So you want to be a farmer? Thirteen words of wisdom from me to myself

I gave two talks recently at the Oxford Real Farming Conference. One concerned peasant agriculture, which I’m planning to come back to on this blog later in the year as part of a series on constructing a neo-peasant agriculture for contemporary times. The other was at a session inaugurating the College for Real Farming and Food Culture, brainchild of science writer and ORFC founder Colin Tudge.

Colin asked me to describe my experiences establishing a small, ecologically-minded farming business, the obstacles we’d faced and how we’d overcome them. I only had a few minutes of the floor, and I didn’t want to present my own fumbling efforts to learn how to farm as any kind of blueprint for others to follow, so I decided to present the talk in the form of thirteen maxims I’d like to have been able to pass on to my younger self at the point I started my switch into the agrarian life. The talk seemed to go reasonably well and so here, by popular demand (or three emails at any rate), I’m reproducing it.

  1. Make sure you live on the land you farm, however you do it, whatever it takes, LIVE ON YOUR LAND!
  1. Run a small, mixed farm – we need maybe 2 million farmers in the UK, equating to an average farm size of 50 acres or less depending on how you crunch the numbers with permanent pasture, so if you think your farm needs to be bigger than that you need to be able to convince someone else why theirs has to be smaller.
  1. Try to insulate yourself as much as possible from depending on open market prices – it’s not easy, but there are various possibilities. Be creative. Start a non-profit social enterprise if you have to, but if you do tread very, very carefully.
  1. Try to sell retail, not wholesale.
  1. Farming is full of get-rich-quick schemers, and people obsessed with a pet approach of one kind or another. Listen to what they have to say with an open but sceptical mind, then discard what’s not useful – which is usually most of it.
  1. Or to put that another way, there’s essentially no such thing as a low input – high output farming system. Modern farming is generally high input – high output. The safe bet is low input – low output.
  1. If you’ve learned farming via a traditional agricultural education, then consider diversifying. If you’ve learned it (as I did) via an alternative agricultural education like the permaculture movement, then consider un-diversifying.
  1. Focus generally on producing basic foodstuffs and ignore the advice to ‘add value’ by getting into processing as a way of making money. ‘Add money’ rather than ‘adding value’, possibly by growing a high-earning cash crop. The best high-earning cash crop is usually people – get them somehow to come to your farm and to pay you for the privilege.
  1. Hold on to your ecological idealism, but don’t kill yourself. Use some diesel. But imagine if diesel wasn’t available or it had a carbon price attached to it of, say, £50/litre – would it be remotely possible to continue farming as you do? If not, rethink.
  1. Be completely honest and open about what you do with your customers, and show them your genuine gratitude for their custom. But don’t toady to them – let them know subtly that it’s producerism and not consumerism that makes the world go around.
  1. Be as open and honest as you absolutely have to be, and no more, with anyone else, especially government bureaucrats.
  1. Don’t worry too much about the howling errors you’ll inevitably make – the only people who’ll really scorn you are people who aren’t actually running a small farm business themselves…
  1. Remember that every farm and every farmer are different, and that you’ll be different too as the years pass. Remember too, as I’ve already said, that farming is full of charlatans offering their unwanted advice. So feel free to ignore everything I’ve just said. Except maybe this – if you start a new small farm enterprise you almost certainly won’t get rich quick, or even get rich slow, but if you’re lucky you may just stay in business and you’ll be doing something more interesting and more worthwhile than many, many other things you could do.

14 thoughts on “So you want to be a farmer? Thirteen words of wisdom from me to myself

  1. A baker’s dozen. A nice number. Odd, prime even. Workable.

    I think #2 is interesting. Is this 2 million farms (you say farmers above). But I wonder whether you might count more than one farmer at Vallis Veg – while the whole operation counts as one farm. And has anyone with a larger farm explained to you why yours should be less than 50 acres?

  2. A nice thoughtful list, Chris. We have a number of visitors to our farm wanting to learn to do the same. I often find myself giving similar advice. But one item, not on your list, that I give over and over: raise what you want to eat. If you enjoy cooking with goat, emu, etc. then by all means raise it. But don’t expect to reinvent the culinary wheel.
    Early on we thought we would raise geese for a Christmas market. Where I grew up in Louisiana we typically had a goose over the holidays. But in Tennessee, not so much. We gradually ate our own flock and were done with them.

  3. I found this reposted over on Resilience, and thought I would come to the horse’s mouth, as it were, to comment.
    Some very sage advice here that could only have come by way of direct, intimate experience.
    What is interesting to note is that you speak from your distinct, circumstantial experience over across the pond in the UK, and yet as I was reading I could not help but think how applicable all this is to my distinct, circumstantial experience over here in Canada.

    This could mean one of two things:
    1) that your points are essential truisms particular to small, human scale farming on the basis of their own merits

    or…

    2)That the forces allied against the very sane and honourable aspiration of small scale farming are pervasive and ubiquitous no matter where you are. In other words – the forces and constraints that act against us are now global. Of course!

    I cannot concur enough (by way of experience!) with your first point. Farming by proxy on someone else’s land just doesn’t cut it. Sooner or later, a kind of entropic chaos sets in because there is no watchful eye. Good farming – the kind that emphasizes continuity of relationships – cannot be “farmed out” or compartmentalized elsewhere without an eventual cascade of compromises and bad outcomes.

    Your second point about farm size is eminently reasonable. But there are those who insist on making the constant the “profit motive” and the variable “however you go about it”. I need not rehash a justification of why this is folly: a cursory reading (is that possible?) of Wendell Berry’s works would answer nicely.

    Point 3 should go without saying. Try to find a local niche that no one else is addressing, because perhaps the prevailing view is that it does not qualify as a “sure bet” or “get rich quick scheme”. In my case, that would be my small patch of 3000 garlic.

    Point 4 goes back to the centrality of relationships in farming. If we are ever to get out of this downward negative feedback loop of “food as amorphous commodity”, we are going to have to resurrect the idea of relationships, rather than anonymous transaction.

    Point 5 – there is an ever growing and tragically gullible audience whose fantasies are happily encouraged by what I can only call a “growth industry” of -isms and doctrines, all of which seem to use the tools and instruments of PR and advertising to goad their hapless victims into buying their advice or products.

    “Low-input/Low-output” – Do you mean to say, for example, that biochar won’t save the world?! A lot of folks are sure to be disappointed. Hmph!

    On point 7 – It seems that either institutions or movements, both in general opposition to each other, have taken up too much of the space since industrialization and urbanization came to dominate the human condition. Consequently, we have lost our bearings – that is an informed memory of lived, cultural traditions.

    Point 8 – A pragmatic response to the prevailing circumstantial reality of trying to make a go of it without enough human presence (labour). The shortfall can often be the discontinuity of short-term “visitors”, as with, for example, short-term wwoofers.

    Point 9 – we are, for better or worse, held captive to the current conditions of modernity. If we always blithely and unthinkingly opt for the “easy” route, it may one day prove to be a “progress trap”, and we will lack the practical experience to do it any other way. The present defaults are anomalous, remember.

    Point 10 – it is amazing how many people now are completely out of touch with the realities of what you call “producerism”. There is still an attitude of “drive-thru entitlement”.

    Point 11 – Ah, yes…government bureaucrats! Smile and play dumb until you see their tail lights disappearing in the distance.

    Point 12 – The most odious being those who screech up your driveway, gravel flying, for a pit-stop. Only to dispense their advice on how THEY would have done such and such, without any inkling whatsoever of the continuity of the place. Once again, good farming is not about “outcome optimization”. It is about relationships.

    To point 13 I would add that if you are doing this always in light of external affirmation, you will frequently be disappointed and may even give up…as so many have and do. If, on the other hand, you have a hard-earned conviction of why you are doing it, that conviction is more likely to endure.

    Thanks for your well-articulated thoughts.

    • Thanks for the comments.

      Yes, I’m pretty much with neoagrarian on those further musings, and on Brian’s #14. Perhaps it’s similar to the advice not to try writing a book in a genre that you prefer not to read… (by the way, why don’t we use # in England to mean ‘Number’? It’s very useful…indeed, the #1 thing I’d change in English English).

      In answer to Clem, the 2 million figure is somewhat pulled from a hat…I’m going to be writing more about the peopling of UK agriculture later in the year so I think I’m going to hold off on giving you a proper answer until then.

      No, nobody’s ever told me why my farm has to be smaller. But I’ve been told that I’m “only a smallholder”, and that I’m “not a proper farmer” (the latter amongst others by somebody from Mendip District Council’s planning department) – both badges of honour in my book…

  4. Great list, Chris.

    One way to help cut out the charlatans (maxim 5) and to assist with developing insight into what works (maxim 7) is to ask for details of relevant case studies, costs and benefits of any approaches recommended/proselytised/smugly pronounced etc

    If a currently fashionable practice as narrated by a charismatic guru-type works well, asking to see the evidence shouldn’t raise difficulties. Unfortunately, what you often get is friend of a friend anecdotes, bodgy WWW sites, poorly written and researched books, magical thinking and so on. And at some point accusations of being reductionist may surface 🙂 This may be the equivalent in sustainability discussions of Godwin’s Law (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Godwin's_Law) in more general Internet discourse.

    Lack of evidence for various activities is a major problem in farming and for that matter in sustainability generally. Lots of money is wasted on stuff that just doesn’t work or that might work but in different climates, soil types, crops, and topography.

    • Yes, good points. I suppose to be fair a lot of people doing interesting things are lone operators outside the mainstream research community and it’s difficult to do rigorous research in these circumstances – though all the more reason then to be properly circumspect about one’s achievements, which isn’t always the case alas. I like your Godwin’s law reference – I hadn’t come across it. Reductionism, check. Or in some of my battles within the permaculture movement the ‘you’ll never understand permaculture’ or ‘you’re stuck in yesterday’s thinking’ gambits do similar service.

  5. Hi Chris,

    I was wondering if you have ever reviewed on this site a book called “The Market Gardener”, by JM Fortier, who lives and farms an acre and a half in Quebec? Im sure you’ve heard of him, he’s the poster boy of market gardening, running a very successful business. He has an upcoming documentary just fully crowdfunded called “The Market Gardener’s toolkit”, which I’m very much looking forward to. I know your farm is much larger, around 13 acres, and is a mixed farm. I would love to know your thoughts on market gardening/CSA in general and the prospects for it in the UK, even if its not quite the operation that you run. If you have written about it and can point me to a link I would be greatful.

    I would also be greatful to read about how your own farm is doing at this time, and what you consider the prospects for it to be. Have you changed your stance on using less heated greenhouses a la point 9 above? Certainly I couldn’t see away around it and considerate about such things. I am interested to start a market garden and am probably most discouraged about the use of wwoofers and cheap labour in terms of a sustainable business model. JM Fortier seems not to rely on it, but I would like to hear of others that can say definitively they dont. Im going wwoofing soon myself, most likely to Canada for lack of market garden opportunites in Ireland/UK and there are loads of farms/market gardens looking for not just 40hrs a week, but up to 60, which I feel is just abuse and says a lot for their profitability or lack it. Also, If nothing else I wouldnt care to have strangers on my property(commune?) for the rest of my working days.

    Anyway, If you have anything written specifically on market gardening/JM Fortier/CSA and could point to it, I’d be very thankful to you.

    • of course i meant say using more heated greenhouese, not less. I remember a talk you gave thats on YouTube where you were leery of going down this route for obvious sustainability reasons.

      • Hi Brian

        Thanks for your comment – No, I haven’t reviewed (or read) Fortier’s book, though I’ve come across him and have heard a bit about his methods. There’s stuff about market gardening and CSAs scattered around my blog posts, but not necessarily in any single concentrated post. Perhaps I’ll try to write something more about it in the future. But here’s a brief attempt to answer your query.

        The critical point in my list here is 6 – the input/output equation. Key inputs are land, human labour, diesel (or cleaner energy if you can engineer it), money (ie input costs), and fertility (partly a product of the preceding ones). Key outputs are money (ie the income you get from selling the produce) and the nutritional quality and quantity of the food you produce.

        You have to somehow balance that equation, and you can’t balance it by minimising all the inputs and maximising all the outputs. So you can play different kinds of games. The game that a lot of ‘celebrity’ growers seem to play is to outsource inputs like fertility (and possibly also labour in the form of substituting for machinery), and to maximise the financial outputs by concentrating on high value crops (salads, usually), which I guess is your best option if you’re growing on a small area. That’s fine, but I’d question its sustainability in terms of the outsourcing of inputs and the lack of balanced nutrition on the output side of the equation. I think people get too excited about the idea of being able to make lots of money from small acreages, which is do-able within the existing economy, but not really sustainable…and I think probably depends upon being an early entrant into a local market (I wrote about this a little bit here – https://smallfarmfuture.org.uk/?p=491).

        The game I play involves low cost inputs, a lot of human labour (including WWOOFers), little diesel, mostly self-produced fertility, and outputs that are somewhat more inclined towards basic nutritional requirements (protein, energy etc). I don’t want to make false claims about the virtue of what I do, but I think this kind of approach is ultimately more sustainable – and it interests me more than outsourcing inputs and maximising income.

        Field crops are nice, tunnels are nicer, heated tunnels even better, clean-energy heated tunnels best of all. But each of those steps increases your input costs, so has to be matched by your income – unless it’s subsidised by grants or personal wealth. I personally prefer to stick with the low input – low output approach I mentioned above (albeit tempered with a bit of market realism). But I wouldn’t say that’s the only sensible approach to take. I WOULD however say that there’s no such thing as a low input, high output and sustainable system. And also that the market, being what it is, will always push you towards lowering your input costs and increasing your returns – usually by playing a game that you don’t really want to play.

        Hope that’s helpful – I’d be interested to hear more about how you get on.

        • It would be very interesting to see a profit and loss and cashflow from the celebrity sustainable agriculture showplaces as well as a detailed breakdown of all material non-financial inputs and outputs. WWOOf’ers, fertilisers and water (in areas with lower rainfall) would be relevant non-financial inputs. The Brookman’s at the Food Forest in Gawler use water from an aquifer. Is this long term sustainable? To their credit, they mentioned efforts to access local storm water which would otherwise be sent off in drains.

          A guy on permies.com has had a crack at this kind of analysis. Generally speaking, this sort of reductionist analysis isn’t popular with the permie community but I don’t see how these systems can be objectively analysed without this level of detail.

  6. Thanks Chris. I hope you do get a chance to to read his book, given its popularity and how much he is steering the conversation at least at the market garden level.

    He imports compost to his site for reasons that seem reasonable to me. He puts the cost of his compost at 3% of his total costs and says that since to make great compost is a skill he does not have, is labour intensive, and a, if not the, fundamental requirement for gourmet quality veg, then for him, its a no-brainer. As to the sustainability of this approach, well, I know it raises difficult question, but if we are going to get the next gen of people farming, its a tough enough ask without taking a shortcut or two to take some of the labour strain off, but of course, no doubt its a question for the long term.

    He uses hand tools and a walk behind tractor that costs about 5k to buy new. Very little fossil fuel except for the greenhouse(s). He admits labour is the biggest cost but is able to be decently profitable while paying for a very small staff and not relying on free labour. I dont fancy having a business that relies on labour that may not show up tomorrow so its heartening to see someone succeeding while not relying on it. The upcoming docu is here: http://www.themarketgardener.com/the-market-gardeners-toolkit/ 1800 people have signed up so he’s getting a lot of buzz going about farming. I know only for his book I would not even have considered it.

    What interests me about his success is that it asks the question, why farm bigger acreage at all if you are just farming veg? There is a book ive ordered called “The Lean Farm”, that I hope addresses some of these ideas also.

    I think most people who wish to be be farmers are going to have to be gardeners, since its not possible with land prices to buy 10+ acres, in Ireland at any rate. Statement of the obvious I know. The major, major problem for me is there is no CSA in Ireland. There is one in Dublin but its looks very amateurish and at any rate thats just one, practically nothing at all. I wonder when people here, if ever, are going to be prepared to pay for good veg, when Lidl and co have lowered the bar so low for cheap veg in a country that doesnt have a foodie culture to begin with. So for anyone looking at market gardening in UK/Ireland I dont know if emigration is the only route and thats going to disbar all but the most passionate farmers/gardeners. I was wondering in the UK if things are any better in terms of veg box schemes/CSA. I follow a Dorset small farm on Twitter called Goldhill Organics and they seem to be doing well. They farm 8 acres. Anyway, I hope soon you can do a detailed post on how your farm is doing, your plans, and your outlook for various models of small farming in the UK. I know you probably have a lot of unfinished business/scores to selttle with the ecomodernists but im hopeful 🙂 Before, I know you were fairly bleak on the outlook for small farming/gardening in the UK, and that you thanked God for your wife having a job, and I had hoped if you had read Fortiers book that it would be interesting to read your opinion about it and if it had any impact on it. Anyway, thanks for the earlier reply, much obliged, and good luck farming this year. I was highly impressed with your compost toilet/outdoor cabin and very much admire your ethics and determination to do things as they should be done.

    • Interesting comments. I think you neatly put your finger on a number of dilemmas. Glad to be reminded of being thankful my wife had a job – I’m now thankful that she’s leading on the growing, so I can sit back and write a blog! On the matter of scale, I guess you could say there’s a gradation from garden style small commercial growing to arable-style row cropping – and it’s the latter, on a big scale, often using a combination of heavy mechanisation and cheap labour, who probably grow most of the bulk staple veg and drive the economics of the sector. I have to admit a slight prejudice I have against people promoting a certain way of farming as a money-spinner, because I think the money-spinning usually comes from the particularities of their situation, their personal skills and the timing/location of their market position rather than something that can be generalised. But maybe I’m just getting old and cynical. Anyway, you’ve piqued my interest in Fortier further so maybe I’ll take a look at his book and post something about it at some point. I might even write about my own business, as you suggest, though the point of this blog really is therapy for me to forget the business… I don’t think I’m an especially good grower myself…

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