Alan's Musings,  Farming

Winter On The Farm: A Time For Reflection And Planning

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It’s been over three months since we moved onto our new farm, and the ideas about what we want to do with the place just keep on coming. The greatest challenge so far has been to slow down and truly evaluate how we want the place to look and function. We’re not new to agriculture by any means, but we are new to the work required to build a new farm from a blank slate. Each farm is different, and when it comes to planning, there is really no perfect plan that works for everybody, but a plan of some sort IS necessary. So far, we have asked three questions that we thought needed to be answered before we begin making serious changes to the landscape.

First, why are we spending our time and resources building and maintaining a farm in the first place? I’ve been watching the homestead movement for about 15 years, and the reasons why people do this are almost endless. Some people are tired of city life and just want a small place in the country, maybe a few chickens, a small garden, but nothing that would require a significant lifestyle change. Others are motivated by a philosophical dedication to some variation of environmentalism. And many more seek out  simplicity, a life where they can be more responsible for their everyday things, especially the household food supply. Although I have long been a strong advocate of American agrarianism, believing that farm culture produces the most civilized way of living possible, that alone would not be enough to make me want to tend land and livestock each day. We are building a farm because there’s nothing else we want to do, no other way we want to live. Like many Americans, we CAN do a lot of different things, and we could have chosen many other places to buy a home, but we made a conscious decision to concentrate on a landed lifestyle, making every other aspect of our social and work life bow to that. Yes, we plan to produce our own food and be as self-sufficient as possible, but mostly, we farm because it’s what makes us smile.

Second, what should be improved first and what will it cost? The second part is easy to answer: a lot. There are a myriad of ways to answer the first part of the question, but for us, a few things are absolutely necessary for us to accomplish now rather than later. First, we decided to plant the orchard. Trees take a lot of time to grow, and we want to start harvesting our own fruit as soon as possible. Trees are ordered, and the orchard site is being prepared (look for a new post on that whole process next month). Next we decided to invest in a tractor and a bottom plow to break the designated garden and field crop sections in time enough for the freeze cycle to soften the land before spring harrowing. We’ve also ordered honey bees, and are preparing pens for pigs to arrive in a couple months. The start-up costs are high, but we’ve learned that if you are going to buy something, make sure it’s quality. There’s nothing more aggravating than having to buy something over again. Right now, the farm is not and cannot provide any major source of income. It will, eventually. It’s nearly impossible to build a farm without an external, even if temporary, source of income. We’ve learned than most of our farm expenses at this point are for things we will not ordinarily have to buy again, or if we do, it will be awhile: fencing, cultivating equipment, livestock pens, etc.

Third, what skills do I need to master to make THIS farm produce efficiently? What I had to realize is that I have to figure out what’s best for my own farm, not anyone else’s. No two farms are the same. I’m not interested in acquiring the skills necessary to operate a large row-crop business, just the ones I need to make my small farm produce well. I don’t need 200 bushels of corn per acre, nor 300 acres of pasture to support a large commercial cattle operation. Winter is a great time to read, and read some more. Most farm failures I read or hear about are almost always the product of ignorance. Land has to be learned, understood, and respected before it can be managed for food production. Same could be said for livestock. Some things we knew before we got here, like how to grow a traditional vegetable garden, and how to keep basic livestock. But there’s much more that we didn’t know, like how to grow a successful orchard, and how to best transform pasture to cropland. And just because we’ve planted things before, and tended livestock in the past, that does not mean that we know it all. Actually, the more time I spend planning what to do with this farm, the more I realize how little I know about any of it. But that’s ok. We’ll learn what we can from reading, then we’ll learn from our mistakes. I think it was Cato the Elder, an ancient Roman writer, who said the highest complement that a man can receive is to be called a good farmer. I think he’s got a point. Becoming a good farmer takes years of experience, hard work, and learning the right lessons. To be a good farmer requires mastering a host of skill sets, and boy have we got a lot to learn!


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