An acquaintance of mine emailed me recently asking how I can afford a farm, and how can you know what to do to be profitable? Those are two totally separate and totally loaded questions, so I am going to answer the first here, and the second one in a separate post.
Lots of people are drawn to the homesteading and farming lifestyle. Now more than ever people are drawn to quality food, local products, and a more sustainable existence. Getting started though can feel like trying to scale a mountain.
I thought about her question a long time before I could really come up with an answer. If you’ve been following along with my story then you already know about my financial struggles and the difficulty I’ve faced this year in starting over. My divorce and the harsh 2014-2015 winter effectively put Runamuk back to square one. I’ve scratched and clawed my way along from the very beginning, when Runamuk was just an idea to help pay for my sudden beekeeping obsession. I wasn’t sure I was qualified to answer the question!
I’m still not sure I’m the right person to answer that, but it’s a good question and I believe that the public should know the difficulties that farmers face to produce the food and products that consumers want. It’s a great lifestyle, and a valued service that people seem to appreciate and respect, but when it comes to their wallets there seems to be a disconnect from that appreciation. I see it frequently at the farmers’ market.
How do you afford a farm & running one?
Technically─I can’t afford it. There’s the bald truth of the matter. I’m behind on my bills, keeping up only by paying the minimum amount due each month to keep the lights on for another month. I have payment arrangements to pay off past-due balances, I have no savings to speak of and every dollar matters. But I make do because this is what I want with every fiber of my being─I want nothing more out of life than to farm, keep bees, and be close to nature.
Off-farm work─to pay my living expenses I’ve taken off-farm employment. This supplemental income pays the electricity, half the rent (Runamuk is paying the other half), my cell phone, and until March of 2016, my Subaru payment. I’ve been fortunate to find seasonal jobs in the farming sector that allows me to work around the busy summer months to some degree, so that I can continue to farm even while working off the farm. Until Runamuk is generating more income…
Multiple revenue streams─Runamuk is a diversified farm. Not only do I sell farm-fresh eggs, honey (when I have it), and beeswax products at market and online, I write, assemble the BeeLine for the MSBA, host on-farm workshops, and teach local bee-schools. I do odd jobs occasionally; this summer I was paid to help another beekeeper split his hives, to remove a nest of yellow jackets from beneath a deck, and to look after my neighbor’s horses. The advertisements hosted by this website contribute a small amount too, and occasionally someone will purchase one of my eBooks. Every little bit helps keep the lights on, or purchase a bag of chicken feed, sugar for the bees, or baby chicks for next year’s laying stock.
Willingness to work─I get up at 4:30 most mornings so that I can have time to work on the computer before I have to leave the farm for my job at the orchard. I’ll work on the BeeLine or a blog-post, send out emails on behalf of the farmers’ market or the Somerset Beekeepers, post photos to facebook or instagram as part of my on-going marketing campaign for Runamuk─and I’ll do that until about 7 or so when it’s time to get ready for the orchard. When I get home from work, usually around 3 or 4, I have a quick cup of green tea for a caffeine boost before I tackle another project for Runamuk. The day ends around 7, when I crash on the couch to watch a bit of Netflix before I go to bed (aka─falling asleep on the couch and then getting up and going to bed 45 minutes later, lol).
Last Saturday’s trip to Rangeley was the first day off I’ve taken since March. I’m happiest when I’m knee deep in mud, grimy with sweat and dirt, and sore from a long day’s hard work. And I think that’s probably a common trait in farmers; we’re willing to work long hours and days on end without sight of a day off just to be able to live this life and do the work that we enjoy.
Make sacrifices─I’ve given my time and money to make Runamuk possible, and I’ve also sacrificed myself at times. That means I’ve given up my free time, time with my family, friends, and any possible time for vacations. I wear my clothes threadbare to stave off having to buy anything until absolutely necessary, and then it’s usually from the thrift store (I’ve been wearing the same carhartt sweatshirt and vest for the last 6 years, and currently the hiking boots I wear everyday are coming apart). And I’ll gladly give up a bottle of wine to be able to pay for fish emulsion for the garden, or a new cat for the farm.
Sometimes I have to sacrifice my own perceptions of what I want something to look like─let go my OCD and accept that this is the very best I can do at this point given the finances and time constraints I’m currently facing. Sometimes that’s harder to do than giving up the bottle of wine on Friday night.
Resourcefulness─I credit my perpetual creativity for the heightened level of resourcefulness that I currently possess. I can make just about anything out of saplings, twine and duct tape. I can look at just about anything and my mind will be working on all the possible ways I can use the object on the farm. I am a shameless hoarder of miscellaneous and cast-off items; anything that might save a dollar and might help me to advance Runamuk.
Asking─When I was young I remember being afraid to ask questions in class, afraid to ask for help or to speak up when something seemed wrong. Somewhere along the line I got over that fear, and learning to ask the questions has become one of my greatest strengths. I’ve learned to ask questions to learn more about my interests and to pick up needed skills. I’ve learned to ask for help─and not just from family and friends, but also to the extent that I will put it out to the local community via social networks, through word of mouth, even posting to Craigslist or the Uncle Henry’s if needed.
I live by the old adage: “You’ll never know if you don’t ask.” That’s how I came by Jim Murphy’s farm and how I secured an affordable lease. I asked for it.
Help/support─It’s still difficult for me to ask for help, but sometimes there’s no way around it. Some jobs require an extra set of hands. Sometimes you need someone to lean on. And I’ve had plenty of friends and family who have helped me along my way, and lots of support and encouragement across the community.
In my former life, my spouse’s income supported much of Runamuk and my farming-addiction. Now I am having to make my own way and the journey seems just a bit more raw and real…
Patience─this isn’t something you can do or create overnight. With farming especially, it takes years to build up your business and become a truly productive and self-sustaining entity. I am nowhere near being self-sustaining, it’s been a slow and difficult start for me, with set backs and obstacles to be overcome along the way. Since I became a mother (my first baby is 12 now…sigh) I’ve moved along this path toward independence and sustainability, beginning with gardening and baking, then moving onto homeschooling, avoiding consumerism, chemicals and processed foods, GMOs, and finally I stumbled into beekeeping and farming for financial independence. It was a natural progression for me that’s taken 12 years and I still feel like the majority of the adventure is ahead of me.
It’s one of those things that you really have to stick to in order for it to add up and pay off. You can’t just try it for a year or two and decide that it’s too expensive and far too labor-intensive, and give it up as a lost cause. For one thing, in farming the majority of the expense is up front in the establishment of infrastructure. The majority of your mistakes are going to be made up front, and then as you get established, gain some experience, it will begin to pay off.
Unless of course you happen to come from a family of farmers and are lucky enough to be able to follow in the footsteps of your predecessors. In that situation the infrastructure is already in place, and you have someone training you and guiding you, teaching you about the animals and the plants and the processes involved in producing whatever it is that your farm produces. Then it becomes a very different sort of journey, and that is not a story that I can tell, lol!
Every farmers’ story is different, but this is how I’m doing it. It’s not pretty, and it may not be for everyone. Nevertheless, I’m working toward the end goal of being able to work on-farm full-time and toward seeing Runamuk become what I have envisioned for it. That’s what keeps me going in spite of the hardships and the obstacles. And that’s what gives me the patience and the strength to continue doing it.
Feel free to leave a comment if you have something to contribute to help answer this person’s question: How do you afford a farm and running one?
Go to “How do you know what to do to be a profitable farm?” to read the second half of my response to these questions.