12 Tips for Wannabe-Farmers

rotational grazing sheep and chickens

Recently, I received a request for tips for wannabe-farmers. What advice might I have to offer those who are brand-new to agriculture and are just beginning their farm-journey? It came to me through Instagram, a brand-new farmer messaged to say that she’d recently made up her mind to farm. She told me that I’d inspired her (me!), and did I have any tips to offer a new farmer? If you’re in the same situation─new to farming and not sure where to start or which way to go─then keep reading, my friend, this post is for you!

tips for wannabe farmers
Rotational grazing of sheep and chickens at Runamuk Acres.

If you’ve been following along with the Runamuk blog, you’re likely aware that I’ve been calling out wannabe-farmers. Farming is the ultimate form of social and environmental activism we can offer, and the world needs us to stand and take action. Not only is the average age of farmers on the rise, but thanks to industrial agriculture, there are fewer of them, and fewer new farmers following in their footsteps. What’s more, studies by the Rodale Institute have shown that regenerative organic agricultural practices have the potential to allow us to actually reverse global warming. The world needs farmers. And it needs us now.

#12: Start Now!

When it comes to agriculture, there’s a lot to learn, and it really does take a lifetime. The sooner you start, the sooner you’ll achieve your goal. Theodore Roosevelt’s famous quote often runs through my head: “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.” There’s something you can be growing─right now─wherever you are. I’m sure of it.

Traditionally farms began as subsistence farms, feeding just the farm-family. It would take a number of years before the farm was established enough to feed it’s community. The USDA sites the average “middle-income” household spends $7,061 on food annually, and the “low-income” households are spending about $4, 070. So even if we’re only growing food for ourselves, we’re still saving ourselves a big chunk of money, and eating better as a result. I’m a firm believer that in order to save the world, we must first save ourselves. If you wannabe a farmer, start growing something today and feed your family first.

#11: Do Your Homework

It is entirely possible to be a farmer without a college degree. I did it, and so can you. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t study and learn all you can about agriculture, though. There’s so much to learn! Get your hands on as many books as you can and read them all. Take notes if that’s your thing (I still have bins and boxes filled with all of the composition journals filled with my scribbled notes from Runamuk’s early days). Go ahead and watch some YouTube, watch food documentaries, visit your local agricultural fairs and tour the exhibition halls to learn more about agriculture in your area. Take a Master Gardener course if your local cooperative extension offers one. Watch for other interesting workshops or events in your area where you might be able to learn new skills.

This is the time for planning your farm. This is the fun part. Brainstorm what your dream farm might be like. What are you passionate about growing? Are there particular types of livestock you’re interested in working with? What skills do you want to learn along the way? How might you market your products? Where will your farm live? Give your farm a name (oooooo─so exciting!). Don’t worry yet if you do not own land to farm upon─that is not the end of the road─merely an obstacle to be worked around in time.

how to get started farmingDo a SWOT analysis for yourself; I wrote about Conducting a SWOT Analysis of Your Farm and have provided an example with a SWOT Analysis of Runamuk. Naturally, these are farm-analyses, but you should do one for YOU. What are your personal Strengths and Weaknesses, and what do you see as potential Opportunities and Threats to your ambitions?

Remember, there are no wrong or stupid answers in brainstorming. Once you have all of these notes down on paper, it will be easier to see where your real passions and interests, strengths and opportunities lie. You can then make a rough plan for your future farm. I strongly recommend a good 5 year plan. Set goals for yourself and your farm; where would you like to be in 5 years? Don’t be afraid to reach, but also try to be reasonable with yourself─this is going to take a lot of work. Save all of your notes and plans for your records. Refer back to them annually to review your progress, and make adjustments to the plan as necessary.

#10:  Practice Your Social Skills

A great many─many─introverts are called to farming. I know, cause I am one of them. Entire farmers’ markets are made up of introverts, trust me! But I’ve practiced and practiced my social skills, and these other vendors have too; I’ve learned to be friendly and open with the people around me, and it has gotten easier over the years. Sometimes noisy or crowded situations can still be overwhelming. I’m still awkward, I’m sure, perpetually weird and overenthusiastic at times, but I’ve learned that I am not alone in my social awkwardness, and a friendly smile is a great ice breaker.

#9:  Get Involved.

how to be a farmer
I participated in a farmer talent show with friends in service of my local farmers’ market! That’s me in the red sweater!

Volunteering your time and energy is a great way for new farmers to gain experience, build a reputation in the community, and network with other people. Most any non-profit organization or local farm will eagerly accept volunteers. Be committed to your cause, work hard, and be reliable. This helps you build trust with your community, and grows your reputation in a positive way. You’ll get to know the people around you, and they will get to know you and your ambitions of farming. Sometimes these relationships can lead to exciting opportunities for the beginning farmer. The people in your community can also be useful resources that you might be able to turn to when you have a question or need some help. Get involved in your community, and develop and nurture these relationships through volunteer work.

#8:  Treat it Like a Business

Treat your farm like a business, because it is one. I always tell new farmers to file a “Schedule F” with their taxes as soon as they are grossing $500 annually from farm-sales. This is the IRS form that documents farm income to the government, and once you have a record of this income, you are officially considered to be farming on some level. This is what financial institutions are looking for when you apply for loans as a farmer, so this is an important document to have. And if you can show an increase in your net farm-income each year, that proves to the powers-that-be that your business is indeed growing.

You’ll also want to have an up-to-date resume, and a formal business plan (mine was a whopping 33 pages when I started! Before I could submit it to the FSA I had to condense it to 12). Your local business development center can help you with that.

If you don’t know already, learn how to use spreadsheets and actually use them to track your farm’s income and expenses. These annual cash-flow records are invaluable tools with potential investors and financial institutions. Always keep your receipts! Also keep production records: how many seeds sown and the yield they produced, crop rotations, fertilizing and pest treatments, etc.

#7:  Be Prepared to Make Sacrifices.

Imagine the pioneers who went West looking for a new life in a new land…they gave up the security and safety available in the East and traversed over 2,000 miles to reach their destination. Along the way they lost treasured possessions, family members─they sometimes arrived with little more than the clothes on their back after their long and perilous journey. Along your farm-journey, you may also have to give up security and safety, or forsake customary extravagances and conveniences. How far are you willing to go to achieve your goals?

tips for new farmers
To avoid the payment on a pick-up truck, I make-do with my Subaru. The seats fold forward, allowing me to haul a small load, or even livestock, if need be.

To be able to do the work of farming, you will likely need to make sacrifices somewhere along the way. You might decide to give up your newer model vehicle for a second-hand beater with no monthly payments. If you’re not already, you may consider buying yours and your family’s clothing at local thrift stores. Giving up cable or satellite TV services will usually save you in the neighborhood of $100 a month; likewise with expensive cell-phones. Maybe you’ll stop eating out, or give up extracurricular activities. Or, instead of buying that new living room set with your tax return, you could use that money to buy a tiller, or seeds and tools, etc. Runamuk has been funded over the years, in large part with my Earned Income Tax Credit. I’ve also lived in very poor conditions and suffered cold winters in poorly heated dwellings in order to free up money for my farming ambitions.

In the end, it’s all about priorities and how bad you really want it. As a new or beginning farmer, you’ll need those extra funds to invest in your business. You’ll need money to buy tools, seeds, livestock, fencing, permits, insurance─you name it. Unless you have some capital saved already, or are fortunate enough to have access to money, you’ll have to figure out how to make those investments. Be prepared to make sacrifices to make your farm-dream a reality.

#6:  Match the Land to it’s Suited Use.

Whether you’re leasing 1 acre for farming, borrowing space in your great-Aunt’s back-40, or you’re lucky enough to already own a small piece of Earth, you’ll want to match the land to it’s suited use. Do a SWOT analysis on the site.

  • Landscape: Is it all filled with brambles? or an open pasture with fairly good soil?
  • Water: Be it a pond, stream, or spigot, you’ll need access to water for pretty much any kind of farming you want to do.
  • Sun exposure: How much sun does the spot get daily and how does the changing of seasons affect that?
  • Weather conditions: Is the site open to driving winds? Will you experience winter snow and ice? Consider how different weather conditions might affect your farm-operation at that site.
  • Drainage: Is the site relatively dry all year? or does it get wet and mucky in the spring?
  • Existing infrastructure: Are there any existing structures or utilities (like access to water and electricity) that you will be able to make use of?
  • Soil conditions: Is it suitable for growing vegetables? or too rocky, and better instead for grazing livestock upon?
  • Plot size: How much space do you have to work with? Dictates how many carrots or sheep, etc. you can raise there.

All of these things will factor into what you can successfully grow at any given location.

#5:  Think Outside the Box.

tips for starting a farm
I’ve learned to build these alternative hoop-structures for everything from seedling houses to chicken coops. They allow me to do a lot without a big up-front investment. Just one example of this farmers’ creative resourcefulness.

It’s inevitable that you, the new farmer, will eventually meet with some kind of obstacle along your farming-journey. When this happens, do not despair. Instead, take this opportunity to get creative─think outside the box and come up with some kind of alternative work-around to your problem.

This is resiliency at it’s finest, my friends. There are so many ways to farm, so many ways to achieve the same end goal: farm ownership and serving your community as a farmer. Don’t let old-school concepts hold you back. Brainstorm ways around your problem─always remember there are no wrong answers in brainstorming! It’s merely a tool to generate ideas.

If you can’t come up with any ideas, research it to see what other people have done in your situation. Don’t be afraid to ask your peers and your community for input, either. You’ll be surprised by the number of people that want to see you succeed─they want you to be their farmer!

#4:  Watch for Opportunities.

tips for beginning to farm
At Hyl-Tun Farm in Starks, Maine, premium bee-forage abounds for miles around. The landowners invited me to site an apiary there because I was involved in my community, serving as president of the Somerset Beekeepers’ at the time.

Sometimes doors will open for you when you least expect it. In my own farm-journey, I’ve found that by always working hard, and by practicing kindness and gratitude, it fosters my relationships with neighbors and community-members. The relationships I’ve built through my volunteer work has led to many interesting opportunities for Runamuk: everything from donations of equipment and livestock, to access to land to farm upon.

That doesn’t mean you should say yes to every opportunity that presents itself─especially in the case of livestock. Only you know what is right for your farm-operation, and sometimes, even though they mean well, people are just trying to unload their own problem-animals. Try to make good business choices when opportunities present themselves.

#3: Practice Patience.

advice for beginning farmers
To gain experience, I found jobs within the local agricultural community, including North Star Orchards in Madison, ME. Here I am in one of their vast coolers!

Unless you have ready-access to farmland, or access to credit and capital to begin your farm with, it’s likely this is going to be a long-journey for you. There’s a lot to learn, and a lot to be overcome to achieve your goals.

Accept that there will most certainly be failures. There will be bad days. Hard days. Days when you’re sick or sore─or both─and you’ll begin questioning yourself and why you even started this journey in the first place.

You’ll wonder if you’ll ever reach your destination. Be patient with yourself and with the journey. Remember it’s not about the destination. You’re already farming. You ARE a farmer.

#2:  “Don’t Overwork Yourself” (advice from the farmers’ son)

As I sat at the dinner table with my 12 yo son, BraeTek, I pondered what tips for wannabe-farmers I might have. It was a rainy September evening and we were eating one of BraeTek’s favorites: seafood chowder. I’d made it from scratch, with a variety of canned seafood, and my own potatoes, carrots, and onions, in a rich creamy broth. To go with it we had slathered in butter this artisan bread by Julia, from Crumb Again Bakery in Kingfield, which I’d traded vegetables for at farmers’ market last Friday. It was a wonderful meal to share at the table with my son, catch up on his school day, and just connect over good food.

Admittedly, I take great pride in the fact that my kids have been raised largely on my own homegrown and homemade food. After all, it was the desire to supplement our household food budget, as well as to provide fresh and organic food for my family, that steered me down this path in the first place. My 2 sons have been with me through every phase of my farm-journey, and they’ve seen first hand how hard I’ve worked.

Between the slurping of soup, I thoughtfully asked BraeTek, “If you were going to offer tips for new farmers, what would you tell them?”

At first he gave me the typical teenage-scoff, but I laughed that off and pressed him to give the question some thought. The answer he came back with was actually very good; BraeTek’s tip for wannabe farmers is:

Don’t overwork yourself.

He says, sometimes I complain at the end of the day that I am sore or exhausted from working on the farm all day. And he’s absolutely right, you know…as farmers, it’s important to remember not to overdo it. The farming-journey is a marathon, not a sprint. We need to make sure we’re taking time for ourselves, and saving enough of ourselves for our families too. It’s also important to ensure down time in order to avoid burn-out. What a smart kid!

#1: Don’t EVER Give Up.

runamuk acres conservation farm
I am living proof that dream do come true. Check out my farmhouse! If I can do it, you can do it too!!!

This is my number one tip for the wannabe-farmer. If you really and truly want this─if you have no reservations and you know, deep in your heart that you are called to farming, called to serve your community and your planet as farmer─then don’t you ever, ever give up. You will get there.

The path of each farmer will different from the next. It took very nearly 10 years to achieve my own goal of farm-ownership, but perhaps you will have yours and be underway within 3 months or 3 years. Even if it takes you 13 years! in the end, I promise you─so long as you don’t quit─you will eventually find yourself where you are meant to be, doing what you are meant to be doing. Farming.

Join the Revolution: Be the Change

me on the farm
Loving life on my new farm!

The USDA and the FSA consider a beginning farmer to be one in his or her first 10 years of their agricultural careers (but if you don’t have supporting documentation it doesn’t count!). Yours truly is officially graduating this year, from “beginning farmer” to “farmer”, and while I would not claim to be any kind of expert, I offer up these tips for wannabe-farmers from my own experience. My hope is that I can help other new and beginning farmers to have the courage to start down the path of their own farm-journeys.

The time has come for We the People to stand and take action. We can’t wait for our governments to make changes for us─we’ve waited more than 50 years already for environmental action. No, the time has come for We the People to stand up and be the change we want to see in the world. We have that power in our very own hands─we can be farmers, and we can farm using regenerative practices. We can save our children, affect climate change, and improve society─literally at the ground level. Join the revolution today. Be a farmer.

Thanks for following along with the story of this female farmer! Be sure to subscribe to receive the latest from Runamuk directly to your inbox! OR follow @RunamukAcres on Instagram for a glimpse at life on this bee-friendly Maine farm!

12 tips for wannabe-farmers

The Organic No-Till Farming Revolution; Review & Giveaway

The Organic No-Till Farming Revolution is an eye-opener for the gardener, farmer, or homesteader, who seeks to cultivate soil health wherever they grow. Andrew Mefferd was most obliging to send me a copy of his latest book for review and giveaway. It is my privilege to be able to offer you the chance to win a copy for yourself.

What is No-Till?

No-till is exactly what it sounds like: reducing or avoiding tillage in the garden or crop field. No-till is is about climate change, soil health, and farm profitability─it’s a way to improve all three at the same time. In the introduction of “The Organic No-Till Farming Revolution”, Mefferd states:

Ultimately, no till is about the soil, and how improving soil health can also improve atmospheric health and farm bottom lines. Any one of these issues by itself is compelling enough to make us want to try no-till. The fact that no-till makes the connection between all three issues is what makes it so timely.

For example, if you only cared about farm profitability, and didn’t care about the soil or atmospheric health, no-till would still be worthwhile for improving farm efficiency and profitability. Growers who are happy with what they are earning, but want to grow in a more ecological method, will also be interested in no-till.

Avoiding tillage preserves soil structure and protects the soil by leaving crop residues on the soil surface. The improved structure and soil cover increase soil’s ability to absorb and infiltrate water, which in turn reduces soil erosion and run-off, and prevents pollution from entering nearby water sources. This creates an ideal environment for microbial life.

In “Cultivating Soil Health“, the first article in this series on soil, we discussed how plants use sunlight to convert carbon and water into carbohydrates. They use the carbohydrates to grow their roots, stems, leaves and seeds, and then exchange surplus carbohydrates for minerals and nutrients mined from the soil by the microbial life-forms. Carbon is the fuel source driving these interactions. By bolstering soil-life we’re effectively promoting the health of the crops we plant there, which means we can grow bigger (and more nutritious) vegetables and fruits, and we’ll have healthier, more disease-resistant crops.

No-till even lowers the barriers to beginning farmers, making it possible to start a farm without a tractor or even a rototiller. Runamuk is living proof of that. I don’t own a tiller and after buying Runamuk’s forever-farm I could not afford to pay someone to till a plot for our garden here. Yet through a combination of rotational grazing, occultation, and cover-cropping, I’ve managed to establish a fairly sexy 60ft x 100ft plot. If I can do it, anyone can.

Who is Andrew Mefferd?

Click image to purchase with Amazon.

Andrew Mefferd is a Maine farmer who spent 7 years in the research department at Johnny’s Selected Seeds. As part of his job there, he traveled around the world to consult with researchers and farmers about the best practices for greenhouse growing. From Johnny’s, Meffered moved on to become the editor and publisher of Growing for Market magazine. His first book was: “The Greenhouse and Hoophouse Grower’s Handbook“. Now he’s published a second book, entitled: “The Organic No-Till Farming Revolution; High Production Methods for Small-Scale Farmers”.

About the Book

Mefferd has written this book in a laid-back conversational tone, much like the way I write my blog-posts and articles. You feel as though you’re having a conversation with a friend or colleague, or sitting in on a presentation at an ag-conference. In the first part of the book, Mefferd has explained what no-till is, and all of the benefits and disadvantages associated with this method of growing. The second part of the book consists of the case-studies of 17 different farms who are using varying no-till techniques. It’s organized into chapters according to methodology: mulch grown in place, cardboard mulch, deep straw mulch, and compost mulch. Mefferd also highlights the use of plastic for occultation and solarization.

My Opinion

I really appreciate the way Andrew Mefferd has done the leg-work of visiting these farms to interview the farmers about their methods. In my own farming-journey, I’ve often found that learning from other farmers is a very powerful resource. Talking and discussing ideas with other farmers helps me improve my techniques or learn new skills. Sometimes, bouncing ideas off a peer helps me to muster the courage to try something new, or to take on a more intimidating project. While this book is not a step-by-step how-to manual, I do feel it’s worthy of a place on your shelf. What’s more, I feel this book should be shared with as many people as possible in order to spread the word about no-till farming and regenerative agriculture.

The Climate Solution

Regenerative agriculture has the potential to not only mitigate, but actually reverse global warming. At the same time, it provides solutions to other burning issues, such as poverty, public health, environmental degradation, and global conflict.

Read that last paragraph one more time, if you would─and think about what that means….

Regenerative agriculture is THE answer to all of the really big and burning problems humanity currently faces.

regenerative agriculture_definitionScientists have come to recognize that healthy soil plays an essential role in drawing down and sequestering carbon. According to the Rodale Institute, adopting these widely available and inexpensive organic management practices (deemed “regenerative agriculture“) would allow us to sequester all of our annual global greenhouse gas emissions (roughly 52 gigatonnes of CO2). These practices work to maximize carbon fixation, while minimizing the loss of carbon once returned to the soil, reversing the greenhouse effect.

Rodale states that changing farming practices to organic, regenerative and agroecological systems can increase soil organic carbon stocks, decrease greenhouse gas emission, maintain, yields, improve water retention and plant uptake, improve farm profitability, and revitalize traditional farming communities, while ensuring biodiversity and resilience of ecosystem services. Rodale even goes so far as to say that regenerative organic agriculture is integral to the climate solution.

If you think this seems unlikely and impossible, Rodale has 3 decades worth of scientific data verifying these practices.

The Giveaway

Enter to win this copy of The Organic No-Till Farming Revolution! For 2 weeks, beginning Monday, July 22nd and ending at midnight on August 5th, I’m offering Runamuk followers the opportunity to win this book.

Regardless of where in the world you live, I am willing to send Mefferd’s book to you for FREE, because I want to share it with other growers. I want to inspire you, and the growers around you, to join the regenerative movement. No-till is an important tool in our arsenal of resources, and regenerative agriculture is how we ensure our children’s future on Earth.

Legally, participants must be at least 18, so if you’re younger, please recruit help from a parent or guardian to enroll. The winner will be drawn at random by Rafflecopter, who is hosting this giveaway for Runamuk, and announced on Wednesday, August 7th. No purchase necessary to play.
a Rafflecopter giveaway

Possibilities

Andrew Mefferd’s “The Organic No-Till Farming Revolution” introduces growers to the possibilities that no-till offers. It opens the door for new farmers, and advocates the sequestering of excess carbon to the soil beneath our feet as the solution to the climate crisis. Through regenerative agriculture we can avert global warming, improve our own existence, and preserve diversity on our planet for all creatures, great and small.

regenerative agriculture shifts the paradigmFarming can save us, folks. But not the kind of industrial farming we’ve been practicing these last 100 years. If we hope to leave our children any kind of legacy, we need farmers who are practicing these methods of regenerative agriculture. With only 2% of the population currently serving as “farmer”, we need lots and lots more people to step up and take on that crucial role. Read “The Organic No-Till Farming Revolution” and join the movement today.

 

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the organic no-till farming revolution_review and giveaway