A reader writes with a few excellent questions:
Reading your post about the lambs today got me thinking – how did you learn to do all this stuff? Did you grow up on a farm? [My wife] and I dream (and pray) daily about doing the same kinds of things you do, but even if I had a farm delivered into my lap for free I have no idea what I’m doing. How does a guy who never even hunted in his life learn as an adult to become more self-sufficient, deal with domesticated animals, etc.?
The answer to the first question is an emphatic No, neither Mrs Yeoman Farmer nor I grew up on a farm. MYF’s grandfather had a large farm in Indiana, which she enjoyed visiting from time to time, but that’s the closest that either of us had gotten to “farming.” I grew up in a suburban Seattle subdivision, and went off to college not even knowing how to change the oil in a car — let alone how to cultivate a plant, load or fire a gun, butcher an animal, drive a fence post, milk a goat, or anything else that I now do on a regular basis. To paraphrase a line from Casablanca, I suppose that I would have despised doing those things…if I’d ever even given them any thought.
As described in this blog’s very first post, we didn’t begin to give farming serious thought until we’d been married a few years and our children began suffering from severe food allergies. That post gives some overview of how we made the move to the country, but I would like to fill in and emphasize a few points in response to the email correspondent’s questions:
First, we bought a large library of books, even before making the move, and continued adding books after the move. Education of this sort is essential background, as it allows you to learn about a wide variety of things and make some decisions about what you’d like to do. Carla Emery’s Encyclopedia of Country Living is the very best, if you only have the time/money for a single book. Your library may have it, but it’s an excellent investment. We spent hours browsing it and dreaming, while still in California. Use this book as a jumping-off point for buying books about specific topics that you find most appealing. Even after moving, we read magazines like Countryside that share the experiences various people have had with various types of livestock — that’s how we discovered Icelandic sheep and found our breeder, for example.
Second, visit other small farms and get to know the families who run them. Even now, we find it extremely valuable to see how other people have laid out their properties and the sorts of innovative things they have some up with. Just yesterday, we attended a day-long beekeeping class at a farm about an hour from here. It was a wonderful experience, and just $75 for the whole family (and includes a follow-up class in August, when they harvest honey.) I went home with a number of new ideas about things we could do with our farm. Even if you have no desire to get a bee hive, this farm is an excellent example of a visitor-friendly place where you can learn a lot and sample some outstanding produce. I encourage my Michigan readers to check out the link above — and for those of you in other parts of the country to look around for similar places. They are literally everywhere. Your best bet is actually not to surf the web looking for them, but rather to shop at farmer’s markets and strike up conversations with the people manning the booths. MYF found the beekeepers because they’d set up a booth at a Catholic homeschooling conference she attended last year; she struck up a conversation, and quickly learned about what they had to offer visitors.
Third, once you’ve gotten to know other farm families, volunteer yourself as slave labor, learning by doing, helping out as best you can. Though some might prefer not to have to spend a long time training you, if they are passionate about what they’re doing, they will want to share that passion. That was our experience, anyhow. It’s how I learned how to butcher poultry, brood chicks, keep poultry in movable pasture pens, dig potatoes, etc. MYF learned a great deal about gardening by talking with others who had cultivated plants in the area and getting a good look at what they were growing; it’s the best way to understand what will thrive in your particular location and its micro-climate.
Fourth, we made lots of mistakes and learned from them. The key advice I’d give: start slow and start small, so your mistakes aren’t too big. I don’t regret having started anything too small. I have many regrets about starting some things too big. A classic example in our case is dairy. We never ever should’ve started with a cow. We should have started with one goat. Eventually we figured that out, many dollars (and headaches) later. In a similar vein, don’t rush into getting livestock before you have the facilities prepared; do not think to yourself “we need to get some chicks started, and I’ll worry about building a chicken coop as they’re growing.” We made that mistake with our cow; we got her before fencing an outside area for her — and we never ended up getting it done. She was stuck with her calf in a small area for the whole time we had her. We learned from this, and securely fenced the pasture before getting our sheep. Likewise, at the beekeeping class yesterday, we were greatly tempted to splurge and buy our first hive. But as I thought about it, I realized I wasn’t fully prepared for bees. I needed to read more, and plan more, and think things through more completely. It would be wonderful to have a hive this year, but I want to make sure we do it right. There is no harm in waiting. As I said, where we’ve usually harmed ourselves most is in not waiting and preparing more.
This is the sort of post that could go on forever (and MYF needs me to dig another trench for potatoes), so I’ll bring it to a close. The bottom line, if you want to be a Yeoman farmer: Read, Visit, Volunteer. You can’t do enough of that. And do as much reading and visiting as you can before moving to the country. It will help a lot in deciding what sort of natural characteristics you should be looking for in a property — and many times, the farmers themselves will know of suitable country properties for sale that aren’t on the radar of most realtors.
But there I go, making this post even longer. It’s hard to stop writing about this question, because it’s something I feel so passionately about sharing. Find someone near you who has that passion, and go see up close how they’re living the dream.