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

DON'T take your day job and shove it
A few practical thoughts on preparing to take the plunge

By Don DeVault


In his first column, last month, 25-year-old Don Devault talked about the ag mentors he was lucky enough to meet, and the revelations he experienced when he spent one fall and winter in a 14 by 96-foot high tunnel hoophouse, experiencing farming in an intense little nutshell of plastic and steel. In this column, he examines the different small farm models available to the beginner, and continues with his greenhouse odyssey.







Hey, Don, what about that greenhouse kit you mentioned?

Where do you get the $1000 hoophouse kits mentioned in Don's article "So You Want to be a Farmer?"

Jodi Verbanic
Feb. 26, 2003


Thanks for asking, Jodi.

Be patient. We’ll get to that in next week’s column, listing a number of sources for good greenhouse kits.















Got any questions
for Don, George and Melanie?
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Coming next week:

The Beginner’s Blueprint.
A 21’ x 48’ gothic arch high tunnel with roll-up sides for less than $2000. Where to find kits, and how to build them. Plus, what to sell and how to develop the market.

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 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 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 high-tunnel design.
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.