The Fantasies and Realities of Beginning A Farm "Tomorrow"
When I started farming, I wanted my own farm right away. Once you start down the path of freedom from a boss, and freedom from the grind of corporate life, it is easy to get carried away with that freedom. I created the fantasy, in my mind, of calling the shots, doing all the work involved, being tired but happy, and connecting with my customers every week at the farmers' market. It is an easy dream to build, and one that I do not discourage at all. Just know, with that dream comes a reality.
The reality of starting a farm is that you have to know a sh** load of stuff. Farming is a career. In order to be successful in that career you have to learn the trade, just like you were a plumber, an electrician, or a painter. I knew a lot of what was needs, I mean a lot, and I still felt like I was ill prepared.
Where are you working now? (if you are working, I know times are tough) Do you want to be the boss there? Would you want to start that company? Do you think you could? The basic principals of any small business are the same. You need to be the perfect balance of an Entrepreneur, a Manager, and a Technician. If you are not some degree of all of those, owning a small business is not for you. It takes time to learn all those skills. Time you will not necessarily have if you dive in head first.
Learn From My Mistake!
"To achieve great things, two things are needed. A plan, and not quite enough time." - Leonard Bernstein
History has yet to reveal whether I made the right choice or not. You can never fully blame the advice you get from people, nor can you fully credit it. After all, it is you who has to decide whether or not to act on that advice. I feel like I jumped into farming too quickly. When I say too quickly, I was a couple of years getting there. Those years were not all concentrated study though, and I didn't know I wanted to be the type of farmer I am until the year before I actually started the farm.
That being said, I like where I am now. I feel the pressure to "achieve great things", and I am finding that I do have the skills necessary to run a successful farm. After all, I have spent a fair amount of time learning from other farmers how to do it. Life is a journey, not a destination.
Here's roughly my timeline for starting my farm:
2009: Living in New York City. Became interested in "slow food". Read every book on the politics of slow food, and became obsessed with being aware of what I ate.
2010: Still living in New York City, I took my agricultural education to the next level. I started growing plants on my fire escape. I started meeting with NY City Urban Farmers, and I started taking long bicycle rides to farms within a 350 mile radius of the City. I was meeting farmers, learning about agriculture, watching more movies, reading more books, and getting involved in farmers' markets.
2011: Early in the year Kate and I embarked from New York City by bicycle headed West. Over 5,500 miles from NY City to Seattle to San Diego we visited many farmers' markets, family farms, and craft breweries (can you blame us?). That experience was invaluable. We grew even closer together, we learned a lot about farming in America, we made a lot of connections, and we developed a great story. We truly were the FoodCyclists.
2012: Kate and I apprenticed for a whole season on a farm in Connecticut. On 93 acres we grew enough for a 200 person vegetable CSA, I raised my own flock of chickens, we helped raise pigs, and a 30 head of grass-fed beef cattle. We learned a a great deal while working on the farm.
2013: We moved to New Milford, CT where we are today on FoodCyclist Farm. In the beginning of the year we took a course on financial record keeping for farmers through Cornell Small Farms. We planned the farm, Kate got a job teaching, and we starting growing. Chickens and herbs year one. We also are/were growing as a family (depending on when you are reading this) with the birth of our daughter in July 2013.
I keep telling myself that one more year would have made the world of difference. Perhaps it would have. There are definitely decisions I would have made differently if I had to do it over again. Who couldn't say that about their lives. When I look a little harder at how I got where I am, I am happy with the decisions I have made. My story culminates in the good advice immediately below this.
Good Advice On How Fast To Start A Farm
So how fast should you go? As fast as you are comfortable with. There is no prescribed timeline that works for everyone. Even though I put one together below, it is just a guideline. The thing I advise the most, take your time, and grow sustainably.
That may mean a few things:
- You have to get or keep a job in town for a while.
- You have to apprentice for almost no money for a couple of years.
- You are going to have to cut corners in your life and make some serious sacrifices.
- You have to acquire skills that you might hate (financial planning and record keeping, haha).
There are skills you need as a farm owner that you can start using now in your everyday life to get you prepared. If you want to start a farm, start by doing more than growing things. Manage your personal expenses with QuickBooks, learn how to create a website, write out your farm plan.
Difference Between A Farmer And A Farm Owner
There's a difference between wanting to be a farmer, and wanting to start your own farm. Not everyone who likes to build guitars should start a guitar manufacturing company, not everyone that likes to bake cakes should open a bakery, and not everyone who likes to farm should start a farm. Figure out if you are just the technician, or if you are a mix of technician, manager, and entrepreneur.
One good way to do this, read The E-Myth Revisited: Why Most Small Businesses Don't Work and What to Do About It (Amazon affiliate link). This book seriously changed my life. I'm not kidding. This one book could save you your sanity, your life savings, your marriage, your family connections, the list goes on and on. It is all about small business, without ANY dry material. I don't know how Michael Gerber did it, but he did.
Suggested Farm Plan Timeline
Now, this is going to be very different for everyone. It is tough to nail down a timeline that will work for everyone because everyone's situation in life is going to be different. You can skip years, you can change years around. Only your farm plan is going to work for you.
What I would like you to do, is to take out a piece of paper and a pencil, and fill in the blanks. How do you see your farm business plan going? How do you imagine your farming career developing? Below the blanks, I fill in my responses as if I am not already a farmer. This is a perfect world scenario, and there about a bazillion variables that can be thrown in. But here's how it plays out inmy head. How do you answers compare?
Be honest with yourself.
I used all five years. You may be ahead of year one or two already. The most crucial year in my opinion is year 4. Figure out EVERYTHING office-work-wise you are going to need for this farm. Do that and you are a giant leap ahead of the game. Depending on your situation I would even recommend another year as an apprentice. Depending on who you are and what your experience is, maybe 2-3 years as an apprentice if you can afford it.
Year 1: Year one I start by dipping my toes into the pool of agriculture. I do a lot of reading on what different types of agriculture there are. I may start a small garden on my property. I take the time to see if I enjoy growing things. This year I might volunteer on a few farms. If I am not part of a CSA I would join one. If I want to become a farmer it is important to understand the consumer side of the relationship.
This whole time I am taking notes in my notebook. I may even have started a blog to track my journey. I don't expect much traffic to the blog, but it is good habit for record keeping and communication.
I keep asking questions.
Year 2: Year two I plan to WWOOF on a farm for my vacation from work. All I can think about is farming. That is why I spend my time off from work, working on a farm, funny as that sounds. I loved the garden last year, so I start a bigger one. I start my plants from seeds instead of buying starts. I raise some chickens for eggs.
I am constantly taking notes on what grows well in my area, what people are looking for at the farmers' markets, and what other farmers are doing that I like or that looks successful. I keep track of what seed companies offer what types of seeds, what everything is costing me to produce on a small scale. I have started to use Excel Spreadsheets with my notebook because they keep everything more organized.
I keep asking questions.
Year 3: I have been at my job for a while. I ask if I can take an entire summer (or year) off to work on a farm. By this time everyone at work knows how much I love farming because I cannot stop talking about it. I bring vegetables to work from my garden, and my dirty hands smudge my TPS reports. My boss consents to my hiatus thinking that it will get this "farming thing" out of my system so I can get back to work.
I spend a whole season working on a farm as an intern. While there I learn how to grow at a larger scale. I ask the farmer about his books. He only does half the job, so I offer to pick up some of it for him. I am exhausted, the days are long, and there is so much to think about. I am still happy. I relish my time in the field listening to the wind and the birds, and not thinking about my time in a cubicle.
I have started using Quickbooks to track my personal and "farm" expenses. It is a good habit to get into, and I know it will be crucial to my future farm. I keep taking notes and photographs throughout the year so I have something to reflect on when I go back to work. Wait, can I imagine myself going back to work?
I keep asking questions.
Year 4: I go back to work! What? This is ridiculous! BUT, I have a plan. I am going to work my butt off for a year. I found out I still need this year. The farmer I worked for all summer, great guy! But there were things I would do differently. I decide I am going to farm on my own, but there is some serious planning if I don't want to end up like him.
I turn my home into my farm headquarters. I start my business plan. I write a profit and loss statement for year one. I start with a vision of where I want to be in 20 years, and I work backward to where I have to be next year to attain my 20 year vision. I find and secure farmland. Maybe I am already on it. Always detailed notes, always seeking more information.
I keep a garden again this year because I cannot live without fresh food. I may even start investing in some of the equipment I am going to need on the farm. I shut up about farming at work. The boss think all is well and good in the world.
I keep asking questions.
Year 5: With my infrastructure in place, I leave my job. I pass out registration forms for my CSA before I go, and let people know I will be happy to see them on the farm this year.
This is going to be different for everyone. My way is not the only way. But I do think I pretty clearly illustrate that this takes time, and you should not jump in head first without thinking a lot first. I would love to know what your answers are, and how they differ from mine. Feel free to write in the comments section below so we can all share ideas.