We just received the SFJ and were looking forward to reading the article “Making the Plunge” by Bob Williams. After reading it I was a little disappointed. When I first glanced at the title in the table of contents I wanted to skip the other articles and immediately read this one. His writing is fine and the ideas presented are certainly admirable; however, I was hoping there would be some “nuts and bolts” to Alan Ellis’ questions “How can I get started and small farm?” I fairly rushed to pen and paper to offer my thoughts which, hopefully, will directly answer that question at least in part.
For those who need to have someone with “qualifications” speaking, I offer the following. I hold an earned Bachelors, Masters and Doctors degrees from American schools. I have taught from the junior high level to the graduate level at universities (rank of associate professor). I have written and published, am a Wisconsin licensed psychologist and real estate broker. There are a few other qualifications but of diminishing importance. However, perhaps my best qualification is that I am a “small farmer” and do so with horses and I also deal in farms in my real estate work. I have met scores of people who have tried almost everything to get into farming with little or no money. I think I have tried nearly everything to help them get started and prosper and I think I might have something to offer that may help other people with the same question.
Let’s assume the beginning ‘farmer’ has absolutely nothing. Nothing but a will to farm and a reasonably normal body. To realistically think about simply buying a farm, stocking and equipping it, is out of the question. To think about Farmers’ Home Administration getting you started is possible, but I don’t recommend it. If you do choose to go the FmHA route you will rarely know where you are at, will not be independent, and you will find their demands will be contrary to the philosophy espoused by the Small Farmer’s Journal. Besides that, FmHA is simply lousy to deal with. If you have an hour sometime, I’ll be happy to elaborate on the issue.
Let’s return to the nuts and bolts of getting started with an empty pocket, a full desire and an optimistic mental set.
The very first thing you must do is search out a farmer, preferably a farmer who farms close to the way that you want to farm. The closer the better, but any farmer in need of help will do for a start. To get started you can begin to work for any farmer at all, BUT, you must begin to search for one who approaches the style of farming that you wish to pursue, i.e., if you think you eventually want to raise beef, then find a rancher who raises beef.
Ideally you need to locate a fellow who will supply you with housing — preferably that has a second set of buildings somewhere on his farm that you and yours could live in and use some of the buildings to raise stock in and your pay would, in part, be feed. There is no good reason to work only for cash — ask to be paid a reasonable wage but be flexible on trading wages for building a barn use, feed, a huge garden area, etc.
Thus, your primary goal is to find a farmer that needs your help, will give you a couple of buildings and will pay you an honest wage which would be divided into cash and feed for your future stock, plus allow you to plant a big garden. This fellow will not be as hard to locate as you might think, but what you absolutely must be willing to give in return is your very best efforts, reliability, loyalty and all those things which make for “damn good help”.
I want to stress that point for a number of reasons, the main ones being that the kind of “help” that you are is very likely to be the kind of farmer that you will be down the road. If you shirk the crummy jobs of farming, such as cleaning the chicken coop or the calf pens, you will be cheating your employer and cheating yourself. Every job is not all that bad if you roll up your sleeves and get started.
The second reason you need to give your all to your boss is because he is giving you a start — you owe him a heck of a lot more than the pay you will get. You, in fact, are a student — he is your teacher, and yet he will pay you to learn. You must watch him, ask questions, do as you are told and learn everything you can. Very shortly you will be on your own and you will find that the more you learn now, the better you will be when you have only yourself to rely on. Understand this — you can learn even from his mistakes. In fact, sometimes his errors, his blunders, his breakdowns, will be your best lessons.
At this point you will be started — you began with nothing, you now have a job, shelter, opportunity, a teacher and a hope.
The next thing is to begin to acquire what you eventually are going to need. This will be both stock and machinery. An important item here, as well as in the future, is to deal on a CASH basis. You MUST NOT borrow to pay later. I don’t want to give all the reasons for everything I’m recommending — you will have to trust them. Pay as you go, EXCEPT for a SINGLE exception (later stated) is the best. Trust it, don’t question it.
We will assume you eventually wish to dairy. You may, in fact, wish to raise hogs, beef, bees, horses or whatever, but chances are you will be producing one or two things which will be a major source of income.
Don’t misunderstand — you will probably want a variety — because to live reasonably well you will need a flock of chickens, a milk cow or two, a sow or two, a few hives of bees and certainly horses, but realistically you also will need to have some reasonably reliable source of income; a milk check, feeder pigs, beef or whatever.
Your task now is to begin to acquire those things that you will need for your independence.
Essentially what you need to do is to be awake and be aware to opportunities and then act on them. Auctions are a very good place to pick up real bargains, but you need to be awake and ready to act. Keep in mind these principles — you don’t buy anything that you cannot pay cash for. You do not buy anything that you really don’t need. (This will be a little difficult, because you may not need something now that is a bargain, but you will need it later.) You must not buy JUNK. You must be able to see beyond minor repairs and dirt as well as to be able to see beyond the immediately obvious use of something.
Let me give you an example. Not long ago, I was at an auction and they were selling a large round lick tank. A lick tank has internal wheels that turn, by cow or horse tongue power, into a vat and brings up a concentrate usually of protein, minterals, vitamins, etc. Usually it is rectangular or round, stands about 2 1/2 feet high and everything is covered but the very top of the wheels, which are licked and consequently turn and bring up the concentrate. At any rate, no one was bidding on it and I already had one at home, but I knew it was a bargain, so I bid and bought it for $15. Why? Because by taking off the top and setting aside the wheels I have frequently needed tank for water, feed storage, etc. It was obviously a lick tank, but it was also a water tank in disguise and a very good one. The bottom is a heavy gauge steel — much better than a regular galvanized tank. How many of those at the auction would have given more if a conventional water tank was sitting there?
The point is, you buy what you need now, or in the future, that isn’t junk and is a bargain, and you forsake all others. Thus you have begun to buy quality stock and machinery for cash.
Let’s again assume that you wish to dairy. If you bought a beautiful Spring Holstein heifer you will pay, at today’s market, about $1200. But for you it is foolish to buy her because it will probably take you a long time to save the $1200 and our goal is to get you independent farming as fast, but as sound, as we can. It may be better to begin by buying calves. You have the buildings, you are paid partly in feed and you don’t have $1200, but you do have $50 to buy the calf — a heifer calf, not a bull calf. Every $50 you get, you buy a calf and begin to raise it the best and cheapest way you can. Cheapest meaning that you don’t get sucked into high-priced, off-the-farm feeds that will leave you busted before you begin. $1200 will buy one Spring heifer which will probably give you one calf plus the milk, cream, cheese and butter. BUT $1200 will buy you 24 calves, which in a short two years will give you the independence and means to live plus the milk, cream, etc. that you will need.
Probably about two or three years will be all you will need to acquire the things necessary to move away from the man you have been working for. Everywhere you can, you must pick up anything you can that you may or will need. Obviously, if someone is going to throw something away — take it, even if it seems of limited value. If it’s free or dirt cheap — take it. If it’s repairable, repair it, because you probably will need a pickup and really nothing more in the line of automobiles or tractors. But even if it is not repairable, you must be able to see beyond what it immediately is. An old unrepairable pickup is a wagon in disguise. You are going to need all the trailers and wagons that you can lay your hands on. The back end of a pickup makes a beautiful trailer for fencing, hauling rocks, feed and what have you; if the box is shot, the axles and tires can be made into a four wheel wagon running gear reasonably easily. The seat will work in a horse-wagon, the lights can be saved for your future pickup, the battery can be sold for $3 which can buy you six new burlap gunny sacks which, if properly stored, will give years of service and when worn out can serve to wipe and rub down horses, and then can be used to wipe off machinery, and then either burned in your bee smoker, or to start a fire in your wood burner, or to be used as a mulch or screen to hold dirt in a ditch you are attmepting to heal over.
In an old truck you will find many bolts, nuts, screws, springs and other parts that will serve you well. The springs holding the hood are excellent for building a steel cable corral in which the cables are held tight by the springs. The tire rims can be used to keep things off the ground, like bee hives, water tanks, feed boxes and wooden items. Indeed, salvaging cars, trucks and machinery is a study by itself. All this for merely toting the old pickup away.
You should begin to collect anything you can, because somewhere along the line you can either modify it, use it, trade it or sell it. This applies to animals as well as machinery. Somebody will have a sick calf, or some goat kids, or an old horse, or bantam chickens or something that can be nursed, eaten, raised, reproduced, traded, bartered or whatever, to a useful end. You begin farming by beginning to farm. And “farming” is producing as much as you can for as little as you can and enjoying the journey.
A cross-bred calf — Jersey-Holstein, Holstein-Angus, Guernsey-Hereford — simply does not bring as much as a registered, well-marked, well-groomed, purebred calf, but for you, the beginner, a cross-bred calf becomes the family cow who saves you literally hundreds of dollars per year and who, when bred back to the most desirable breed of your choice, will have a calf that is 3/4 of what you want. Its offspring bred back produces an animal that is all but indistinguishable from the purebred.
An old broken down mare can produce a heck of a fine colt which will give you service via her offspring for the rest of your life. The principle you must keep in mind is that sometimes the best way to what you want is the indirect way. If you want a herd of beef it will take you forever, if ever, to work in the city to save to buy them, but if you do as I am suggesting, you can begin now and soon get to where you want to be.
Now then, you have worked at least two, maybe three, but probably less than four years, for someone else and you have acquired a great deal and you have precious little invested and you know a heck of a lot more about farming. Then you are ripe to rent a farm; not buy, but rent. You look around for the cheapest, best farm you can and you rent it for as little as possible. The hard facts of life are that you must learn to negotiate initially, you must learn to bargain all along the way, and then when a deal is struck, you don’t cheat — you hold your end of the bargain. You deal hard but when the deal is made you do your part and more. Sometimes the cheapest farm to rent is not really the cheapest farm. That is to say that one farm may be had for $35/acre per year and another may be $50/acre, and the $50 one is really the cheapest one.
Regardless, your next step is to rent the best farm at the cheapest price that you can find and wherever you can find it. Deal as hard as you possibly can and then once the deal is made, do as much for the landowner as you can. It’s just like the original fellow who gave you the first job. The way that you worked for him is the way you should treat your landlord and that is the way you eventually will treat yourself and will be the kind of success you will become.
You fix his buildings, you pick up your garbage, you mow the lawn, trim the trees, pick the rocks, fix the fence and pay him as your agreement calls for. At this point then you have acquired basic stock with variety, horse drawn machinery and are producing enough to pay the rent plus enough to sell in order to buy the essentials. I’d like to make a point here. You buy only that which you need and that you cannot make yourself, and only at the lowest price you can find. The questions you must ask yourself with each and every purchase are: Can I get by without it, is there a substitute, can I modify something else; If I must buy it, can I buy it cheaper somewhere else?
For instance, you may feel that you need sugar, but do you realize that you really probably don’t and if you really do, are you thinking about honey? More expensive to buy — yes — but are you aware of bee trees, are you considering that each Spring natural bees swarm and you can trap them, build a hive of nearly any kind of wood and have “sugar” the rest of your life?
This does not mean that you have to go without the things you want. For example, if you like beer, you will find that you can brew a more potent drink for incomparably less than you buy it for. “But,” you say, “I have no bottles.” Baloney. If you will but walk the roadsides some Sunday afternoon, you will soon have enough to keep you in beer bottles forever, or go to the dump–the ‘treasure house’ of the innovative. You will find that you can have more and better for less with ingenuity and indirect means. Price a winter coat at the local clothing store in the Fall of the year and then price an excellent used winter coat at a rummage sale in July. That’s innovation! That’s how to make it in farming and in life.
So then after about two, perhaps three, four years at the most, of renting and consequently growing, you search for the best farm to buy that you can, wherever you can, however you can and you don’t deal with a realtor! Sounds like I’m cutting my own throat — but with this article, I’m hopefully remaining true to its intent and not serving myself. The reason you don’t deal with a realtor is because you must secure a bargain here more than anywhere else in all of your dealings and a bargain does not exist through a realtor (obviously there are exceptions but they only occur in fairytales and not in your real life). You search and search and pass many by until you find the best you can at the best price with the best terms, and this becomes the time when you can violate the pay-as-you-go cash basis principle which you have adhered to. You will have been saving some cash as you have been renting and/or you most certainly will have acquired a great deal of other materials. You must buy the land on land contract under the best possible terms that you can and you will use an attorney to carefully check the title to the property and the instrument of conveyance. These are the “papers” you enter into. Then you can either use the cash you have saved, or more likely, you will have more goods than cash, so the next best thing is to have an auction. This may be a little difficult for you, but somehow you will need to raise the down payment. If you have been able to salt it way, fine, but you may need more and it is far better to have an auction and sell your excess baggage than to go to the mortgage company and borrow on what you have. Please notice, that at no time, have I recommended borrowing and at no time have I suggested a bank. Trust it — the reasons are many.
So then you will keep the best of what you have — the nucleus of what you will need when you go to the farm you are buying, and then you fix up, clean the farm you are buying, and then you fix up, clean up, paint up everything else, have a sale, and use that cash, plus some you have been hoarding, to make the down payment on the farm.
Keep in mind that the farm you buy is like all our other dealings — you look for the solid, but “unwashed”. You search for the place that is basically sound, but that has fallen into disrepair. Ideally, you will find a farm that is around 160 acres, belonged to an alcoholic son of a good farmer; one which has a good sound barn and house built by the father, but has fallen into shambles by the wayward son, land that is productive, not worn out, not swamp and not mountains. You will search and search until you find the best basic farm at the lowest price with the best terms, and you buy it and, again much like the first fellow you started to work for and the first farm you rented, you treat this one like it’s yours — because it is and you’ve made it.
I’d like to close with a few very valuable principles which will do you in good stead throughout your farming life.:
- Use gravity and natural forces (water flow, sunshine) whenever possible; heat with wood and sun.
- Avoid electricity and complex machinery as much as possible.
- When something breaks, take the time to fix it and fix it right so that it won’t break for an indefinite period of time.
- If you think you need to use a spray, insecticide, pesticide, herbicide, on a crop — don’t. Either don’t raise the crop, or substitute, or grow it in such a way that you don’t need it.
- If at all possible have only a pickup and make it an old one, either Chevy or Ford, and when the opportunity comes, get another one just like it for parts, and repair it forever.
- Never throw anything away — sure as shooting — if you haul it to the dump on Tuesday, you will find a use for it by Friday.
- Grow or raise everything that you possibly can for yourself and for your livestock — buy as little as possible.
- Do not borrow or lend machinery. Renting machinery is permissible, but sparingly.
- Do not make work for yourself. If there is a better, cheaper, easier way to do it — do it.
- Do not use things or systems that will continually cost you money, except for bare essentials that clearly save you more than they cost you.
- Don’t even think about the following:
a. A television set;
b. Cheating someone;
c. More than one phone;
f. Being less of a neighbor than you yourself would want;
g. Mistreating your livestock or shirking your chores;
h. Silos–especially a Harvestore.
One final word–keep in mind that there is a limit to comfortable growth. For one family, there is a point at which there is enough cattle, enough horses, enough land, enough work, enough money, enough security, enough junk. Have the wisdom to know where you are comfortable.
This article originally appeared in the Fall 1980 SFJ (Vol. 4, No. 4) and was reprinted in the Winter 1989 issue (Vol. 13, No. 1) at the request of several readers. This article is reprinted with permission from the author.