Have you ever met a wealthy farmer? Ever seen a farmer driving a flashy new sports car? or any brand new vehicle for that matter? Not likely. People do not become farmers to get rich.
Most farmers are doing it because they love the lifestyle, or they’re passionate about what they’re doing. While you can earn a living doing what you love, typically money is tight for farmers–and this is the reason behind farmers’ tendency to be innovative and resourceful. Not because it’s fun or trendy–but because farming costs money! Animals need to be fed, fencing is expensive, equipment is expensive, and new projects require supplies to get started. Farmers need to stretch their budgets, and so many look for alternatives before they break down and head to Tractor Supply to purchase equipment.
What is Farming Innovation?
Farmers are amazingly resourceful. Innovations emerge out of the farmers’ experiences and wisdom based on his or her analysis of their own situation.
An innovation is an idea, a practice or object that is perceived as new by an individual or others in a given system. Regardless of the time period that the idea or practice was originally developed, when a person first becomes aware of it, it is an innovation to that person.
For example–all of the old ideas and concepts that are cycling back into popularity is innovation for a new generation.
Innovation is using something old in new ways, or applying something new to successfully produce a desired social or economical outcome.
Ingenuity, inventiveness, and creativity all go hand-in-hand with farming and homesteading.
To cope with today’s markets and economy, farmers are coming up with creative solutions to their problems, and they’re building farms that suit their needs and the needs of their community. Despite naysayers, small and sustainably-bent farmers are proving themselves in a world geared toward industrial agriculture, and paving the way for others to follow suit. And with the average age of the American farmer at 57–we desperately need to be encouraging the younger generations to follow this career path and lifestyle.
Creative farming at work:
Chicken tractors – these lightweight structures are moveable and can be dragged across the pasture, offering the birds a chance to free-range while still providing the shelter and protection of a coop. Many new farmers are utilizing chicken tractors because the method not only gives the chickens fresh forage in the form of grasses, weeds, and insects which broadens their diet and lowers their feed needs, but at the same time delivers soil propagation for the pasture through the pecking, scratching, and fertilization services the chicken provides.
Urban agriculture – people are beginning to realize that farming and homesteading can take place anywhere, on any scale. Urban farmers can be located in or around a village, town, or city, and their farms can involve anything from animal husbandry to aquaculture. Roof-top gardens and roof-top beehives are two examples of urban farming, but there are a variety of ways that farmers are gaining ground in America’s urban areas.
Rotational grazing – this is the process of moving livestock strategically from one paddock to another, allowing the vegetation in previously grazed pastures to regenerate. Using lightweight electric fencing, more and more farmers are opting to rotate their livestock to encourage even grazing patterns throughout a paddock, discouraging weed competition, and then allowing for resting periods between rotations to maintain the health of their pasture’s forage.
Season extension – anything that allows the crop to be grown beyond it’s typical cultivation season. This can include row covers, hoop-houses, cold-frames, mulches, and raised beds. These season extension methods (particularly cold-frames) have been utilized in Europe for ages, and were recently popularized by Eliot Coleman in his book, Four-Season Harvest. Innovative farmers are pairing tools like hoop-houses with cold-loving crops like brassicas and greens to offer their communities fresh produce later and earlier in the season.
Vertical gardening – a great method for urban gardeners who are working with a smaller space, vertical growing of crops allows vegetable to grow upwards, therefore leaving space in your garden for other crops. There are a number of benefits to vertical gardening, from easier pest control and harvesting, to reduced waste of produce that might have otherwise been hidden in the foliage of low-growing plants. Crops like tomatoes, peas, cucumbers, beans, gourds and melons all do well trellised.
Agritourism – a form of niche tourism that is considered a growth industry in many parts of the world, agritourism involves bringing visitors to the farm for some kind of agriculturally-related activity. The activities that fall under this category are wide-ranging, but a few of them include farm stays, corn mazes, pick-your-own operations, and any number of farming or homesteading workshops.
CSA programs – many new farmers are offering CSAs–otherwise known as Community Supported Agriculture–because they afford the farmer an influx of funds at a time of year when it is so desperately needed. Through these programs, individuals pledge to support the farm, subscribing prior to the growing season for a share of the anticipated harvest. Once harvesting begins the subscribers receive weekly shares of vegetables and fruit.
Voices of Experience
I asked my interviewees what some of the resourceful ways they’ve found to accomplish projects with little to no money, and Tom Roberts from Snakeroot Organic Farm in Pittsfield, Maine, came back with some examples of his own creative innovations:
- Recycling like a maniac: picking the dump, getting customers to bring us used pots, using old greenhouse plastic for some building roofs and sides, using short boards for shakes, straightening bent nails, recycling potting soil.
- Learning to use poles cut from our woods to erect building frames and farm tables.
- Becoming the town repository for fall leaves, instead of townsfolk taking them to the landfill.
- Learning html so I could build my own web pages from scratch.
As you can see from Tom’s description–recycling and repurposing are great ways to save money on your new farming venture. Think outside the box. Look for free materials wherever you can–the dump or local recycling center; often you can find free or inexpensive materials at yard sales or garage sales, or on Craigslist, Uncle Henry’s, Freecycle, etc.
The library is a great source of knowledge that can help you learn how to tackle new projects, you may find building plans, DIY guidance, and generate brainstorming toward your own innovative ideas. There are many, many books related to farming, homesteading, and sustainable living which will help you learn what you need to know.
Online farmers have an array of great resources. YouTube has videos for every topic under the sun. FarmHack is an open-source community for farmers who freely share their inventions and ideas; Pinterest, a visual database that allows users to collect and store photos, articles, videos, and more. Check out the Homestead Bloggers’ Network for advice and idea from farmers all over the world!
While there is a whole host of resources online and in books–don’t forget that innovation can come to you in real life too. Talk to other farmers and homesteaders, go to the farmers’ markets, join a local seed-savers’ group, participate in agriculture-related events (for example–here in Maine, MOFGA hosts their “Common Ground Fair” every September where farmers gather to sell their wares, and knowledgeable speakers and demonstration events teach the public more about organic farming and sustainable living).
Don’t forget that once you’ve built it and raised your livestock or produce crop–you still need to sell it, and to do that you need to market your farm and products. John Suscovich over at Farm Marketing Solutions is a good resource for learning more about how to go about that. And check out this YouTube video from Cornell Small Farms.
More examples of farming innovation
Financial Realities of Homesteading: Creative Employment – from Homestead-Honey.
How to Make a Pallet Barn – often wooden pallets can be found free or cheap, check out this article from the Free Range Life to see how they did it.
Forest Farming, Inoculating Mushroom Logs, and a Surprise – information about how to get started with forest farming and growing mushrooms.
DIY Sprouted Fodder for Livestock – article from Mother Earth News.
Do-It-Yourself Pole Barn Building – again from Mother Earth News.
Grower’s Guide – a great variety of resources from seed company, Johnny’s Seeds.
9 Garden Supplies You Can Get for Free – from the Free Range Life.
Create an Instant Garden with Sheet Mulching – another from Homestead Honey.
Become a Farm Innovator!
These are just a select few examples of some innovations resourceful farmers have come up with. Obviously, when it comes to farming creativity it is only your own imagination and resourcefulness that limits you. So explore new concepts in books or online, talk with other homesteaders and farmers to see what other people are doing, you may be able to adapt someone else’s concept to suit your own needs and purposes. Brainstorm and experiment! While you may never be a “wealthy farmer”–pinching pennies through innovation and resourcefulness goes a long way toward helping you earn living doing what you love most to do.
If you have tips, tricks, or suggestions for great farm innovations that you’d like to share–please leave a comment below!