How To Start Your Own Farm

You’ve dreamed of becoming a farmer, growing food not just for yourself, but for your greater community. You want to live a life in harmony with the seasons, the soil, the moment. It’s a life of physical work, intellectual challenges, and uncertain finances, but you know that you’re ready. All that’s left is to trade in your suit and tie for sturdy boots and a dilapidated hat.

Congratulations. The world needs you. According to this article in the Atlantic, there are currently more bus drivers than farmers in the United States. While at first glance this might seem like an arbitrary statistic, consider this question: which is more likely, a bus driver needing to eat, or a farmer needing a bus ticket? Food ranks in upper echelon of human needs, right beside oxygen, sleep, and cuddling with your sweetheart.

The planet needs nutritious food, and that requires thoughtful, intelligent people to grow it. So if you’re genuinely considering farming as a career, tape these 8 rules to your refrigerator, tack them to your barn door, or commit them to memory. After fifteen years of running my own farm, these points were hard won, but continue to serve me well. Following them might not guarantee success, but they will certainly put you on the path to economic and agricultural sustainability.

Eight rules for creating your own farm

  • Avoid Debt!  Agriculture is NOT NECESSARILY financed with borrowed funds. Avoiding debt should be the primary goal of any new farmer, even if he has to start a very, very small one within a few years. This is how our farm began. And it is clear that I am still saving my pennies. Experience doesn't come with a bachelor's degree in agriculture, and certainly not from a book. Agriculture is fraught with uncertainties, surprises and intellectual challenges. And this is shortly before lunch. Adding monthly payments to this daunting list keeps most people financially handcuffed from the outset. So, does this mean "never borrow"? Absolutely not. There are many cases where acquiring debt makes sense. As you gain experience in farming and create reliable cash flow in your business, these opportunities (or needs) will become more evident.
  • Allow yourself to fail.  What at first glance may seem like a failure is often an opportunity to learn or improve. Plus, we just love dolls. Wait a minute. It had to be about not failing, right? Ironically, I know. Our culture seems to be obsessed with failure, but at the same time terrified and fascinated by this concept. I personally know people who spend their days avoiding the "humiliation" of failure at all costs. Some of these people are so afraid of failure that they never try to achieve anything. The thought of failure paralyzes them. Moreover, in agriculture, it is important to fail. Failure is painful at first, but it can be an extremely useful tool. It helps us know our personal time and energy limits. In the long run, it’s a time-saver tool for learning what works well and what’s not. Failure gives us perspective on future ventures and makes us intellectually and emotionally stronger. So point your nose at this sagging bookshelf filled with self-help books and tell them that you are not a failure. Yes, you ... go and lose! But as long as you fail, fail well; fail gracefully and deliberately. This is the only sure way to recognize success when it finally comes.
  • Define Your Market Before Starting Farming . Nice, but these beets (and many others) could be harvested at the same time. They were shared with my family, but they could also find happy homes at my local farmers market. Perhaps you want to grow watermelons, start sauerkraut production, or even sell wool to local knitters. Astonishing. I love watermelon, sauerkraut and knitted hats no less than others. But how are you going to find clients like me? Do I live in your area or 500 miles from you? How will you find people like me? What will you do if I DO NOT buy ANY of your belongings and you have a lot of them in the barn? Before planting that first seed, can of the first kraut, or shearing of the first sheep, take the time (many, many times) to figure out where you are going to sell your products, who will buy them, and how you are going to do it. Once you've done that, create a backup plan. Then come up with a different backup plan. You will most likely need them. Small and niche manufacturers go to great lengths to find their own customers. This is just as important as growing food from the start, because without the right distribution channels, our fresh produce will languish. When all the watermelons are ripe at the same time, you need a place to sell them quickly. Prepare your marketing plan ahead of time.
  • Match The Land To Its Suited Use . We try to take our cues from nature. Pigs are perfectly suited for our farm.  Simply put, we can force our human dreams onto the land, or we can work with what nature gives us. On our farm, wild turkeys, deer, cotton tailed rabbits and grey squirrels naturally flourish. As such, it’s no coincidence that we’re able to raise free-range chickens, sheep, cattle and pigs on the same land. While the correlations may not be identical, there is a nice pattern here, an environment that naturally fosters both vegetarian grazers and omnivorous foragers.  Conversely, a few years back, we tried to raise free-range ducks on pasture, and learned the hard way that they evinced their waterfowl instincts by turning our fields into ponds. They accomplished this by methodically tipping over our automatic watering troughs (it’s a long story… but trust me, they did it), creating muddy, sloppy swimming holes in the middle of our pastures that we dubbed ‘quack mires’. In their own way, the ducks were telling us that they belonged near water, not out on grass. We eventually ‘listened,’ stopped raising ducks, and have been happier ever since.
  • Grow Your Passion . My nephew picked daffodils this spring, grouped them into bunches, and sold them himself at farmers market. Pretty good for a nine year old… that smile is NOT faked!  Everyone knows that farming is hard work, so do yourself a favor: grow something that you love. Want to grow blueberries? Then grow blueberries, for Pete’s sake. You might be the only blueberry grower in a county filled with turnip farms, but you’ll be happier for it. If you focus on your passion, it will help mitigate those difficult days when the sledding gets rough, and things don’t go your way. It may seem like common sense, but often we find our decisions driven more by finances, tradition, or inertia than doing something that we simply love. Go out on a limb, and grow heirloom apples if you want. Consider it your first reward. There will be more.
  • Set reasonable goals . Yes, yes, we all know that you were a double major, captain of a team of swordsmen and gave up Fulbright to build Mongolian yurts in the Peace Corps. You are talented ... we get it! Listen, workaholics: On Tuesday afternoons, you can even take a break for iced tea and read a book, especially if you work all weekend. Take care of yourself. Burnout is very high in agriculture. You already know that farming is physically demanding and has special emotional demands. Find your pace. Visualize a fifty-year career and set annual achievable goals that will lead you to it. Check yourself frequently. And by all means, if you are growing flowers to earn your living, be sure to "stop and sniff petunias" from time to time.
  • Don't worry about what others think . If you were worried about what neighboring farmers think about this, then, of course, no one would sit here and print this list. Believe in yourself and just go for it. What about those who don't understand your ideas? Forget about them. Only your goal and dream are important, to which you strive with all your might. The sign still exists at the moment.
  • Share your knowledge.  Don't you like to read? Start reading. Shy? Stand next to the teacher if you want to learn something. Do you have a chip on your shoulder? Better to lose it now, before Mother Nature lost it to you. Last but not least, share your knowledge generously, especially with people who want to learn from you.

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