So You Want to Be a Farmer?

Reader Contribution by Kevin T. Ford
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Photo by Fotolia/bonniemarie

I remember vividly my future wife laughing at me when we were in college, and I told her that someday Iwould like to own a milk cow. Fast forward three years, and I was quitting my job so that I could become an organic farmer. For three years I had sat behind my teacher’s desk in the high school where I taught, scheming about how I could make a go at farming.

Finally, I just took a leap of faith, moved in with family, and started a CSA off of land I was given to use by my father-in-law. I admit that I had absolutely no idea what I was doing, but I thought I would learn as I went. Did I ever learn! And mostly in the school of hard knocks.

I’m pretty sure that I am the example of how one should not get started farming. Well, sure, I have made a living for the last several years by growing vegetables and marketing them through a CSA. However, I would have saved a lot of heartache had I just done a bit more homework or had someone to say, “Do it this way, not that way.”

I’m now quite comfortable with my farming skills. When hail or drought doesn’t destroy our gardens here in Southern Kansas, they grow pretty good crops. I think though that I can now offer quite a bit of advice to young (or old) aspiring farmers and gardeners as they seek to make a go of it as a farmer. Here are a few recommendations to smooth the transition.

5 Tips for Beginning Farmers

  1. Choose an Endeavor. When I quit my job as a teacher, I had no doubt that I would grow several acres of vegetables to get started. The books written by Eliot Coleman had convinced me that this was the least expensive way to get started farming, and that it required the least amount of land. Since I lacked both capital and land, this was the logical first step. However, if I had it to do over again, I would immediately diversify by adding small livestock as well. One other important factor is to do something that you love. I really enjoy growing vegetables, but some farmers would much rather work with livestock. What you do will be dictated by the circumstances in which you find yourself.
  2. Read, Learn, and Do. Take every opportunity to learn as much as you can about your farming choice. Read everything you can, visit other farms, and eat the scraps that come from the tables of the true farming masters. You cannot learn too much. I make it a habit to always be reading something that will increase my farming knowledge. I can’t explain how helpful it would have been if I had read up more on plant diseases. One year I lost almost an entire harvest of winter squash to Gummy Stem Blight. We don’t usually get that disease in our arid climate, so it was something I learned about the hard way. You will never have too much information!
  3. Get Some Land. Even if you are in the city, you can get started small. Ask your neighbor to grow a garden and then split some of the produce with them as payment. I visited Foundation Farm in Eureka Springs, Ark., where Patrice Gros farms only 1 acre and makes a fine living. You don’t need as much land as you think. Often rural roads have wide ditches that could fit a couple of chicken tractors. Think outside the box. However, make sure it’s legal, too!
  4. Learn to Market Your Produce. You must learn to sell your goods. Too many good farmers are not good salesmen. If you are close to a city you may be able to have an on farm store. Check out farmer’s markets and see if you can find a niche. What are vendors selling or not selling. CSA’s can be wonderful ways to sell goods, but can also be very dangerous for inexperienced farmers. We have switched to a buyer’s club model so that there is still some assured income, but the risk for members is minimized. It won’t matter if you have the best heirloom tomatoes and peppers if you don’t know how to sell them.
  5. Don’t Give Up. You are guaranteed to experience more difficulties that you could ever imagine. Just keep going. Our first two years of farming consisted in the two hottest driest summers in Kansas since the Dust Bowl years of the 1930’s. Our third year consisted of a devastating hail storm coupled with a plague of grasshoppers. Yet, I will always be the first one to tell you that I love farming. If you want to do it bad enough then you will find a way. Do not be afraid!
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