My exploration of the possibility of farming began as many people’s do. I had grown up in the suburbs and hadn’t ever given much thought to where my food came from. But we became friends with some people who had a garden and chickens. Then someone recommended Wendell Berry and Joel Salatin’s You Can Farm.
It wasn’t an immediate conversion, but I was definitely intrigued. This was about ten years ago, and at the time I was committed to spending at least nine years in the Army. I think this was a big advantage—I didn’t even have the option to quit my job and go pursue a dream. It had to happen gradually.
And so my wife and I began to read more and more and to experiment with growing a garden and raising a few animals—as much as we could while moving every three years and starting a family.
Eventually—about a year out from retirement—the thought occurred to us, “Why not see what it’s like to actually farm?” i.e., to do more than homestead. At the very least we’d learn skills we could use as homesteaders, and we might discover that farming full-time was what we wanted to do.
So we reached out to some people—cold-calls, basically—a technique I highly recommend!—and were offered an internship at a cattle farm in Alabama.
After about a year there, though, we made the decision that farming for profit was not for us.
We Wanted to Do Too Many Things
When we first arrived in Alabama we were of course energized and raring to go. I started learning how to move large herds of cattle and to set up polywire. We planted a garden in the backyard and the girls got to feed bottle lambs.
Over time, though, the garden started to languish. I was working with cattle all day long and didn’t invest the energy to take care of it after work. We realized that we had many “farm” interests besides just cattle—other types of animals, veg, bees, composting, food preservation, etc.—but not enough time to do them all.
In other words, we realized that running a full-time small-scale farm generally means spending so much time focused on business enterprises (i.e., beef, poultry, and pork, or veg) that you don’t have the time or energy to devote to other farm-related pursuits.
We recognized over the course of the year that we had too many interests to specialize in one thing. We wanted to have chickens and raise pigs and have a milk cow, and we also wanted to grow mushrooms and start a Johnson-Su bioreactor and heat our home with firewood. Looking around at farmers we knew, both there in Alabama and elsewhere, it didn’t seem like many had the freedom to do this kind of thing.
Maybe another way of putting this is that we’re actually permaculturists at heart.
We desired the “traditional”—yes, probably romanticized—farm experience. But the economics of modern small-scale farming basically preclude this.
We Didn’t Need to Take the Financial Risk
I know that modern, small-scale farming can be profitable. There are plenty of examples. But I also know from running the numbers in spreadsheets that it’s really tough to make it work.
The caveat to this is that I’m not crazy about the idea of direct marketing. My wife and kids would be great at it, but I’m just not a salesperson. If we were willing to go there, I’m confident we could have had a profitable farm.
I have thoughts on direct marketing—I’m skeptical whether, in many cases, a person who direct markets comes out on top compared to a farmer who accepts commodity prices and spends their extra time doing off-farm work instead of direct marketing. But, of course, accepting commodity prices mean you do have to scale up. Maybe not to industrial standards, but the spreadsheets I worked out with a friend in Alabama indicated that you would need a pretty sizeable herd of either cattle or pigs. This means loans and contracts and exposure to the risks of the market. In other words, it means dependence.
At the end of the day, we realized that whether direct marketing or not, our personal financial context didn’t require us to take the financial risks that farming requires.
We Didn’t Need to Take the Physical Risk
Finally, it goes without saying that farming is physically stressful. Even without a major accident—which is probably inevitable for most life-long farmers—there’s daily wear and tear that adds up over time.
Physical injury would lead to farm business failure much more easily than in a service-sector job.
I know this sounds wimpy, but it’s just the truth. I didn’t need to take the risk.
Now, admittedly, being a homesteader isn’t necessarily that much safer. It might even be more dangerous since I spend a decent amount of time with chainsaws and axes. But if I do get hurt, my livelihood is less likely to be affected.
One additional factor—something that probably deserves its own discussion—is that anyone with the leadership and management skills to run a successful farm, by definition, possesses the ability to lead or manage almost any type of business, or to be a manager for someone else’s business. The unfortunate reality is that anyone with these kinds of talents can make more money with less physical effort in almost any other industry. To choose farming over something simpler means you have to love it. But it also means you have to focus on it, which means you don’t have the time for all your other interests—see my first point.
Hopefully, this isn’t too much of a downer. I’m still a big proponent of farming and farmers. But it’s not for everyone, and I worry about people getting into it for idealistic reasons and then burning out quickly. Doing an internship or—better yet, in order to see what farm life is really like—just getting a job on a farm, helps.
Ultimately, for us, homesteading provides most of the benefits of a healthy lifestyle, connected to natural processes, with far less financial and physical risk.
I’m confident that I could have successfully farmed … but I realized I didn’t need to.
Read more Homestead Blog posts by Paul Meyer.
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