13 May 2009

So, You Want to Be a Yeoman Farmer...

A reader writes with a few excellent questions:

Reading your post about the lambs today got me thinking - how did you learn to do all this stuff? Did you grow up on a farm? [My wife] and I dream (and pray) daily about doing the same kinds of things you do, but even if I had a farm delivered into my lap for free I have no idea what I'm doing. How does a guy who never even hunted in his life learn as an adult to become more self-sufficient, deal with domesticated animals, etc.?

The answer to the first question is an emphatic No, neither Mrs Yeoman Farmer nor I grew up on a farm. MYF's grandfather had a large farm in Indiana, which she enjoyed visiting from time to time, but that's the closest that either of us had gotten to "farming." I grew up in a suburban Seattle subdivision, and went off to college not even knowing how to change the oil in a car --- let alone how to cultivate a plant, load or fire a gun, butcher an animal, drive a fence post, milk a goat, or anything else that I now do on a regular basis. To paraphrase a line from Casablanca, I suppose that I would have despised doing those things...if I'd ever even given them any thought.

As described in this blog's very first post, we didn't begin to give farming serious thought until we'd been married a few years and our children began suffering from severe food allergies. That post gives some overview of how we made the move to the country, but I would like to fill in and emphasize a few points in response to the email correspondent's questions:

First, we bought a large library of books, even before making the move, and continued adding books after the move. Education of this sort is essential background, as it allows you to learn about a wide variety of things and make some decisions about what you'd like to do. Carla Emery's Encyclopedia of Country Living is the very best, if you only have the time/money for a single book. Your library may have it, but it's an excellent investment. We spent hours browsing it and dreaming, while still in California. Use this book as a jumping-off point for buying books about specific topics that you find most appealing. Even after moving, we read magazines like Countryside that share the experiences various people have had with various types of livestock --- that's how we discovered Icelandic sheep and found our breeder, for example.

Second, visit other small farms and get to know the families who run them. Even now, we find it extremely valuable to see how other people have laid out their properties and the sorts of innovative things they have some up with. Just yesterday, we attended a day-long beekeeping class at a farm about an hour from here. It was a wonderful experience, and just $75 for the whole family (and includes a follow-up class in August, when they harvest honey.) I went home with a number of new ideas about things we could do with our farm. Even if you have no desire to get a bee hive, this farm is an excellent example of a visitor-friendly place where you can learn a lot and sample some outstanding produce. I encourage my Michigan readers to check out the link above --- and for those of you in other parts of the country to look around for similar places. They are literally everywhere. Your best bet is actually not to surf the web looking for them, but rather to shop at farmer's markets and strike up conversations with the people manning the booths. MYF found the beekeepers because they'd set up a booth at a Catholic homeschooling conference she attended last year; she struck up a conversation, and quickly learned about what they had to offer visitors.

Third, once you've gotten to know other farm families, volunteer yourself as slave labor, learning by doing, helping out as best you can. Though some might prefer not to have to spend a long time training you, if they are passionate about what they're doing, they will want to share that passion. That was our experience, anyhow. It's how I learned how to butcher poultry, brood chicks, keep poultry in movable pasture pens, dig potatoes, etc. MYF learned a great deal about gardening by talking with others who had cultivated plants in the area and getting a good look at what they were growing; it's the best way to understand what will thrive in your particular location and its micro-climate.

Fourth, we made lots of mistakes and learned from them. The key advice I'd give: start slow and start small, so your mistakes aren't too big. I don't regret having started anything too small. I have many regrets about starting some things too big. A classic example in our case is dairy. We never ever should've started with a cow. We should have started with one goat. Eventually we figured that out, many dollars (and headaches) later. In a similar vein, don't rush into getting livestock before you have the facilities prepared; do not think to yourself "we need to get some chicks started, and I'll worry about building a chicken coop as they're growing." We made that mistake with our cow; we got her before fencing an outside area for her --- and we never ended up getting it done. She was stuck with her calf in a small area for the whole time we had her. We learned from this, and securely fenced the pasture before getting our sheep. Likewise, at the beekeeping class yesterday, we were greatly tempted to splurge and buy our first hive. But as I thought about it, I realized I wasn't fully prepared for bees. I needed to read more, and plan more, and think things through more completely. It would be wonderful to have a hive this year, but I want to make sure we do it right. There is no harm in waiting. As I said, where we've usually harmed ourselves most is in not waiting and preparing more.

This is the sort of post that could go on forever (and MYF needs me to dig another trench for potatoes), so I'll bring it to a close. The bottom line, if you want to be a Yeoman farmer: Read, Visit, Volunteer. You can't do enough of that. And do as much reading and visiting as you can before moving to the country. It will help a lot in deciding what sort of natural characteristics you should be looking for in a property --- and many times, the farmers themselves will know of suitable country properties for sale that aren't on the radar of most realtors.

But there I go, making this post even longer. It's hard to stop writing about this question, because it's something I feel so passionately about sharing. Find someone near you who has that passion, and go see up close how they're living the dream.


Danby said...

The only thing I would add to what Chris said is to start now, today, yesterday even. It's so easy to get diverted into wishing and planning, and to get consumed by "what if"s that you never get anything done.

Most major cities have community gardens. Check and see if yours does. If you can't get a garden plot, raise tomatoes on the window sill.

Start checking out land, even if you can't afford it. Learn to recognize what weeds grow on good soil, and what weeds mean the soil is infertile or poorly drained. Start figuring out where you'd like to be living. Keep in mind that real estate prices are still on a downward arc, so what you can't afford today may be what you can afford next spring.

Try to figure out an income stream that will help you make payments or rent. That's the hardest part. Most rural areas are short on good paying jobs. You will NOT make any money from farming the first year or two or three, and most homesteaders never make enough money from farming to cover the bills.

And I will second what he said about facilities. Get them ready before you get the animal. It's one thing to lose a corn patch or a row of beans through neglect or mismanagement. It's entirely different when it's an animal. And you really don't want to have to explain to the county sheriff why your goat was in the middle of the highway. I speak from experience here.

Zach said...

Learn to recognize what weeds grow on good soil, and what weeds mean the soil is infertile or poorly drained.Danby,

How do you recommend learning this?

Is it something you can read up on, or does it require talk with old-timers?


TYF said...

Danby -
Those are excellent additional considerations. We were only able to "make the leap" because I had an employer who didn't care where I lived (as long as I had phone and internet), and I was later able to be self-employed doing the same professional work.

I would underscore the warning that you will not make money farming at first, and that there are very few people who derive most/all of their income from this. Do it because you love it, and because you love your family, and you love the lifestyle.

If you do want to make some money, a sensible first goal should be to sell enough of your produce that your customers pay most or all of the out-of-pocket production costs...essentially allowing your family to eat what remains for "free". But let demand, and known/proven customers, gradually drive up your production. Do NOT produce a ton of stuff and then assume customers will materialize. You'll end up giving it away.

On your goat in the road - MYF still recalls chasing our cow across an open field and our neighbor's garden while many months pregnant herself. That incident finally convinced us we weren't ready for the cow ... but the butcher was.

Zach said...

Oh, and I want to second what Danby says about starting now ... we're still in the "wishing for land" phase, but I'm making a determined effort to ramp up my gardening bit by bit. I certainly made enough learning mistakes last year! This year's goal is to correct last year's problems (mostly plant spacing combined with neglect at the wrong time), plus starting seedlings (so far, some good and some mistakes), and even some seed saving (we'll see).

I recommend to everyone who'll listen not to neglect the kitchen and homemaking skills part of the equation. Carla Emery's Encyclopedia is a fantastic resource for that, too -- in fact, it started its life as a recipe book. I'd never really been successful with baking bread before trying "Carla's Basic White Bread" recipe.

Everyone can start (re-)learning to cook from scratch, to manage a pantry, etc. Start to eat and cook the way you want to once you're on your dream farm. If you don't know how to store and eat a bushel of winter squash, then there won't be much point in growing it, now will there?


Steve said...

What kind of rookie city-kid with stars in his eyes would ask you a question like that? ;)

(Thanks for posting this.)

Danby said...

Well, I've tried twice to reply to you Zach, and my response keeps getting lost.

The gist of it is this; start looking at plants. Not just plants you have some personal interest in, your garden and yard, but especially weeds, plants grow in untended corners, vacant lots, and where they're not supposed to. Get a field guide from the library. Learn to identify the plants you have heretofore passed by without noticing them, particularly grasses.

To an urbanite, grass is what lawns are made of. In reality, grass is the basis of the human diet. Most of what you eat is made from varieties of grass, from wheat flour to sugar cane, from horse power to beef steak, it starts with grass.

Grasses grow literally everywhere a plant can grow, and they can tell you most of what you need to know about a local climate or soil type.

Learn to identify which plants grow where. Some plants (yarrow, sweet vernal grass) are sure signs of over grazing. Some (bear grass) mean that the soil doesn't drain well. Some (marsh grass) show that the soil is quite wet for a good part of the year. Some (cattails, skunk cabbage) mean that the soil is always wet, and usually underwater.

Lush growth means fertility. Chamomile means the soil is compacted. That's why it grows in footpaths. St John's wort means that herbicides have been used there, that's why it grows on roadsides. Vetch and timothy are not native here, and mean that the plot was formerly planted for hay or pasture.

Just pay attention to the plants and try to notice commonalities of their habits.

A really good goal for the 1st and 2nd year of farming is to try to grow most of your own food for the year. That means leaning to preserve food, and learning to cook using raw unprocessed ingredients. Your county extension office can help with the food preservation. They offer free and almost free classes in food preservation for those who will volunteer to teach others. A couple of good books in this regard are Stillroom Cookery by Grace Firth and Root Cellaring by Mike Bubel.

Learning to cook with natural ingredients is something you can do right now. If you have the money, get a grain mill and grind the wheat to make your bread. The taste of bread made from fresh-ground whole wheat is like nothing you can buy anywhere. Homemade pickles and relishes and apple butter are better by far than what you can buy.

Yes it's a lot of work. So is farming. There are no 8-hour days out here. My day farming starts when I've finished with my 8 hours for my employer. The payoff is that you and your family will eat better, spend less, and learn to have more and more confidence in your abilities. When you do get out onto some land, you will be that much more prepared, and that much more likely to make it.

Brian said...

I noted two permaculture books on your listing and I would like your opinion as to a solid reference that will help me plan my farm footprint. Is one better than the other? I have been exposed to permaculture through Mother Earth News and Harvey Ussery through his website and also through his writing's on Mother Earth News and would like to start working in this field.

TYF said...

Brian -

We own both of those books by Bill Mollison, and we picked them up used. I'm astounded as to how much they're now selling for on Amazon. Intro to Permaculture gives a good overview, and I would get this book first. The other one (the Designers' Manual) is much more detailed --- but IMO is too detailed for most of us. It's an excellent textbook, or reference book, but if I didn't own it I wouldn't spend $178.99 to get it. (We got it for $34.95).

There are many other good resources on the web. Are you familiar with www.permaculture.org?

Brian said...

Thanks for your reply.

I am; I first learned about it when I started looking into the writings of Bill (?) Yeoman and his water retention method, which led me to other Australian writers and then on to permaculture and then to the website. But the trouble I have had is actually finding a book or site that would describes the principles as well as application.

Hopefully the intro book will help me with my planning.

Thanks again.

Laura said...

As fellow "city farmers" as our country neighbors first called us, we can attest that it IS possible to get started farming even without having grown up that way. We did a lot of reading, and a whole lot of asking questions and really listening to the answers. If you don't have farmers nearby to ask, ask the folks at the farm market, the flower shop, even the grocery store or pet shop - anywhere people tend or know about growing things. Much of what you learn about growing one thing will transfer to growing other things.

And at some point, you have to just take the plunge. You have to lay the groundwork, yes, but eventually you have to step off into the unknown, with faith that you will learn or figure out what else you need along the way, and with the confidence that you will fail until you succeed!

It has been a remarkable adventure ... frustrating at times, but immensely satisfying.