Friday, July 29, 2005

Starting Small and Crawling Out of The Box

I get a lot of questions on starting a farm these days. One thing I have tryed to stress is starting small. Think small. Modern industrial agriculture requires debt, lots of debt. It promises returns that barely pay down the debt and creates an ugly cycle that ends with tears and bankruptcy. Starting small does not mean a small version of the ugly system but a totaly different system. This is one reason I think Joel Salatin's books and articles are so valuable. He offers a system that requires little capital investment with higher returns than commodity farming. If I was starting out today, I would do things much different than I did when we started out. There are some things about how we started that I wouldn't change though. We started small. Our 50 cow dairy is the result of a couple of heifer calves. My dad worked for years as a farm manager/herdsman and put all his money into calves that we raised. He did this for me, so that I would have a farm of my own. We started in a 9 cow barn and used our milk to feed humanely raised veal calves. We didn't have cows enouph to ship milk but added value to it by turning into veal. Later we had 15 cows or so and moved them to barn owned by a man who only milked half a barn full of cows for fun. He had a full time job and a farm. We traded labor (all the milking and feeding) for boarding. We paid him for the feed and we got the money from our milk. With our profits we bought more cows and eventually rented a 30 cow barn of our own. Latter we rented a 45 cow barn and we now have moved to our present location we a herd of cows we own free and clear. We never spent a lot of money on tractors. We have just recently bought our 2nd tractor after farming here with one for many years. The point I'm trying to get across is this, there are ways to get into farming without a lot of debt. It takes time and creativity but it is possible. That said, if I was starting today I would not be getting into the business of selling a commodity product like milk. Mabey cheese or something but not "just milk" and not through normal marketing channels. We are presently working toward implimenting some of Joel's poultry systems into our dairy farm. The milk sales supplemented with broilers and eggs seems like a workable option for us. There is a great market out there that is growing every day for products that are local, natural, environmentally friendly, and unique. This is the future for small scale farming not the commodity model. Perhaps the first step for you is just growing a garden or raising a small group of broilers, the point is you need start somewhere. Don't put your eggs all in one basket and pay as go, when at all possible. The future is bright once you get the courage to push the lid off of the boxes that have been built around us and let some sunlight and fresh ideas in.


At 7/29/2005 7:43 AM, Anonymous Matt Davis said...

Thanks Scott. There is a resounding theme going on around me right now. First and formost is GET DEBT FREE! Chad Degenhart has a great article on this by John Thompson.

Second theme is START SMALL and THINK GENERATIONALLY. I think God is using you to re-affirm in many of us the principles that He has already laid forth for us in His Word.

P.S. My friend Marco worshipped in Bristol on his way home from Polyface last Sunday, also.

At 7/29/2005 9:14 AM, Blogger KSmilkmaid said...

I like what you say. It is right on target. We feel stuck though. We long for a better building to milk our cows in...enclosed. The more I think of diversifing the more I feel we are finding hope. The cheese profits we make are really good. We just are so labor intensive because we don't have the barn or ability to make bigger batches. Even a 40lb batch would ease some of the late nights around here. I have a kettle that size at a machinists. It has been there several months now. Gee...I am whining. I fear our only option is to take out a loan to get the building up. We have investments we could liquidate if something went sour. Pray that we can approach my husband's parents for an interest free loan if we have to go the loan route. We are so labor intensive that there is no time for us to even build here if all fell into place. We have been at this place before, considering a loan, and chickened out. Who knows what will happen. I am sure by spring though we will have the poultry going and then dive into gardening. Please pray for us to make a wise choice and/or to see progress on the building end of our farmstead.

Oh, can you tell me about Polyface's egg operation. We have a stationary house with chickens everywhere. We can't keep eggs stocked right now. We have talked about another hen house. I have Pastured Poultry Profits. He just began mentioning some of the egg ideas. We are discussing putting up a hoop house similar to what he suggests. We are not sure where to find the wood shavings and where we could run them on pasture. There is a possibility of a lease. In the book it sounded like he was at the beginning of his adventure. Let us know where he is at with the egg mobile etc. Also, where does he butcher rabbits. Does he do this or a meat processor?
Thanks for listening to the whinning.

At 7/29/2005 5:22 PM, Blogger reformed farmer said...


That was a good one by John Thompson. Chad does a great job with The House of Degenhart. If I could write half as good as he does I would be dangerous. Missed Marco at Joel's and church, uh.

Maiden of Milk

We will be praying for you guys. We've had to borrow a couple of times and its not an easy choise. No interest is the way to go.

About Joel's chickens. The egg mobile is for "pasture sanitation" and the eggs are a extra bonus. The make a cheap and good quality egg but they also lose more birds in that system. The big egg outfit is the one he calls "Feathernet". That one has hoophouses on skids with nesting boxes in it. The birds are held in with Premiers electric netting. The birds are moved around the pasture for fresh grass. The netting is easy to move with a couple of people and the houses are moved with a tractor. He really speaks highly of the netting.

I am considering the egg mobile for fly control. Have to see if I can talk the folks into letting me try it.

At 7/29/2005 7:04 PM, Blogger Chad said...

Scott, who are you kidding? You're already dangerous! Thanks for the compliment, though, it means a lot coming from you.

I think this is one of your best posts. Very encouraging and important advice. When people wake up and see what a mess they're in, it can be little bit overwhelming to say the least. But people like you are offering hope and helping people see that no situation is impossible.

At 8/01/2005 9:56 AM, Blogger KSmilkmaid said...

Hi there,

Did Polyface butcher their own rabbits or have a custom processor? I have a son who wants to do a rabbit project. I am pretty clueless about where to start.


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