A fellow blogger I have developed an immediate respect for has been posting chapters in her book on new farmers. It is a good read and for those in the middle of it or considering farming as a vocation I recommend you check it out. Farmer Khaiti has some great insights.
Here is what I have learned so far, less about the details and more about the feet on the ground aspects worth considering before you dive in headfirst.
1. Get in shape
There was a time when I considered myself a big boy, I ate a lot and really worked hard on the weekends, but I wasn’t in shape. Digging in our clay soil was hard on me. Once while chasing an excavator and cleaning up the trench being dug I was sure my heart was going to explode, and while I didn’t expire I was sore for a week. I hit the gym and corrected my diet dropping 40 lbs. I focused on my core and cardio. I feel like I can work a shovel all day now, but importantly it takes a lot more to make me blind tired. Having stamina means I don’t get as crabby at the end of the day and I can get jobs done. Lifting hay bales and 80 lb sacks will hurt your back, and injuries just get worse on a farm since chores still need doing regardless of how crummy you feel.
You don’t need a gym, 20-30 minutes a day doing cardio and some core exercises will limit injuries and help you get your work done.
2. Curiosity and a need to know how things work is critical
Being curious about how things work will help with germination, tractors, building chicken houses, and fixing pumps. Take things apart and lay the pieces out in the order they came off on a table or the floor. Get an idea of what you are getting into by looking it up on the internet on multiple sites. If a plant isn’t doing well pull it up and look at the roots and soil around it. Knowing how things work is the first step to putting things together differently to make things work better. Soil biology, machinery, and construction follow simple rules that allow you modify and engineer your own systems. If something is broken or dead you will rarely make it more broken or dead.
Autopsies are a learning opportunity.
3. Death is part of the equation
If you are a farmer you are a purveyor of death. We use words like harvesting to disguise the obvious killing but tilling, weeding, and chipping kill entire communities of living things. Not eating those extra roosters will stress my flock. All those bugs my flock eats rack the toll up higher. Death is a part of life so my job is to recognize and respect it, and steer it towards the good of my entire ecosystem.
I have learned to harden my heart to ensure dying is as painless as possible and that those lives I take have meaning.
4. There is no escaping poo
When I tell people I am building a farm they tend to get all misty eyed. “It must be beautiful”. They have clearly never cleaned a coop or shoveled manure. We love poo now. We happily fill our pickup with it to build compost. We laugh to ourselves while driving around our home in a truck smeared with the stuff. Manure is nutrient and we can’t get enough. It gets on your clothes and gloves, and even when things look clean the sweet smell of dung will cling for a long time.
Poo is the promise of new life and fertility.
5. Scale changes everything
If you think you are a good cook try doing it for 10 people. Then try doing it for 100. What works in the biggest home garden doesn’t even begin to work on a few acres. We mow twice a year and it can take 16 hours in the seat, plus the time hooking up and sharpening the blades. Compost piles are 15 foot wide monstrocities that barely cover anything.
We planted 25 trees and it didn’t make a dent, we have 70 more coming next week. 225 gallon water totes barely last 6 days when drip watering trees for an hour a day. Building our road meant three straight days of rock deliveries at 10 yards a trip. Forgetting to bring that chainsaw file means a 1000 yard round trip.
Everything takes more time and material than we think.
6. What you’ve read is not your farm’s truth
We own a giant pile of books on farming, livestock, and forestry. There are lots of great ideas and guidelines for planting and stock rates, nifty tools and ideologues promoting one way or another to success but there is no right answer to what will actually work on your farm. Experimentation and a willingness to fail (and learn) is the key to remaining sane and finding your own path to success.
We generally do things and assume they might not work as planned. Then we tweak and modify. Getting used to slow progress is hard but it seems like the more we are in a hurry the slower things take shape. Keep in mind that your farm is actually made up of hundreds of little areas that have their own climates, soil profiles, and change differently over the course of a season. Advice that comes from North Carolina will work differently in the Pacific Northwest. Your grand plan may be to sell 900 roaster chickens but the reality is 4 people butchering for 10 hours straight might harvest 100.
Most of the time we can circle in on success or redefine what success looks like.
7. Observation is your most important tool
Walk your whole property several times a season. Take notes and pictures to assemble a broad perspective. At a more detailed level weeds and native plants that volunteer tell you what your soils are doing and what they need. Flora and fauna that call your place home tell a story, especially newcomers. Look them up and hypothesize about what they indicate.
Where is the water going, pooling, and drying out? Observe yourself and partner too. What is especially hard or time consuming? For instance “L” has always had lower back issues, so we will be taking extra time to build a lot of raised beds in our kitchen garden to minimize stooping. Watering tender crops takes forever, so we are planning a simple irrigation system.
Develop a “Pattern Understanding” and work with those patterns instead of against them.
8. Time and money are the big boundaries
Contractors often say you can do it fast, good, or cheap – pick two. That’s laughable. Pick one. I prefer to do most of the work myself, often to my own detriment. That’s my curiosity at work. But more than a few times I have found myself well out of my element and spending far too much time on a project. Racing to get ahead of weather or deadlines often creates more work and sets us farther behind. Hiring professionals will often get better results as long as we take the time to clearly articulate what we want and what needs to be done.
Time estimation is a skill I am poor at. Scale makes it far worse. Limited access to the right tools, power, and knowledge slows things down to a crawl. What works seems to be designing tasks and projects around skills we excel at. Taking a full day to plan things out and see how things work on the ground instead of our idea of what is on the ground makes actual work much smoother, but we still need to roll with changes and tweaks as we go.
Don’t quit your day job until the core business is underway. We need the cash flow from my work in the office to fund myriads of projects. I am eager to get on things full time but for now squeezing a week’s worth of work into a weekend is the best we can do. I just suck it up and roll with that reality. L is my project manager and I don’t thank her enough for the planning she does.
Develop a clear plan for the work you will do and prioritize it. Daily.
9. No such thing as perfect boots
Too hot, too loose, not dry, not durable enough. Dirt gets in, water too, and that wet poo. Comp toes protect you but will chafe, neoprene breeds a funk and gets wicked hot in the summer. They also don’t stand up to the shovel. Leather gets soggy and heavy.
Wear your pant legs on the inside and water and dirt will rattle around down there. Worn outside and moisture can wick up to your thighs. Being on your feet for ten to sixteen hours a day will take a minor irritant to the level of a major distraction.
Aching feet or wadded up socks while felling a tree or attaching a 1/2 ton implement to the tractor is the last thing you’ll want to be thinking about.
Get secondhand pants and shirts but pay good money for footwear. Your feet are your farm’s foundation.