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Farm lessons learned

The rocky road to figuring it out ourselves



In 2012, we traded big city living for mucky boots, never-ending farm chores and a whole lot of four-legged responsibilities. After 15 years of urban living and a million conversations about ‘how’ and ‘when’ we might make it back to our rural roots, the opportunity to actually make the move happened out of the blue. The entire decision-making process went a little like this:

Him: “They offered me the job on the spot.”

Me: “So, I guess we’re moving?”

Him: “Seems that way.”

Though I’m a born and raised farm kid, reaping the childhood benefits of farm life is not the same as carrying the adult responsibilities of running a farm. You’d think that I should have innately known how to build a farm; turns out I didn’t. And so we’ve figured it out ourselves one step at a time. Some of those steps have been steps in the right direction, others have been missteps. Here’s what we wish we’d known before we got started.

Start small . . .?

If you know anything about farming, you’ll know that any “I wish I’d known” article has to start with this piece of advice. For the enthusiastic newbie, it’s almost certainly the hardest rule to follow. On paper, miles of fence line don’t look that time consuming to install. That giant garden plot? Sure! Let’s make it bigger! A barn for winter? Let’s build it ourselves!

Rein yourself in, big starter.

In farming, everything takes twice as long and costs three times as much as you initially plan.

Growing big fast can be incredibly tempting. After all, adding animals, projects, to-dos, is exciting! But here is the reality: if you start bigger than your finances, energy and/or knowledge warrant, you may be setting yourself up to have to shrink, stop, fail, or compromise later . . . any of which are deflating at best, farm-destroying at worst.

That first spring, we rented an excavator. On top of laying thousands of feet of fence line, building barns and getting started with 100 plus animals, we thought we’d grow some gardens. Some really big gardens. And so we started yanking sod from great swaths of soon-to-be garden.

Fast forward four years. Surprisingly, a few of those bare patches have actually become garden. Most of the rest have served time as chicken runs, goat kid nurseries, cat mousing grounds and (most commonly) giant, unsightly weed patches. One day, they may actually serve the purpose they were excavated for. Until then, they are a constantly frustrating reminder of what remains undone.

We were lucky, since this particular case of biting off more than we could possibly chew costs us frustration rather than money. Leaving the wanna-be gardens untended has no major physical or financial downside. However, not all over-eager projects are equally consequence-free. So slow down, enjoy the ride a little. Keep in mind that farms need to be built over time and that sustainability is more important than instant achievement.

. . . but have a big plan

Building a farm that will work for you in the short and long term demands big vision. Though you need to start small, knowing where you want to end up and then working step-by-step towards that long-term goal will save a lot of undoing and frustration in the long run.

Yup, we know this one from unfortunate experience. That first year, committing to the uncomfortably large price-tag of a single, giant barn seemed overwhelming. So we opted to build something much smaller. To date, we’ve built one small barn per year for four years running… and plans are already in the works for the next one. Would one giant barn have been much more cost effective, much more efficient and much more versatile? Heck yes. But, we didn’t have the entire vision in year one, so barns keep getting added as we grow. Don’t follow our lead on this short-sighted method of start-up!

Know what you’re getting into before you get into it

Life often throws impossible catch-22s. Farming demands bold decision making, decisive action, significant financial investment, intense effort even when results aren’t immediately obvious. In short, farming demands knowledge and experience. But what if you haven’t got either?

Research! Given that your farm is likely — at least in the short term — to be your work, your fun, your social life, your vacation time, the content of your dreams and your nightmares, make sure you have a pretty good idea of what the heck you’re getting into.

Talk to others who have walked these steps before you. Ask tough questions like: what do they not like about their farming experience; what do they wish they’d known before they started; what would do they do differently if they could start again?

Google like crazy. Research good information on what it takes to be successful growing and/or raising the crops and/or livestock you imagine.

Ask yourself tough questions. Do you actually have the time, energy, money, enthusiasm and commitment required, both to get started and to keep going in farming? Is this a flash-in-the-pan whim or a long-term passion?

And then be prepared to learn a lot along the way. No matter how much you research before you start, experience will still be a shocking teacher.

Figure out what motivates you

When it comes to farm priorities, you’ve got a few options. Do you care most about efficiency, creating maximum productivity, achieving the highest monetary return, living the best lifestyle, having the happiest animals, producing the best quality product?

If you’d asked me four years ago to choose my priorities, I’d have said, ‘well, all of the above, of course!’ Bad news. All of the above isn’t really possible. In virtually all cases, choosing one priority will make another impossible.

On our farm, unproductive sheep stay here because they are the kids’ favourites; productive sheep leave here because they are ornery or difficult to work with. We prioritize raising farm kids who are comfortable and competent working around safe animals.

On our farm, we raise a few dozen sheep on land that could support three or four times that many. We prioritize raising happy animals, and creating the very best quality 100 per cent grass fed lamb available.

On our farm, we spend a fortune on fences that look nice (okay, so maybe my husband isn’t convinced that is his priority), and we’ve spent nearly as much again buying the best Nigerian Dwarf goat breeding stock around. We prioritize getting started right.

Farming is a whole lot more sustainable and enjoyable if you are true to yourself and ensure the decisions you make match your priorities and long-term vision.

Be prepared: shit happens (literally and figuratively)

Farming isn’t fair. A million things can go wrong, from drought to flooding, from accidents to disease, from predator attacks to market failure.

Farming demands optimism. After all, who would keep farming if they believed their hard work was destined for failure?

While an optimistic, ‘it will be better tomorrow’ spirit can keep a farmer in the game after the worst wreck or failure, it can carry a significant downside too. All farmers know bad things can happen to even the best farmers but many have trouble imagining that bad things can actually happen to them.

A year ago, we euthanized more than 100 chickens: 50 meat birds that were supposed to fill our freezer for the winter, and 50 plus healthy young laying hens. How come? Scared of disease, we’d done everything right. Rather than buying from an uninspected backyard chicken farmer, we’d purchased our spring chicks from a professional chick hatchery.

Unfortunately, we got unlucky. Infected at the hatchery with salmonella enteritidis, our little balls of fluff brought the disease into the rest of our flock. So we had no choice but to kill every chicken on the farm — our kids’ named and hand-raised favourites included — and truck them off to the municipal dump labelled toxic waste.

Shit happens to the very best farmers — and to all the rest of us too. To survive in this game, you’ll need a stiff upper lip, a financial plan that accounts for the unexpected and the optimistic belief that tomorrow will be better.

Invest in reducing risk?

All farmers face crisis. That said, farmers who focus on keeping their crops and animals as safe and healthy as possible face crisis a whole lot less often.

Every farmer knows that baling twine and duct tape solve almost anything in a pinch. That said, a farm held together with baling twine and duct tape is almost certainly a farm with a high vet bill and a correspondingly dwindling bank account.

From a financial perspective, it makes good business sense to keep your crops as healthy and your animals as safe, content and healthy as possible. After all, things that are well looked after will be much more productive. From a legal perspective, the law is clear that animal safety and health are required rather than optional.

Invest in making your life easier

Generally, I love farming. I love the lifestyle, the physicality, the ‘realness’ of being in touch with dirt and animal life and seasons. But there have been moments that I cursed this farming game; wondered why on earth we were investing our time and dollars in building a farm. Almost all of those moments have occurred on the coldest and darkest days of winter, when I was hefting leaking jugs of water from our bathroom tub to the water buckets in our barns.

Is it possible to haul wagons full of water 400 feet from your bathtub to your livestock water buckets all winter long? Indeed it is. In fact, you can make almost anything work. That said, did force-fitting a ridiculously frustrating and unsustainable solution chew away at our enjoyment of our farm and our desire to keep going? It sure did. It sucked not only the fun out of farming, but our energy and enthusiasm to build, grow, improve or invest in any other farm projects. Our farm became a chore and burden.

Some people dream of warm vacations or new wardrobes or fine dining. I dreamed of a winter waterline. For two long winters, cursing the cold and the water, I wished for a frost-free waterline that would deliver water right to my buckets, no heaving, dumping or spilling required.

The $2000 plus price tag of a winter waterline was a hard bullet to bite. But, not spending those dollars was proving far more costly than the financial pain of making it happen.

Today, I can’t imagine how we waited so long. Every time I pull those levers and have instant water, my enjoyment of our farm increases. I’ll forego a fancy tractor, a new roof on our big barn, better couches in our living room, because I’ve got water at the touch of a lever.

What is your winter waterline? What investment or change would make your farm experience more sustainable?

Get yourself a team

Many would-be farmers dream of the self-sufficiency that farming allows, the independence, the autonomy. And farming does allow all of those things. But any farmer who thinks they can be entirely independent is short changing both themselves and their farm.

Today’s farms demand expertise in countless areas. Consider the many hats a farmer might wear in a typical farm week: book-keeper, marketer, mechanic, veterinarian, labourer, manager, researcher, accountant, agronomist, plumber etc., etc. No one has expertise in every field.

Our team’s MVPs include our top-notch, hugely trusted veterinarian; our generous and willing parents; and several farmer mentors. Our wider team includes a good lawyer, a knowledgeable accountant, a strong network of committed and appreciative customers and a pile of friends and family who help out in all kinds of big and small ways.

At its heart, farming has always been about community. We couldn’t do this farming thing without our team.

Get a strong stomach

Remember rule #3? When shit happens — literally or figuratively — it isn’t always pretty. If you have livestock of any kind, you need to be prepared to get your hands dirty. Sometimes really dirty. Routine animal maintenance requires a lot of poop shovelling, as well as a comfort with small-scale veterinary work like giving needles, managing small injuries, castrating, dehorning etc.

But that’s not all. Your animals also depend on you to help them when the going gets rough: you’ll need to manage crisis and injury calmly and competently; you’ll need to bring life into the world, you’ll have to help life exit this world kindly and humanely.

What’s it like to be up to your elbow, trying to rearrange stuck goat kids inside a goat’s uterus? The opposite of gross. Miraculous, vital. In that moment, the only thing in the world that matters. What’s it like to shoot a dying ewe and then slice her open in a ‘cowboy c-section’ to try to save her lambs? The opposite of cruel. A kindness to mama and babies both. And the blood? You don’t even see it as you try to breathe life into the newborns.

If you can’t handle it, you better have someone who can in close proximity.

Be proud of your story

Here’s the reality: if you are a farmer, most people won’t get what you do or why you do it. The average urbanite is three generations away from a farm, which means they generally have little concept of what farming actually requires, or appreciation of the effort involved.

We’ve heard it all.

“Eww! That egg came out of where?!”

“Will the goats eat the puppy?”

“Gross! It’s peeing right in front of us!”

“No! Those lambs are way too cute to eat!”

And the one that gets the biggest giggle from us every time:

“This looks so much more relaxing (and/or easy) than a real job.”

Educating people is part of what we do and what we believe in on our farm. In reality, it is something all farmers should take seriously. While the general public understands less about farming than ever before, their (often unfounded) opinions, shared and then concentrated on social media, carry more and more weight. Farmers require social license to keep operating. If people don’t understand the whats and whys of farming, the freedom to farm will shrink. So start spreading the news that you are proud to be a farmer!

And finally (and most importantly)…

After all, if it was about the money, you’d be doing something else!

Madeleine Baerg and her family raise Dorper and Suffolk sheep and Nigerian Dwarf Goats on the sunny shores of Tuc-el-Nuit Lake in B.C.’s picturesque Okanagan Valley.?