Rachel worked as a farm manager for three years in PA and as an owner/operator for five years in MN. She currently homesteads in MN.
I won't say this is an article I never expected to write, because I am first and foremost a realist, and always knew that my farm and myself as a farmer might not make it; but this is something I hoped I wouldn't write. Alas, here we are.
Not to go all Meryl Streep's Karen von Blixen on you, but, I once had a farm in Minnesota. Actually, I still technically do, but I'm not currently using my land as a farm to make money. I haven't had livestock here since the end of January 2020. This year, 2020, is the first since 2015 that I will have nothing to sell that I produced with my hands and land. Now I'm more of a homesteader, which is still certainly a worthy endeavor.
So, what happened? Don't I call myself "Farmer Rachel"? Didn't I know what I was doing? What went wrong? And why explain it here?
This article will explain some of what happened. I'm sharing what I think are the main reasons that I failed at small farming, in the hopes that others could learn from my mistakes, and from the circumstances that have gotten me where I am right now.
Oh, and by the way, this isn't an all-inclusive list of what happened or a timeline of events that led to selling off my livestock and deciding not to have another market garden - it's just what I believe, upon reflection, to be the biggest issues and mistakes in my personal experience. This isn't to say I was wrong about everything, or that I didn't learn other things that I hope to share in other articles on this platform.
So here we go—what went wrong?
1. I Took on Too Many Ventures Too Quickly
This point almost deserves its own entire 4,000-word article.
I made some big mistakes in the beginning when I bought my land and kind of continued making this mistake in the same vein throughout my farming experience. I tried to do too much, and I tried to do it all at once, before getting anything fully established.
The land that I purchased to start my farm on was double trouble right from the start—the house needed tons of work, and the land wasn't ready yet for livestock or a market garden. Everything needed to be done, from installing a bathroom to clearing trees to make a pasture. And I tried to do it all, right away.
As you can imagine, trying to do everything at once didn't work out well. It was physically and mentally exhausting, the entire time; relentlessly so. And I compounded my mistake by purchasing livestock before I was ready for them, so I was constantly playing catch-up with my farm: installing fence after I already had sheep and goats, building a chicken coop while the chicks were already in the brooder, breeding sheep before I had a market for lamb.
If I had it all to do again, and I couldn't simply choose to purchase a turn-key property, I would do things differently. I'd fix the house first, because to this day it's still not done. I'd make sure I was fully prepped for everything before committing to a venture. And I would do one thing at a time - get established with sheep before getting goats or cattle.
2. My Off-Farm Job Prevented Me From Dedicating Enough Time to Farming
One of the biggest barriers to my success in my small farming business was the fact that in order to afford my home and land, I had to work a full-time or near full-time job off the farm.
For lots of personal reasons I won't get into, it was on me to earn the bulk of my household income. And this seriously made it difficult to focus on farming.
My time, energy, and mental space was constantly split between a traditional hourly job that I needed to do well at (and actually cared about) and my dream of being a successful small farmer. I wanted the "acres and independence", but I was entirely dependent on working for someone else in order to have the farm in the first place.
As you can imagine, this resulted in a lot of false starts and half-done projects on the farm. I relied heavily on my partner and husband, who also worked off the farm but on a different schedule, to do a lot of the things I myself wished I was doing.
Because I worked an hourly, and then a salaried, full-time job and tried to be a full-time farmer simultaneously, I couldn't get established in a meat market, I didn't have time to travel to the more successful and bigger farmers markets, I missed a lot of opportunities for planting, and in general I under-utilized my land.
What's the solution to this? I'm still not sure. Most of us aren't independently wealthy, but there's gotta be a better balance between the need to earn and the desire to start your own farming business.
3. I Didn't Start With Enough Capital (AKA Cash)
This point kind of ties back to my previous one - the reason I and my partner/spouse were working five days each week off the farm was because we didn't have enough money not to.
Not having the capital to sustain us for even a year while we worked on building up the farm, our customer base, and our market was a huge disadvantage and definitely led to our ultimate throwing in of the proverbial towel. Money gives you options, plain and simple - we could have done so much more if we'd been able to afford to.
There are other issues with not having enough cash when trying to run a small farm, like not being able to afford efficient equipment. Whether that be draft horses and implements (like I would prefer) or a decent tractor, the fact is it costs money that I didn't have. I also needed to do things like renting hay land or converting some of our own acres for the purpose; buying enough livestock to be in a position to make a profit; or even just feeling confident in risking what cash I did have in the first place.
Businesses require an investment, and a good rule of thumb is that you won't see a return for at least 12 months. This is especially true of farming, where you might not see a return for 2 whole seasons, or years.
I simply couldn't financially survive the wait between going full-blown farmer and actually making a profit from farming big enough to live off of.
"Not knowing I had health problems greatly impacted my ability to succeed as a small farmer, as it would have impacted any business I had tried to start."
4. My Health Got in the Way
This is a very personal topic, and one that I'm not going to go into too much detail about in this article (though I will in other articles, as I think my experiences could be helpful to others).
I had underlying health issues that compounded my other farming problems. So not only did I have little time left after working my outside job to focus on the farm, I was often too exhausted to do all that I wanted and needed to be doing.
Prior to buying my farm, I didn't know I had any health problems. I thought I was a healthy, mostly in-shape 26-year-old. In fact, I thought I was quite physically fit due to activities like chopping firewood and just generally running around getting things done; and I was in shape, to some extent, but that didn't mean I didn't have an illness that was creeping up on me.
Due to my undiagnosed condition, I was "sick" for years before I got diagnosed and started taking the medicine I need in order to function normally. To be honest, I'm still not 100% and don't know when I will be. But my point here is that not knowing I had health problems greatly impacted my ability to succeed as a small farmer, as it would have impacted any business I had tried to start.
I would never have thought of this had it not been for my experience, but it's actually imperative to make sure your health is where it needs to be, and that you have the support to keep it there, before investing your money, time, and energy into any entrepreneurship, including and maybe especially farming.
If I had this to do again, I would have gotten a primary care doctor instead of just going to whatever NP was on-call at my local clinic for emergent problems. I would have discussed my goals and plans with my doctor and told them that I wanted to make sure I was healthy before starting my business. And most importantly, I would make sure that I didn't let symptoms that began to crop up go - I wouldn't let doctors and NPs write those symptoms off or fail to investigate them.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
Dr Mark from The Atlantic Rain Forest, Brazil on June 22, 2020:
Rachel, I wish I had some words that could console you but of course I do not. I doubt there even are words. I hope you can get started somewhere else. Maybe a hobby farm? I think your situation is an illustration of why so many of those exist now, and the farms that do survive are large businesses.
I do hope your health is improving.