Earth Haven: A Year on a Small Farm

One year after buying and establishing Earth Haven, his New England-area homestead, Bob Curtis recounts his experiences running a small farm and offers non-essential but handy bits of know-how on firewood, dump pickings, fireplaces, the USDA, wood cookstove, animals management, and veterinarians.

Curtis - Earth Haven

A small farm might or might not have has many or as large a collection of buildings as shown here.


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When did it begin? Four years ago when we moved to an old New England farmhouse with an acre and a half? Or maybe three years back when we got the chickens (after tearing down the chicken coop the year before)? I think myself that the die was truly cast when we planted our first garden two seasons ago. Anyhow—though we may never know exactly how it happened—we now have a farm and are learning to work it. We call our place Earth Haven.

We're fast approaching the end of our first year in the country, and I feel it's time we shared some of our joys, sorrows, and lessons learned with MOTHER EARTH NEWS readers who are doing a similar trip ... or thinking and planning for when they can.

First of all, I should mention that since we've lived in and fixed up several run-down houses and have always made a profit when we've moved—we had the advantage of capital to launch our venture. Thus, the place we bought was a real farm ... complete with some good fruit trees and more equipment than we needed, etc.

Such a heavy investment nevertheless led to what may prove our hardest lesson: the purchase necessitated a stiff mortgage. So far we've been able to handle the payments, but only by sacrificing our leisure and peace of mind. On the other hand, this pressure has at least kept us from putting things off. If there's something we can do for the farm, it gets done ... it has to. Also on the plus side of the situation is the fact that real farms come with lots of land. If things get too bad, I suspect that we could bail ourselves out by selling a couple of 15 or 20 acre plots at the end of the spread and eliminating most if not all of the mortgage.

Our second lesson—for which we're still paying the bill—has to do with animals. It's great fun, of course, to have all kinds of critters running around the farm ... and that's what we've got: two cows; three pigs; three sheep; 50 or 60 chickens; a handful of turkeys, ducks, geese, and rabbits; and, as of last week, one calf. The folks at the feed store love us.

Now, I'm not saying that all these beasts are unprofitable. The cows pay for themselves, and then some. We have all the milk we want (and plenty of butter and whipping cream), and what we don't use we barter with neighbors or make into cheese. Even if we just poured the extra down the drain, we'd still be ahead of the cost of buying milk and cheap oleo at the store. The same with the chickens. We get all our own eggs free, and those we sell—both at the door and through a local co-op—more than pay for the feed and the investment in buying and raising the chicks. And the other creatures? Well, I like them and I doubt that we'll get rid of them ... but in terms of dollars and cents they're not pulling their share of the load.

Another financial point, while I'm at it: We're still learning how to price what we sell, but one fact has become clear ... it's better to move all your wares for a little under top dollar than to hold out for the maximum price and not dispose of them all. We got in a lot of good hay, in a year when good hay was going to be scarce, and expected to do well from the crop. Now, however—because there's been a shift in the area's animal population due to growing feed costs, and because it looks like an early spring—we probably won't get more than two-thirds of our supply sold. Had we settled on a lower price earlier, that hay would all be gone. Still, we learned something . . . we keep our eggs and maple syrup about 7% to 10% under store prices these days, and sales are great.

We've learned something else about selling home-grown produce: word of mouth will bring you many customers, and newspaper ads won't hurt ... but what's really done the trick for us is a neat sign with changeable boards. This notice hangs in our front yard and lets the people in every passing car know what we're selling at the moment and how much it costs. We haven't had our announcement up long, but already more passers-by are stopping. We'd like to sell all our fruits and vegetables at the roadside, but our location is too remote. Most of our coming season's output will go to a farmers' market in Springfield.

At this point I think we've discovered enough about rural finances to be able to keep our place together. In the immediate future the primary sources of Earth Haven's revenue (apart from truck gardening) will be eggs and hay.

We know the egg business works ... it's bringing in about $40.00 a month at present, and we anticipate having four or five times as many chickens as soon as we can raise them. We'll hatch some of our own and buy chicks for the rest. The roosters will be sold at auction.

Hay is another sure thing. Harvesting the crop is a lot of effort, but those bales are worth money in the bank all winter.

Financial matters weigh pretty heavily on our minds right now with those mortgage payments hanging over us. . . still, we do have the time to pick up plenty of nonessential but handy bits of know-how. Here are just a few.

FIREWOOD: As winter winds down and the mud season gets underway, we find that we didn't get in quite enough firewood last fall. Our wood lot is too soggy to enter now, but we can quickly and easily pick up wood that has blown out of the trees along our area's roads. We have a 2 1/2-ton truck and can fill it with good-sized fuel in about an hour. While we're at it we bring the little stuff home for the cookstove, so that we end up removing most of the clutter from the roadside in the bargain. Now that the snow is pretty well gone, we're going to hang a couple of containers off the side of the truck and also pick up any discarded bottles, cans, etc., in the area at the same time.

DUMP PICKINGS: Although I've been a compulsive trashmonger since I was a kid, I learned something new this year. Many small and medium-sized companies have dumps other than the town facility. These rubbish heaps yield mountains of lumber from old shipping crates, pallets and the like . . . plus fiber, steel, and plastic barrels, pails, etc. Best of all, the private garbage pile is usually where the outfit puts its rejected products.

We've just finished a beautiful steam bath building made from shipping crates and a heavy, all-weather vinyl material of unknown original purpose. Now we're planning to construct a pig house and do some effective (if not attractive) fencing with one of the loads of pallets we brought home from an industrial dump ... and I'm writing this report on paper from the same source.

FIREPLACES: When we built a fireplace last fall, our best sources of information were The FoxfireBook and Vrest Orton's The Forgotten Art of Building a Good Fireplace

A tip of our own invention is to build a plywood form with outside dimensions that correspond to the inner measurements of the fireplace you intend to create. That form made it really easy for beginners like us to lay the bricks. If you have trouble removing the plywood afterward, you can burn it out.

USDA: If you're trying to make a living from your land, let your neighborhood extension service know. Ask for the man in the agribusiness department and tell him what you're doing. He'll put you on the appropriate mailing lists. You'll get a lot of garbage about chemical fertilizers and poison sprays (complete with large type disclaiming any responsibility for damages incurred from their use). You'll also, however, find useful market information and announcements of workshops where you may or may not profit from the program, but will invariably learn some good things from the other people present.

WOOD COOKSTOVE: We wouldn't be without one, but only recently did we learn of the many hidden places that must be cleaned regularly to make a wood cookstove burn more efficiently and bake better. In particular, there's bound to be a little piece that opens or comes off for clearing out the area under the oven.

MOVING ANIMALS: If you want to get pigs, chickens or what have you from one place on your land to another, the easiest way is to turn them loose and then throw ears of corn in the direction in which you want them to move. It takes a little while, but the critters don't get upset and/or frightened.

VETERINARIANS: Pick a vet before you need one desperately ... and get more than one recommended. We had a sick cow, and—being new at raising cattle—we asked a neighboring farmer what to do. He suggested a particular doctor who came, gave the animal some medicine and said that she'd be down a couple of days and then come along fine. A day later we realized that something was wrong and called another vet who almost saved her in spite of the delay. She died of an easily recognized condition caused by someone's feeding her a quantity of food to which she was unaccustomed.

ADVICE FROM OTHER FARMERS: Our neighbors are very helpful when we hit a problem, and yours will likely be the same. But check with more than one person when you have a problem, and use a little common sense of your own. Remember that even though the local farmers have a lot of valuable knowledge and experience, they also probably use chemical fertilizers, poison sprays, growth-stimulating hormones and all the rest of it. And remember, too, that there's more than one way to do things right.

THE FINER THINGS IN LIFE: If there are many luxuries you think you have to have—if you can't live without hot water or get on without plenty of nice clothes, the latest albums and a warm house-I don't think you can survive long enough to get a farm working. Doing without things we're used to is psychologically hard on most of us ... but—if you can keep smiling—the beautiful things seem to more than make up for the hardships. When and if you start to get discouraged, remember that the first year is bound to be the toughest.

Those initial twelve months were certainly long ones for us ... we've never worked so hard in our lives. The highlights were building the fireplace, having 31 people on hand for a four-day, farm-style Thanksgiving and the birth of our first calf. We're happy, healthy, and looking forward to the challenges of the next year at Earth Haven.