FIRST IN AN ONGOING SERIES
NUTS & BOLTS & DREAMS: A beginner's guide to farming

Money still matters. Probably always will. But there's something beginning farmers
need even more . . .
Finding the right information
Knowing what to do and who to believe means the difference between success and failure.

By Melanie, Don and George DeVault

EDITOR'S Note

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.

 

 

Got any questions
for George and Melanie?
Any topics you'd like them to cover?

Click here.

 

Coming next:

Land -- buying, renting or “borrowing” it, whether you’re in the city, the suburbs or the country.

Why a regular column for beginning farmers?

Two reasons:

First, many of you who've written us have specifically asked for it.

Second, you're gonna need it. As the Devaullts say:

"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."

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?

Yeah! 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 1945.

"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 magazine.

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 dollar.”
  • 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 money.
  • 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 it down.

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.