Farming in the Foothills
One of the things I love most about being a farmer is that I get to work
alone. Because my farm is small, I am the only labor most of the time. For me this is the ideal situation. It is not that I don’t like people. I love people. That is why I go to the farmers market each week. I need the feedback from my consumers to recharge my batteries and keep me focused on what is important: growing good food. That being said, I don’t want to be with people every day.
I love the solitude of farming and I love the luxury of focusing on a task from start to finish. I find that when I have employees, I don’t get to focus on tasks; instead I get to manage. I don’t really like managing and I have not made myself get good at it. The best part is that is okay. I don’t have to manage people if I don’t want to.
What I do have to do is pay close attention to how big my farm is. If I am not careful I could plant more acreage than I can take care of. How do I know this? Done it. There is nothing worse than getting too ambitious and planting so much land that none of the ground gets managed effectively. The result is that all of the crops underperform, and the farm either doesn’t make money or makes a fraction of what it could have made if less were planted and more attention were paid to a smaller space.
Success in farming is in the details, not the big picture. Sure you can plant 10 beds of carrots, but can you weed 10 beds of carrots? I can’t; I can only manage one bed at a time, but one well grown bed of carrots will make you more money than 10 weed infested beds any day. I know this, yet I often have to control my urge to over plant. I usually fail on at least one crop each year, but that is also part of the joy of farming. I never said I was perfect.
Spring is the hardest time for me as a farmer because I have so much pent up farming energy. The quiet of winter lets me recharge my batteries and once the weather warms up I am ready to go. Sometime in March I can feel the call of the land to come and farm (not too much different than the Sirens calling the sailors to the rocks). Like the sailors, I must keep my wits about me. Otherwise, I am headed for a shipwreck: a shipwreck of over ambition.
Jim's Produce, Wheatland
A few weeks ago I was honored to be involved in putting on a food and farming conference in Grass Valley, with keynote speaker Joel Salatin. That name alone drew quite a few people, farmers and eater alike, and overall the day was a great success.
There were a couple things that have really struck me from that day, and I thought I’d share them with you here. The first take away idea of the day for me was the concept of farming infrastructure that is multiple-use—that is not investing a lot of capital in equipment or systems that are only good for one enterprise and one application, but rather thinking about creating systems or finding tools that can be applied to multiple operations. The second point that really stuck out to me was in the same vein as the first, farm infrastructure should be scalable in both directions. We were pushed to think about infrastructure that can flex and change as the demands of your operation change, as you make decisions to expand, or the even more challenging decision sometimes to scale something back. Of course there will always be some necessary investments that break these rules, but these ideas have urged me to think about infrastructure investments in a different way than I had before.
The third point, similar to the first two, was not really a new idea, just something that stuck this time and has resonated ever since. In his final talk of the event, Salatin referred to one of the greatest strengths of successful small farmers, like any other entrepreneur, is being able to identify our weakness and then gather people around us that are able to support us where we are lacking. Joel gave the example from his farm of other members of the family take over where his skills wane, particularly with the accounting, and credited that teamwork is freeing him to do what he excels at and ultimately makes their farm a success. I've found that asking for help can go against our nature sometimes and I've seen how relational dynamics on small farms are quite often strained, but I have also found that it is usually these relationships that make it worth while.
We need to remember this concept as a community as well—as we all work separately on our own operations—we need to remember that we will all be more successful if we are willing to both offer and accept a helping hand.
“A proper community, we should remember also, is a commonwealth: a place, a resource, an economy. It answers the needs, practical as well as social and spiritual, of its members - among them the need to need one another.” –Wendell Berry
You've chosen to be a farmer. You want to be outside, the sun on your back and the breeze in your face, working with your crops or your livestock. But your farm is a business, and to succeed, you need to keep and know your numbers. You need a farm record system that is more than just a shoe-box for receipts. There are computerized bookkeeping systems, or you could hire a bookkeeper, but both can be expensive. You need something that is cheap, reliable, easy to use, and fills your needs.
Step back for a second and think about what a farm records system should do. Certainly tax records, but also timely financial records for making business decisions. Good records will help you know your farm is making a profit, or what to change if it isn't. Work-time records will tell you which crops suck up time and return little profit. Are you keeping track of your cash, the check book, and the credit card charges? A good record system will do this as well.
I want to introduce the system I use on my farm. I have come to this system after trying computerized systems (both commercial programs and spreadsheets I built myself), as well as a full double-entry hand system. For the past several years I have used a simplified handwritten system. I keep all my financial and time records in a single 3 ring binder. I write everything down on columnar paper using 27 columns for accounting records and 14 columns for time records.
My sheets are simple: in the financial sheet, starting from the left of the sheet, there is a column for date, and a wide column for written notes. The next 4 columns are for expenditures, broken down by method of payment -- farm checking account, credit card, cash, and the rare occasions I use the family checking account. I write down every time I use any of these payment methods to pay for farm expenses. The next 18 columns are for my expense accounts (“accounts” are simply categories of expenses). These include vehicle expenses, equipment, chainsaws, feed, etc. The last 3 columns are for categories of income (firewood, livestock, etc). In this way I have been able to consolidate all my expenses and income in a single-spreadsheet. I have a similar sheet for time records, with columns for date and comments, and then several for categories of work.
This system can be put together for less than $10. My hand system works for me because I am more likely to write stuff down if I can just pick up my binder and do it – something I try to do daily. But whatever records system you choose, make sure it is comfortable for you – that way you will be much more likely to actually use it!
Allen Edwards, Edwards Family Farm, Colfax, California
For more details on this system use the link at the bottom of the page.
Allen Edwards Farm Records essay
While my wife and I have raised sheep for nearly 20 years, we've been doing it a commercial scale since 2006. As part of a team that puts on a beginning farming class, I recently looked back at how we got started in the sheep business. This formal look back helped me to realize how much I didn't know when we started Flying Mule Farm.
So much of small-scale farming is skill-based. Farming takes an immense amount of knowledge, yes; but it also takes a wide variety of physical, observational and mental skills. For example, take stockmanship - the ability read, understand, and handle livestock. A good stockman understands livestock behavior and is able to quickly observe subtle changes in this behavior. A ewe with droopy ears, for example, may be sick. A restless, pregnant ewe may be getting ready to give birth. Animals that are laying down and chewing their cuds contentedly probably have had enough to eat.
We purchased a small group of feeder lambs when we first moved to Auburn in 2001. They were extremely wild - so wild, in fact, that we took to feeding them in a small pen so that we could be sure to catch them when we were ready to have them processed. The combination of their wildness and our inexperience was probably stressful on the sheep; it was certainly stressful on us! Fast forward to last November. Our border collies and I loaded 60 sheep and goats into our trailer in a cul de sac - no fences, no pens - just good dogs and a more experienced stockman.
I've benefited from the experience and knowledge of a number of mentors. Our local farm advisor, Roger Ingram, has taught me a great deal about stock handling and animal behavior. Our friend Ellen Skillings has helped me understand how to use dogs effectively and how to evaluate the health status of a group of sheep. Much of what I've learned has come from simply trying and failing (and sometimes succeeding). Based on what I've learned in the 20 years that we've had sheep, I'm sure I have a great deal more to learn, as well!
The practical aspects of sheep-raising, I think, must be learned by doing. College courses, workshops, and other formal situations are useful introductions, but real skill development comes through repetition and through trial and error. I suspect other types of farming are similar. While these skills were once passed from one generation to the next when kids worked alongside parents and grandparents, most young people who are interested in farming today don't have this opportunity. To me, on-farm internships and apprenticeships are critical in filling this need. Unfortunately, the informal system of farm internships is threatened by legal issues surrounding compensation and workers compensation insurance. Hopefully, educational institutions (like community colleges and nonprofit organizations) will partner with farms like ours to provide this experiential learning opportunity to more aspiring farmers!
Note: Special thanks to fellow farmer Mary Yates for these great photos!
Dan Macon, Flying Mule Farm, Auburn, CA
Morning comes late to our growing fields these days. Although we’ve passed the Winter Solstice and day length is increasing, the sun still follows a flat arc low across the southeastern sky, making for a prolonged twilight dawn of grays and blacks before the farm colors up with the rising sun. The contrast between the areas of farm in shadow and those in brilliant winter light is accented by persistent frost which only disappears as the first rays of sun warm the soil.
The relative ease of winter work on the farm affords my wife, Jo, and me the time to take a morning cup of coffee outside on a sunny morning and watch the birds work for their food. We’re glad for the chance to spend some time watching others work.
I’m not sure whether you’d consider it the last act of last season or the first act of next, but before taking a much needed Fall break in December, we set about planting garlic for next summer. Down on our knees, we pushed the garlic cloves into the soil—8,000 times—knowing that each clove is to become a full head of garlic. Fall farming is like that: There’s comfort in the relaxed pace of planting, harvest more than eight months away. Working in the warm sun over the fragrant soil, lazy thoughts can find their own way without the pressure of a to-do list staring us down. In November, still working in t-shirts, it would have been unlikely for thoughts of winter to intervene. We still owed our allegiance to summer. These days, the emerging garlic straps show up as green stripes in a field of snow.
One of the great pleasures of winter on the farm comes with clear skies after snowfall. On a cold crisp morning before thaw, I wander around the fence lines following the tracks of all the creatures that use our fields for their own purposes during the night while we sleep. Bobcat, fox, raccoon and skunk all find their way in, either up one side of a wooden fence post and down the other, or through the wider openings in the woven wire. We build fence to exclude the herbivores—deer and rabbits—that might compete with us for the food we grow, but excluding the lesser predators can be an unintended and undesirable consequence of fencing. The persistence of these small predators in using our fields despite the fencing may account for the scarcity of gophers and ground squirrels we’ve had to contend with, critters that are the bane of many a farmers’ existence.
While digging a trench recently, I paused to catch my breath and noticed some fresh scat at the base of a fencepost. The scat was held together by short fur and small white bones--an owl’s signature, most likely. We’ve seen the Great Horned Owl working the fields at evening twilight and occasionally in the headlights of the truck as we drive in or out after dark. The bones and fur were not the only contents of the scat, however. A surprise was the partially dismembered body of a Jerusalem Cricket. I occasionally unearth a Jerusalem Cricket while I’m digging around in the fields, especially while harvesting potatoes. Despite one of their common names—potato bug—they don’t eat potatoes, but they do burrow deeply during the day. Their habits above ground are mostly nocturnal, making them a likely target for an opportunistic owl.
Predators from the surrounding woodland keep rodents in check, and pollinators such as the bumblebee, a ground dweller that depends on undisturbed soil for its burrows, work through our flowering crops and ensure the success of our harvest. Hungry wasps can be found wherever there are clusters of aphids, and countless beneficial insects find prey in our crops as well as nectar in our ornamental flowers. All this helps to make the farm a thriving ecosystem in its own right, but also serves to underscore our farm’s dependence on a healthy and diverse environment outside the farm fence.
We’ve come to understand these fields through observation and experience. We’ve borrowed them for our use from the surrounding woodland to satisfy our hometown’s need for food, but they work best when the separation between farm and woodland is as permeable as possible. There’s fallacy and perhaps some risk involved in thinking that thriving organic farms can exist as islands for the production of our healthful food while we disregard our responsibility to our rivers, forests and mountains beyond the farm gate.
Alan Haight, Riverhill Farm, Nevada City