MARCH 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 chosen.
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 deserves consideration.
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 prepayment.
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
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 better.
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.
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 the horizon
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
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.