Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Developing the Farming Skills

We are living in a fantastic time in history.  We have so much technology, education, choices for good health, and many other attributes that make for a really good life.  There are great numbers of people in America that have connected the dots between good nutrition, low stress living and good health. Many are even chucking their high stressed city lives and moving to the country with the new desire to become farmers and grow their own food and sell to others not desiring the country life.  I know this to be a fact since I have and continue to consult with quite a few of these new farmers on their new farms.  Big changes are in store for these folks.  Some are prepared, some are not.  I also work with modern day traditional farmers desiring to better their lives and farms by leaving the commodity driven race track behind.  Even some of the promoters for good nutrition through growing quality dense foods can make farming appear much, more easily accomplished than it is. Farming, which is the production of food, requires extremely high levels of skill, knowledge, investment capital, ingenueuity, perseverance and lets not leave out maybe the most important, good luck for success.

First and foremost, farming is a business.  If you can not see through the cow piles, tomatoes, and gardens, that make up the fun stuff, and work daily on a well orchestrated business plan, farm failures are just as common as businesses in town.  Even with the best intentions and careful planning farmers do fail.  I believe failure to accept this endeavor as a real business is critical.  But also, many good meaning folks have this misguided mind set that you can farm if you can't do anything else.  The learning curve is extremely steep, and in this organic, bio dynamic, non commodity production type model we are in, creates even more challenges because good advice and help is far and in between.  Even a garden looks simple until you worked at the end of a hand tool all summer for rotten tomatoes and squash bug eaten zucchini.  Try setting at the farmers market for 5 hours and selling $29.99 worth of broccoli.

We have very little to nothing in place at the University, or extension level that prepares new farmers for what they will jump into.  Sure, if you want to learn how much Roundup to spray per acre on your GM corn the best place to spend your education dollar would be the closest land grant agricultural college. (No sarcasm intended?)  But family farms are small businesses not chemical suppositories.

I encourage the young, or more mature, interested parties to intern or coop with some farm that is operating in the manner you "think" you would like to before going out on your own.  Get an idea of what you are getting yourself into before going for broke.  We have interns stay with us on our farm every year.  Some even come back year after year.  We also recently initiated what we call the "Young Farmer Program".  This program is intended to help train people of interest in our system of farming and marketing our farm products.  We have a 6 month commitment from both parties and after this six month period some people have decided that farming just was not what they thought it was cracked up to be.  I see these people as the lucky ones compared to the ones who invest their life savings into a new farming business they are not prepared for and then loose all they had. Some may eventually go into farming on their own following this sort of apprenticeship period.  And hopefully, we may wind up keeping some on as permanent residence here at the ranch.

In summary; farming for a profit is a highly skilled profession.  And the training required is not unlike an undergraduate degree which would typically require about four years.  And just like this new graduate on the job market, his learning is only beginning.