Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Growing Pains :: Part Three ...

I believe the best way to describe the first two years of growth at the farm would be to use words such as: Chaotic, Uncontrolled, Stupid, Out of Control, Spastic, Dumb, and Survived. What I'm trying to say is that if I had it to do all over again there are one or two or ten thousand things I would do differently! We bought the farm, built the house, brought twenty cows and calves to the farm with no fencing, purchased pigs, bought tractors (they broke ... a lot), and much more! Oh yeah ... and we didn't know anything about farming except what I had read in a book!

Because of the blog and other opportunities that I have had to share my farming experiences I'm often asked what advice I would give to someone wanting to start a farm. I think my most shared piece of advice is that people shouldn't do it and I share with them why they shouldn't do it! My thinking is that if they take my advice they probably shouldn't have been farming in the first place, but if they go ahead and farm anyways then they probably have at least some of what it takes to make it past the first couple of years. I digress ... that was just public service announcement and not a discussion of the farms growth!

What I am trying to say is that for the first two years I was just excited to be farming and I wanted it all ... and I wanted it now! There were too many times where I would bring animals to the farm and then begin to build or look for a place to put them and because of that I had more problems than I can even count or recall. In my effort to have the farm of my dreams I sort of acted without thinking and in some ways that may have even set the farm back a little. One thing is for sure though, it caused more stress than I should have subjected on my family!

I would like to think that I have learned slightly from that though. The last two or three years things have grown much more slowly. I had to force myself to slow down and think a little before I acted. Because we slowed down a little bit we were able to focus in on some things that needed to be done as "catch-up" and focus on building a market (which is now the reason we want to scale up). We only added new ventures when we were mostly ready for them (I'm not perfect!) and there are some aspects of the farm infrastructure that work well now.

But, the biggest thing is that we didn't have to borrow anything to do any of this or cut back on our extra mortgage payments. We were able to stick to our financial values and because of that even though I made mistakes along the way there were just flesh wounds as opposed to farm killing things (if that makes any sense). Besides the financial values we were also able to stick with our other core values and even make improvements in some areas.

I guess if I could sum it all up I would say that growth on the farm has been difficult. It's really just like life ... there are times of easy growth and there are times when you learn very difficult lessons and have to learn from them ... and grow!


Vera said...

I would echo what you have to say. If someone is going to lean on others to farm or run a smallholding, then they probably won't survive the rigours of those first couple of years. We also brought the animals in before we had the right infrastructure set in place, but we did it anyway even though it put a lot of stress on us. Not to worry, take the plunge, do it, that's what we did, and that is what those who survive as small farm owners have to do. It's a grand life, but hard earned.

blueyonderdreamer said...

What you're writing about growing pains makes perfect sense to me, a non-farmer, even from the sidelines.

I found your blog last week and although I haven't read very far, I must say, I am very pleased you take the trouble to record your farm's ups and downs here. Store up these fantastic details and impressions and when you're too old to farm you can turn it into a book. You might enjoy Farm Wanted by Helen Train Hilles if you can find it; it was published in 1951. Funny stuff.

I fell in love with the ideals of sustainable agriculture sometime in the early 2000s, reading Gene Logsdon and Joel Salatin, subscribing to Small Farm Today and Small Farmer's Journal over the years... dreaming of a possible move to the country with our five kids, until I finally came to terms with the fact that I am not meant to be a farmer (and my husband doesn't wish to be either). We also embrace the limited debt philosophy (live within your means, pay down your mortgage quickly, buy cars for cash, etc.) and incidentally, I also homeschooled my 3 oldest kids for 10 years. I won't be a farmer, but what I am trying to do is incorporate my love for the self-sustaining farm lifestyle (and its bounty of universal truths) into adventurous fiction for youth. Still, I think I'll end up with at least some chickens someday... for research purposes... (and a horse if I'm ever successful!).

You're doing something right! Keep up the good work.

blueyonderdreamer said...

You may be aware of this already, but I pulled out Salatin's Family Friendly Farming and he has a chapter in there on farm growth that might have some insight for you. He says Polyface Farm has fit into three USDA farm size classifications and the amount of creativity and energy needed to operate at each level doesn't change. His point: Growth has a downside, listen to your family, not all growth happens in quantifiable ways. "Resist the desire to be big" and choose "organic growth" over "grasping growth."

Dang, the more I read him again, the more I feel desperate to get my kids involved in the land, like I did before my last two children were born... I'll start the youngest (6 and 4) on a garden this year.

Mary Ann said...

Gee, I'm not the ONLY one to bring home chickens before the coop is built and fenced? Darn!

Anthony Cipolone said...

We just finished up our first year of new farm ownership, and I can definitely see how I may be saying some similar things in a few years.

For the most part we're very protective of our time. We both still have our day jobs while we figure all of this out, and we make sure that whatever new things we add or start that we have a plan for how to handle it. There are a few times we jumped without thinking, it seems. Our first two goats came from a spur of the moment decision. We really weren't ready for that ... but now we have 6! This recent batch of bottle lambs was a "now or never" opportunity. I couldn't pass up 13 lambs when our ewes aren't due to lamb for another 3 months.

We spent the past year trying a little bit of everything and figuring out what we like, what makes money, and what's easy to manage. We got creative with some products (raw pet food and dog treats, for example). We're still adjusting our flock sizes to make sure we can deal with it within the time our day jobs allow, but sort of warily peering over the edge at my fiancee staying home full time to run the farm. It'll allow us to expand a lot, but it'll limit our sort of "guaranteed" income. (Sadly, my work situation isn't flexible.)

Where we may have been careful with the animals, we jumped the gun in a different way and created a lot of product before really finding a market. Sometimes I can't sell all my chickens or eggs as fast as I'd like and need to "hustle" a bit more, but I know that's a temporary set back. Slowly our name is getting around, and I look forward to the days when everything is sold!

We'll get there, though, and it makes me happy to see someone like you succeeding (and whether or not you consider it succeeding, I see success in what you do!). Have you ever read anything by John Ikerd? He had a series of small farmer papers that have been a real inspiration for me. Worth checking out, for sure.

Paul Hahs said...

I stumbled across your posts by accident, but I'm glad I did because I've enjoyed reading your posts. My wife and I are just getting started and it is quite a task!

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