How does one become a farmer? It seems simple enough. Get some land, grow some meat or veggies, sell it. It seems simple enough, but in reality, I still have no idea. When I took the jump it was more of a clumsy tumble than a leap of faith. I threw myself into the abyss with a plan mapped out on a piece of graph paper and an idealistic vision of how everything would be. That piece of paper helped get our fireplace going during the first winter here, and the vision has been hatcheted from every direction by the very boards, governments and individuals that I thought would make up the core of my support system. I have no clue what I’m doing, but despite everything I seem to be finding my way.
I feel like the last person on earth who could tell someone how to become a farmer, but I can suggest eight tips I wish I’d known from the get-go. If you’re thinking about farming as a new career path, read on.
- #1) Forget about Joel Salatin Ok, that’s harsh. I’ve read almost every one of his books and except for his occasional Bible thumping I feel like he’s got it 110% right. He inspired that initial list I had of how things were going to work… yeah, the one that ended up in the fire. So what’s wrong with Joel? Well, nothing, except that he doesn’t live where you do, he doesn’t have the same property you do, he may be dealing with regulatory bullshit but it’s not the exact regulatory bullshit you’re going to deal with, and as comforting as it is that he’s found ways around the challenges he’s faced, his successes haven’t made it any easier for you, and won’t apply when you try making the same points to your own government entities. You will not be able to just set up an outdoor slaughter facility and sell your chickens to customers far and wide. You will not be able to sell gazillions of eggs just because you have them. Sticking it to the man is a time consuming job, and if you plan to start up a farm you’re not going to have time or energy to fight battles, no matter how right you are, especially if you don’t have a gaggle of kids to put to work while you write the emails.
- #2. Do read the regulations Seriously. Before you even start looking for properties take a good hard look at municipal by-laws. Then read provincial and federal regulations regarding anything and everything you might be thinking about producing. Understand what you can and can’t do according to those regulations. Make sure you have a really good grip on how restricted some commodities are because they’re controlled by marketing boards. In Nova Scotia you can’t even sell a turnip without a permit. Growing and selling food looks like dirty, invigorating work until you find yourself mired in the bureaucracy that surrounds it. Then it’s just dirty. Don’t make any plans until you understand that from the inside out or you’ll be making plans for nothing. There is definitely money to be made, but there are a heck of a lot of rules about who can make it, and how.
- #4. Be open-minded and versatile I have no idea what I’m doing but my sales are building instead of falling. Why? Because I’m not putting all my eggs in one, two, or even three baskets. When I started with goats I had wild dreams of a dairy ( and I still do) but in the meantime, until I think it’s financially viable, I’m using the milk to build a soap business instead. Soap doesn’t sell well in the winter months, though, so I’m cooking hot lunches at market to pick up the slack. I thought meat chickens would be a big part of my operation, but I’ve discovered that I really don’t enjoy raising them, and I’d rather just produce enough to meet our own needs. I knew I’d have a garden for our own use but I didn’t anticipate that it would double in size each year so I could expand and sell. When you’re small scale farming you have the advantage of being able to try different things, you can change what you produce as trends and customers come and go. You can change what you produce if it turns out something just doesn’t work for you. You’re not tied to a multi-million dollar layer facility or a fleet of tractors for producing grain. Don’t let your head get stuck in one place, be creative with what you’ve got ( and what you’re good at), and somehow things seem to work.
- #3. Don’t count on grants Why not? Because there aren’t any. There are lots of loans and forgiveable loans and “partnerships” and funding possibilities, but they will all require that you cough up money too, and almost all of them will need to be repaid. Loans are not grants, and because I know you’ve already immersed yourself in those Joel Salatin books, I’ll tell you right now that one of the things he has very right is that jumping into debt is no way to run a farm. At least figure out what the hell you’re doing before you start applying willy nilly for money. Wouldn’t it suck to find yourself paying back a loan for a pig barn when you suddenly decide blueberries are what you really want to grow?
- #5. Understand that nothing is instant. If you cultivate a garden at a new property it’s going to take time to balance the soil, figure out the micro-climate, understand the pest and weed challenges specific to the area, and learn to plant accordingly. If you buy a place with a run down barn or house you will find yourself making repairs to get by and reworking things over and over until you finally get them right. If you start selling at a market you may not even make enough to cover your table fee for the first several months, until customers become familiar with you and your product. Dreaming of farming seems very straightforward – grow food, sell food, work hard and profit. And then you realize that fences need constant restringing because snow and deer stretch them, hooves grow faster than you can trim them, crops get mangled by insects, and a single fox or eagle can decimate your poultry in the bat of an eyelid. Farming is one step forward, three steps back until you’ve gone so far backward you’ve come full circle, Then you do it over again. If you’re not a patient person, farming probably isn’t for you.
- #6. Network Perhaps the most valuable thing I did when I started was to throw myself into networking opportunities whenever possible. Sure, it was partly because I wanted to make some farming friends, but it also gave me avenues to find cheap things I need, to find advice from people I can trust, to get the inside scoop when something important is going down, and to attract new customers. Getting to know other farmers will show you that there are a million ways to do any one thing, that going with your gut is often as good as going by the book, and that who you know can be as important as what you grow when it comes to making a sale. I love my non-farming friends dearly, but when I need to talk about cucumber beetles, scours, and preferred castration techniques, nothing beats someone who gets it. Real gold is having a number you can call at 11pm to get some emergency colostrum for a suddenly orphaned newborn. When you have that, you know you’ve been networking successfully
- #7. Assess your needs and wants Do you have to have a new car every 3 years? Are designer shoes high on your list of wants? Does walking into a Frenchys make you queasy? Is a trip to Cuba the only way you can survive the Canadian winter? If you answered “yes” to any of these questions farming is not for you. You will not be rich, and if you have livestock you will not be able to take off and ditch your job, even for a night. Understand how tied to your land and animals you will become, and if that’s a deal breaker, walk away. We used to love camping, back country adventures, & multi-day backpacking trips. Now we enjoy the occasional day hike and a night in our tent down in the back pasture. Dogs can go to a kennel while you vacay. Chickens, goats, sheep, horses, llamas, donkeys and pigs can’t.
- #8. Really understand that farming is hard Sure it is, you’ve heard it a million times before. Unfortunately, you really don’t understand HOW hard it is until you’re in it. You will work all day, every day ( there are no weekends). You will struggle to pay the bills. You will collapse into bed every night and toss and turn thinking about what didn’t go right today and what needs to be done tomorrow. You will do what needs to be done no matter how sick, hungover or exhausted you feel, no matter how bad the black flies are, no matter how crappy the weather. You will realize that the glamour and romance associated with the small farm are bullshit nostalgic sentiments created by people who’ve never mucked a stall or watched a sick animal die. But at the end of the day, if you’ve survived all that and you still love what you’re doing you’ll know you’ve made the best decision of your life. If farming was easy everyone would do it. Before you take it on be very aware that there’s a good reason everyone doesn’t.