Do-it-yourself and self-reliance themes are wonderful — to a point. I know that questioning these themes in the pages of Mother Earth News borders on heresy, but hear me out.
Every movement runs the risk of overrunning its original objectives. Concern about genetic diversity can morph into demonization of everything except heirloom seeds and breeds. Eating less meat can morph into militant veganism. Reactionary pendulums never stop in balance; they swing wildly to the opposite side. But when we rebel against convenience, we can easily fall prey to a cumbersome farmstead independence that eventually wears thin.
I propose a balance called “mutual interdependence.” A business guru would call this “community-based economics.” Many times, I’ve had to defend our farm against accusatory questions about why we buy in grain for our chickens or don’t farrow our pigs. I’ll hear, “I would never buy chicks from a hatchery. You’re not really independent unless you hatch them yourself.” Permutations on this theme abound. “‘Better Boy’ tomatoes? The only tomatoes to grow are heirloom.” People will even say they don’t want employees or partners because they want to do it all themselves.
I excel at pasturing cows and poultry, working in the woods, building compost, and telling stories. So that’s what I do. Rather than overcoming my weaknesses, I get much further by leveraging my strengths and building a team with complementary gifts.
Knowing what we’re not good at is as important as knowing what we’re good at. Frittering away a day on a project that’s frustrating and unenjoyable means we’ve just missed two opportunities. The first is to do another project that’s within our reach, where we can apply our time far more effectively. The second is to offer someone who loves what we don’t a chance to express their gift and show off their talent.
Many times, the constraint on collaboration is as much economical as it is emotional. We don’t think we have the money to pay for hired help, so we waddle through a project mumbling and stumbling. But the investment in hired help is worthwhile in the long run. If successful outfits have anything in common, it’s the ability to develop functional teams.
Most of us do better with some assistance. Rugged individualism might work for some things, but for most tasks, collaborative teamwork is more enjoyable and gets us where we want to go faster. Determining what to do ourselves and what to delegate to others is a critical skill.
Here are 10 things we invest in to make Polyface Farm run more effectively:
1. Front-end loader work. Unless you’re putting more than 500 hours a year on your tractor, it’s probably better not to own one and to instead hire a neighbor. Back when we were getting started (we now have several tractors with front-end loaders), we hired a neighbor with a front-end loader for just $25 an hour — that included the equipment and driver.
2. Large animal slaughter. One fall, in the farm’s early years, Dad and I slaughtered six beef cattle. We thought it was a way to save money. But we could only do two a day, and then we had to drive them over to the butcher to get them cut up — a round trip of 30 miles. The following year, we paid them to do it, and we watched as two guys slaughtered one every 15 minutes. Dad looked at me and said, “We’ll never compete with that.” We haven’t tried since.
3. Milking. Growing up, we always milked a couple of Guernsey cows. But selling milk was illegal and selling chickens wasn’t, so we got rid of the cows and raised chickens. Today, we contract with a young guy to milk our two cows. We still get the raw milk, but we aren’t doing it ourselves, and we’re just paying a service fee.
4. Hauling. We have a couple of cattle trailers, but when we need to move several hundred bovines from one property to another, we hire a couple of retired guys in the community who have big trucks and trailers. They charge by the loaded mile, which is a good deal compared with us being inefficient or buying additional equipment. Unless you need a trailer two days a week, you probably shouldn’t own one. The neighbor you hire might become a friend.
5. Delivery. I don’t like to pound the pavement. I don’t like to go to town. But I know that’s where our customers are, and we need to serve them. So we hired a delivery driver, which has been worth every penny. I get to stay home and produce while he battles urban traffic and finds a place to park. He enjoys that, and I enjoy working on the farm; both of us are happy.
6. Sales. Few farmers enjoy making sales calls. I don’t mind it, but it detracts from my real passion, which is working on the production end, innovating new land-healing techniques, and watching earthworms proliferate. So we pay a couple of folks a commission to make sales calls. I hope they become millionaires. If they do, they’ll drag me along with them. In general, adding a sales commission on your products won’t overprice them. Furthermore, a sales agent telling potential customers about your best tomatoes in the world is less self-aggrandizing than you saying it about yourself.
7. Mechanics. Unless you love working in the shop, you should build a good relationship with a couple of community mechanics. Sure, you’ll need to do rudimentary fixes so you’re not completely dependent on others, but don’t lose your salvation and marriage over a repair job. Take it to town, and then go plant more potatoes that you can sell to pay the bill.
8. Bookkeeping. Few farmers, including this one, enjoy financial paperwork. We love breeding records, grazing records, planting records. But financial records? Yuck. Every community has good bookkeepers; ask around and find one you can trust, and then let it go.
9. Excavation. Sure, you can buy a used bulldozer, sometimes for under $15,000, but do you know how to operate it? Here on our farm, when we need to build a pond or scrape off a pad for a structure, we don’t even think about doing it ourselves. We have a guy in the community who can pick your nose with a track loader. There’s no way in the world we’ll ever compete with his skill. Use the money you’d spend on buying and maintaining a machine to pay a good operator, who will get the job done better and cheaper than you could.
10. Web design. Some people love web design work. Others don’t. Lots of e-skill is out there. Use it, and then go sell five more pigs to pay for it. On the other hand, if online design floats your boat, offer your services to a farmer friend. Maybe that farmer will trade you milk for your work.
This list may not suit you, so make your own. Write down the farm work you can take care of by yourself, and then figure out how to find or hire help for everything else. Doing so will make your farmstead sing.