NUTS & BOLTS & DREAMS: A beginner's guide to farming

So You Want to Be a Farmer
25-year-old Don Devault talks about how farming crept up on him, about the mentors he was lucky to meet . . . and about the doses of reality and hard work he got along the way.

By Don DeVault

"If you’re looking for A WAY to get your farm started, stop. Look for YOUR WAY to get your farm started. Whether it’s the backyard or the back forty, dig it up and get dirty. Get the earth under your fingernails and in your blood. Leave the formulas to chemists and mathematicians. The recipes to chefs.”


Who are these Devault people, anyway? For starters, Don is the son of George, long-time editor of the New Farm® magazine. George's currently editor of the Russian version of New Farm® magazine. For more on Melanie, Don's mom, see her first column on building a cut flower business.

For more of the Devault family's own farming history, check out New farm dreams do come true.





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Coming next week:

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

February 14, 2003: Sitting at a table on the front porch of the Buck’s Harbor Market in Brooksville, Maine, on a perfect July afternoon four years ago with a grilled ham and cheese sandwich, a copy of Henry Miller’s Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch and NO CLUE, I decided it was time to affect a positive change in my life. I would become a farmer. An honest, functional philosopher.

Now, at twenty-one, I was a two-time college dropout giving consideration to a different whim every five minutes. So when I called my parents, on whose small organic farm in southeastern Pennsylvania I’d grown up, and in which I’d previously shown little if any interest, I met with not unexpected skepticism. But it was July, and everything was beginning to get a bit ahead of them, as happens. So they were at least amenable with, if not quite grateful for, my revelation. (They had, after all, footed the bill for my miseducation and now I was moving back home. Again.)

“Do us all a favor, though, and stop in on Eliot,” they said. “Have a look at what he’s up to.” Eliot Coleman, for those of you not yet familiar with this pioneering champion of small-scale, local-organic farming, is exactly that. And then some.

When I paid Mr. Coleman a visit the next day, I was warmly welcomed, and what most immediately struck me wasn’t his achievement over the past 30 years of a seamless cooperation of planting, harvesting and packaging systems carefully tailored to fit perfectly his local markets—he wasn’t even in production in July! He farms three seasons, Fall through Spring. Winter! In Maine!

But it was neither that seemingly unbelievable fact, nor the number of books with his name on the spine on the rack that did it. What got me was who he is. I don’t think I’d ever before met such a vital character. The fullness of his communion with and stewardship of the land came back to me just standing there listening to him speak.

And I realized for the first time that there are more of the same different breed of people out there. People like my parents.

So I went home. And a few long, sun burnt weeks later I left for Flickerville Mountain Farm and Groundhog Ranch in Dott, PA. My parents’ friends and mentors, Ward Sinclair and Cass Peterson, had started up an organic vegetable subscription service, or modified CSA, at Flickerville a few years ahead of my folks’ own undertaking. Over the years, Ward and Cass successfully transformed their subscription service into a booming business of restaurant deliveries and market sales.

When I arrived with a notebook and instructions to “pick their brains” as well as their tomatoes in the middle of August, Brian Cramer, Flickerville’s field manager, and Cass Peterson were looking to the end of what was to be their last season. Ward had passed tragically of cancer a few years earlier, and this was, as always, a particularly hard year. There hadn’t been rain in months, it seemed. And the interns had left early. (And I might as well tell you now, as the sooner you hear it the better: Good help is hard to find. And, unless you live in California and exploiting Mexican laborers doesn’t weigh too heavily on your conscience, even harder to keep.)

But despite the difficult uncertainty they were facing, Brian and Cass filled most of my notebook, and I went back home with valuable lessons learned, invaluable experience inherited. Beyond some great variety names, growing, harvesting and packaging tips, all of which I’ll save for later, the best lesson for the beginner I came home from Flickerville with is the familiar old adage: Patience is a virtue. You start with a seed. It won’t happen all at once. Ward and Cass’ first market day brought in $25. Their second $11. Their third $10. In their last season, Flickerville had $2,500 market days at Takoma Park, MD.

I once heard someone say that experience is what you get when you don’t get what you expected. Nothing could be more true, especially on the farm. And, as is mainly the point of this column, someone with experience willing to share may be able to save you a few surprises. Or at least grant you an easier understanding of what’s happened when you find yourself lying flat on your back.

Everyone I met everywhere I went served to shore up my initial suspicion that what I was looking for I’d found on the farm. I was supremely fortunate in that I had a place and a way in. If you haven’t yet got a place, don’t worry. We’ll also address that at a later date. And even though we know every beginning farmer’s situation is different, what my folks and I are trying to do today is extend to all of you an invitation. Of sorts.

So you want to be a farmer . . .

“There are three ways to do things,” says Robert DeNiro in Casino. “The right way. The wrong way. And my way.” The first thing you need to know is yourself. (This, by the way, does not apply exclusively to getting started in farming.) What I’m saying is that if you’re looking for A WAY to get your farm started, stop. Look for YOUR WAY to get your farm started. Whether it’s the backyard or the back forty, dig it up and get dirty. Get the earth under your fingernails and in your blood. Leave the formulas to chemists and mathematicians. The recipes to chefs. No one can tell you exactly how to make it happen and only you can do it.

Listen to everything anyone has to say, and question every answer anyone gives you. Then examine the answers you supply to every question you come up with. I can tell you I think the goal is to make the farm a functional extension of yourself (once you know who that is). And I can guarantee the realization of your dream will give you a good reason to get out of bed every day. (Though once in a while you may, and probably should, question that reason.) Farming is hard. We’ve probably all worked 14-hour days for two or three weeks in a row. And none of us are rolling in dough. But on a good day you get back a bit more than you put in. And it follows that shortcuts will only leave you shortchanged.

You still with me?

We’re coming into September of the first year of my farm odyssey now. Things are slowing down. It’s time to sit back and relax. Time to reflect on the season’s lessons, surprises and successes. Right?

Sure. As soon as you’re done with the coming season.

When I decided to become a farmer, I did so with my usual burnout-bent obsession. Armed with half a season’s experience, Eliot Coleman’s Winter Harvest Manual and the desire not to work a meaningless job for a boss ever again, I just kept going.

My parents had put up a small 14- X 96-foot high tunnel hoophouse to extend their subscription season a few years earlier, and in September I moved inside. Lettuce, salad mix, arugula, kale, chard, spinach, carrots, hakurei turnips, parsley and me. This was the office.

If you’re getting started, buy a hoophouse. If you’re just thinking about getting started, think about buying a hoophouse. Then buy one. You’re looking at probably $1,000 for a kit similar to the one I began with. It will pay for itself in a month of production. And filling it with quick-hit, cut-and-come-again greens will present you with an unbelievably steep learning curve.

I called it “the office,” but it functionally afforded me the most stimulating classroom environment I’d found in my life. Working on a small scale forces careful logistical consideration of each square foot of available space. It gives you a focused, close-up view of what you’re really doing.

Some day, with a foot of fresh snow on the ground, you’ll walk out to the hoophouse and open the door and stand in awe of the Edenic scene of which you are steward. Appreciate this moment. Because now it’s time to try to pay the bills. And while it’s undoubtedly true that highest-quality fresh, local organic produce will sell itself, there is a little more to the story.

See, someone has to crouch and bend and kneel and twist to harvest this produce. Someone has to wash it, plunging hands into tubs of water when it’s 25 degrees outside. Someone has to spin it dry, weigh and package it. Someone has to drive it out to the health food store or the restaurant and talk to the manager or the chef. Someone has to say, “Hey, this is who I am. This is what I’m doing. Here’s my card. Here’s three pounds of salad mix for which I ask $6.50 a pound for free. I’ll call you in a week to see what you think. If you haven’t used it by then, don’t worry. It’ll still be good.” And someone has to do this and say this again and again, and maybe again, until the money starts coming in.

Is that someone you?