Farm From Scratch
By Peter Allen
Starting a Regenerative Farm From Scratch:
Starting a farm is a difficult and life-consuming task. It’s more than an occupation. It’s a lifestyle, it requires constant attention, focus, endurance, and perseverance. Starting a farm from scratch goes a step further, it requires the expense, uncertainty, necessary mistakes, and sacrifice of building up a working farm, but without the land, equipment, or generational knowledge embedded in an inherited farm. Land, buildings, tools, equipment, animals, and perhaps most importantly, intimate knowledge of the land all need to be acquired. Five years ago, we left the city and embarked on a journey to build up a working farm from scratch that we hope to pass down to the next generations. On a shoestring budget, we’ve built a timber-framed home from the land’s trees, fixed up a dilapidated barn, built up a herd of cattle, a flock of sheep, a mess of hogs and chickens, built fences, run water lines, built up a market for our pastured meats, cleared acres of overgrown woodlands, taken 40 acres out of conventional cropland, planted native prairies and perennial pastures, and planted thousands of fruit, nut, and pine trees. We now support our family with a modest farm income and, more importantly, get to live an incredibly rich and rewarding lifestyle doing exactly what we love most.
In the next few years, hundreds of million acres of farmland will change hands as the last generation of farmers retires without their kids willing to take over. That means we need millions of folks starting their own farms from scratch. After observing what’s worked and what hasn’t in our own experience, we’ve put together a list of the top five principles for starting a farm from scratch.
- Define your Context and Create your Future
A critical and often overlooked element of success in any major life endeavor, is to define exactly what it is that you want to achieve. What gives your life meaning? What makes you excited to get up and work hard through difficult challenges in order to create something of your own effort and determination? What are some concrete steps you can take to get from where you are now to where you’d like to be in five years? Defining your situation and explicitly outlining your goals and life objectives are the first steps towards actualizing them and creating the future on your terms. There are many powerful forces in this world more than happy to create your future for you. We all have the power to create our own futures if we’re willing to put ourselves out there and step up to the plate. The first step is to figure out what kind of life we want. Allan Savory calls this process determining your holistic context. It’s the first step that should be taken when developing a farm plan and it’s the first step we go through at our Permaculture Design and Farm Immersion Courses. It’s important to remember that no matter how precisely you define your context, you and the world continue evolving. It will be necessary to revisit and update your holistic context as the world, the people, and the times change around us.
2. Get Skills and Prove Yourself
After spending a decade in graduate school, I got some fancy letters to put after my name, but I didn’t learn any hard skills. I had to learn animal husbandry, general construction, carpentry, forestry, web design, fencing, marketing, mechanics, and accounting all at once on the fly. When we first started talking about starting a farm, it was hard for folks to take us seriously. We soon started renting pasture at an established farm while looking for land and started building a herd and getting experience with raising animals. When we finished our first batch of grass-fed beef, and were able to cook delicious roasts for family and friends, it was a tangible manifestation of our skills and commitment. People took us a lot more seriously at that point. Going to courses and reading books are all excellent modes of learning about various aspects of farming, but nothing can replace actual experience. Even if it’s just weeding a veggie bed or schlepping five-gallon buckets as an intern or volunteer. The only way to know that you really want to farm is to get on a farm and see what it’s like, day to day. Some folks think they want to start a farm until they actually experience the day to day reality of farm life, at which point they realize their city jobs and paycheck aren’t that bad. That’s okay. Farming isn’t for everyone. The only way to know for sure is to get some experience, preferably, before you commit to starting a farm.
- Live Small
In most circumstances, starting a farm from scratch requires taking a substantial cut in income from an alternative life in the city. Lowering living expenses is the best way to make relatively meager farm incomes stretch as far as possible. Who needs to go out to a restaurant when you’re producing the highest quality foods yourself? Who needs to go out to the bar or to a movie when there’s a mobile hen house to design, plan, scavenge scrap materials for, and build? For many of us that grew up in the comfortable middle-class household, transitioning to a more ascetic farm life can be a major challenge. For our context, we wanted to live on the land, build a non-toxic home, raise a family, grow our own food, and feed as many people in the cities as possible. The only way to make it work in that situation was for us to get used to reduced living expenses and modern comforts. We made the decision to access as much land as possible, so that meant buying a larger parcel with no house instead of a smaller parcel with a house and buildings. So the first month we lived in a tent while we built a yurt which we lived in while we built a cabin which we’re living in now while we build a house. Depending on your context, it may be necessary to sacrifice some modern conveniences in order achieve your goals. Are you willing to do that? It’s the biggest barrier keeping many people from starting a farm.
- Make Mistakes
The only way to really learn is to be constantly making mistakes, becoming aware of them, and improving your approach. Although in some respects, regenerating land through the cultivation of human food is an ancient indigenous practice, to the majority of modern humans, it’s as foreign a concept as communal nut cracking or stripping bark for medicine. There’s no template for us to follow. No instruction manual to copy. In addition to building a farm from scratch, in order to build a regenerative farm, it must be done in an entirely new way. We have to build up this knowledge ourselves. Every single parcel of land has its own unique qualities just as every individual attempting to start a farm has their own unique personality, there are as many ways of regenerating land as there are people. In order to build up this knowledge we have to get out there and try our best at something, honestly observe the results, and humbly accept feedback. We absolutely will make mistakes. The only problem with making mistakes is not learning from them. Check your ego at the barn door. Humbly accepting the feedback that nature daily provides is the only way of learning, growing, and building up a lifetime of knowledge about the intimate details of the land and the farm, which can then be passed down to future generations – so they don’t have to start from scratch!
- Get Started Now
If you want to start a farm someday, get started today! There are lots of things you can do to get started, no matter where you’re at in your path. The first thing is to start growing and selling stuff. Even if that’s just tomatoes from potted plants in an apartment window. Starting a farm means starting a business. It’s an entrepreneurial enterprise. The faster you can get experience selling things, making transactions, and building a brand, the better. As soon as you start selling food, you can incorporate a business and start filing taxes as a farm. Once you’ve started filing a “Schedule F” tax return as a farm, you’ll start being eligible for farm loans, grants, and cost sharing opportunities. These can be super helpful when starting from scratch. Another thing you can do right away is start collecting and starting seeds. Maybe there’s a cool honey locust tree in your neighborhood that produces massive pods every year. Collect some and start growing those seeds out in pots. You can plant the baby trees on land when you get it, or sell the trees and build up some farm business. There are incredible and neglected genetic resources in public places all over. Fruit and nut trees and shrubs are abundantly available for public harvest and eating, or even better, for seed harvest, planting, and regenerating.
Starting a farm from scratch is not for everyone. Only those with the right personality, context, and lifestyle goals will be successful. But the only way to get started is to just get out there and do it. Make mistakes, get dirty and exhausted and see what you’re made of. Start building up the knowledge of how to grow food in a place, regeneratively. It may just be the only way to preserve a dignified future for ourselves on this beautiful planet.