The differences between working on an established farm and starting your own were evident this month. Rather than learning the ropes and falling into developed routines, we’re recreating some systems that have worked on other farms. We’re solving problems unique to our farm. We’re spending a lot of time cobbling together equipment and systems. And often, that costs money.
The animal groups we are raising this year afford us the luxury of not needing big equipment. We rely on temporary electric net fencing powered by solar chargers. We are taxing our family well while we wait for the funds to dig a well dedicated to our pasture. We drive a 1989 Ford F250 to pick up feed from the mill, deliver chickens to the processor, and move our hay wagon/shade shelter/water tank around the field.
If the farmer paused briefly from his ceaseless toil, taking up pen and paper to list the various equipment he relies on continually in his daily labor, an afternoon would surely be lost and the farmer would retire to bed with cramps in his writing hand. Roller tables, harvest crates, wash tubs, pruners, hand hoes, soil knives, drip tape, row cover, lay flat hose, pitch forks, spades, backpack sprayers—hundreds of simple tools and supplies cluttering the dusty corners of barns and sheds. Tractors, rotary tillers, disc harrows, grain drills, box blades, wood chippers, log splitters, cultivators, cultipackers, flatbed trucks, skid loaders—the imposing diesel guzzlers and implements lined up in garages and parkways.
While I can assure you that hundreds of those simple tools and supplies can make as big an economic impact as a single big-ticket items, still, tractors have captured our agricultural imagination and are the heroes of children’s books and the pride of weathered old planters and harvesters. In or last century, the scale of farming in America has been transformed to favor 1000-plus acre plots which necessitate fleets of powerful tractors and mammoth machines.
The question of equipment and capital, it seems to me, is really a question of what decisions you make about your daily work and your financial equilibrium and why you make them. Questions we ask regarding both tools used and money spent (both whose and how much) are those of means and ends- what will the application of a particular sort of funding or a tool mean to the possible success or failure of the farm, how much labor will be eased because of it, what will be further necessary to add as a consequence, etc. Tools shape the user, as well as the farm. Nothing is neutral.
I’ve always been told that debt is the death of small farms and farmers. There’s some truth to this across generations and locales, but this is, unfortunately, the Actually Existing Capitalism of debt-financed America, and without significant saving or lucrative off-farm work, it’s hard to avoid credit.
I’m of two minds on this. On the one hand, I’m an old-fashioned, reactionary, megatechnics hating anarchist loath to hand money over to the usurious death-trip that is global finance. On the other, I partially own a debt-financed tractor, and have been frequently dependent on the patronage and credit of well-meaning family and friends, as well as banks. The necessities of marketplace existence come crashing in quick and merciless upon my ideological niceties.
Unlike many other young farmers, we had access to land even before we made a concrete decision on whether to grow vegetables or not. We were fortunate enough to have family and friends willing to rent us a slice of land. Ultimately, we decided to rent land from some of our friends. This option allowed us access to some equipment as well as a place to live.
Renting versus buying, whether land or equipment, allows us to get a feel for what works and what doesn’t. We realize now after operating for a few months, that the tractor we’re renting doesn’t fit all of our needs. The wheel spacing prohibits us from using the tractor for cultivation and weeding and limits the size of our raised beds.
We realized that hand weeding and using wheel-hoes and stirrup-hoes isn’t enough, especially when you get just under three inches of rain in one night and a continual rainfall for the next 10 days, amounting to double the average rainfall for the month of June. Let’s just say, once it dried up and we were no longer drowning in water, we were drowning in weeds. With that said, going forward we’d like to invest in some sort of mechanical weeding equipment, which we feel is necessary until we can get the weed seed bank under control.
Each seed has a story. Some seeds have been passed down relatively unchanged for generations. Others have been breed for certain characteristics and traits. And others have been adapted for climates like North Dakota.
At our farm, we tend towards open-pollinated, heirloom varieties of seed, for reasons practical, sentimental and political. We are suckers for the poetry of seed catalogues and the promise of hopeful January orders. Our seed shelves spell out the history of our journey to this place- corn and shell beans from Oregon, garlic and dry beans from Vashon, pumpkins and sunflowers from Washington, tomatoes from a friend in Spain, greens from California. Carried along like treasures, these things have sustained our farm, and each row seeded has been a remembrance of past labors and their ultimate fulfillment. Similarly, I hope for our animals to grow with us- to carry our farm through their generations as the farm grows with them. Many have spoken passionately and eloquently in recent years about the value and necessity of seed and breed preservation, especially in the face of industry consolidation and economic monopolization. I have little to add; I believe the strongest argument to be made for saving seed, for breeding animals, and for choosing wisely and carefully for your place is an argument of sentiment- these animals and seeds carry us and our history with them, and all the complicated emotions of planting, hatching, kidding, harvesting and slaughter alongside. That lends a power to the relationship we have with each crop and flock and herd.
We wanted to be able to sing “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” when we walk around our fields. Think about the standard farm animals that are on those singing kids’ toys where the arrow spins around and selects an animal and then you hear the sound they make.
But we wanted to be able to support healthy animals and pay our bills, so we tabled our desire for a menagerie – at least for now. We considered our 13-acre field that has been row-cropped for 30 years. Instead of running the farm, we decided to let the farm do the planning.
Our farming livelihood rests on the success of seeds. But how strange to hold something so small in the palm of my hand and realize I’m investing a lion’s share of days, dollars, and ideas in a speck of organic matter that appears so lifeless. And yet, time and time again, the seemingly powerless soon pushes through soil, and the seemingly lifeless yields fruit in its season. If we wish to finish well, we must begin well. If we desire good fruit, we must plant good seeds.
Our farming season begins with seeds. Ordered when the soil lies locked in ice and snow, we wrap ourselves in layers of wool sweaters and dream of August evenings when thousands of seeds planted in February, March, April and May will grace our dinner table with crisp greens in clay bowls, sliced tomatoes on maple cutting boards, purple eggplants, roasted cauliflower, mashed sweet potatoes, and all manner of bounty. In large measure, we choose the seeds and the varieties we, ourselves, will enjoy eating and preparing, because when we are excited about our vegetables, how much easier is it to excite eager market-goers when lines queue up Saturday mornings in Fox Point or Whitefish Bay or Tuesday mornings in Thiensville? (more…)
When I was young I wanted to be many things: an architect, magazine editor, zoologist, but a farmer was not one of them. The closest idea of a farmer I had was my grandpa. I knew he had cattle, and a barn, and a lot of farming equipment, but eactly what he did I was unsure. (more…)
I am a farmer because of the way it makes me feel at the end of the day. The physical exhaustion that my muscles carry into sleep, the weary contentment of finished labor lulling my brain to stillness. Some days I farm solely for the satisfaction that weeding can bring. I farm because I’ve never been very good at sitting still and because I’ve always been a morning person. I farm because I love feeding people, I delight in seeing the joy that can result from something as simple as a head of butter lettuce. (more…)