Sage Advice
For Would-Be Farmers

(part 4 of)
The Family Economy

Dateline: 22 January 2014

One of New England's most-photographed farms
(photo link)

Farming is the traditional and, arguably, the best occupation for establishing a family economy. But you will never hear me encouraging anyone to go into farming these days. It is an extremely difficult and stressful business to get off the ground and make a living at, particularly if you are relying on the farm alone to support you and your family. 

Now, if you have an excess of money to buy the land and support the farming enterprise, that’s different. 

A crop farmer I know jokingly told me years ago that if he ever won the lottery, he would just keep on farmin’ until it was all gone. This particular farmer grew up on a farm and got his own farm right out of high school in 1960. He’s 72 now and still farming. Things were different years ago. It was not exactly easy to get into farming, but it was easier.

Unfortunately, a lot of good folks have been discovering the hard way that farming is an almost-impossible business to get into and succeed at. Yes, there are exceptions. There are people who do succeed. But they are, unfortunately, a minority.

I was reminded of all this last summer when I happened upon the blog of a woman who was announcing that her family was selling their farm. It was a downright sad story. They had bought a farm four years earlier with a lot of passion and desire to grow high-quality food. They also wanted their children to grow up in the country. They went into farming for all the right reasons.

It turned out that they absolutely loved the farm. They loved raising high quality poultry, pork, beef, and raw milk. They loved selling their farm-raised products at the market. Their customers appreciated their passion and the high quality, local food. The husband had quit his city job to come home to work the farm. The family was together every day. There were so many positive benefits in the lifestyle they had chosen to pursue. But they were selling the farm.

What was the problem? Why did they have to sell their farm? The woman said it was because there were not enough customers willing to pay the high prices they needed to get for their products. Well, that is one big problem with farming these days. But it turns out there was another underlying problem that I think was their biggest mistake...

It turns out that they had borrowed money to buy the farm. They had a mortgage to pay. They had also borrowed a surprising amount for supplies. They didn’t have sufficient income to pay the bills. The husband had gone back to working a job in the city. He was trying to do chores at night. The family was stressed. Their dream farm had turned into a nightmare farm. They were moving back to the suburbs.

Offhand, it sounded like this family was probably inspired by Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm and were trying to do much like he had done. They probably read his excellent book, Pastured Poultry Profit$. But I dare say they should have also read his book, You Can Farm, or, if they did read it, they should have taken the following sage advice seriously....

Here are some prerequisites to purchasing land [to have a farm]. Ask yourself if any of these have been met.
Have a viable patron base already purchasing what you are growing on land to which you already have access. This can be your own backyard, borrowed or rented land. The point is that you have a clientele that will follow you to your new location and provide a loyal marketing base to get a good profit on the very first thing that comes off your acreage.
Know how to make money on land. This, of course presumes you’ve been doing something long enough that you feel comfortable risking more than just sweat. When you begin risking your pocketbook, things get serious real fast. Your experiential confidence must be high. This does not include ideas you’ve gotten out of books or cooperative schemes you’ve picked up from magazine ads. If you’ve turned good money on a piece of land you’ve been working with, chances are you can duplicate this effort in similarly rewarding fashion on one you own.
Have enough money to live on for 5-10 years after you’ve completely paid off the farm. I don’t mean contracted for, I mean paid for. This one gets sticky. If your experience and knowledge level is low, your learning curve will be steep. You’ll make more mistakes than you imagine possible. Don’t worry, that’s normal for any fledgling business.
The average person who buys a farm today will have that farm back on the market within five years. This cycle is duplicated over and over and over again, and I don’t want you to go through it. Life is too short to be complicated with this.
I’ve seen this cycle repeated too many times. If you have enough money to buy the land debt-free, you won’t need to generate the cash to pay for it from your outside work. I cannot overstate the importance of this issue.
You can buy a couple of acres, move into a $3,000 used mobile home, and get started for perhaps less than $10,000. If you are debt free, you can work part-time while you develop your farm.
But if you have a mortgage to pay, even if it’s only 3,000 per year, it will saddle you with cash requirements that will push you into a more demanding off-farm job, which will leave you less flexibility to develop the farm. The magazine Countryside has featured testimonials time and again from folks who maintained a family on less than $500 per month. My own experience was like this.

Now, I ask you, how many would-be farmers do you think are willing to leave their comfortable house in a suburban cul-de-sac and move into a $3,000 used trailer on two acres of land, and try to live on $500 a month while they get their farm started? You’ve got to have a powerful desire to succeed at farming to do that, and so does your spouse.

But wait, there’s more.....

The best money you can make is what you save on living expenses. Get rid of the second car, quit patronizing the grocery store, and do more for yourself. If you grow most of your own food, harvest your own heat off the farm (firewood) and get clothes at the thrift store, you can live quite cheaply. As the farm becomes lucrative, you can begin to upgrade. You will see what you can more economically buy off the farm than grow yourself, and you can begin focusing more energy on the things that generate a high return per hour.
But you must keep your cash requirements low. If you’re going to move onto the acreage, build a nice, acceptable house with well-mowed lawn, you’d better have deep pockets. In such a case, if you can’t live farm-income free from 5 to 10 years, forget it.Why so long? It will take you that long to go through the learning curve.
Business guru Peter Drucker charts the business cycle and points out that any new business has a 7-10 year period before it becomes lucrative. There just aren’t any shortcuts to this no matter how you may think folks that are there got there easy. None of us did.

I think Joel is right on with his observations and advice. 

What do you think?

Also, Though I am not a farmer, I do have a successful (it pays the bills) home-economy business in the country, and much of what Joel has written is pertinent to getting a home business launched. That last paragraph says a lot.


In the next essay of this series I will post some final thoughts on the family economy and how to establish one in your family.


RonC said...

Excellent advice! I've been following this family economy series closely and thought "Profile of a Free Man" was really good writing, but I think this one is even better. Thanks for taking the time to write. I've been wrestling with a bunch of these thoughts lately and had similar hunches and it is comforting to see them brought to the surface so eloquently.

You Can Call Me Jane said...

I'm really enjoying this series and am looking forward to your next post- thanks!

Cyndi Lewis said...

Excellent post! I have a blog post idea I've been percolating on for a few days that goes hand in hand with this. I will have to try and get it up today between dentist appointments and church. I'm enjoying this series immensely.

Sunnybrook Farm said...

I just got in from feeding steers and breaking ice in 13 degree weather this morning. You couldn't afford to buy that beef after I have worked in rain and cold for two years to produce it. So I don't try to sell it but will use it for our own food. Same with about everything else, nobody will pay what a bushel of beans are worth so I trade and don't play the business game. Our money comes from working part time with of course no benefits and now the law forces us to buy expensive insurance instead of what we used to have.

NickyD said...

Was just talking with my wife last night about how living in debt has some how become the norm these days. Unfortunately it's hard to do things like acquire land without debt anymore. I managed to get me a quarter acre paid for, and while I really wish I had more I can do quite a bit with what I got.

Chad said...

Great advice Herrick.

I actually have both the books you mentioned (and others by Joel Salatin). He definitely emphasizes thrift.

The major problem that people have today is that they can't separate "needs" from "wants." The best thing they could do is to get rid of what my household refers to as "the stupid box" (TV) because all it does is serve as a conduit for the industrialized consumer marketing machine to feed your carnal desires. In essence, it tells you that you "need" things that really should be relegated to the "want" category.

If more people would avoid debt and live within their means, they would lead far more stress-free lives and they would be more readily able to pursue their dreams (such as farming).

Americans could stand to (re)learn the forgotten concept of delayed gratification. Over the years, I have been inspired how you have waited on God's timing. You were faithful and content with His provision even though your heart desired more land. Instead of going out and borrowing a truckload of cash to buy your dream farm, you remained faithful with that which He provided you. And in His time, he rewarded you with a contiguous piece of land, and enough room for your growing family to remain close. What a blessing for you, and an incredible example for others to heed.

It boggles my mind how many people would rather work as slaves to service their debt. Oh, I'm quite certain that they don't see it that way, either because they are blinded by their own lusts or for other reasons. But they've chosen to sell their future in exchange for receiving their heart's desires right now.

Thanks Herrick for your continued example and thought provoking articles.

Herrick Kimball said...

Thanks for the comments, everyone.

A paid-for quarter acre is a beautiful thing. And you sure can do a lot on that much land.

You have acknowledged the most amazing thing about my life these last few years. After pretty much a lifetime of getting by with little, but having a vision for more land, God provided the land and additional homes, for my family (so we can live close by each other and help each other)….debt free.

He orchestrated it all, in His time by blessing my home business. And He allowed me to leave the industrial-world job too. I was very tempted on a couple of occasions to just get a mortgage, but, by His grace, I was faithful with little and, well, you've read the story here in the past.

There is actually more to the story, and someday in the far future I will tell of how I expected God to provide these things years ago. But the expected did not happen. It was a shock at the time, and a spiritual challenge (perhaps a test).

Thanks again for seeing what may be the greatest message of my example.

Ohiofarmgirl said...

thank you

foutfolk said...

I feel like I have the BEST of both worlds. I too have a city job that I drive to each day, but I come home to my farm life in the evening (after school). And even though I have a mortgage still, we are able to do what we want to do here, while I am earning a living to pay for things. My thought was that I would be paying a mortgage in the city anyway. I think the problem that most people have when making decisions for a life style change, is that they want the change to be instant. Seems like that family you write about had an acute case of the "I want it now" syndrome. Too bad. Nothing good ever comes by wanting things to go faster than they do, or expecting "others" to make things work for you.

Elizabeth L. Johnson said...

Progressism started in the 1830s and has finally produced an entire nation of people and its government who are bound by debt, who are slave to the lender. That's why it is so hard to purchase land and not be in debt for it. We've been taught that indebtedness to the bank is normal, so why not do what everyone else does. Having paper money that is worthless is the culprit. Think about it. Yes, indeed, the Godly way to live is to owe no man anything, but the debt of love. In our foolishness, God has a plan and can help anyone onto a piece of farm land with His help, if we will but ask and seek Him.

Elizabeth L. Johnson said...

Foutfolk, yes we have friends who wanted a profit now. He quit working a job, and opened his own business and wanted a profit NOW to pay for new house, etc. Idea is great, but only steady plodding produces prosperity. There is no way around that! Our friends had to short sale their new house within 3 years of purchase, because they wanted "it" now! You have to plan, to be intentional, it takes so much time to build a customer base. They want the good life now, but that is unrealistic. I can see that, even from here, from the top of Johnson Mountain, Redding, California!