Gardener to farmer planning?
September 6, 2010 11:45 PM   Subscribe

Sometime home gardener wants to sew seeds of becoming a farmer, well at least to family and friends. Looking for recommendations of good reads and thoughts you might have if you have made this journey yourself? Have always has some minor involvement in gardening since childhood, but very hobbyish. Now, think it is tie to at least begin to develop the skill set to move to a different level.
posted by dougiedd to Home & Garden (13 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
There are many blogs by people who are doing this and much good information about the various ways they have gone about the transitions, what their mistakes have been as well as successes. These are worth bookmarking and culling down to the few that most closely match your situation and goals. Follow them for a while or read back in their archives for a few years.

Uniformly they tell of very hard work and much trial and error as well as incredible determination and long range planning. The most successful have "day jobs" that fund them through the transition and for long afterward. Few live off the land completely and even to attempt that nowadays, especially for a sometime gardener who is the greenest novice at farming is probably a recipe for disaster.

It's a lot like setting out to make a living playing poker. I've often heard farmers muse that "a rain right now would be worth x thousand dollars" and they were not speaking idly. Sometimes that rain did not come. I lived on a farm and raised my children there. It is not a life for the faint of heart but as long as you don't depend on it to make a living, the rhythm of the seasons, the solitude and the quiet rewards are hard to beat for making a good life.
posted by Anitanola at 12:55 AM on September 7, 2010

If you want to investigate a theory and method of gardening/farming that is expansive and 'modern', check out permaculture, especially permaculture for your region.
posted by Kerasia at 1:02 AM on September 7, 2010

Seed Savers might be a good place to look at for heirloom stuff and forums for advice.

Do a search for 'companion planting vegetables' or somesuch to get an idea of what plants not to put near each other.
posted by Heretical at 1:21 AM on September 7, 2010

On the permaculture front (which I wouldn't call expensive) Bill Mollison is more than a little bit of a guru.
posted by Ahab at 2:06 AM on September 7, 2010

You ought to work with or for someone else first, and you ought to get some education. Try the University of Hawai‘i - College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resource for good local advice. There are classes you can take and groups you can join.

[Word tip: to remember whether to use sow or sew -- a farmer might sow seeds and have sows (pigs). The other kind of sewing is what you do with a needle and thread.]
posted by pracowity at 2:49 AM on September 7, 2010

I'm not sure if your aspirations extend to animal husbandry, or if you're more interested in "simply" growing plants, but Joel Salatin's You Can Farm (or, really, any of his books) is engaging and informative, and he certainly has the credentials to back up his words.
posted by Alt F4 at 3:22 AM on September 7, 2010

A related question came up a year ago, and I gave my list of inspirational reading here.

Is there somewhere near you where you can volunteer your time and learn a few new skills? Seconding pracowity's advice to consult your local ag extension.

Can you say more about what you envision yourself doing, and what your interests are?
posted by MonkeyToes at 4:21 AM on September 7, 2010

Seconding Joel Salatin's books.

My wife swears by Elliot Coleman's books, too.
posted by gauche at 5:13 AM on September 7, 2010

Seconding the idea of finding a farmer to work for, if possible. And if you can't find a farmer who's hiring, consider asking yourself why not.

There's the old story of the farmer who won the lottery. "Farmer Brown," they asked him, "what are you going to do with your million dollars?"

"Oh," said Farmer Brown, "I guess keep farming until it's all gone."
posted by musofire at 5:50 AM on September 7, 2010

The difference between gardening and farming is like the difference between cooking dinner and running a restaurant. Scale makes a huge difference, and that's not a lesson you want to learn when you're sitting there with 500# of potatoes.
Is there a CSA in your area? Many are more than happy to accept interns to help you get a feel for the life and pick up some knowledge on how to run a profitable full-scale farm.
That said, I found John Jeavon's "How to Grow More Vegetables" to be chock-full of information, including entire sections of charts of yield and caloric value for different veggies, and seasonal plans for specific acerages.
posted by Gilbert at 6:55 AM on September 7, 2010

Doing exactly this has been my primary focus for 2010. I've documented most of it on my farm's blog, which you can find in my profile.

Two years ago someone recommended a book here on Ask Mefi. That book was The Self Sufficient Life and How to Live It by John Seymour. On a whim I picked it up at a bookstore, and from that point on my life changed dramatically. My priorities went from having a fact paced career to having a free and simple slow life. I started reading any book I could get my hands on about farms, animals, plants, and forgotten arts and crafts, and subscribing to tons and farming and crafting blogs. In June 09 my mom and I visited Juniper Fiber Farm in NY where we learned how to dye yarn, and more importantly for me I got a real taste test of what it's like to run a fiber farm. From that point on I knew I wanted to have a farm with sheep, and I got into fiber arts heavily. I expected to keep book-learning for a year or so (not much else you can do in a city apartment), learning how to spin yarn and process a raw fleece from a local Shetland sheep raiser, but the stars lined up and I found a wonderful 70-acre property an hour outside of Ottawa. Thanks to my faced-paced career I was approved for a mortgage, and in February 10 we moved in to what is now known as the Happy Panda Rainbow Farm.

A crazy farm name for us crazy young folk!

We've been spending this year learning all sorts of new things about farming and the country lifestyle. I am so very glad we chose this instead of rushing in to things, we have learned oodles and oodles of various things and if we had gone with our initial thoughts we would have made some larger mistakes. So I strongly recommend taking time and making it a transition instead of a full on jump in, that way you can learn more about what things you like and what you don't, and also learn about what things you forgot or what things are needed even if you don't think they are.

Having a business plan is so important. It doesn't have to be a crazy 10 year uber plan, it just needs to be a list of what your goals are and what the steps are in accomplishing those, otherwise it's easy to get caught up in the fun of it and lose focus on how to take those next steps. Plus then it's easy to find an appropriate task for when you have 10 eager friends over. Doing things like market research are also important, less so when selling to friends but moreso when you start to branch out. Also, treating it as a business means you pay more attention to laws and regulations which affect you.

I am not a certified organic farm, I don't believe in those labels and others like 'free-range' etc. However I do use the principles of organic and free range farming - feed the soil and you'll have great plants, make your animals as happy as possible and they will return the favour by being stress free and thus less of a burden on you.

Working on my farm has opened my eyes to the circle of life and has made me aware of how interconnected everything is, and how drastically non-circular (wasteful) city life is. I was already out-of-love with modern city life but living out here in the country has really solidified my opinions. Now when I go back into the city I feel a bit like a stranger, impressed at things like consistent water pressure and soft water, turned off by the constant noises and irritating things compared to the absolute solidity on my land. I didn't really expect the change to be so large, but indeed I am a different person now than I was a year ago.

I will note here that I am nowhere close to profitability yet. A lot of that has to do with coming into this lifestyle with very few dollars to spend, and some of it comes from not having a tangible business plan. If I could do it again, I would save up a ton of money before coming out here, enough to buy a nice garden ATV if not a small small tractor, and have more concrete goals before starting out. You need to spend money to make money out here. That said, we spent very little money and we produced probably 150lbs of produce as well as raising turkeys (7), ducks (2 then 10), sheep (16), and a few chickens. But not having a lot of money means I can't send my fleeces off to a yarn mill to be processed, so I am slower in selling my final yarns since I do it all myself. Still, this slow year has let us figure out a lot of things that we'd never really think of. Such as the fact that raising chickens (or bantam ones at least) is surprisingly hard compared to turkeys and ducks, and that we have no real pests in our garden so we can expand our gardens without having them fenced in. And we haven't even hit winter yet! That will be a big learning experience.

Phew, a lot of words! To summarize: learn as much as you can through books and blogs and various agriculture initiatives put on by your local government. Or better yet, find a WWOOF farm around you (or any farm that'll let you work and learn) and learn by doing. Or just learn by doing yourself, as I did, but have some kind of job so that you can still provide for yourself and invest more money into your farm while figuring out what market you will target and getting that ball rolling. More than anything though, be prepared for a life changing experience. And take lots of pictures along the way, and share your learned knowledge right back to the community via a blog or whatnot, so that the next person in your shoes has it just a little easier :)
posted by Meagan at 7:19 AM on September 7, 2010 [3 favorites]

Rent land. Seriously, you can lease a farm!

On the assumption that you're interested in farming as a business rather than a really, really, really incredibly big garden:

Last year was our first year growing commercially. We failed miserably at vegetable production and met with some success at poultry production. Not counting the $7500 I spent on processing equipment (amortizable!) and not paying for labor (us) we turned or very nearly turned a small profit on 150 broilers. Or at least broke even. I'm pretty pleased about this. Plus, we sold our first run this year entirely to returning customers and referrals by customers. This year we will/are/have grown 250-300 chickens, 40 turkeys, and a small number of lambs and goats. Oh, also a small flock of laying hens/ducks. We *might* break even this year but equipment costs have been substantial, if long term, investments.

Best of all, we're building our reputation for quality product and making connections with local farmers as well as food activists and enthusiasts. We know our extension agents, our inspectors, and are involved in our local co-op.

More than books, I recommend attending conferences for small farmers. Librarina and I attended the Washington Tilth Producers conference when we were considering this crazy lifestyle. We were introduced to the wacky world of regulations, marketing, record-keeping (you do want to know what worked well and what you made a profit on, right?), and business plans. Best of all, you get to meet other farmers and learn what they've had success at and how they might solve your particular problem.

See if your extension sponsors farm walks. Every month or two I visit another farm or fars and have that grower/s present on their methods and their successes and failures. It's pure practical knowledge.

Growing for Market is one of my favorite publications. Most issues answer at least one question I didn't know I had. Their bookstore is a pretty amazing collection as well. There is nothing there I wouldn't recommend (Except for the herbalist one. But I bet it's a great book on herbalism!).
posted by stet at 5:18 PM on September 7, 2010

I cannot recommend the writing of Gene Logsdon enough. I would start with The Contrary Farmer first, and one of his later books All Flesh is Grass after that.

He has a blog of sorts too and has a new book out called Holy Shit: Managing Manure to Save Mankind.

He's a delightful, funny, very well traveled guy with heart who has real rural chops. He was instrumental in our decision to purchase a small farm.
posted by werkzeuger at 12:25 PM on September 8, 2010

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