The Reality of Small Farms

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


Assembling parts to make a pump.

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

Alder chips decomposing with wonderful mycorrhizal fungi. Death gives life.

Alder chips decomposing with wonderful mycorrhizal fungi. Death gives life.

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


The only way to get the whole view of our small farm is from Google Maps, even panoramas can’t capture it.

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.



About M. Agriculteur

Designer, motorcycle junkie, traveler, wanna-be iron butter (more butt than iron), builder, foodie, farmer wanna-be.
This entry was posted in Farming, Homesteading, Permaculture, Sustainability. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to The Reality of Small Farms

  1. I love this post. It might just be my favourite so far on your blog. All sooo true.

    So do you have any boot recommendations? I am in a pair of gum boots with a huge split because I couldn’t find boots this season that would fit my requirements…and my work boots have come apart at the sole, and are probably not worth salvaging at this point anyway.

    Khaiti and her sister came by my place today, and we all talked about the ultimate bloggy road trip – we’d hit your place first! then go south to Throwback at Trapper Creek, above the Columbia River Gorge, then over to Khaiti and Andrew’s farm in Wisconsin – we’d have to visit Mark Shepard while in that area of course, then down to a couple of others, ending up with Bill’s White Flint Farm and the Salatins in Virginia. Wanna come?

    • OMGoodness Yes! I’m currently using Lacrosse comp toe boots. Pretty comfy and a little strap at the back promised less crud coming down, but I think it will need a modification to stay closed. I had an old pair of hoge hip waders that leaked so I converted them, and for comfort they are the best. The he lacrosse get a little chilly on frosty mornings though. There are no perfect boots that I have found anyways.

    • SSF – I LOVE my Bogs. I have the classic high ( ones at the farm that I can easily tuck my pants in and I have a pair of the classic mid ones at home that I can quickly jump in and out of – which I do 50 zillion times a day. They are super comfortable and quite durable. I slog around in a LOT of mud and water and my feet are always dry. I’ve had both pair for three years and so far so good.
      FYI – I got both pairs of boots for about a third of the cost through Sierra Trading Post. You have to sign up for their deal flyer to get the best price, and stock of a particular item is ” catch as catch can” as they deal with close-outs but if you don’t mind waiting for the right deal and getting a lot of emails from them – you can save a ton. We also get all of our Carhartt through them at considerable savings.

      • Holy moly, look at the prices on those gorgeous boots. I guess the reality is that I spend about that on my Asics that I wear as street shoes, so I don’t know what I’m fussing about, but still…I’ll have to look around and see if anyone stocks them here, and see what they feel like on.

  2. I paid $46 and $32 for mine. I linked to the bogs site to show the wide variety of styles available – you want to get the classics – not the rain boots. The soles are completely different. The classics are made for farm work – the rain boots are for city gals

  3. Bill says:

    That road trip MUST happen! I’ve actually had similar thoughts. We’ve talked about taking a break sometime, when we’re feeling old, getting a travel trailer and spending some time on the road. It’s years away (if ever) but it would be very cool to connect with the awesome farmers and homesteaders we’ve met through blogging. 🙂

    I second all of this. I kept my old job for years after I desperately wanted to quit, using the money I earned to pay for the projects we needed to do to get the farm going. There isn’t enough money from farming to do it (and I don’t have the skills to do a lot of it myself), so it was a wise move–even if torture at the time.

    I totally agree on boots too. Buy secondhand shirts and pants, but buy quality boots (and socks). I wear Justin work boots and Muck boots when it’s wet. Expensive, but they last a long time and do their job. I used to wear LL Bean duck-style boots, just because I was used to them. But the last two pair I bought wore out prematurely. They aren’t as good as they used to be. But Bean’s customer service and warranty can’t be beat. Both times they replaced the boots, no questions asked. The second time I replaced them with Muck boots and they had no problem with that.

    Great post. Good solid practical advice.

    • I have long fantasized about trips to Europe, Australia, South America specifically for research. In theory there is a tax break for business but… I’ve yet to come up with a scheme to have someone mind the farm and our critters. Doing this in the winter months makes sense. My feeling is that there is so much to learn as a farm exchange student. Yeah, boots. I’ve been meaning to line them all up and snap a photo. Humming a tune “all the boots I’ve loved before, the ones that leaked and left me sore! I’ve piled them up beside the door… Before I’m done I’ll try some more.”

    • You all are welcome here whenever you think you can make it. Nothing much to see these days, but just to meet and chat would be fabulous. We’ll do a foot selfie – show off everyone’s boots…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s