Starting A Farm
I didn’t know what to expect in May 2009 when I started my first day as a farm crew member. It was on a small start-up farm in Northfield, Vermont called the Green Mountain Girls Farm. It was their first year running a veggie CSA, I was their first employee, and as the season progressed there were many more firsts to be had. Fresh out of college with a BA in Environmental Studies and English, I decided to spend the summer on a farm, deepen my relationship with the food I ate, and hopefully start to eat meat again. (I knew that if I were to give up vegetarianism after six years, I’d have to be intimately connected to the animal I ate.)
What unfolded over that summer was more than I could have imagined: rooster attacks, 400 pound pigs running after my bucket of grain, goats jumping over fences to decide themselves where they’d graze, eating kale for the first time, working the soil until it worked itself into the creases of my fingers, roasting my first chicken, eating spit-fired goat, farm-sitting and discovering the delight of running out to the garden to harvest dinner, finding the rhythm of milking as the goats leaned against me, finding myself in a rhythm with plants, animals, land and my fellow farmers—a rhythm that pulled me in, cradled me when I needed it and invigorated all my senses. Mari and Laura, the owners of GMG Farm, say that they “farm relationships,” growing food and community. The relationships that grew there turned my summer job into a lifestyle that I craved and haven’t let go of since.
In the last four years, I’ve WWOOFed in New Zealand, worked as a School Garden Supervisor in Fairbanks, Alaska, lived and worked on a diversified livestock farm in Northern Vermont, and most recently worked in the Trials Field at High Mowing Organic Seeds. In June 2012, my husband Edge and I bought a piece of land in Worcester, VT, and spent the summer envisioning how we’d build our own farm. In August we had an acre tilled and broadcast cover crops; in September we put up a yurt, brought over our flock of Icelandic Sheep, and began building a small barn and seed house; throughout the winter we’ve continued work on the barn, plan our CSA and create a financial plan. As we go, we draw on all the experiences that have led us to this point and the lessons we’ve learned that now help us shape our own farm.
Plan your time AND be flexible.
Whether you plan your time or not, you’ll be busy. The difference is that with a daily, weekly, monthly, and seasonal plan, you give yourself the gift of foresight and end up with fewer things on the “urgent” list and more on the “important but not urgent” list, so when the pigs decide to take a walk-about or a hot dry week forces you to spend days irrigating by hand, you’re not completely thrown off your rhythm. Planning will also allow you to work on projects that will improve your efficiency and the overall health of the system (maybe it’s time to get a new fence charger or finally set up drip tape), which in turn affects your mental, emotional and physical health—feeling stressed and at your wit’s end never helps anything, so take a half hour each morning to eat breakfast, drink some tea or coffee and go over the to-dos for the day.
At Calypso Farm and Ecology Center, where Edge and I met, we had weekly farm meetings that included everyone from the owners to the apprentices. In the farm office was a large desk calendar and a white board where folks could write down specific events and things to go over at the meeting, which allowed our meetings to stay focused and productive. Edge and I have adapted this to our own small system with just the two of us, and it does help keep us organized and aware of all the pieces we are working on.
Whether it is a physical calendar, a white board, your iPhone or computer, choose what works for you and stick to it. Weekly meetings are the best way to keep communication flowing and systems working, even if they only last 30 minutes.
Working in the trials field at High Mowing taught me how to take record keeping to a new level, and while it isn’t necessary for a CSA to spend the amount of time HMS does on record keeping, it is good practice to keep notes throughout the season.
Some things to record are:
How much of each crop and variety are you planting? Do certain varieties have pest or disease problems while others are vigorous? What tastes the best? What are customer favorites? Do you wish you had planted more or less of something? Did you have a wet, dry or unusually hot or cold summer? All this information and more will be invaluable as you plan and make decisions for the next year.
Scale is crucial.
At my heart, I am a homesteader. In other words, a small-scale system that can be run mainly with human power and the help of a few animals is where I feel most comfortable. I didn’t realize this until I worked on a mid-sized farm that required daily tractor use. During that summer I felt far away from the roots I put down that first season of farming, and as a result lost confidence in what I was doing. Even though I loved the people I worked with and lived in a beautiful spot, the scale was just too big for me. It was a more difficult summer, but looking back it helped wake me up to what kind of farming I wanted to pursue.
There are a lot of questions you must ask yourself when making the decision of scale: How many people do you want to feed? What kind of systems do you want to create? How much time do you have to put into the farm? How do you want your farm to fit into your community? What does your ideal lifestyle look like and how does a farm support that lifestyle? Looking deeply at these questions helped Edge and I define our goals and narrow our land search until we found our home.
The most successful farms are those with a triple bottom line.
Farming is not an occupation one typically pursues for the money, but rather for the lifestyle and value of providing an essential part of life to the community: food. Without money, however, a farm business cannot sustain itself. Creating a business and financial plan is not something that comes naturally to me, so throughout this winter and spring, I’ve been taking the Whole Farm Planning for Beginning Women Farmers course, offered jointly through UVM Extension, WAgN and the New Farmers Project. The Holistic Management International curriculum has transformed my perception of farm planning and reinforced that farming can be a sustainable lifestyle that pays a living wage. The basic tenant is the triple bottom line: environmental, social, and financial. This allows you to create a holistic goal that accounts for the land, the community and your bank account, which in turn supports your quality of life and the lives of those around you.
There will always be more to learn.
Perhaps the thing that surprised me most in 2009 was the fact that there will never stop being “firsts.” In other words, there will always be more to learn no matter how many seasons you have worked the land, because the land is a living system which grows and changes just as we do. This fact now comforts me, and oddly gives me confidence to try new things. Trying, after all is the best way to learn, and though mistakes may slow you down for a moment, in the long run they will help you create a sustainable working system.