These days nothing is more enticing than the concept of living a life sustained by the land and nature. Folks from all walks are turning away from the mainstream and it’s commercialized lifestyle. For some it is a mission to provide a healthy atmosphere for raising their family; for others a desire to live more lightly upon the Earth–to protect nature. Some want to provide good food for their family. A select few are called to provide quality food for their local communities. Here at Runamuk we come to farming for all of these reasons.
However knowing just where to start can be overwhelming for new homesteaders and farmers. We want to do it all! Everything is so new and exciting–it can be difficult to narrow down our list of goals and aspirations–to know where to funnel our resources–our time and money. While we’ve been homesteading for over a decade, and “micro-farming” for the last 4 years, gearing up to expand our business to a full-fledged farm is a big deal! We want Runamuk to be a success–a keystone piece of our local Anson-Madison community; and most of all–something that will be here to support our family for generations to come. In order to make that happen we need to define a clear plan that will guide us forward.
But how do you prioritize one project over another? What factors should you take into consideration when embarking on the homesteading or farming journey? What sorts of problems and challenges might you face along the way that may threaten to derail your plans? To find the answers to these questions I’ve scoured the internet, and even contacted a number of other homesteaders and farmers to gain insight from those who have already experienced what it is to establish a new farm. This is the first in a series of posts regarding establishing a new farm.
Note: All farms are homesteads, but not all homesteads are farms. The major difference between them is that homesteading typically serves the family, while farming is, in fact, a business, and as such seeks to earn a profit (or at least to be able to continue farming!) while serving the community where the farm resides–and sometimes even beyond.
Where to start and how to prioritize
When you’re standing on the precipice, as we are now, and looking out across the horizon at the journey ahead of you, with a path that offers any number of twists and turns and forks in the road–a journey that can take you in any direction you choose–it can be difficult to pick which avenue to start down first. I’ve found 3 key planning components that will help new homesteaders and farmers figure it out.
Take time to reflect on what exactly it is that you want to do. What are your passions, and what is it you want to do with that passion? Identify your strengths and weaknesses–work with your strengths to formulate your plan.
Research other farms in your area to determine what other farmers are doing, what is the market saturated with and where are the gaps that offer opportunity? Assess your land to define what opportunities it affords you–do you have soil good for growing vegetables? is it perhaps better suited to raising livestock? or maybe neither.
What opportunities are there for you to market your product? Do you have nearby farmers’ markets? Are you on a heavily traveled route where a roadside stand might do well? Can you sell your products online?
Brainstorm and list all of these aspects in whichever way suits you–personally I like to begin with a mind-map–jotting down major components and then link related ideas. Mind mapping allows my creative side to flow and allows me to generate ideas and concepts. They don’t have to be good ideas, they may not even be fully formed thoughts–the important thing is to get them all down–you can go back and flesh them out later.
Consider your available resources, this will play a big role in determining what you can do and where farming can take you.
Your land comes into play again, how much acreage you have and what it is best suited for. Do you have forests you can make use of? Do you have pasture for grazing livestock? What already exists there? a well? a barn? a house for you and your family to live?
What else do you have on hand? tools? a computer? camera? do you have a garden already?
How much money do you have to invest? This is the big one–no matter how much you already have on-hand, or how much you scavenge–you’re going to need some funds up front to get you started.
Now that you’ve got it all down on paper you can identify the strongest projects and those that you want to focus your attention on first. Remember you cannot do 5 things at once–not if you want to do them well.
Sort your projects by priority–some projects will need to be accomplished before you can begin on others. For example–you’d need to break sod on a patch of ground before you could begin growing vegetables; you’d want to build a shelter and erect fencing before you bring home livestock.
You can further organize your priorities by sorting them according to the season in which they need to be accomplished. Gardens need to be established in the spring or early summer, but you can put off building the root cellar until late summer or early fall.
Identify projects that are the least expensive to start up, often those will be the ones that offer the quickest return on your investment.
Make a plan
Once you’ve sorted your projects according to priority, it’s time to create a strategic farm plan. How are you going to accomplish the goals you’ve set for your farm for the next year? What are the potential pit-falls of your plans? Do you have a contingency plan in place?
Be sure to include marketing in your plans–once you’ve sheared those sheep what will you do with your wool? Will you process it yourself? Spin it into yarn, dye it with natural dyes and sell it online?
Consider all the possible avenues available to you for the distribution of your products. Who will purchase them once you’ve gotten them to market? How will you market them? How will you package it? What will your logo look like? A good logo is an effective calling card which you can use to further promote your business.
Work out the intricate details and include them in your plan so that your business can run as smoothly as possible as you work to establish your new farm.
Introducing the voices of experience
Along with my research for these “Establishing a New Farm” posts, I interviewed 3 different farmers to gain insight on how others have gone ahead to forge their own farms. Among other things, I asked each of these farmers what were their top 5 priorities in their first year of farming?
In 2012 Teri Page and her husband bought a 10-acre piece of raw land in northeast Missouri, and moved there with their 2 young children and 13 years homesteading experience under their belts. Teri says the desire to grow their own food and live in harmony with nature has driven their homesteading efforts. You can read more about their journey at Homestead-Honey.
1st year top 5 priorities:
- Building a house.
- Planting fruit trees.
- Creating garden space.
- Raising chickens and building a coop.
- Establishing a water catchment and purification system.
Black Fox Homestead
The Black Fox Homestead is located in rural Oklahoma, where Jennifer Cazzola and her husband have made their homestead. According to Jennifer–a love of real food led them to pursue the homesteading lifestyle.
1st year top 5 priorities:
- Build a home.
- Establish a market garden.
- Build a chicken coop and get chickens.
- Plant a windbreak.
- Put in a storm shelter.
At Snakeroot Farm in Pittsfield, Maine, Tom Roberts, along with his partner Lois Labbe, have been “gardening for the public since 1995”. They run a MOFGA certified organic farm which boasts 5 acres of gardens producing mixed vegetables, fruits, perennials and herbs, as well as a 450 tap maple sugarbush, 6 greenhouses producing seedling, and a CSA program. Tom’s work in the military during the Vietnam and Cold Wars compelled him to pursue a more righteous livelihood, he’s been an active proponent of local food in Maine ever since.
1st year top 5 priorities:
- Opening up enough ground (breaking sod) to grow all the veggies we’d want to for the next few years.
- Getting a greenhouse erected for seedling production and season extension.
- Securing a source of manure and leaves for making compost.
- Getting a manure spreader to spread the compost.
- Starting a farmers’ market in our town.
Unless you’re going to the bank for a business loan, you probably don’t need a formal business plan at this point, but some kind of organized plan can help direct you on your path to homesteading or farming success. I’ve created a bulletin board on one of the walls in our home where we’ve been posting images, to-do lists, and sticky notes regarding all of the different aspects of this year’s farm expansion. That may seem extreme, but having it all front and center helps keep me on track–and the success of this farm is too important to fumble.
I think it’s worth pointing out that breaking ground and establishing garden space was a top priority for each of my interviewees–and a survey conducted on facebook revealed that soil improvements were close behind for most homesteaders.
Check out part 2 in the Establishing a New Farm series–“Tool & Investments“.
Are you a homesteader or farmer? What were your top priorities when YOU started out–and why???