Episode 2: How to Start Farming Without Ruining Your Life

A set of broiler chicks in the brooder at Sylvanaqua Farms

What to Grow, and Why

Here’s a fun paradox: there isn’t enough supply of Local food to meet the demand, and yet marketing your products can prove surprisingly difficult. There’s a bunch of reasons for this:

  • The regulatory environment in some states makes it difficult to market items to restaurants and retailers. This is particularly true for value-added products and meat.
  • Food hubs have a hard time increasing capacity without succumbing to Get Big or Get Out economics
  • The markets where customers like to congregate, like popular farmers markets and grocers, can be extremely difficult to break into for new, small producers

Marketing is going to be a painful, one-customer-at-a-time process when you start out. You’re going to have to do things that don’t scale, like giving out big samples, making house-to-house deliveries for fairly small orders, and otherwise making it very easy for people to get their hands on your stuff. It’s going to be important that those customers turn into regulars who buy from you as often as multiple times a week.

To do this, you need to produce things that people eat regularly. Things that aren’t a one-time splurge or a “let’s give this a try” kind of item; your early finances will depend on selling someone a product that they’ll eat within a few days then restock immediately. Without these “deep” customers, you’ll have to put together a large base of infrequent “shallow” customers which will be expensive and time consuming to manage (and to acquire). That’s not what you need when you’re still learning how to produce a quality product. It’s much better to make $1,000/week from 20 customers than $1,500/week from 60 customers — the margins will be about the same but the latter will leave you exhausted.

It takes a lot of discipline to do this. You’ll receive your seed/hatchery catalog and visit your breeders, and you’ll be agog at the variety. Yellow tomatoes, purple carrots and basil, black broiler chickens, wild-looking rare Ossabaw hogs, muscovy ducks, Narragansett turkeys, sunchokes… it’s enough to make growing garden variety (ha) red tomatoes seem either silly or lazy.*

Baker Creek, a.k.a. Heroin for Green Thumbs (via TheGreatestGarden.com)

But it’s not silly. Because most of your consumers aren’t that adventurous.

Food is emotional, deeply entwined with memory, and — foodie Instagram accounts aside — most people don’t like to mess around with the classics. They want a juicer tomato, a more flavorful pork chop, a creamy fresh egg. They’re not ready for the razor breast of a non-Cornish chicken, the fat cap on an Ossabaw pork chop, the leanness of a grass fed beef filet, or a tomato that isn’t the brightest, reddest thing on the table. Don’t make the mistake of projecting your values onto your customers; you’re growing for them, not you. If you’re growing for you, you can start a homestead and ignore this entire series. Otherwise, marketing is hard enough without sacrificing hordes of potential customers on the altar of uniqueness.

So with that said, have at it with growing heirloom produce and heritage breeds. They taste better because they’re bred for flavor instead of shelf life and other non-palatables. But don’t go nuts. Grow red tomatoes and watermelons, green basil and broccoli and lettuce, Cornish chickens, pigs that don’t look like warthogs (Gloucester Old Spots are a good gentle breed to start with), and regular old brown eggs. The higher quality is all your need to distinguish yourself.

The other thing falling into the “what to grow” category is “not too much.” Annie and I started off with hens, broilers, pigs, baked goods, and a small market garden. That was way too much for rookies to start out with. Over time, a diversified operation is a source of incredible strength — I can’t count how many times our pork enterprise saved us when chicken fell off a cliff, and vice versa. But when you’re starting out, you generally want to avoid having to learn more than one thing at a time.

If, for example, you’re envisioning a farm centered on produce, then start with growing one or two crops in each season. Start year one’s cool season with lettuce and kale. The warm season in that year might be tomatoes and sweet corn. And the following cool season might be peas and spinach added to the lettuce and kale. But… but… I could just poke in a little cabbage on the sid — NO! BAD! BAD FARMER! DROP IT!

NOT FOR YOU! BAD! — via Polyface Farms, the Raken House where rabbits and hens lay (giggidy) in harmony

In the next year’s warm season you might add peppers and melons to the corn and ‘maters. This will seem slow and silly for the first year, but trust me, you will be saving your sanity and developing expertise. Besides, you’re adding five or six crops a year at this clip — in four years you’ll have 20 items on offer. If you can produce 20+ items with expert proficiency, you will be just fine. Doubly so when you start value adding.

Protein farmer? Hens are the hardest thing to screw up, and everybody loves fresh eggs. Spend a solid year getting everything about the hen operation right — the input costs, the amount of pasture used, predator control, labor, equipment maintenance. Avoid the temptation to expand into new operations the moment you feel like you’ve stopped screwing up! Hens in the spring are a completely different ballgame than hens in the winter. Go a whole year and experience all the seasons. Keep your powder (and your cash) dry for that inevitable emergency. Build your market on selling the best damn eggs in your whole damn county. People will beg you to grow other things. Having a customer exclaim, “wow these are great! Are you gonna grow turkeys for Thanksgiving?” will have your ego purring like a kitten. Temper your enthusiasm and LET THEM WAIT**.

This isn’t just about developing expertise with rote wax-on-wax-off discipline; it’s also about finances. One of the lessons that took me way too long to learn was this: BUY WHAT YOU NEED TO MAKE THE OPERATION WORK. Buy the $700 hog bulk feeder; it’s worth it. Buy the $300 12-hole nestbox; it’s worth it. Buy the $450 hog field drinker; it’s worth it. Buy the $65 poultry feed trough and the $45 bell waterer; it’s worth it. Buy the $1,700 hoophouse kit; it’s worth it. Buy the $200 solar fence energizer; it’s worth it. Buy the $550 ton of feed instead of the $16 50# bag; it’s worth it.

Yes, alt-Ag hippie rags like Mother Earth News and Permaculture News will tempt you with articles about greenhouses and coops built by homesteaders for pennies on the dollar. Read my lips: YOU. ARE. NOT. A. HOMESTEADER. You are a commercial farmer, and you do not have time to screw around and get cute. Factor in the costs of doing it right the first time and move on.

Hope they’re growing deodorant in that barn… (via inianitah.com)

You can’t make these necessary expenses if you’re trying to make them across four or five enterprises all at once. You’ll bleed yourself dry and have no room to recover from mistakes. Trust me, you’re going to accidentally bushhog your irrigation tubes or forget to close up the hens or lose an entire crop of something to hail: you will need the financial room to recover.

I spent years nickel and diming everything. My Hell is the Devil ordering me to tally up and post to Twitter the amount of time and money I spent on the consequences of ramshackle solutions like DIY nestboxes, pig waterers, hoophouses, feed troughs, henmobiles, etc. I was dealing with four enterprises all at once, and there’s no way I could have properly capitalized all of them at the same time. Do not repeat my mistakes.

*Exotics CAN make up the shortfall with agritourism, but I advise strongly against getting into agritourism until you’ve got a few years under you and you know what you’re doing.

**I am literally shouting this. MAKE THEM WAIT!!!!!!

Chris Newman is a permaculture farmer in Earlysville, Virginia. For $1/month, you can support his writings and other beyond-the-farm sustainability endeavors on Patreon. The next episode in this series — topic TBD — will be released within the next week. Or see Episode 1 here. Visit the farm and view the occasional on-farm livestream at @sylvanaquafarms on Instagram.