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!
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.
Do 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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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!