Who are these Devault people, anyway? For starters,
George was long-time editor of the New Farm® magazine.
He's currently editor of the Russian version of
New Farm® magazine. For more on Melanie, see her
first column on building
a cut flower business.
For a look at the Devault family's own farming
history, check out New
farm dreams do come true.
Finally, to order Joe Salatin's new book, You
Can Farm, which the Devaults refer to in this
column, send a check or money order for $30, postpaid,
directly to the Salatins at Polyface, Inc., Rt.
1, Box 281, Swoope, VA 24479.
for George and Melanie? Any topics you'd
like them to cover?
buying, renting or “borrowing” it,
whether you’re in the city, the suburbs
or the country.
a regular column for beginning farmers?
First, many of you who've written us have specifically
asked for it.
Second, you're gonna need it. As the Devaullts
of land, money and equipment, the one thing
that all beginning farmers need is practical,
profitable information -- farmer-proven information
-- on what works, what doesn’t and why,
where to find information, who to believe, who
not to believe and how to tell the difference."
January 17, 2003: Why do people get so cranked
up about getting started in farming? Nothing could be easier.
It’s a no-brainer:
You get some land -- any old land will do -- scatter some
seed or turn a bunch of critters onto pasture, kick back with
a cold one and watch the dollars pour in. Right?
Starting a business of any kind is tough enough these days.
Starting a farm is like building your own house, picking the
right college and planning a big church wedding, while working
as a short-order cook and competing in the Ironman Triathlon
all at the same time.
All kidding aside, it can be done. You can get started in
farming today. We did it (see accompanying article, New
Farm Dreams Do Come True.) Lots of other people did or
are doing it successfully, organically and even sustainably.
You can, too, just as long as you know ahead of time exactly
what you’re getting yourself into and how to avoid many
of the pitfalls that lie along the way.
“For farm entrepreneurs, the opportunities for a farm
family business have never been greater. As the industrial
agricultural complex crumbles and our culture clambers for
clean food, the countryside beckons anew with profitable farming
opportunities,” Joel Salatin writes in the introduction
to his latest book “You Can Farm.”
Joel is right. You really can farm, whether you’re
fresh out of high school or college, considering a mid-life
career change or looking for something a bit more secure than
Social Security later in life.
You know generally what you want to do, but you’re
not quite sure exactly how to go about it. That’s why
the Rodale Institute and the editors at NewFarm.org felt it
was absolutely essential to have a regular column devoted
solely to beginning farmers.
Ahead of land, money and equipment, the one thing that all
beginning farmers need is practical, profitable information
-- farmer-proven information -- on what works, what doesn’t
and why, where to find information, who to believe, who not
to believe and how to tell the difference.
“A good farmer in our times has to know more about
more things than a man in any other profession. He has to
be a biologist, a veterinary, a mechanic, a botanist, a horticulturist,
and many other things, and he has to have an open mind, eager
and ready to absorb new knowledge and new ideas and new ideals,”
Louis Bromfield wrote in “Pleasant Valley” in
||"Nothing that will be written
here is a recipe to be followed blindly. That’s
one of the many myths of modern agriculture -- one size
does not fit all in farming, never has and never will.
Every farmer and every farm is different."
Back then, about all you needed to get going was 100 acres
and a red-belly Ford. In comparison, today’s beginning
farmer must seem something like a rocket scientist.
This column will introduce you to the many ways you can farm.
Nothing that will be written here is a recipe to be followed
blindly. That’s one of the many myths of modern agriculture
-- one size does not fit all in farming, never has and never
will. Every farmer and every farm is different. What worked
for one may -- or may not -- work for you. But you can learn
from each, adapt what fits and develop a system that’s
just right for you.
They don’t teach that at the land grant universities,
package it in Extension bulletins or sell it by the bag at
the farm supply store.
Another thing they don’t teach much is critical thinking,
seeking a second opinion or how to properly evaluate and act
(or not act) on information from salesmen, so-called experts,
bureaucrats, politicians and the like.
“It is becoming increasingly apparent that much of
what is wrong with agriculture today is the direct result
of farmers being guided by others whose goals and responsibilities
are quite inappropriate to agriculture,” wrote Frank
Campbell Sr. of St. Catherines, Ontario, in 1984 in the print
days of The New Farm. He suggested that our slogan “Take
Charge of Your Farm” be placed in the masthead of the
The absolute best information on farming comes from other
farmers. That’s because they know the real power of
information. It can make you or break you.
“Please, don’t look to me for all of the answers,”
Dick Thompson said in 1984 when more than 500 farmers from
nine states flocked to his Iowa farm for the first New Farm®
field day there. “Talk to the farmers next to you or
behind you. You can probably learn as much or more from them
than you can from me.”
Like most farmers we’ve met over the years, Thompson
takes such things seriously. “People had questions everywhere.
They were really looking for answers. That puts quite a responsibility
on you because you don’t want to lead anybody astray.
This is not fun and games and show biz. This is the real world.”
||"Start small: Too many beginning
farmers we know enthusiastically start out to make it
in farming only to blow their life’s savings and
become bitter and defeated. That’s why this column
will focus first and foremost on nuts and bolts."
Unfortunately, non-farmers aren’t always in such close
tough with reality. Take all of information targeted toward
beginning farmers these days, and there is quite a mess of
it. Do an internet search, keyword “Beginning Farmer.”
Most of what comes up has to do with borrowing money -- megabucks
-- hundreds of thousands of dollars for land, equipment, buildings,
seed and other inputs for people who may have never grown
a crop in their life.
Don’t buy it for a minute. That’s like putting
a beginning driver, a 16-year-old who just got a driver’s
license, behind the wheel of a new Rolls Royce -- with no
insurance. Sooner rather than later, that car is going to
end up in a ditch, a total loss.
Think we’re kidding? Consider these items from “A
Time to Act,” the 1998 report of the United States Department
of Agriculture’s National Commission on Small Farms:
- “Today, we have 300,000 fewer farms than in 1979,
and farmers are receiving 13 percent less for every consumer
- Three out of every four farms in the country (roughly
1.5 million) are classified by USDA as “non-commercial,”
meaning that with gross sales of less than $50,000 a year
they do not earn enough money to stay in business on their
own. Half of these farmers (roughly 750,000) rely on off-farm
income. So much for the myth that you’re not a real
farmer if you don’t farm full-time.
- Even for farmers with gross sales of from $50,000 to $250,000
a year -- 86 percent of whom count farming as their primary
occupation -- “the average return on equity is negative.”
In that sales category, net cash income is only $23,159.
- “Farms with gross sales of under $250,000 (roughly
1.9 million) make up 94 percent of all farms. However, these
farms receive only 41 percent of all farm receipts. In other
words, out of 2 million farms, only 122,810 of the super-large
farms receive the majority of farm receipts.”
If you’re just starting out in farming, don’t
know much about it and have a “day job,” we strongly
recommend this: Don’t quit your day job. There is absolutely
nothing wrong with starting small and learning in the process.
Pay as you go. Study everything you can
get your hands on about farming, business, marketing and more.
Your farming library should contain more titles -- from the
present day to the 1700s, if possible -- than your entire
CD, DVD, LP, audio and video tape collections combined.
If you have money saved and think you know a lot about farming
because you’ve been an avid home gardener, again: Don’t
quit your day job -- yet.
Start small. Grow a few hundred feet of
a crop you’re familiar with and know where you’re
going to sell it. Too many beginning farmers we know enthusiastically
start out to make it in farming only to blow their life’s
savings and become bitter and defeated.
That’s why this column will focus first and foremost
on nuts and bolts:
- What to grow. (And what not to grow.)
- How to sell it, even before you grow it.
- Essential equipment.
- Where to locate your farm.
- How to obtain land.
- How to get started -- debt-free -- using other people’s
- How to equip your small farm for what many suburbanites
spend on a riding lawn mower.
- How to build a low-cost greenhouse that returns thousands
of dollars in a single season.
- How to be a price-setter, not a price-taker.
- How to eliminate middlemen and put the whole food dollar
in your pocket.
- How to get your customers to work for you.
- How they did it -- case histories of successful farmers,
every one of which was a beginner, once upon a time.
The list goes on. If we’re missing something that’s
vital to you, let us know. We’ll do our best to track
Just keep in mind that the words “farm,” “farmer”
and “farming” mean different things to different
people in different places at different times. One size does
not fit all.
USDA defines a farm as any place capable of producing $1,000
worth of products in one year. That takes in a lot of territory.
Our 14- by 96-foot unheated hoophouse earns more than twice
that -- on one-thirty-eighth of an acre.
So, going by the federal government’s definition, a
“farm” can be as small as a sliver of your backyard.
In our area of southeastern Pennsylvania, it would take at
least eight acres of average field corn and soybeans to earn
the same as our tiny hoophouse.
As a beginner, your farming canvas is bare. That can be a
true blessing, especially with the right information.