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Farm Notes – Ready aye ready And other farm lessons learned

Later today I’m delivering several loads of composted hog and sheep manure to a young family that has just bought a farm here in Metchosin. Some people greet newcomers to a community with gift certificates to local businesses; our greetings come in the form of nutrient-heavy poop—10 plus yards of it for the market garden they plan to operate.

I can’t think of a better way to welcome new farmers, unless it is to offer up some advice that might help them avoid the pitfalls that are so common to fresh-to the-landers. That’s why I’m going to send them a copy of this issue as soon as it is off the press. Madeleine Baerg’s article (begins p. 28) on the lessons she’s learned after three years on the farm offers the kind of fresh, honest, timeless advice that can not only help new farmers thrive but may actually keep them from crashing and burning.

Her advice ranges from the practical (start small, assemble a team when help is required) to psychological (understand what motivates you, be proud of your story). I foresee her article joining others we’ve published over the years as being essential reading for new farmers.

I’ve come to think of the years immediately after people start farming as much like the weeks after a piglet or lamb is weaned—high risk of failure. Among the common hazards: taking on too much work, asymmetry of enthusiasm (she wants to worm the herd, he wants to go waterskiing), money problems, unreasonable expectations.

Anything that this publication, or any farmer, can offer to keep that from happening has got to be considered a positive.

Baerg’s article, based on what she’s learned after three years, got me thinking about what I’ve learned after 20 years of farming. Or, more accurately, how what I’ve learned has changed as our farm has changed. For example, at one time I would have agreed that starting small is a good idea. But now, for our small commercial farm, it makes sense to start projects at a viable scale. So when we decided to add meat birds to our farm, we did so at a scale (several thousand a year) that worked with our lamb and pork production.

Also learned after 20 years: each new enterprise the farm takes on not only takes time to set up, but takes time to maintain. We all know it takes time to build a barn, but the darned thing is going to need painting, and gutters need to be cleaned.

Apologies to readers who find this blazingly obvious but. . . established farmers can convince themselves that something like meat birds (or whatever) can be added without a lot of extra cost or effort. To some degree it is true—you’ve got the truck, the barn space, the bin for bulk feed, you do chores every day anyway. Why not chuck some feed at chickens that will sell for $4/lb?

Beware: each enterprise requires time, and attention, there is only so much of both. At some point, if a new enterprise is to be added, something has to go.

Related to the above: just because a farmer finds him- or herself with time on their hands does not mean that time has to be filled with yet more farm projects. Farmers, unlike transport trucks, do not need to jam every cubic foot of their lives with work to be efficient. Sometimes it is okay to sit on the porch, or to go waterskiing.

My final lesson-learned is to be prepared (okay, maybe I am still learning this one). I am increasingly convinced that the success of a farm—personal satisfaction, profitability, degree of sustainability—depends on being ready: when drought hits a crop and you have the ability to irrigate, the irrigation pump and reel needs to be ready; when spring comes early (as it did for us this year) the haying equipment needs to be lubricated and ready; when the ewe develops mastitis, the medical kit has to be stocked and . . . ready.

I think a lot of the satisfaction of farming is the degree to which it can engage us. Given that I’m still learning after 20 years of farming, and that how and what I’m learning continues to change, I don’t see a lack of engagement being an issue anytime soon.