Earth Haven: A Year on a Small Farm

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ILLUSTRATION: MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF
A small farm might or might not have has many or as large a collection of buildings as shown here.

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.