7, 2003, Emmaus, PA: So you’re still with us?
Maybe you get a paycheck every other week that covers the
bills but leaves you unfulfilled, and you’d like to
get into farming to get away from the rat race. Let’s
assume you’ve already bought, leased, rented, inherited,
begged for or borrowed a piece of land, and you’re ready
to take a stand, tell the boss to go to hell and start farming.
You want to make your own way, you say. And that’s great.
But I wouldn’t quit your day job. Not yet, anyway.
You might try to find something at least a little more agreeable
for a while. Something part-time. Maybe wait tables or tend
bar at night. It may seem an ignominious sacrifice or compromise,
but any steady money will come as a blessing when you’re
getting started on the farm. And think about benefits. Medical
insurance. (Unless you’re planning to buy land in Canada).
You want to be a farmer. But I bet you’d like to find
a little time once in a while to straighten up, wipe your
brow, take a breath, step back and enjoy the life you’ve
Yes, you’ll need to make enough money. But no, you
don’t have to drive yourself crazy. I don’t think
I consciously thought about that at the beginning. But it
One of any number of variations of a CSA is probably the
most popular small farm model at present. But it’s not
the way I’d begin. We’ll talk at length about
CSA’s later, but the wide variety of crops you’ll
need to grow to satisfy your members over the course of the
season, the equipment and number of different systems you’ll
need to design and implement to bring all these crops in,
and the cost of putting up and maintaining whatever sort of
distribution center you decide on make the set-up investment
in a CSA reasonably prohibitive for the beginner. Not
to mention the investment of time. It’ll take nearly
every daylit minute from late April through October. And when,
depending on the weather, things slowly roll to a stop in
November you’ll be burnt-out and worried about how you’re
ever going to make it to next season’s first member’s
Another popular small farm model involves a combination of
deliveries and weekly farmer’s market sales. And it’s
a good way to go. But the combination, I think, is again too
much to begin with. Seasonal producer-only farmer’s
markets, like CSA’s, generally demand you produce a
wide variety of crops to make sales worth the time and effort.
And that’s probably the draw. Everybody always wants
to do it all. Two years
ago my family and I ran a modified 75-person CSA, weekly restaurant,
health food store, and co-op deliveries, and as many as five
different weekly farmer’s markets over the course of
a season that began in January and ended in December. And
while season extension and diversification of crops and sales
outlets are a large part of what will eventually make your
farm a success and keep you in business, it’s only experience
that will really instruct you in the achievement of this.
Well, that, and perhaps a few well-written articles.
The more land you have in production, the larger your operation,
the greater your dependence will be on machinery and systematization.
Which means, among other things, spending money. And once
you’ve gone through your savings, you have to make more
money or take out loans. And (even though this is a general
misconception I’ll later attempt to disprove, just
assume for now that) you have to work more land, and plant
more crops to make more money. To do that you have to hire
labor you have to pay for (so they have to make more money
than you spend paying them). And that’s just where the
complications begin. Then the banks, accountants, lawyers,
insurance and collection agents step in.
You don’t have to own a tractor to be a farmer. Your
fields don’t have to disappear over the horizon. And
you don’t have to exploit voluntary slave labor.
If you’re beginning, you want to think small, and of
perhaps a different quality of growth.
Take a walk around your place and pick out your favorite
fairly level little piece. I’m talking maybe 2000 square
feet with good drainage, and not too many trees crowded around
the area. And, of course, the closer your water source the
What you’re doing is selecting the site for your first
hoophouse, which, for a relatively minimal investment will
provide you with a manageable microcosm of the farm you’ve
been dreaming of starting. Beginning as a part-time farmer
inside you’ll be able to work more of the year than
you possibly could outdoors, and the hoophouse will act as
a magnifying glass of steel hoops and plastic to intensely
focus your understanding of the land and how best to manage
it. And beyond teaching you innumerable valuable practical
lessons, the hoophouse will allow you to
make a quick monetary return on your investment.
Now, there are a wide variety of sizes and designs of hoophouses
available. But for simplicity’s sake I’m just
gonna lump them into two basic categories:
The first, and simplest design is
that of the classic quonset hut-style hoophouse, or high-tunnel.
Digging His Hoophouse: The quonset hut-style
hoophouse is economical but has some functional
It’s a single layer
of plastic skin stretched over a ridgepole sternum and ribcage
of half-circle steel hoops fitted and bolted into anchor posts
framed by baseboards. The design is so simple, you might even
consider building it yourself with rebar, pvc pipe, chewing
gum and a Swiss Army knife, but since there are plenty of
suppliers, and kits for this design are fairly inexpensive,
I’d recommend against it.
At about a thousand bucks, with only a day’s work to
put it up, the quonset’s economical simplicity is certainly
appealing, but inherent in the design are perhaps a few too
many functional drawbacks. Like the fact that its design actually
reflects a precious percentage of light when the sun hugs
in the months outside summer. The quonset also crowds you
out of valuable working space along the baseboards. There’s
no way to get in there with the tiller and planter. And the
quonset easily overheats and freezes in respective seasons.
All reasons you might seriously want to consider going with
something a little different, which brings us to . . .
The second group of hoops, the gothic
arch high-tunnel design.
Up Its Sleeves: The gothic arch high-tunnel
requires a larger initial investment but earns its
keep in well-designed features.
The vertically rising sidewalls of gothic arch design offer
greater accessibility along the length of the baseboards.)
With its vertically rising sidewalls and high, peaked arch,
in contrast to the round, squat quonset, the gothic arch is
a little more expensive, running anywhere from $1500-$3500,
depending on size, and how you decide to frame out the ends.
Begin on the small side, though, and it’s without a
doubt the best initial investment you can make.
You can get in along the baseboards with the tiller and seeder.
You also lose less low-slung sunlight to glancing-angle reflection.
And the “lofted” design of the gothic arch helps
hold a more consistent temperature. It will still overheat
in the middle of summer, but the design facilitates roll-up
sides for cross-ventilation. And it’ll still freeze-out
in the dead of winter without floating row covers, double
plastic with an inflation fan and supplemental heat. But here
we’re getting a bit ahead of ourselves.