Sunday, September 30, 2012

So you want to farm?

Many people read farm blogs because they have an interest in farming.   A lot of people think about getting closer to their food, or being self-sufficient, or have a vision that includes a homestead of their own, and I talk to a lot of them, both in person and via this blog and other writing I do. 

If you'd like to farm, here's the way that I suggest you do it, based on my own experience, and having looked at quite a few farms that have failed, like this one, or this one.

Start small with a "proof of concept"

This is a pretty crucial concept.   It's too easy to go in way over your head farming, like the couple that purchased 800 laying hens and spend a couple of thousand building egg mobiles, and then found out that having a plague of 800 laying hens roosting all over the house and eating everything in sight and crapping on everything was a terrible nuisance, and that their plan for feeding them 50% of what they needed because they'd "forage" for the rest destroyed the egg production...   That's a true story,

Start small.  Get 30 hens, build a coop, and do the husbandry thing for 6 months or a year.  Don't quit your day job, don't spend a fortune.  Just try it out.   Keep careful records of what you spend, and how much time it takes, and what sorts of revenue you could get from it, and make an appointment with yourself to review what you learned.  Mark it on the calendar.   Realize that washing 2 dozen eggs a day is a different chore than washing 200 dozen eggs a day. 

If you have some sort of idea that is going to revolutionize agriculture, that's great!  Just try it on a small scale, and be open to changing your view or practices as  you gain experience. 

Slow down:  That's why country life is attractive, right?

Think about your farm as a 10 year project.  It's more a lifestyle than anything else.   Let things progress as they may.  Seasons change.  Relax and enjoy the ride.  You don't need to have a fully functioning farm tomorrow.   Make a transition plan, and remember to do a proof of concept for the major parts of your venture. 

Keep accurate records and pay your taxes

One farming couple built a reasonably large farm, claiming to reach a half-million dollars in revenue, but somehow along the way they forgot to file their IRS schedule F, which is profit/loss from farming. 

That couple found out that in order to qualify for some very attractive financing that the government requires you to have farm experience, and they measure that by your filing schedule F.  I don't know how they were accounting for their income, or whether they were paying any taxes at all, but I do know that when they tried to get a loan they were denied because they had not filed this form.

They lost the lease on their land, and they lived in an RV for a while after that.   Probably not what they had in mind when they started their farm. 

The government, and it's the USDA in particular, offers very nice financing options for new farmers, but you have to pay your taxes to qualify.  There's good reason to accurately report your income.  Don't disqualify yourself from this financing option like this couple did.   This is a true story. 

 Be  open to "old" ideas, too

It's pretty popular for folks who are starting a farm to have ideas on how things should happen.  Husbandry ideas, or fertilizer, or organizational stuff.  That's all good, and often a person with a better idea can make something happen. 

But remember that we as a species have been growing food for a long time, and that an idea can still be good no matter what the source.  So it's worth your while to look carefully at how things are done on other farms, and to realize that there's a reason for everything. 

This is very important.  I'm going to say it again:   No matter how wacky some farmers practice might seem, there's a reason they're doing it.  Take the time to learn why that is.  This applies to conventional farms, too.  there's a reason that they do things, and even if you disagree with them, do take the time and figure out why they do that.  You can then avoid it if you wish, but you may find that there's a good reason and 50 years of experience backing it up.   Always trust what someone does, particularly if you can visit the farm and see them do it. 

Conventional farms have a lot riding on being efficient in their operations and that can be worth studying.  Not every conventional technique is evil, and a lot can be learned from people who make their living producing food. 

My "old" idea?  Farrowing crates.  I struggled for 3 years to do pasture farrowing based on the advice of some guy on the internet.  Complete disaster.  Speaking of that...

Be skeptical about the Internet and self published authors. 

Anyone can write anything they want on the Internet.   Anyone can write whatever they want and pay about $800 to have it printed up.  Instant author. 

When I've called out people who I think are promoting harmful practices, or claiming to be able to do something that I think is just impossible, I've been a little surprised at how angry OTHER people get. 

Look, if you read somewhere that pigs can be raised on just the smell of baking bread don't go out and buy an oven and a mixer.  It just ain't true, folks.   And don't get mad at me when I tell you it isn't true.   Try it yourself, small scale.  Get your bread machine and your fan and see if it works with a couple of pigs.  But weigh them, and be ready to stop if they don't gain weight. 

NEVER TRUST ANY SINGLE SOURCE OF INFORMATION, no matter how nice the people providing it are.  This is your farm, and it's your money.   Try it for yourself before you go all-in. 

Be kind to the animals if your venture involves them. 

If your venture involves animals you will find that some of them will probably die.  And if you're unlucky, lots of them will.   If you find yourself over your head with an animal, do the right thing and solve the problem. 

Solve the problem:  Immunize.   Vaccinate.  Call the vet.  Administer antibiotics if it will save the animals life.  Make the decision to put the animal down. 

If the treatment of the animal or the food it requires means that it doesn't fit into your farm, that's fine -- sell it to some other farm that it does fit into.  Don't wait for it to die of starvation or a preventable disease or parasites.  Watching an animal die when you could prevent it is not a new concept, or admirable.  It's just plain cruel. 

Now that's not to say that it's avoidable, either.  In any farming venture you will have times when things just do not go as planned.  I had a bunch of nice turkeys manage to drown themselves in a 5 gallon bucket with 2" of water in the bottom.  I sure could have prevented that if I'd known, and to this day I turn the buckets upside down when I see them.  I don't fault a new farmer, or an old farmer, for that sort of thing. 

But if you're having problems, swallow your pride and ask for help.  The animals will appreciate it, and you'll learn, too. 

1 comment:

Jeff said...

This is a great list, Bruce. As a first year farmer, I can attest that everything you write is 100% true.