Start Small. Go Slowly.

I was listening to a Permaculture Voices podcast with Darren Doherty. Darren said he was speaking with Teresa Salatin (with me so far?) about her advice for folks just getting started. In short, start small. Go slowly.

Once upon a time an ambitious, hard working young man moved with his lovely bride and children to his family farm (which he bought with real money the bank created from thin air and loaned to him (and he is repaying this real loan of fictional money even to this day)). When the family arrived they already had a small flock of pullets…cause that’s what you do. You get some birdies and then you are a real farmer. Well, some birdies and a gun to protect them with.

FirstPullets

Pullets are fine. Pullets are fun. We had a few roosters too. The flock was small so we knew the birds’ names. Red roosters are always named Roger. Barred Rock roosters are always named Rocky. There was a small pullet who ran to me each day and liked to ride on my shoulder. We called her Polly. Polly was killed one night along with around 30 other birds by a mink.

And that’s how it goes. Everything likes chicken. We had everything to learn. We still have everything to learn. Everything still likes chicken.

But we started. And we started small. We should have started smaller and that’s why I’m writing this.

FirstCornish

Then we got 100 CX chicks so we could call ourselves real farmers (we had, after all, read Pastured Poultry Profits). CX are merely an 8-week prison sentence. No big whoop. But we hadn’t pre-sold any of the birds and really didn’t have any extra freezer space. No plan. Just birds. “We’re really doing it!”

Well, yes. We really were raising animals. We were producing and…well…I guess that’s good. Except…um…you know…where are the customers? Aren’t they supposed to show up? We’re producing what the world wants…shouldn’t the world be here by now?

When the bird thing was under control (barely) we got a milk goat complete with kids. That was a mistake. It was too soon. Too early. Too much we didn’t know. Too much going on at once. (For those of you playing along at home, please consider Dairy to be an advanced topic and not to be entered into lightly.)

FirstGoat

We sold chicken. We sold eggs. We froze whatever goat milk we couldn’t immediately drink. Things were going so well we thought we should add pigs the following year.

Pigs. Again, we’re just in the yard. My (distant) cousin was renting the pasture. He said he wouldn’t mind if I ran my chickens through his pastures near the house. Thank God. But I had to find a place for three ruptured pigs. I made a little shelter with T-posts and pallets (and ripped my hand open driving the t-post…cool zig-zag scar!) and put the pigs back under some trees contained by electric fence. That went really well. I mean…really, really well. The pigs rooted up the yard and later the pasture. Again, few animals tend to have names. We let names happen spontaneously. We sold Susan to a couple of co-workers through the local packer. Buddy and Girly went to our own freezer along with Popeye the goat. (We ground a portion of the goat and pig together and made Popeye/Buddy burgers…totally awesome.)

FirstPigs

These were all ruptures (pigs with hernias) from a production hog floor. Each had a big balloon of skin hanging down from their bellies or scrotum. Because of the flaw we bought them cheap and it all worked out well. In fact, the ruptures closed up. The vet says they didn’t heal, they just were not currently expressed. I suspect it was because we fed our pigs at the ends of the day and let them go hungry for a little while day and night in addition to the clean air, fresh pasture and lack of stress from animal density. Anyway, we learned how to care for pigs on the cheap and how to kill and butcher pigs and goats. I don’t know how many batches of pigs we have raised to date. Several times along the way we have had a nice gilt in the group and we have considered keeping her or just raising a couple to farrow our own pigs. But I think there is a lot to be said for running a complete batch through and being able to take a breather for a little while. We just have pigs when we want them.

FirstCows

For some reason we chose a different strategy with cattle. We bought cows. Cows eat. Cows eat every day. Every. Day. There are no days off. It would be so much nicer to buy stockers in September and sell them in June. Then I could take the summer off. Sweet! But, no. I bought cows. Worse, I bought a couple of milk cows. Remember me saying that dairy is an advanced topic, not for the beginner. I meant it. I really, really meant it. You are better off buying your milk…at least when you first move to the farm of your dreams. Every morning I wake up early (earlier than ever before) to wash milk jars, sterilize equipment and get things started. Every morning. Every morning. Today? 3 gallons. Yesterday? 3 gallons. Day before that? Yup. What do you do with all that milk? I try to drink a gallon each day (helps me keep my girlish figure). Right now there are 7 gallons in the fridge. What do we do with it all? Skim the cream and give the rest to pigs, chickens or cats or dilute the milk and put it in a compost tea.

Read that last sentence again. We need our entire farm working to utilize the surplus milk we receive from two cows…cows with calves we are sharing the milk with. True dat. You need to start small. Dairy isn’t starting small. Dairy is something you add when you’re up and running already.

“But”, you say, “I wasn’t wanting to start with livestock. I just wanted to put in a garden. Only an acre or two.”

Well.

Two years ago I planted a matted row 15′ long of strawberry plants. Last year I thinned that down to a double row and extended it another 15′. So far we have picked 30 gallons of strawberries that I know of, not counting the bug eaten berries we just toss and the handfuls of berries we have eaten right out of the garden.

StrawberryPatch

Cat photobomb

The little girl in the picture above is tired of picking strawberries. Any idea what you are going to do with that bumper crop of tomatoes? We once filled a freezer with jalapenos. What is the plan when you pick 3 bushels of cucumbers every day for two weeks? (hint: it helps to have a pig!)

No matter what you are producing you can easily out-produce your ability to handle the bounty. You may even begin to curse your blessings. It’s pretty cool to collect 10 dozen eggs/day but can you really sell 70 dozen eggs every week? 280 dozen every month? Maybe you shouldn’t raise 150 layers then.

But if you start small you’ll give yourself a chance to work out the marketing kinks. Really, for every hour that goes into production and harvest, you need to dedicate 7 hours to marketing…to expanding your market…to finding new customers. The goal is to start small but to increase your production each year until you just can’t handle all the money coming in. Your family of four could easily utilize 4 bushels of apples each year but you planted 10 apple trees. Each tree will produce that many. What are you going to do with all the apples? Heck, what are you going to do with all the wild abundance that magically grows on your land? All the raspberries? All the mulberries? All the bluegill?

FirstFish

So. Start small. No, smaller than that. If I was advising someone who was starting out fresh I would suggest 4 pullets and a pig. That’s it. Maybe a worm box if you’re adventurous. With those animals around you can up-cycle all the garden and yard waste you can find into bacon, eggs and manure and still have enough eggs to pass some to a neighbor over a fence from time to time. Later, raise 10 broilers for yourself in the fall. Start out with a 10’x10′ garden following recommendations in Jeavons’ book, planting things you know you will eat and working to keep every square foot working year-round. I would plant fruit trees…not a lot of trees but some. Maybe on the north edge of your garden space. Throw in some bushes too..both for fruit and to attract beneficial insects. I would include comfrey and a few other perennial herbs. But keep it all small. Small. Think small.

Let your customers force you to expand. If you start small and work hard, customers will appreciate your quality. Word of mouth is the best marketing tool available. Never let your customers down. You can’t produce quality until you have learned to crawl. Learn to crawl. Start small. Believe me. My knees have been skinned more than once.

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17 thoughts on “Start Small. Go Slowly.

  1. I love your blog. I live the farm life I’ve always dreamed of vicariously through your blog. When harvest time is heavy, I know a few of us would pay to come pick our own. Just sayin’.

  2. Not again! You started with… “Once upon a time” but didn’t end with … “and they all lived happily ever after”! Ahhh that field of dreams that comes with that somewhat elusive market that is essential to the small farm. Or any business – many people don’t (want to) focus on marketing as much as the actual doing of their trade.

    My sister for example has a Remedial Massage Therapy Clinic and every yr the college produces more Massage Therapist with 2 yrs of education under their belt, but no idea how they will market themselves. First stop get a trtmt rm at an established clinic. Sounds good but they still have to work to find many of their patients. Too many just do not make it in their business as they are not good at marketing – they do not last long as self-employed at least. Good therapists I am sure but fall short in the marketing themselves dept and end up with a j.o.b. at a hotel or something.

    It is good you point out that there is more to it with small farming, it is really a 3 dimensional business – grow, process, sell – with the selling being the hardest for sure. I can’t wait for the day that everyone is on board with eating grass fed and as a small farmer you have a choice of selling your own produce or like Henderson, just take it to market. But in this case a market that acknowledges and pays the FULL value of grass fed products.

    Slowly a small part of the world is starting to change to recognize that diet and lifestyle are how we become ill and … how we become well. Slowly a small part of the world is learning about CAFO’s and how their food is raised. Slowly a small part of the world is recognizing the damage to the soil and earth that is happening with all the chemicals in use these days. I wish these groups were growing sooner and people were banging down your door!

    I haven’t figured out from reading your blog yet how you do market your products. Part of my motivation to read the 2013 archives to see if the answer is there… I know you don’t do Farmer’s Markets are you just word of mouth and farm gate sales?

    • How do we market our products? Oh, Kari. Can I do this in 50 words or less?

      We tell people about our farm, they show interest and buy stuff. Usually they buy a dozen eggs…then a chicken…then a pig. They tell friends. The farm grows a little.

      We sometimes give away eggs or run a sale because they are a gateway drug. But quality has to be high at all times.

      • Alex/(HFS) can I buy a vowel/(few more words ~10 is good) and solve the puzzle? 😉 Does Illinois allow farmers to sell dairy direct/CSA/other or did you intend for just as family and farm consumption?

        • We could sell raw milk. We just can’t advertise and customers have to bring their own containers…or that’s how we understand it. We went to a dairy meeting recently and the board created to clarify the rules said we were mistaken (as is common) but couldn’t …erm…clarify the rules.

          So we don’t. Beyond that, I just don’t think we are ready. Still a lot to learn about dairy. Dairy from our own cows seems to be helping my allergies right now through. I only sneezed 5 times yesterday while putting up hay. Today I noticed the milk tastes like the hay smells. Never noticed that before.

    • Not again! – ???

      Oh. Maybe I should write another broken record post. I think my copy of Taco’s After Eight is at my parent’s house…it may be scratched.

      There is a happily ever after post planned for my anniversary in two weeks.

      • Hope you didn’t take “not again” the wrong way. I was not suggesting you were repeating yourself beyond what is life on a farm… it just doesn’t always end with and they all live happily ever after. I think you are a great writer, your blog is my #1 fav with a great blend of edutainment. I never know what is coming next on your blog with a good mix of how we farm, family, product reviews like the Featherman, life, references to great books that I have since read a few, family history, humorous views of your life on the farm such as this post, your in-depth book reviews and some movie and music clips sprinkled throughout! I love that through it all is – REALITY – not a glossy see my nice perfect farm but the real deal and … things don’t always end up happily ever after. I enjoy blogs that I learn from, relate to and get a chuckle from but the thing I value the most from your blog is the common interest I have in many of your blogs that often give me much thought beyond clicking close on your blog. I have worked out a number of my “pending farm issues” from the residual of your blog – it is like an online course in a way for me!

        Yup it sounds like another trip to the attic is needed to fetch Taco! Puttin’ on the Ritz would be the perfect theme for your anniversary! Don’t think small with this one – no skimmed cream with bug eaten strawberries – go BIG lol !

  3. I’ve neglected you recently. Been busy finishing my cookbook. Sent it to the publisher this morning. Start small is true in so many parts of our lives. Start by writing a blog, then short stories, then a cookbook. Start by taking care of the yard and keeping it mown then a few potted plants then a garden. Start by cleaning the car then driving the lawn mower then the old truck/tractor then the car. Start by listening to your mother sing then playing the guitar then reading music then books. EVERYTHING needs to start small. I wonder how much of the world’s trouble is caused by people who are biting off more than they can chew.

    • Good advice on starting small and not biting off more than you can chew! I recall a time about 20 yrs ago I bite off more than everyone could chew! My in-laws were semi-retiring from the ranch to the mountains and I was going to take over her garden. A huge garden that back in the day used to feed 20 ranch hands every meal… seed packets only $0.49-$0.69 and me and my ambition went all out! We only had two ranch hands at the time and did not provide meals, so drowning in veggies I became everyone’s best friend in the city with my 5 gallon buckets of veggies. Yeah people still remind me of how great it was for them… I on the other hand learned that great for me was small-plant what I need. Low and behold you do not need to plant a whole pkg of ie radishes at once (or in this case 2 or 3 because you have rm for them) – you can start some every few wks for a continuous crop – who knew?! And that is how my garden became a 10×10. Jeavon’s bk looks interesting I reserved it at my library. All the best with your new cookbook!

  4. Not just biting off too much, but continuing to keep biting more. Thank you for the reminders. The trouble with slow is that it feels so non-fast. “Patience, Grasshopper,” is what we say around here when we get too ahead of ourselves.

    • Patience pays off. Slow is fast with cattle. I have heard that a number of times. Today I was moving the cows into the woods to get them out of the morning sun…they do better in the afternoon heat if they stay cool in the morning. The edge of the woods is bordered by an electric fence they respect and a thick mass of brambles and poison ivy. I cut and stomped through enough PI this morning to choke a camel while building fence. The cows refused to cross the fence. Then they refused to go into the thicket. I could have forced the issue but that would have stressed the cows. Patience paid off. The steer led the way going for a nibble of a hackberry sapling. Then another got curious. Then they all went into the woods. Just let them do their thing. Sometimes you can’t dictate the pace, you just have to set things up and let it happen.

  5. Your wee daughter has a fabulous grin. Great photos. Love the cat in mid leap.

    I’ve been pretty good about the start small thing with most of our enterprises, but the garden gets me every time. I’ve done better this year than most, but still only got about half of what I planned into the ground. At least I got half done, right?

    The hard part for me with the areas where I have been successful with starting small, is ramping it up and doing so consistently. I would say in my experience, this is mainly due to a need to plan better, market better and being a bit more organized – I unbelievably missed contacting a major broiler customer last year, who was very disappointed, and had to buy chicken elsewhere. I lost a pork customer because I didn’t follow up with her in a timely fashion, and she bought from someone else. She also thought she’d ordered a lamb from me, but that’s a different matter (I’ve never raised lamb).

    Jeavon’s book is awesome but a little daunting – so precise, so detailed, so meticulous. It’s been reissued many times, the sure sign of a gardening classic.

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