Few of my family and friends would have ever expected me to become a farmer. I was that city kid, happy to play video games, hide from the sun, and grow my collection of Lego's and other toys far more than any interest in growing things like food. Life takes you surprising places, though, and 20 years later I found myself on 30+ acres of land, farming my family of seven and enjoying a country life that I never expected to find.
I grew up in a blue collar (pipeline construction) family in northeast Ohio. While I hunted, fished, and horsed around a good deal, I had never grown a thing except trouble until my early 20s. A combination of health issues and reading lead me to want land and animals and all the other stuff (including all the headaches) that such desires entail. But at the time, we were land locked city dwellers, with little more than a few container gardens that our apartment complex begrudgingly permitted.
Along the way, in 2006, my family started the Whole Life Buying Club, our first foray into working directly with farmers to feed not just our family, but over time, hundreds of others as well. Sourcing from farms was not enough, though. We wanted to farm for ourselves.
In 2009 we purchased 30 ish acres in the rolling hills an hour outside of Louisville, Kentucky. At the time, we were fairly poor. A decade later, not much has changed, though five kids is definitely part of that equation! Since we didn’t have much money, what we purchased was a pretty run down, shabby old set of ramshackle buildings and worm out dirt. But it was ours, and we set about improving it. We have moved in and out of a number of different enterprises - laying chickens, beef cattle, berries, and bees - learning and staying flexible while we improved our infrastructure and skills. Along the way, we took our growing spaces from less than 1% organic matter to over 10%, started speaking at various conferences across the United States, and helped a number of other farms improve their operations and become more profitable.
As the 2018 growing season gets under way, we have handful or so of goals for our family and farm.
Because I do a great deal of writing and speaking, I also engage in as much research and experimentation as possible.
2018 is going to a banner year, with field trials for different growing systems, with special attention to total cost, labor, yields, pest pressure, and more. Specifically we are going to compare plasticulture, various types of mulches such as straw, wood chip, compost, solarization, occulation, and other methods of soil and growing bed preparation over the course of the growing season. We are also going to compare high tunnel growing to field growing for a number of crops as well.
Field trials are an important part of figuring out what works for your farm and what works under what circumstances for what crops and what conditions. Without good record keeping and research, most farmers find themselves doing little more than guessing about what actually works and doesn't, costing them time and money along the way.
Value added enterprise
Our home state of Kentucky recently expanded its cottage food law, giving far more freedom and flexibility to offer value added products direct to consumers apart from a commercial or certified kitchen space. A bad flu season already had my daughter supplying a number of families with elderberry syrup. The law opens up the opportunity to expand in an area we already have some farm assets established.
In 2018, we hope to sell one thousand or more bottles into our local market. The average US farm has a negative net income and has been that way for many, many years. Worse, over the past few years, things have gotten worse income wise. Farmer’s haven’t seen a net farm profit in more than two decades, though high food and cattle prices in 2014 almost broke farmers back into the black.
Our farm’s net income on just 300 bottles of elderberry syrup would generate a positive profit 4x the average net negative income of the average US farm for 2017. Like the syrup we hope to sell, it is a sweet situation. We already have elderberry bushes established on our farm, so we will heavily propagate our existing plantings to scale up our own elderberry supply and source additional berries as needed as well. Value added products are a neglected area of opportunity by many farms. So my next article will explore this area, hopefully giving you many things to think on.
Fencing, fencing, fencing
To expand our pastured pork and bring beef back onto our farm, we are going to need to rebuild the dilapidated, decades old fencing that sort of encircles own farm. We raised cattle for a number of years, and thoroughly enjoyed both the experience and the extra money that they generated through direct to consumer sales. For our cattle operation, we would purchase excess males from a local dairy farm. These cows were good on grass, great with our kids, and produced excellent meat for direct market sales. Unfortunately, at some point they realized that our fencing was a bit more like suggestions than rules, and the failing fencing around the farm resulted in a few too many multi-mile runs down the county roads to bring the cows back home.
These adventures, while excellent family exercise, resulted in a number of close calls with cars or other cow dangers. I also found myself at the bottom of an eight foot deep sinkhole a time or two, along with enduring a bit of irritation from our neighbors that a few fifty dollar bills hopefully took care of. So we butchered off the boys, stocking our freezers and enjoying a excellent year of sales, and then turned out attention to other work and farm matters. But each year I saw all that wasted grass and as I mowed certain spaces thought about how much I would prefer to see them moo-ed.
So we hope to revisit referencing some of the farm in 2018 to allow us to bring the boys back, along with also hopefully reclaiming some areas of the farm through the use of pigs. The farm was improperly logged before we purchased it, so many areas have reverted from pasture to scrub land. Through the careful use of pigs, cows, and some heavier equipment, we hope to convert them into productive silvo-pasture paddocks that will have benefits for the farm for decades to come.
High production in the high tunnel
In 2015 we applied for a USDA grant to build a high tunnel on our farm. In late 2016 we finished the project, and in 2017 we were able to grow in about 1/4 of the square footage, using another 1/4 for propagation and plant starts. The small, intensive growing area of around 600 square feet produced as much net profit as our 7000 or so square feet of outdoor production. For instance, the same number of peppers plants in the high tunnel produced five times more peppers per plant than our field plantings. The high tunnel peppers also had less pest damage, along with better appearance, quality, and size. Some high value crops that we could never grow outdoors in our area - namely ginger and turmeric - did excellent in the high tunnel and fetched over ten dollars a pound.
This year, we are hoping to have around 1600 square feet in production, offering a wider array of produce for a much longer time frame. We should be harvesting our first crops in just two weeks, since we planted into the tunnel in late February - about two full months before we could start most field crops.
This aggressive and early planting will allow us to offer many items out of peak season when the market is flooded, avoiding the heavy competition and lower prices that peak season creates for local produce. Instead, we will focus on staying ahead of the curve or having varieties and offerings that are often in short supply in our local market to protect our margins. Also, early, aggressive, and quick turnover crops will allow us to get as many as three or four plantings through a given space in 8 or so months. Early potatoes will give way to peppers, tomatoes, or cucumbers. This will be supplanted by greens such as spinach or similar come mid to late fall. While the peppers and tomatoes are getting established, basil and other companion plants will help fill in space and make use of additional incoming light, adding further value and increased profit per square foot.
If things continue to go well with our high tunnel growing and the market has space for more products that we can grow in such an environment, we will consider expanding to a second tunnel in the coming years, which may result in the need to relocate to a new property.
Having fun - orange belts, swimming pool, hunting, and more
While our kids may not go into farming, we want them to see it as a viable option. Part of that is making a farming lifestyle fun. My oldest two and I took up judo in 2017 and will hopefully pass our second belt test later this year. Remember, your longevity as a farmer is partly tied to your overall wellness, so exercise is an investment not just in yourself, but your farm. Having something fun that you can do as a family to get exercise and improve your flexibility and body is even better.
We also plan to set up a swimming pool, secure for my son his first hunting rifle, and allow everyone to get away for some exciting weekends - sometimes accompanying me to speak at conferences, or sometimes just sneaking away with the wife for a day or two. A family farm is a family first, and families need fun, so don't neglect to plan some yourself this coming season.
What does your 2018 have in store for you and yours?
What about you and your family? What are your goals, hopes, dreams for 2018? What do you hope to accomplish or learn about? What would most help your farm succeed not just this season, but for many seasons to come?