Book Review: ‘Start Your Farm’ by Forrest Pritchard and Ellen Polishuk

Reader Contribution by Carrie Williams Howe

When Forrest Pritchard and Ellen Polishuk set out to write a book about becoming a farmer, they didn’t want to write an instruction manual for growing vegetables or raising livestock (because plenty of great ones already exist).  They also didn’t want to write a book about starting or running a business (there’s already some great stuff in that category too).  They wanted to write, in their words “a hybrid of multiple seemingly diverse elements: agricultural insight, business acumen, and self-help wisdom.”

You might think that covering that many angles in a single book would be difficult, and it is, but Pritchard and Poishuk have pulled it off.  And they haven’t just done it by the skin of their teeth, they’ve done it with skill and depth that make this book a must have for anyone beginning or digging deeper into a farming career.

Start your Farm: The Authoritative Guide to Becoming a Sustainable 21st Century Farmer is just what the title says it is – an authoritative guide.  But “guide” seems like too light a word for the richness contained within the pages of this book.  It is a personal and deeply meaningful text written by two authors who are themselves farmers. They are also scholars of sustainability and agriculture, with complex academic and practical understanding of those concepts. 

Have you ever been to a seminar or a workshop with someone and thought to yourself, “wow, I need to absorb everything that this person is saying”?  I imagine that’s what an audience member might think listening to one of these authors speak.  This book is what that audience member is looking for – an open window into the wisdom, experience, and honesty that these two professionals and colleagues can offer.  It’s like they thought to themselves, “let me think of every single honest thing I would want to tell a new farmer and let’s lay it all out there.”

The text ranges from the practical to the philosophical and everywhere in between.  At times, it can feel overwhelming – like when discussing the commodity system or the difficulty of finding affordable farmland.  Pritchard and Polishuk don’t shy away from the tough topics or potential failures.  But that’s really the point of this book – they wouldn’t feel right keeping these things from you, as much as they want you to succeed.  And somehow, despite the heaviness that is present on the pages, they continually bring you back to on of their fundamental tenets: “always view problems through a lens of opportunity.”

In fact, it is the sections that balance challenge and opportunity that are the highlight of this book – the sections in which they lay out all of the difficulties you could run into but then, like a trusted mentor, convey their belief that you will overcome these difficulties even if you fail occasionally.  They then proceed to give you a bunch of ideas for how to succeed – ideas that took them years of experience and trial and error to learn. 

For example, their chapters on taking your product to market begin with an overview of the commodity system because, even if you aren’t actively a part of it, you should still know how it works because it can affect you in one way or another.  They then dive into an exploration of alternative markets, relating back to their belief in the value of small-scale agriculture – with some very practical suggestions.  But in the end, they remind you that what is right for one farmer might not be what is right for you, and invite you to reflect on what makes the most sense in your situation.  In one short section you get an economics lesson, some very practical marketing advice, and some encouragement to continue your own reflection on your journey. 

I couldn’t agree more with the description on the back of the book – “Making this dream a reality is not for the faint of heart…”.  This book is not for the faint of heart either, but if you are serious about becoming a farmer you deserve every resource possible to help you on that worthy journey.  The more honest and resourceful those resources are, the better.  Pritchard and Polishuk are behind you, they just want you to be prepared for the uphill battles, because the potential rewards (for you and for our society in general) are huge.

In short, I feel like the best response that any serious reader and farmer would have to this book is “thank you.”  Thank you to Forrest Pritchard and Ellen Polishuk for being willing to share almost everything you have learned and for laying it all out there with such depth, honesty, and trust.  It’s not often you feel like an author is serving the reader in such a convincing manner, but this book conveys just that – a sincere desire to be of service in a field that can be tough to survive. 

Carrie Williams Howe is a blogger aThe Happy Hive Homestead.  She is the Executive Director of an educational nonprofit by day, and parent and aspiring homesteader by night and on weekends. She lives in Williston,Vermont, with her husband, two young children, and a rambunctious border collie. Carrie has a PhD in educational leadership and is passionate about learning collaboratively. Connect with Carrie on The Happy Hive Facebook page. Read all of Carrie’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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