because they were caught in the recent floods, but I also know that there bunches of farms (yours included) in the area.What do you (and other farmers) do when there are floods? Are these properties worth looking at or would I be better served looking for something in less flood prone areas (I've seen a few in the Arlington area as well)?"

Around here, I'd suggest that you carefully consider any buildings or improvements that you need and buy a property that already includes them. Snohomish county publicly states that it wants to promote farmers, but the reality is that it is very hostile to farmers. My blog has many entries where I talk about my struggles with the Washington state department of ecology and the snohomish county planning and development services over using my farmland or building even the smallest building I could use. Don't depend on being able to clear brush, build buildings or even be able to use all of the acreage that you purchase, particularly if it is in the 100 year floodplain of any river, has any stream or pond on it, or borders a stream, wetland or pond. Even if there isn't a wetland nearby the maps the zoning folks have may show one. Check carefully. Snohomish county will take your land by forcing you to define, at your expense, "natural growth protection areas" and buffers, and setbacks that will preclude you from farming there. The land is cheap in the floodplain, but be aware that's just your ticket into the fight. Then you have to fight.

"4) With a background in business and farming, would you recommend trying farming on a small scale to someone like me? (educated professional, early 30's, 3 small kids and wife, she stays home to raise the kids) I don't have previous farm experience, just a love for the country, a self-reliant streak, and people I look up to who grew up on farms.

Farming is a low profit business that is dependent on factors that are out of your control, including weather, fickle markets and is actively discouraged by the county government. With that said, I'd highly recommend farming. I find it to be very satisfying to sit down to a Christmas dinner of my own ham, from a pig that I raised and knew, and thank that pig for its life and contribution to mine. To see things grow, and to teach my kids how to work within a natural system, and to become much more in tune with the world. Weather matters to me. The season of the year matters. I know when the days get long, and when they get short. I love it. Farm chores are tailor-made for kids. Feeding animals daily and caring for them allows me to instill the basic virtues of sticking with something, and enjoying working. Those skills I expect my kids to use the rest of their lives.

5) If I were to enter into farming, where do you suggest looking for profits? Free-range chicken and eggs? Pastured pork? Grass-fed organic beef? Honey? Goats? Rabbits? Mushrooms? Snails? Artisan Cheeses? Home-grown organic whole-wheat natural sour-dough artisan earth-oven bread? I'm bewildered at the options and wonder how to do the market-research on supply/demand, competitors, cost of production,margins, profit potential, what works in this climate, etc. "

I've written a bunch about my philosophy on what crops to pick. You can see a basic summary in my first posting under the heading "what crops to pick", here. You can see an example of how I think about a particular crop, in this case turkeys, here. I'm fairly conservative with respect to what I raise, and I talk about exotic animals in this entry here -- and don't miss the comments section of that post. If you want to see a cost analysis of my laying chicken crop, check out the posting chicken economics -heritage breeds. There's another posting coming up on the cornish cross.

But I haven't talked about why I chose the basic category of "meat". Lets compare meat to, say, cut flowers. Tilling land is nice. Planting is nice. Watching green things grow is nice. Flowers are pretty. People who buy flowers are usually pretty happy. Everyone is happy.

The problem with flowers is that the cost to enter that business is very low -- a few packages of seeds. And it's pretty, and the profit margins are fairly low, as with most farming ventures. So you have a business that lots of people can get into for virtually no cost, and will sell their products for less than what it costs them to produce them. It's also highly seasonal.

With meat, you have to buy small animals, which involves capital. Lots more than a packet of seeds. You have to feed those animals for some period of time while they grow, and you have to carry those costs with no return while this is happening. And when you do sell an animal there's that unpleasant slaughter thing. And you haven't lived until you've figured out what you need to do to get rid of a bucket of turkey blood. I eat meat, but I like it as a business because it's got that icky and capital intensive part that keeps the number of competitors fairly low. Pigs are a particular favorite of mine because there are fewer and fewer pig farms every year. Governments and neighbors hate pigs, even pastured pigs. King county, for instance, doesn't allow you to keep pigs within 90 feet of any property line -- which means if you own less than 2 acres you're out of luck, can't keep pigs there.

Hope that gives you some background to chew on. If you've made it this far, please do comment on anything I've said, or on any question he asked. I'm actually interested in what other folks have to say on this.


Anonymous said...

I just wanted to publicly thank you for responding to my questions. I appreciate what you're doing and your willingness to share.

As a follow up question, to what do you attribute the recent upsurge of sub/urbanite interest in farming? Do you see the country re-embracing the Jeffersonian ideal of gentleman farmers or is it simple nostalgia and/or naivete?

Thanks again,

Bruce King said...

You're welcome. Writing the blog has been good for me; I enjoy working through the days activities, and I do it really as a diary, but it's been interesting to find like-minded people who want to read it.
Your question let me go back and look at my own experiencesd a couple of years down the road, some good, some bad, and reflect a little, which you don't get much chance to do if you're out every day doing the farm thing.
Regarding the resurgence of interest; I thinkm it's equal parts people wanting to simplify their lives, economics and health. But I think that for most folks it's a dream. I'm, and other blogs like mine, are their "virtual farmer" -- they can vicariously farm through the blog.

Anonymous said...

Jason--I whole-heartedly agree with Ebey Farms overview. I have one more suggestion to add to the above:

If you are seriously interested in starting a farming venture, I highly recommend reading (and owning) many books by Joel Salatin. For starters, read 'You Can Farm' it is a wealth of information for the young up-start. Then, move on to Pasture Poultry Profits (if you are interested in chickens). I can't praise Salatin's work enough. I have all his books, and keep the above two within fingertip reach and refer to them often.

With any luck, we'll soon be reading your blog!

good luck,