The last three posts have attempted to offer some advice to beginning or aspiring farmers. As I’ve said before, I don’t know if that content is useful to others, particularly farmers, but the writing process is useful for clarifying my thoughts and experiences. I don’t intend to rehash that post content here but to repackage it in a succinct, “all-in-one” framework. I then hope to provide a little analysis of common areas of greenhorn struggle.
- Why farming? Of all the adventures in humanity, why is the production of food compelling to you? Write this down and internalize your narrative. Others will ask you and you will hone your explanations as well as your self-understanding in the process. This is not about “branding” yourself or justifying your compulsion to farm. It is about understanding, clarifying, and articulating your why, which is the source of your farming vision.
- Articulate a vision. “Where there is no vision the people will perish.” This is not the same as your “why.” A vision outlines where you’re going and helps as a high-level boundary for decision-making. It doesn’t need to be complex or profound. It needs to be authentic. The Carolina Homeplace tagline is, “Cultivating Family, Food, and Community in the North Carolina Piedmont,” which is the foundation of our vision. The order of the list is strategic and if we are faced with decisions that violate our vision of family, food, or community our answers will be simple; not necessarily easy but simple.
- Develop a set of principles. This is the meat of the message of the “3 Principles…” blog posts. The principles serve as the mediator between your general ideas about farming and your particular ground-level practice. They form your primary decision-making matrix. If an idea violates your principles, one of the two must adjust. It may take some time in practice before your principles are firmly established.
- Choose your model(s) of production and begin. Thinking and planning are critical but farming is in the doing. Make sure your models fit your principles and aim at your vision. Evaluate the feedback often. Be willing to adjust when the feedback requires but don’t be hasty in your adjustments.
- Create tools. This is an iterative process; small adjustments to feedback. The process requires persistence and openness. Know your pride may get in your way; be aware. I see tool creation in three parts: knowledge application, assess feedback, repeat. This process is continued until the desired feedback (i.e. production goals) is achieved. A model becomes a tool when it suits your particular context, serves your particular needs, and is agile enough to accept minor tweaking.
Generally, the following is how I see the small farm challenges to present. Most of us have the “why” in spades. We dream of farming for years and then we make the leap. But we don’t have a fully articulated vision, if we do, we don’t revisit it often enough in the hustle of the establishment phase. If we come from non-farm backgrounds, we tend to be idealistic newbies and the learning curve is steep. Carving out a farm, especially from raw or neglected land, requires hard work. Our principles are vague and held in mind but often skipped completely in favor of adopting models. We assume we can adopt the principles with the model but that is backwards, we just don’t know it. Finally, we mistakenly assume that if (insert famous farmer here)’s model works and is time tested then it should work for us and we spend more time fitting ourselves to the model rather than developing our own tools from the model.
I tend to be grandiose and idealistic but none of the above five components needs to be complicated. You don’t have to talk of systems integration or plan to the most minute detail. Confession: I am naturally a vision level thinker but I have had to work hard on the detailed planning. Both are necessary. You can’t know it all. The important idea is to outline your farm from the general to the particular. Write it down. Then farm. And let your outline guide your decisions. Enjoy the ebb and flow of farm life.