Succeeding as a Small Producer

Troly farmer tips

Here are the ten most identifiable keys to our small farm success. You may be able to finesse one or more of the points. But beware; glossing over any with unrealistic bravado may shower the dream with burning arrows. 

As one considers what to do to make a living on such a two-acre parcel, there are major factors to consider, a screen through which one’s dreams must pass.

1. Find Like-Minded Partners

We believe it takes two like-minded, very supportive people to make most start-up enterprises work. And a small farm, like any small business, is indeed intense during the early years! It will require all the focus the partners can give.

That is not to say that it is impossible to do this with a family or one partner’s career and its related needs — but the partners must mutually understand, appreciate and fully support the motivation involved in operating the farm, and be prepared to sacrifice most other outside activities during the early years.

It is obvious to us that our coherent interests are in large measure responsible for our success. To be blunt with a personal subject, it is also obvious that this would not have been the case with our prior spouses; neither of our prior marriages would have withstood this activity level because the spouses did not have the same passion for walking/talking/working/reading about and thinking about growing things, and, quite understandably, could not have supported or substantially contributed to the overall effort. And neither of us could likewise contribute to their passionate endeavors.

Remember, we said that this is a great life and very fulfilling, but probably only if this is where your passion lies. It is crucial to identify personal life passions in advance. Dragging a partner into an intense field of endeavor into which he/she does not fit may be fatal to the relationship.

2. Continue Educating Yourself

The 80-hour weeks mentioned above can be minimized through improved techniques and timing. Some of that comes from personal experience, and usually much cheaper and less frustrating, is to capitalize on others’ experience.

Read. Listen. Read. Ask questions. Read some more. You get the idea.

Read Books

Most of our successful activities and techniques come from books we’ve read. After all, several thousand years of cumulative agricultural experience rest in society’s collective memory, including the written word. Just a few decades ago, one could find all kinds of books full of wise farming observations, or look just about anywhere in this country and find an old, experienced farmer, and tap into a fairly consistent ancient knowledge. Reading is important; getting wise personal advice is also important, but hard to come by.

(Editor’s Note: Find the book this article is excerpted from, and many more, including audio and video, at the Acres U.S.A. bookstore.)

Good Advice is Hard to Find

First, it’s hard to find any farmers nowadays. There aren’t many left.

Second, the experienced farmer of the late 20th century is a product of post-World War II chemical farming practices. He/she knows all about operating large equipment on a large expanse of land, using procedures developed by and, in effect, dictated by the chemical companies, the federal government, and his/her banker. That may sound overly simplistic. It isn’t really when you consider the long-term interaction of corporate grant money with the agricultural universities, corporate money in politics, and the revolving job door among public agricultural officials, agribusiness, and agri-education.

This is the new collective knowledge: how to deal with government programs, how to use high-tech equipment, how to negotiate with marketing middlemen, and how to work with a distant banker. Even the fertility and pest control program, and crop choices, are often in the hands of those same outsiders or hired consultants (who work for the very firms that will sell and/or automatically apply the remedies they prescribe).

Our modern farmer is minimally aware of the complexities of the living soil, spends little time with hands or feet on the soil, and observes few of the many nuances of plants and soil so prominent to his ancestors. A Farm family’s “farming” skills have been replaced by reliance on technocrats and bureaucrats.

Some farmers understand this; some resent it; to most, it is just a fact of life.

All of this is just a long way to say that there is not much next-door help available to any of us as we work to resuscitate the best of the time-honored farming skills. Fortunately, many old books offer valuable information and there are some terrific new books. Those at the top of our list include:

Books worth reading

The New Organic Grower, by Eliot Coleman and Backyard Market Gardening, by Andy Lee. These provide excellent details about small mixed crop operations. They both seem to be widely available at book stores.
The Organic Method Primer, by Bargyla and Gylver Rateaver. This is the ultimate book about how to grow any food crop organically. It is expensive but is worth every penny.
Salad Bar Beef, Pastured Poultry Profits, You Can Farm and Family Friendly Farming, by Joel Salatin.
The several basic texts about “Permaculture,” by Bill Mollison. These cover the concepts of farm layout in the broadest sense, ensuring that everything fits together in a multipurpose, mutually supportive sort of way.

3. Be Accessible to Your Clients

A small farm should be within a reasonable distance of potential customers. Towns offer wide varieties of food consumers in a rather dense cluster. Since everyone’s time is at a premium, logic dictates farming within a short distance of a city or town where one can quickly deliver to the consumers or they can easily come to pick up produce and see the farm.

If one out of every 20 families would participate in your farm program, it only requires a population base of 2,000 families to make that program successful. About 100 cars come down our driveway to the produce stand each week, probably representing 100 families.

Your customers will come to consider you “their farmer.” Most will love the opportunity to see — and have their children see — where their food comes from.

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