Welcome back to another episode of the Homegrown Liberty Podcast, this is episode 49, and today I’m answering some listener questions on farming. There are lots of seniors in high school getting ready to graduate in the spring and they’ve been doing a lot of thinking about their future. Lots of them are wondering if going to college is worth the expense, the time, and the risk. So I’m going to throw some info at ya, talk about things from my experience. And give my thoughts on what I would do if I were to start over as a soon-to-be high school graduate.
It’s a frigid 32 degrees as I’m recording this episode but the fire is going in the wood stove so the office is at least tolerable. And tomorrow we are butchering Pigpig! It’s both a sad day and a happy one. Because an animal I raised from a baby is graduating to the freezer, I’m going to miss this one. But I will be very thankful to have not only bacon, but what I anticipate will be the best bacon I’ve ever eaten. She’s been eating very well this past month on acorns and leftover food scraps as well as fermented feed. She’s had a very comfy life, a much longer one than a normal pig, and will be treated with dignity and respect, and a whole lot of thankfulness for her service and sacrifice. And Titus who has been talking about “eating that pig” for months now will get some homemade bacon finally!
So you want to get started farming?
Lots of questions over the past couple months on this vein so I figured I should make a whole show about this topic. My first response is GREAT! We need more people getting connected to where food comes from and hopefully more people growing and producing more food. Next I want to say, farming might not be for you! I don’t want to scare you off or be a downer on the exciting idea of growing food. But farming is hard work, it’s tiring, both physically and mentally. It’s risky, and has a long learning curve. And just because you’re passionate about something, doesn’t mean you won’t be bad at it! But never fear, that doesn’t mean you can’t grow your own food! I look at it like this, there’s growing for personal use, and there’s professional farming where you are growing for the main purpose of bringing something to market. Most people picture truckloads of produce or animals going to be processed into a final product with the farmer selling wholesale, or maybe with a direct to consumer model. And to be honest, that’s what I normally picture when I think of a farmer. But it’s far less black and white. And I want to make sure you’ve heard of or are considering more options and the whole spectrum of possibilities out there! I don’t have all the answers. But I do want to present a few different scenarios, and maybe make you aware that you can be a part of this kind of lifestyle/ movement without raising truckloads of radishes.
What’s the Best Path?
First of all, if you really dig the idea of growing lots of food for lots of people, I really encourage you to learn as much as you can and pursue the idea. But I also want you to do me a favor and be open to the idea that a niche market might be a great fit too. Not everyone who falls in love with the idea of growing food needs to be a “farmer” on a tractor harvesting tons and tons of food. I think those people are wonderful and we definitely need more of them, so let’s kind of work from the end goal to the here and now. That’s what I always like to do with my clients and anybody who asks me these kinds of questions. “Where do you want to be in ten years?” or “What do you want your life to look like in ten years?” Those are the kinds of question I ask. Because if you don’t have a vision for the future, you can’t get to where you’re going cause you don’t know where it is that you’re trying to be going…. Get it?
Where Do You Want To BE?
That’s the real big question. And yaknow what? If you don’t have that answer, that’s ok too! Because you know, that answer will most likely change between now and then and it’s just part of life. But having that long term goal gives you direction and helps focus stay where it needs to be until you decide to change the big goal. So some examples will probably help. Let’s say the answer is “I want to be helping people to be healthier and make better decisions with the quality of food that they are eating.” Well that’s a huge, wide open goal that will be easy to meet with any number of paths. You can then take that goal, and start to plug into it your own personal flavor. You might really want to be gardening, growing your own food, and running a horse stable, or have a ministry where you work with veterans who have PTSD and you have ways for them to be engaged in life bringing pursuits. Whatever that big goal is, see if there is a way to work into that a way to meet a need in your community or the state, or segment of society. Because just following your passion of really good food may not be what will bring you success.
Don’t Follow Your Passion
I love the story Mike Rowe related about his grandpa and himself. He said that he wanted to be a carpenter, or a handyman like his grandpa. He really admired how his grandpa could do all those things. And he tried and tried but wasn’t any good at it. Well his grandpa said that he could still be a tradesman, but maybe he needed a different toolbox. What he meant by this was, everyone is gifted in different ways. One person might just be great at building something and they’re just passionate about it and they love all the little details about it. They even love the boring parts, the hard parts, the gross parts, they are GOOD at the thing. For one person, that may be building software, for another it may be constructing a house, or designing an engine, or fixing an engine. It may be figuring out math puzzles, it may be dancing, or painting, or singing! So I agree with Mike Rowe when he says “Never follow your passion, but always bring it with you.” His passion was doing that kind of carpentry/handyman work but he ended up being an opera singer, then actor on a Discovery Channel TV show called Dirty Jobs. And he is wildly successful now. He didn’t follow his passion because he had the wrong toolbox. So he found a way to be successful and bring passion to work with him in a way that played to his own strengths.
You might think in your passionate dreaming that you want to grow the best tomatoes ever, but no matter how passionate you are, if you can’t profit from the idea due to the market, or your inability to grow a tomato plant, then it’s not a good idea. So be careful about following that advice of “follow your passion”
What’s Your Toolbox?
What are your skills? What’re you good at? Where is there an opportunity? Something valuable that you may be particularly good at providing to people. If you don’t know the answer to that, then first and foremost you need to figure that out! You may be passionate about one thing, but good at something very different. Use the thing you are skilled at to make money, and let the hobby be the thing you are passionate about unless or until you can find a way to turn your passion into a profitable venture. I figured out I am really stinking good at designing ecosystems and linking functions between the different components. I love it. I live it, and I’m good at it. It just so happens that there is a burgeoning market that wants this and I’m able to combine a passion and a skillset. So if you can combine a passion and a skillset, that’s great! If not, then look for the need, and find a good way to fulfill the need. My passion used to be fishtanks. Designing and setting up, running fishtanks. There wasn’t a good opportunity that met my passion. But I looked for a way to meet a need in something I was good at, and I am bringing passion to the table! I love teaching people about sustainable living systems, I’m told that I’m good at it, so I’m doing all I can to build a high quality product, and bring my passion to the party.
Follow opportunity, not passion. Learn to be passionate about what you’re good at. Because being exceptional at doing something valuable is truly a great thing to be.
Example: East Village Farm
Eliza Jane of East Village Farm has a really cool setup and a unique market they have recently broken into. They started homesteading 7 years ago with 6 laying hens. And have .23 of an acre smack dab in a busy, but super small fine arts college town in Vermont. Think no stop lights, a grocery store and a gas station. They’ve figured out a way to house or grow something on every inch of their corner lot. After chickens, which grew to a flock of 35 at one point, they moved into dairy goats. Having a steady flow of milk not only fed themselves, but their other stock too. They wanted meat sources but struggled with your typical stock due to space. Because they are a micro farm, it seemed fitting to add micro livestock. Quail and rabbits were the perfect animals. They housed about 80 quail in a 6 hole rabbit stack. Eggs at 6 weeks old and butchering extra males at 8 weeks. They built a custom rabbit hutch, which quickly was captioned the Rabbit Penitentiary. 4 brood does filled their freezer with 89 offspring in just 1 summer! This last year was their busiest, most productive growing season. They had a 30×60 garden, planted a small orchard of dwarf fruit trees, raised and harvested 8 potbelly pigs, tried their hand at geese, added ducks for eggs and discovered a profitable income in making goat milk caramels.
Folks, I really think they hit on a good one especially for their market. The caramels are constantly sold out, they can’t make enough to satisfy the market. All they need to do to ramp up production is to set up a commercially inspected kitchen, and then they can sell their caramels to bigger businesses. There’s a lot to be said about niche goods.
- It’s an odd product because she’s using a kind of taboo ingredient, goats milk.
- It’s a handmade, hand rolled, hand dipped, hand packaged product.
- They live in Vermont where it’s seasonal tourism. Out of staters eat that stuff up. She says “I’m up to my ears in caramels right now. I started selling them at a local indoor market at a co-op. I had no labels, no packaging, no business cards or signage. They sky rocketed. I’ve gotten a crash course in small business overhead. I had to make a few upfront investments, rubber stamp logos and a farm name sign, but other than that, I’m profiting weekly from my sales.”
See, she took something she was good at, found a niche, a need that was unmet and started providing it. And I dunno about you, but when you are able to provide a high quality product to someone who appreciates it, then passion swoops in with a whole load of fun and you end up with a very profitable business that you can pour passion into.
What I want you to take away from this example is that you can farm on a small scale, meet your needs with fantastic quality food, and out of the excess, the overflow if you will, you can skim some cream off the top and make caramels that sell for a pretty penny. This is the quintessential value added product. And this is a fantastically value added product. It’s a VERY nice margin from something that they may be able to scale up into an excellent income. Then roll that profit over into acquiring a larger piece of property to house more goats, to build the business even more. Don’t lose sight of the forest of potential opportunities for the trees.
Example: Polyface Farm
Joel Salatin of Polyface Farm saw a need for pastured poultry, so set out to meet the need, then saw a need for teaching their successful methods. A fabulous book came about as a result titled “Pastured Poultry Profits” It was one of the first books I read from Mr. Salatin and if you see a need for pastured poultry, I highly recommend picking it up and following the advice inside. You can find it lots of places, but if you want it direct from their store, you can find it here.
Another fantastic book by Joel is “You Can Farm” and you can click that link to purchase it. It’s another highly recommended book.
They found a need, and worked hard at meeting those needs and bringing high value product to their customers. That’s the way to build a successful venture.
Example: Drew Sample
Last season he started farming part time with the help of Curtis Stone and his course and had a lot of success and failures. His major crop was salad greens. He has less than a tenth of an acre in his backyard but could produce a decent amount of salad mix and discovered quickly that it was a really good cash crop. It wasn’t hard to produce a superior product and provide to customers at a lower price than they could find at local stores.
He told me, “I had two major problems last season. The first was I never had enough supply for my demand. I thankfully have a market that demands local produce and sees the value. My other problem was that I did not enjoy a lot of the necessary work in farming. I liked going restaurants and networking/selling/eating. I realized that in the small scale agriculture space I can do a lot more for farming by aggregating.”
So basically what he learned was that he was more gifted at networking and selling for others than he was at the actual growing of salad greens. And you know what? I think that’s a huge win for him. It’s far more important to learn what you’re good at and have fun doing it than keep chasing a dream that will never fully be realized because you’re either not good at it, or you just don’t like the work.
If you’re really interested in something like farming, find someone who is doing it the way you think you want to and see if they will let you spend some time working for them for free or super cheap. I can tell you that you’ll learn REAL quick if what you think is a fantastic idea really is once you start actually doing the thing. You might be enamoured with the idea of pastured poultry broilers. Try a batch of 50, it’s not a huge investment, and you’ll know pretty darn quick if you’re actually going to want to scale that up to thousands a year.
If you’re young and you have your mind made up that you’re doing this, then I really encourage you to find a producer who is really making it work financially in the sector that you are interested in and work for them like your life depends on it. Be diligent and try your best to help them make more money than they would have without you. Because you never know, they might just hire you to keep doing the job, and you can get a TON of real world experience with relatively little risk. I can guarantee it will be far cheaper than going to college, and you might actually learn something useful.
Here is an article published by Business Insider about the cost of college that might put the cost vs. value of that education into perspective. “…the growth in medical costs pales in comparison to the growth of college tuition and fees, up 596% since 1980. Mind you, that’s 596% above the core rate of inflation, which increased by a “mere” 160.4% over the same time frame.” Bear in mind that those numbers stopped at 2010, do you think college has gotten more or less expensive in the past 6 years? Income is almost completely flat since 1980 and college costs have increased 600% in 20 years. So what I want to know is are college educations 600% more valuable now than then? If so, then by all means sign right up. However I doubt that they are.
Now, with that said, I don’t hate college, nor do I posit that nobody should be getting a college degree. What I do endorse is a thorough assessment of the question “Do I need a college degree?” If you are planning on growing vegetables or animals. I contend that your 4-8 years would be far better served actually doing the thing you are wanting to do than reading about it and listening to people lecture about fifteenth century poetry. Get some practical experience dealing with disease management on a holistically managed orchard if you want to own an orchard. Don’t go to college for 4 years in horticulture only to find out you hate taking care of trees! You might get one season into taking care of trees, realize it’s not for you and instead do what you’re really good at and help orchard owners collaborate and find better markets for their products! You might find out you have a real knack for making artisanal cider, or breeding fantastic new cultivars of apples! The apples don’t care if you have letters after your name, and neither will companies wanting to pay royalties to use your cultivar in their orchards!
So be smart about spending money on education, know what you’re buying, don’t let an expert convince you to buy a piece of paper for $150,000 in debt just because it was once a very good thing to have. Sometimes you just simply don’t need it. I can think of far better things to spend a hundred grand on personally…
To wrap up…
Read books, watch videos, be passionate about learning, think holistically for solutions, learn ecology. Remember with any of this stuff, that practice makes better. You will never get there overnight and some of this stuff takes years of experience to get decent. And if you just can’t get the hang of it, keep trying!
Don’t let passion drive your goals, be pragmatic and wise. Look for opportunities to be of service, and look for ways to meet the needs of whatever market you have around you. Do a good job and try to find ways to enjoy whatever that is. If you want to get into farming, my first rule is to get hands on experience before you make any significant investments. Get your feet wet and learn from people who clearly know what they’re talking about. And don’t just take my word on this. Find some people who are doing well at what you are interested in, and ask them if what I’ve said here rings true. Maybe I’m wrong, maybe I’m not. And I want to leave you with a shoutout to a young listener named Carmin who has recently started a blog on her adventure down this path. You should go check out her blog and give her some encouragement! You can find her blog at https://genzfarmer.wordpress.com/
Well I hope this helped some of you young people, and maybe some of us older people to think critically about our dreams and passions and approach this dream of farming with wisdom and consideration. I really hope you pursue the lifestyle in some form or fashion because it’s so rewarding to grow your own food, with amazing quality and flavor, prepare the meal, and sit down to something you created. It truly is one of the most satisfying and gratifying things I have ever done. The feeling of knowing that my wife and children are eating the best food that money can buy is priceless. I wish it for everyone.
Until next week, I hope you have a wonderful day, God Bless. And as always “Go Do Good Things”