how to start up a small farm: five lessons learned
OK, so I’ll be honest. The real reason I’m writing this post is because I got my first negative review on Amazon. It’s not the negativity of the review that annoys me, but rather the fact that the reviewer seems to think he knows more about my start-up farm than I do, and also has a knack for taking quotes out of context. (The reporter in me finds this habit particularly grating.)
Oh, and he also actually seemed to enjoy the book, and called it a “good read,” but then went into a five paragraph critique because apparently I’m not a real farmer. Or because I’m a bad farmer who is incapable of feeding the masses. Or because I’m too good of a farmer and experienced “quick success.” (Quick success?! I wish.) Or something. His dislike of me is evident, but the reasons for his dislike remain unclear, at least to me. Maybe you’ll have better luck understanding his point of view.
Regardless of exactly what got this guy’s goat, I’d like to take this opportunity to turn the bad review into something positive and use it as an excuse to talk about the mechanics of starting up a small farm from scratch. Without further ado, here are 5 lessons I’ve learned over the past 4 years, and some clarifications about how we got our own small farm going. After hearing our story, are we “elite” “affluent post adolescents” as reviewer H. Laack stated? You be the judge.
Lesson #1 — A farm is a small start-up business. Treat accordingly.
When starting up a small business, the entrepreneur — be they farmer, restauranteur, aspiring CEO or shopkeeper — should have some money saved up. Or have good enough credit to secure a loan, or enough confidence to convince investors of the bright future of the business. Because no brand-new business that I know of will actually earn you any kind of a living for the first few months, and may not achieve profitability for a year, or even years, after inception… if at all.
(Hint: now is a good time to move back in with your parents, if they haven’t yet converted your former bedroom into an office/craft room/storage space/nordic-track-gym.)
Since I have an obvious tendency towards memoir, here’s Foggy River Farm’s startup story:
I worked during college as a TA and then Head TA, which meant that I was often bone-tired, grumpy, exhausted, caffeinated, and never had any time off. (I’m frankly shocked that my relationship with Emmett survived this period, but it was good training for farming.) However, it also meant that I wasn’t dependent on my single mom, and I was — by living meagerly — able to actually save money for the latter part of college rather than accumulate debt. As Head TA, I had a certain number of credits allotted to me per quarter as part of my payment package. I never took classes above the allotted amount, so I didn’t have to take out loans to pay for my Master’s degree.
Because I was only attending school part-time, Emmett graduated a year before I did. After graduation he worked for Stanford Dining Services, and for two years we both lived in fabulously affordable housing that we shared with many (perhaps too many) other colleagues. For one of those years, we lived in a fraction of a garage that had been “converted” into a “bedroom.” There were rats in the walls. I once woke up screaming because I had a nightmare that rats were crawling across my face, a dream that was probably generated by the nightly sound of rats scrabbling around in the wall right next to my head.
In wintertime, tragically, one of the rats in the wall died, and dead-rat-smell leaked out of the electrical socket just above our mattress. Dead-rat-smell is strangely similar to the scent of urine, and I accused Emmett of peeing in the bed for several nights before I realized what the smell actually was. (Duct tape over the socket solved that problem perfectly.)
I also might add here that Emmett’s the sort of person who won’t spring for a sleeper car on a multi-day train trip. In fact, he’s the sort of person who will refuse on principle to pay the overpriced cost of train food, and will instead drink cold soup, purchased in advance, straight out of a carton. True story.
(Hint #2: This is the sort of person that makes a very good farmer. You think that potato’s too rotten to eat? Cut a piece of it off and try again.)
So anyway, after we were both done with school, and finished with the temporary internship-type jobs that we held for six months after school, we had a tidy sum of money in our respective savings accounts. We spent some of it traveling around New Zealand, but since we were wwoofing and living on the cheap, upon our return we still had plenty to fund our farming venture and pay the bills while we got off the ground. We moved into Emmett’s well-preserved childhood bedroom and got to work.
(Side note: our savings accounts have never recovered to pre-New Zealand levels, except at the end of the Fall, which is before we live off of savings until Spring. But we are currently able to live off of our on-farm income combined with my 20 hour/week newspaper job, and are continuing to grow the business each year. I’m pretty sure my boss would get mad if I noted how much I make at the newspaper, so let’s just say that while reporting is about as lucrative as farming, the paycheck does keep coming in the winter.)
Lesson #2 — How to secure land: or, everyone is lucky/unlucky.
Emmett and I are incredibly lucky to be able to farm and live on property that has been in the family for three generations: we know that. But you don’t have to have family with property to be granted the use of the land. It takes relationships, certainly, but not necessarily blood ones. The Kimballs (as told in Kristin’s memoir, The Dirty Life) had a family friend who offered to let them farm the land. Many of our farmer friends in Sonoma County have similar arrangements; some do pay long-term lease fees, while others are simply gifted the use of a property for sustainable agriculture purposes or are leasing the land for $1 per year. There are often ads on Craigslist looking for farmers to cultivate a property owner’s acreage in exchange for providing the landowner with food. Some farmers I know work for an hourly salary (woah — more than minimum wage!) in exchange for tending a restaurant or winery’s farm.
Of course, there are huge challenges associated with these arrangements. Some farmers have to piece together multiple “free lease” (or low-cost-lease) properties in order to garner enough acreage to make ends meet, and considerable time is spent commuting between those properties. Others pay rent without knowing how long they’ll be able to stay on the land. While negotiating for a long-term lease is ideal, it’s not always feasible, and we know farmers in this county who have been suddenly unseated from the property they’ve farmed for years. Land is insanely expensive to purchase, and farming doesn’t make much money (see Lesson #4 below), so it’s hard to put a down payment on property, let alone pay the mortgage and property taxes after purchase.
But there are also challenges to successional farming. You think business negotiation and long-term planning is hard? Try throwing family dynamics into the mix. In our case, the family property is currently supporting two separate agricultural enterprises which sometimes work well together and sometimes not so much. We have about 1/2 acre of permanent veggie space, and our other 2 1/2 acres is temporarily fallow vineyard — which means we have to install new irrigation, as well as amend and improve the soil every year, and then bid that section of field farewell at the end of the season.
And farmers with family property can be suddenly unseated from the land, just as tenants can. You might think that Prop 13 means everyone with land lives free and easy… but if siblings are bought out (as must often happen in an agricultural enterprise), Prop 13 doesn’t apply and property taxes shoot up. Also, estate taxes do apply, and they apply at the current appraised market value of the land. I’ve spoken with multi-generational farmers who’ve put in decades farming the family property only to lose “their” land either because siblings forced a sale (ouch!), or because they couldn’t afford the estate taxes when a parent passed on.
(Note: land has no value — beyond production value, which is a tiny fraction of its “market value” — unless it is sold. So how do you pay the estate or property taxes without selling the property? Or how do you afford to buy your siblings out? It’s almost as tricky as purchasing land in the first place.)
I guess the overall lesson here is: land issues apply to everybody, whether they are property owners, inheritors or tenant farmers. There is no such thing as a free lunch when it comes to land, and someone with access to “free” land may seem incredibly lucky for years only to lose the property suddenly and stunningly. Here at Foggy River Farm, we are well aware that we need to continue to grow our operation to contribute to property taxes, and that’s a major concern for the future of our farm. (By the way, on the how-to side, there are organizations such as California Farmlink working on finding solutions to at least some of these problems — if you’re a farmer in California seeking land to farm, start there.)
Lesson #3 — “Expensive” is relative.
There’s expensive, and there’s expensive. And if you’re going to farm, as mentioned in #1, you need access to significant startup funds. I’m referring to the book review here, in which the reviewer notes that we were somehow able to afford “relatively expensive” replacements for some of the problems we faced during our first year farming. Specifically, when our chickens died, we bought new chicks. And when our tomatoes-from-seed died, we bought bulk tomato seedlings.
I would argue that while 30 chicks times $3 = $90, that is not relatively expensive. It’s relatively cheap. I’m not saying that $90 isn’t a lot of money — it certainly is when we’re talking about things we don’t need, like a night on the town or a cute new sweater. But compare that $90 to the $3,000+ we invested on our BCS walk-behind tractor (after using a borrowed Rototiller for a year), or the $4,000+ we spent on our Craigslist Toyota pickup (purchased after realizing that it’s impossible to operate with 1 station wagon between 2 farmers), and it’s small potatoes. Ditto the cost to fortify the failed chicken coop, which was constructed largely from found materials. We dumpster dive and visit the town dump’s recycling center on a regular basis.
And the $1.19 per plant that we spent on tomato seedlings after all of ours died? One half of one tomato from that future vine would more than pay for that initial investment. I’d hardly call that “relatively expensive.” In fact, as I write this, I’m half-wondering why in the heck we spend so much effort growing tomatoes from seed if we could source them for $1.19 per plant… but of course it’s because we’ve increased our tomato production by an order of magnitude since those early days. Where once we had 80 vines, now we have around 1,000. And that IS a lot of money saved, and well worth our effort.
Speaking of effort…
Lesson #4 — Not only is farming expensive and land hard to find, but you work all the time and you don’t make much money. You farm because you love growing things, raising animals, and feeding people — and are okay with these pursuits taking over your life. Don’t start a farm for the wrong reasons.
Put another way: Farming is not a romantic and pastoral pastime in which you frolic around the fields cavorting with goat kids and snuggling fuzzy lambs. Farming is dirty, exhausting, body-breaking, bank-breaking and stress-inducing. You’re entirely dependent on things that only a crazy person would trust, like the weather or the willingness of an 1,800 pound horse to pull your potato harvester. If you make money, you pour it back into the farm.
Of course, farming is magical too. But ask any magician and they’ll tell you that it requires a heck of a lot of planning, special equipment, effort and knowledge to pull a rabbit out of a hat.
Lesson #5: Success is relative, too. As a farmer, you must define it your own way.
(Hint #3: Farmers do not define success by fancy clothes, nice cars, vacations taken, or clean homes. If they did, they would doom themselves to perpetual failure.)
OK, it’s confession time: I Google-stalked my negative reviewer because he has a very unusual name (and, well, apparently I’m a creepy author.) I’m pretty sure he’s a farmer in Wisconsin, which surprised me. He’s a farmer, and he thought my first season was a “comparatively quick success”!
But I suppose different farmers have different versions of success, partly because we all face very different challenges. Was our first season a success? Perhaps, if “not fatally crushed under a tractor” and “not failing so miserably that you quit altogether” is your definition of success. Yet in my eyes our first season was a failure in terms of effective crop management, effective livestock management, and money earned versus money invested. Still, Emmett and I realized it was a starting point and therefore didn’t judge ourselves too harshly, assuming that over time, we’d learn from our mistakes and earn back our initial investment.
And as for feeding our community, I think that we succeeded even that first year, despite Mr. Laack’s misgivings. We fed friends, neighbors, Food Pantry-goers, and farmers market shoppers. This year, we’re feeding 50 families through our CSA, and countless more through the farmers market. Our CSA customers are mostly working families, just like us, and last year we were able to provide them with produce at 20% off market price… plus give them access to “free you-pick” tomatoes and basil for canning and preserving. I think that counts as feeding “the rest of us,” or at least I hope so.
In the end, I have a hunch that Mr. Laack’s problem is this: while non-farmers read the book and think “wow, farming is hard,” farmers might read the book and think “wow, they had it easy.” And farmers do have a tendency towards one-upsmanship. (Heck, my rat story is 100% true, but that was for SURE me trying to look as hardcore, peasant-y, and self-reliant as possible to prove that I’m an up-by-the-bootstraps kind of gal.) Also, consider that I didn’t want to write a book that was an endless complaint about the miseries of farming — no one (besides grumpy old farmers) would want to read it.
And with that, I think I’ve taken up more than my fair share of your time. Thanks for reading. To Mr. Laack, I have a genuine offer: please come out and visit the farm if you’re ever out west. Then you can judge more accurately whether we’re “fairy tale farmers,” or whether we’re hardworking souls trying to make ends meet and transcend challenges while making the most of the opportunities we’ve been given.
While I should probably bite my tongue and end on that positive note, I have to add that Prince Charming wouldn’t have known a wheel hoe from an Earthway seeder, or a beet seedling from a baby brassica. I’m guessing that princes take vacations every once in a while. Snow White probably never spent all night on an alfalfa bale fighting hay fever while keeping a laboring goat company, and while she may have been able to sweep the barn, she probably couldn’t lift an 80-pound sack of goat feed or coax milk from the udder of a disgruntled first freshening goat.
So there you have it. Here’s Princess Fairy Tale Farmer, signing off.