Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Limiting Factors ...

Sometimes when I think about the farm I think about what I've done and what could have been done differently. Or more specifically, how I would do things differently if I started over again. All of those thoughts lead me to what I consider the limiting factors are for my farm ... not that they spell the end, but just that they are factors that limit my growth and that to succeed at a greater level I need to get past these factors. I also think they are good things for other beginning farmers like myself to consider. So ... here a four of my major limiting factors (as far as I see it) ::

Knowledge :: As has been discussed numerous times on this blog my farming background prior to starting consisted of weekends as a child at my dad's and uncle's where I was just there to tag along. This has meant that there has been a huge learning curve as I try to learn everything from books, questions, phone calls, and of course trial and error. Learning on the fly is wonderful in some ways because it causes you to really grasp something fully and think about the why's and how's of what you are actually doing. But, it can also mean that there are consequences for the lack of knowledge and there have been plenty of times that I've had to pay the consequences for not knowing enough in certain situations.

Time :: This is an interesting limiting factor and I think in some beginning farms it would be less of a factor than it is in my farm. With my desire to start a pasture based livestock farm and my lack of large amounts of cash (see the next two limiting factors below) I needed to continue working a full-time job in town to help pay the farm mortgage. Because my time is always limited the amount of time I have to spend on marketing or other things important to a direct marketing farm is much less than I would like, especially after taking time to do chores and other farm jobs. It also means that I have less time to do projects that would make the farm more efficient or help the farm grow more quickly. Time is one of the limiting factors that I butt my head up against the most it seems.

Land :: From the outset of my farm thoughts and adventure it was obvious to me that I wanted to have a pasture based livestock farm. That is just where my passions were and it is what got my juices really flowing. The thing about livestock though is that they take much more land than rows of carrots, beans, lettuce, and other garden fare. So, I ended up with 40 acres (even though that is very small in the livestock farm realm). At some point land becomes a limiting factor to my growth because even a great pasture has a limit to what it can carry. There is also the whole factor of the land payment (which also connects to the next limiting factor). With my still owned by the wonderful lending institutions I have to make payments and even on a relatively small 40 acre farm those are big enough payments. If I was farming this land and it was owned free and clear ... well, let's just say that I would have to be making a lot less money! One other factor with the land though that I know some will think about is the fact that there are other farmers out there doing stocker cattle or grassfed livestock on rented ground. I think that can be a very profitable venture and a great thing for a beginner ... if you have experience ... which I do not have.

Money :: Of course this is the obvious one, so I won't spend much time on it. But, if I had begun my farm with a decent amount of capital and I was able to pay for the farm or at least pay enough that the land payments weren't a huge factor then other things would fall into place. Or, if I was making more money in town that allowed me to hire work done (things like fence, water systems, electricity to my shed, structures, etc.) my time could be spent in other areas of growth. I'm not going to lament the money issue though. It is what it is and everyone has to deal with it in some way. I'm just saying it is one of those limiting factors that one should think about when they are diving in head first to a farm.

This is the end all list of limiting factors and points to consider when beginning a farm (or continuing a farm), but these four are the ones that pop up most in my mind as I drive around the Iowa country side and ponder the Crooked Gap. I would love to hear your thoughts on the subject and what some of your limiting factors are, and if I get really ambitious I'll try to share (it will take a while) what I would have done different if I knew what I know now.


Mike W. said...

Two of your limiting factors can be essentially eliminated if you lease land for grazing. See Greg Judy's book No Risk Ranching for some good advice on this.

God bless, Mike

agirlonafarm said...

I second that comment from Mike. Both of his books are great. He's actually going to be in Tecumsah, Nebraska in May doing a pasture walk which we hope to attend. I don't know how far you are away from Tecumsah, but I know it would be worth your time.

We also struggle with the same limiting factors. We have virtually no knowledge of intensively grazing cattle except what we've learned from books and the various experts that we have contact with. We are able to rent our 160 acres, which is a tremendous help. Otherwise I don't think we could be starting out as fast as we are. Farm land is just too expensive right now, especially with the price of corn.

Time is something that we are already starting to struggle with. With both of us working full time jobs, who's going to take take care of the house and cook? Who's going to make sure everything gets done? It's funny that you posted this today, because I just wrote a blog post about I'm lacking in motivation.

Yeoman said...

If you do lease land for grazing, and I do, you are of course not getting the investment of the land itself and you are still paying a lot out. There are real proponents of this approach, and I have been doing it now for a long time, but it does not, in my view, eliminate any of the factors you note, all of which are excellent points.

Over time, you end up spending quite a bit in lease payments. You are essentially paying for the land over time, but over all time. The reason that those of us who do it, do it, is that we can't afford to buy the land. Indeed, every leasing operation I know of ends up buying some land, when they can afford it.

Also, when you lease land, you are subject to loosing the lease. This year, in fact, we will pick up a lease because another rancher is loosing it. The owner of the land determined not to lease it to the other rancher as he felt that he grazed it down too much, and we do not. That works to our benefit, of course, but we could easily loose some leased land ourselves. Indeed, I see that happen all the time for all sort of reasons, often having nothing to do with the rancher.

On your points, as noted, I think they are all excellent. I have all those limiting factors myself, with time, money, and land being the really big ones in my case.

Ethan Book said...

I hear what you're saying about Greg Judy and the model that he's been able to use so successfully. I have not read the No Risk book, but I have read Comeback Farms and he writes about his experiences. For me the limiting factor in that system is knowledge ... I don't have the art of grazing down so I think that limits me. I also think the demand for rental land in Iowa is very high, which adds other issues. But, I do think that experience us a limiting factor when it comes to renting ground.

Yeoman said...

Land as a limiting factor is such an interesting topic, it could make for a pretty big book, actually, if it was complete. I was going to post an item on it over on my blog, rather than hijack yours, but as we're discussing it, I think I'll add just a bit.

The availability of land, more than any other single factor, is the determinative element in who can enter farming and make it in farming.

It's really an irony, in some ways. The cheap availability of land was really the single biggest factor in immigration to the US, and internal immigration within it. The land starved could get land here, have a place of their own, and be somewhat independent. Perhaps that cheapness also caused some of the cultural disdain that exist for farmers, and explains the American love/hate relationship with them.

Be that as it may, that day is really gone. At first you could hardly give a farm away. But by the 1950s the expansion in the grain belt, brought about by mechanization, was creating its own market. The playground set has now caused this in the rural west, and any time a decent sized agricultural unit for grazing is available, you have to compete with some over funded outsider who just wants to buy it for a remote backyard.

While it makes me sound like a Zapatista to say it, I really feel that the land should be owned by those who make a living from it. Along those lines, I feel that it's time for some sort of renewed homesteading program in this country. Something that would aid those wanting to get in, to get in, which would keep the ag land ag, and which would keep remote owners out. I don't see that happening, but I sure wish it would.

Anonymous said...

Excellent points, Ethan. I would add one more: energy. By that, I mean the personal energy it takes to work the 14-16 hour days... As I've worked a desk job for many years, working my little hobby farm on my days off drains me in short order.


Rich said...

No matter what you do everyone is going to have limiting factors of one kind or another.

Focusing on those limiting factors will rarely help you or your farm be more successful, because you usually can't change those limits anyway (or else they wouldn't be limiting factors now would they?).

Instead, you need to focus on the "unfair" advantages both you and your farm have. Any advantages (no matter how small or insignificant) you might have can usually be used to improve your farm and can also be multiplied to an even bigger advantage.

As an example, raising pigs gives you the advantage of being able to make more compost than I can. With a manure spreader and relatively flat ground, you can easily spread that compost over the majority of your pasture.

Even as your feed costs rise for the pigs, the fertility (NPK) in that feed also becomes more valuable, so you aren't actually paying as much for feed as originally thought if you factor in the value of the compost produced.

Once you are producing enough compost from your pigs, your pastures should be more productive and carry more cattle and sheep.

It could be more cost effective to increase the fertility and productivity of the land you own compared to leasing or buying more land.

Other advantages I see are that it looks relatively easy to run water lines and interior fences on your pasture.

On the subject of leasing land, I see many disadvantages, and actually losing the lease is a very big one (I doubt if it as easy to get a lease as the books claim and it can be pretty easy to lose the lease).

When you own land, you benefit for as long as you own the land from any improvements you provide. When you lease land, you are limited in how much you can improve the property because you never know when the lease will end.

Leasing land has its place, but I would hate to base my entire income and future entirely on the whims of a landowner.

On the subject of knowledge, most knowledge you need on the farm is going to come from first-hand experience (very few books tell the whole story or have all the answers). And, that first-hand experience is going to be expensive and painful at times, so you have to learn how to learn from your mistakes.

Philosopher's Mess said...

Love this blog and thread. My family are at the very beginnings of our homestead enterprise and so blogs like this are incredibly helpful.

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