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.
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.
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.)
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.)
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.
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.”
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.
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?
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.