much land? Ultimately, about six by three, according to
Leo Tolstoy and the Devil. The photo to the right is of Tolstoy’s
grave. MORE >
are answers to a few of the e-letters we received from
readers. We’ll feature more in upcoming columns.
Feel free to write
us now with your questions and your stories.
Balancing Family With Farming
“I dream of becoming
an organic farmer, but am daunted by the challenges.
How can I afford to quit my job, buy even a small amount
of land with a home, and market enough to pay the mortgage
and provide for my family? I would most appreciate concrete
strategies that would help me accomplish this.
I read about many farmers
retiring with few young farmers willing to take over
and learn from them.
I see many ads for low-paying,
seasonal, temporary internships designed for college
students or single people. I am 35 years old, married
with three daughters under age eight.
What I need is some full
time, long term apprenticeship opportunities which would
help me learn to farm organically, while providing for
my young family.
Would some of those retiring
farmers consider taking me under their wing and eventually
transfer the farm to me in a way that would financially
benefit us both?”
You have the right idea, but
PLEASE don’t quit your job and plunge right into
And, PLEASE read all of our Beginning
Farmer columns (Nuts & Bolts & Dreams), especially
son Don’s pieces and Mel’s cut flower columns.
A dear friend of ours recently
did just what you’re talking about. In two years,
farming a few acres of rented ground, he lost nearly
all of his life’s savings of $40,000.
Before you make the plunge, get
all of the production -- and marketing
-- experience and information you can. Eliminate or
at least minimize your debt. Save as much money as possible.
Internships or apprenticeships can help you earn while
you learn. Many people, whether beginning farmers or
those who have been at it for decades, have a spouse
with an off-farm job to provide a regular paycheck and
It’s a jungle out there!
That’s why we’ll
be writing a whole lot more about how we and others
got started in farming -- safely. The idea is to make
your new farm dreams come true, not turn them into nightmares.
It takes a lot of hard work and even harder planning,
patience and preparation, scrimping and saving, plus
often burning the candle at both ends, especially at
first. If you’re not up to that task then the
new agriculture is definitely not for you.
By the way, there ARE tons of
good resources out there for finding apprenticeships.
We’ll most likely do a whole column on just that,
sprinkled with comments from folks who have had experiences
(both good and otherwise) with apprenticeships. But
in any case, we’ll pass along a few good resources
in our next column.
What’s Up With Whatley?
“I read Booker T. Whatley's book edited by
George DeVault (“How To Make $100,000 Farming
25 Acres”) in the 1990s. Very inspiring. My grandparents
raised registered Herefords in South Dakota, so I had
enough exposure to farm life to see there was a lot
going on in that book that would work.
Is Mr. Whatley still farming? What was your uptake
on his ideas?
At age 49, I can begin to envision those things
for myself. Your web site is great. You wanted feedback
on content. I'd like to see some practical applications
of ideas, "farm biographies,” how people
started and made it work.
Thanks for your web site. I'll be here often.
--Robert R Scoles, Sr.
Dr. Whatley is 87 years old now.
He is enjoying retirement with his wife Lottie at their
home in Montgomery, AL.
Whatley was retired from Tuskegee
Institute when his classic book was first published
in 1987. It sold more than 150,000 copies. Dr. Whatley
paid for the last print run of 2,000 copies in 1996
to meet residual demand, then said, “Enough.”
For our money, Whatley’s
ideas on diversification, year-round cash flow and direct
marketing of high-value crops are still the most sensible,
practical -- and profitable -- advice to come from a
university scientist since George Washington Carver.
Hey, we might even try to arrange
to reprint portions of Dr. Whatley’s book here
on the web site, if there’s enough interest. Cast
your vote by clicking
here and telling us you’re interested in the
Glad to hear you’ll be
coming back to NewFarm.org often, because there’s
a slew of “farm biographies” that you request
on the way. Stay tuned!
March 5, 2003:
“How much land do you need to do something like this?”
I asked Scott Nearing about 30 years ago. He and Helen were busy
building with stone. Time was short.
“What’s your crop?” Scott replied.
Crop? What crop?
“Gee, I dunno. What crop do you grow?”
And so, when we finally bought our land in 1984, we quickly noted
that our land was on the sour side and “lay wet” in
spots, as the old timers say. Perfect blueberry ground.
The first Father’s Day we owned the place, Melanie and the
kids bought me six highbush blueberry plants. We still have those
bushes. We have added hundreds more over the years. With drip irrigation
and minimal care, they are thriving -- and adding considerably to
our farm’s bottom line. Since they began bearing, blueberries
have been one of our most popular crops, which is why we will be
adding even more bushes this year, along with serious bird netting.
(More about all of that in other columns).
Fresh market vegetables, herbs and cut flowers -- all certified
organic -- are our other main crops. At most, we cultivate five
of our 19.2 acres. And we have our hands full! We don’t really
have time, the money or the energy to properly take care of the
Scott was right. How much land depends on what you intend to do
with it. Over the years, I’ve seen people gross more than
$250,000 a year on a half-acre city lot in downtown Berkeley, CA,
and others go broke on hundreds or even thousands of acres of prime
farmland in the heart of the Corn Belt.
It’s not only what you grow, it’s also:
- Where you grow it.
- How you grow it.
- Where you sell it.
- How you sell it.
Then there is how much you pay for land or, more importantly, how
much you owe on land.
“How Much Debt Can A Body Stand?” was the headline
of a Gene Logsdon column in The New Farm magazine in the early 1980s.
Good question, and one you definitely need to ask yourself, again
and again. Just how deep are your pockets? How much risk can you,
your spouse and your family stomach? You may well bet the farm on
your prospects as a farmer. But are you willing to bet your children’s
education? How about your retirement? If you’re raising corn
and beans, hogs and beef and you’re a million or two in the
hole, it doesn’t matter how much land you have. These and
many other pieces all work together. Fudge just one factor in the
equation and the bottom line changes drastically, often for the
So, how much land do you need to earn, say, $40,000 a year? The
American Farmland Trust asked that question in 1987 in a report
titled “Small Is Bountiful.” Here are the answers that
AFT found in six different states:
- California: 30-acre vineyard
yielding seven tons of grapes per acre.
- Texas: 65-head beef operation
on 650 acres.
- Iowa: 175 acres producing
150-bushel corn and 30-bushel soybeans.
- New Jersey: 20-acre truck
farm producing 9,000 pounds of broccoli and 3,200 pounds of blueberries
- North Carolina: 13-acre
farm producing one ton of tobacco per acre.
- Wisconsin: 200-acre
dairy with 25 cows, each producing 13,000 pounds of milk a year.
How much land? Probably even more today, since production costs
have soared and prices paid to farmers have generally plunged in
the last 15 years.
The question goes back probably 10,000 years to the earliest beginnings
of agriculture. Ancient Greeks and Romans wrestled with it. We’ll
focus on more recent times in just North America.
“Our farms ... though small, are generally too large for
our capitals; that is, we work badly too much ground, instead of
cultivating well a little,” Nicholas Biddle said in 1822 in
his address to the annual dinner of the Philadelphia Society for
Promoting Agriculture (www.pspaonline.com).
How much land?
Too often over the years, the answer has been, “Too much to
take care of and not enough to make any money on.”
One of the most dangerous myths of modern agriculture is that you
must have a lot of land. Nothing could be further from the truth,
according to Peter Henderson, the great-grandfather of truck farming
In the mid-1800s, Henderson supplied New York City with fresh vegetables
from his farm in what is now downtown Jersey City, NJ. He had this
to say when a man signed a 10-year lease on 20 acres next door for
a song and proudly announced that he was going into the vegetable
“The place was cheap enough, only I was afraid he had got
too much land, if he attempted the working of it all,” Henderson
wrote in his classic book “Gardening For Profit” in
“The result was as I expected; he began operations in March,
his little capital ($1,000) was almost swallowed up in the first
two months, and the few crops he had put in were so inferior, that
they were hardly worth sending to market. Without money to pay for
help, his place got enveloped in weeds, and by September of the
same year, he abandoned the undertaking.
“Had the same amount of capital and the same energy been
expended on three or four acres, there is hardly a doubt that success
would have followed. Those who wish to live by gardening, cannot
be too often told the danger of spreading over too large an area,
more particularly in starting. With a small capital, two or three
acres may be profitably worked; while if 10 or 12 were attempted
with the same amount, it would most likely result in failure.”
Bargain-priced land in the boondocks is no bargain, Henderson added.
“It is always better to pay rent or interest of $50 or even
$100 per acre on land one or two miles from market, than to take
the same quality of land, six or seven miles distant, for nothing.”
How much land? That
very question furrowed the brow of Abe Lincoln.
“The ambition for broad acres leads to poor farming, even
with men of energy. I scarcely ever knew a mammoth farm to sustain
itself; much less to return a profit upon the outlay. I have more
than once known a man to spend a respectable fortune upon one; fail
and leave it; and have some man of modest aims, get a small fraction
of the ground, and make a good living upon it. Mammoth farms are
like tools or weapons, which are too heavy to be handled. Ere long
they are thrown aside at a great loss,” Lincoln told the Wisconsin
State Agricultural Society in 1859.
“The prudent penniless beginner in the world, labors for
wages awhile, saves a surplus with which to buy tools or land, for
himself; then labors on his own account another while, and at length
hires another new beginner to help him. This, say its advocates,
is free labor -- the just and generous, and prosperous system, which
opens the way for all -- gives hope to all, and energy and progress,
and improvement of condition to all.”
One of the more popular -- and practical -- farming books on the
American market in 1875 was Edmund Morris’ “Ten Acres
Enough.” Yet, a few years later, Morris followed it with a
book called “Five Acres Too Much.”
In 1935, M.G. Kains gave us “Five Acres and Independence.”
The theme was the same: Grow a diversity of high-value, high quality
crops and sell them directly to consumers at retail prices and you
don’t have to make yourself crazy by trying to farm three
Naturally, we all want to have lots of land, if for no other reason
than to enjoy ample elbow room. That’s simply human nature.
And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that, I believe, just
as long as we keep in mind what Leo Tolstoy wrote in 1886 in a short
story called “How Much Land Does A Man Need?”
“If I had plenty of land, I shouldn’t fear the Devil
himself!” said Pahom, a perpetually disgruntled peasant. The
Devil was listening and quickly devised a scheme that answered the
question, once and for all:
“Six feet from his head to his heels was all he needed.”
advice on buying and renting land, and even farming it for free.
The photo of Tolstoy’s grave
was taken by George in August of 1991, a few days before
the coup against Gorbachev. Here’s what he had
to say about the trip:
“We’d gone to Tula to interview the director
of the Soviet Union’s leading state farm. Only
he wasn’t there. He’d suddenly been recalled
to Moscow. We didn’t know he was one of eight
hardliners trying to take over the government.
So, we dined like kings on borscht and liver and onions
in his executive dining room, then watched a fistfight
break out between men and women over a pan of fresh
sausage in the farm’s grocery. 50 years ago that
month, the woods and fields around us had been filled
with Nazi tanks and troops.
Visiting Tolstoy’s nearby estate later that afternoon
was the perfect ending to a long, strange trip.”