Dream to Reality - 10 Step Process for Farm Discernment
DISCLAIMER: this guide is something I created in 2018 as part of the website YoungCatholicFarmers.com. It was written primarily from the perspective of small scale commercial farming. If I were to re-write a "guide to discernment" for aspiring Catholic farmers today, it would be different, and would provide more material specific to homesteading. But I've heard from many people who have found this helpful, so I'm publishing it here with the hope that you can find some useful steps or calls to action. Also, many of the links are no longer active, and I don't have time to re-link them all just yet. Take it for what it's worth.
10 STEP DISCERNMENT AND EDUCATION PROCESS
STEP #1 INTRODUCTION
Step #1 is simple. Watch the videos below. Then consider the questions for reflections below.
There is one distinction you will want to keep in mind as you watch the videos and go through the steps, and it has to do with the big question: "How are you going to pay your bills?" I break this down into 3 levels of farming, and number 3 is where most of you are going to start.
Full-time commercial farmerthat supports himself and his family exclusively from farm income. This requires a high level of tenacity, and entrepreneurial skill, particularly in being able to market the products that you grow/raise. Few will be able to do this well, and it takes time to get there, but it's a noble vocation because the world needs to eat, and there are plenty of models and resources to help one succeed.
Part time commercial farmerwho derives a portion of his income from his farm, but also has one or more other income sources to supplement the farm income. Under this model, the farm AND another source together bring in enough money to live on. The advantage to this model is that it can make a lot of other potential "side careers" possible in combination with some farm income. This can be further divided into two options:
You can have another business that is farming related and complimentary, such as a farm store, home bakery, offer tours, etc.
OR you can simply have a totally unrelated income source such as another job (ideally not full time, or possibly a seasonal job in the off-season). Alternatively your spouse can work another job if your family situation allows for that. Some examples could include being a part-time carpenter, freelance web developer, teacher, nanny, etc...
The third option is to be ahomesteaderthat SAVES money by producing a lot of their own food, and maybe even having a bit left over for local sales, but has a completely different job which primarily/exclusively supports the family. This does not take the same entrepreneurial demands that the other two do, and and will be a great option for someone who does not want to run their own business. Many of the same skills that business owners use will apply in this situation though. Whether you produce for yourself or for others, you want to make sure you are operating at a certain level of proficiency and efficiency, especially if you work full time at another job -- you don't want farm chores to take you away from your family and other pursuits. Over the years, I've come to see the homestead model as the most accessible to many families, perhaps in combination with model two for some supplemental income.
Farming Questions for reflection: After watching and reading, spend some time in silent prayer with the following questions. Giving yourself silent time with God will help you connect with your heart, where He speaks to you, and has written a plan for your life. I especially recommend reading the document in a spirit of prayer.
What brought you to this farming journey? What compels you to read this document and watch these videos in the first place?
God may be calling you personally to be a farmer. What do you think about that?
What is your first reaction watching those videos? Write it down, journal about it, pray about it, talk to a trusted friend about it.
You just saw a tour of several different types of farms. Remember: you MUST start slowly, and build from there, but ask yourself: which of the three "levels" of farming do you see yourself ending up at? Not sure? No problem, but keep it in mind!
When you hear that our world needs more farmers, and you see the farmers on these videos telling you it can be done, what is is your reaction?
Does it ignite a longing to have your own farm? If so, what in particular spoke to you?
Did anything stand out?
Does it give you any hesitations? If so, what are they?
Did you come away from those videos seeing farming differently from the way you saw it before?
Can you see yourself living that life?
Can you see yourself in at least one of the farms in the videos?
Questions for reflection: These podcasts give you a lot of information to chew on, along with some inspiring stories and ideas. take them into prayerful reflection, and pray before and after listening to each one, that the Holy Spirit will speak to you through them.
Can you relate to Joel's comment that many young people enter a given career just to satisfy others, or because it's just what everyone else does? Are you in this situation? Are you happy with the line of work you are in, or that you are studying for? Would you rather work with your hands? What makes you think that?
Several of these podcasts make it clear that farming is hard work, physically, and takes emotional and spiritual stamina. Does that intimidate you? Are you willing to work hard with your body?
Joel says "Bloom where you are planted." What farm-related or growing opportunities are there right in your home area? This applies even to people living in big cities -- what could you do right here? Keep in mind that Curtis Stone's farm is an Urban farm, right in the middle of the city.
"Movement creates movement." Are the type of person that is slow to move? Could that be holding you back from an opportunity within your grasp? Just because you can't see what the 2nd step is in not a good reason to avoiding taking the first step, because only then does the 2nd step become clear in many cases. Or, on the other hand, are you the type of person that is likely to try too many things and once, and rush headlong into things? Joel reminds us that "You have to pace yourself. Get one enterprise up and running, then let that finance the 2nd enterprise."
Farming certainly has elements of romance, as does marriage. But both marriage and farming are hard work, NOT just riding off into the countryside sunset. Are you attracted merely to the glossy picture and romance of pastoral scenes, or do you understand the commitment required to stick it through, and become successful? Jean-Martin reminds us that we will not avoid the early hardships. We didn't on our farm. Do you have the perseverance to stick it through?
Jean-Martin emphasizes the importance of educating yourself, and practicing farm designs and cropping system on paper. Does that sound enjoyable? A lot of successful farming is in the planning.
Curtis says "If you believe you can do it, you can do it." Do you believe you can do it?
Joel says: “If everyone of us would do what we know we could do if we really got passionate about it, it would so change our world that we can’t even imagine what tomorrow’s dawn would bring.” What are you passionate about? Where is God calling you to change His world for the better?
Jean-Martin says "Grow Better, Not Bigger." What do you think of having a small farm? Are you longing for endless acres in the countryside, or would you prefer to manage a small, but highly productive farm? Both types of farming exist, but smaller farms are generally more manageable, and often have more potential for profit per acre, but there are exceptions. A small farm is definitely the way to go for someone new.
Can you see yourself starting an online store such as the we run and discuss in the last podcast?
STEP #3 CONTINUED EDUCATION
Buy and read the following books.
You can Farm, by Joel Salatin
The Market Gardener, by Jean-Martin Fortier
The Urban Farmer, by Curtis Stone
Compact Farms -- 15 proven plans for market farms on 15 acres or less, by Josh Volk
Letters to a Young Farmer, by Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture (Particularly the letters by Barbara Kingsolver, Wes Jackson, Joel Salatin, Wendell Berry, Eliot Coleman, Michael Pollan, Allan Savory and Richard Wiswall.)
If you buy them all new, it will cost you $87. That's not bad, compared to what most people pay for education these days. College textbooks are not that cheap! Out of the many, many books I have read on farming, these are the best for abeginning farmer. If you have very little money, just buy the first two, but I recommend all 5. They are priceless resources you will reference for years to come. I recommend reading You Can Farm cover to cover. The other four can be read in a more selective manner, but spend some good time with all of them. Expect this step to take a month or so.
Questions for reflection.
Did you find it hard to get through these books? Or did you find it hard to put them down? In either case, Why? Could that interest, or lack of interest shed any light on whether you have the passion to make this a career? Joel wants to inspire people to be able to farm, but he is realistic, and says that if his book helps you realize you don't actually want to farm, it's better to realize that after reading a $25 book, than after sinking thousands into a farm business, and learning the hard way.
The very first sentence of You Can Farm says that the pre-prequisite to farming is believing it is possible. Do you? I do.
Joel says: "You've got to want this badly enough to forego weekend indulgences, summertime swims and recreation, to begin something in agriculture NOW." How badly do you want it? What are you willing to sacrifice?
"Chances are if you have no desire to grow anything now, you probably never will. You can grow something, even if it is a plant in a windowbox." When I was in college, I grew in containers on my dorm balcony, and planted clandestine gardens around the campus. What are you growing now? What could you be growing? What do you want to grow?
Re-read chapter 8 of You Can Farm and take it into prayer. Which of Joel's 10 "recipes for failure" are you most likely to fall into? What can you do to reverse that?
Re-read chapter 9. Are any of Joel's worst enterprises something you want to do? If so, why? What do you think about the reasons he recommends not going into those enterprises?
Re-read chapter 10. Which of Joel's main enterprises appeals to you most? Why? Are there any that you definitely don't want to do? Why? PS -- I would add two more enterprises to this list: microgreens and a farm-to-door webstore like we run at OjaiFarmstand.com. They are both capable of being a primary enterprise (they are in our case). Note that the three other books I recommend all present different models of #5 -- the market garden. The market garden is an excellent centerpiece enterprise.
Joel says: "White down your dreams. Write them down often." Do you already do this? Take some time to write them down in a spirit of prayerful receptivity.
Jean-Martin and Curits both recommend farming without a tractor. What do you think of that?
Would you rather farm in a more rural setting like Joel and Jean-Martin, or in an Urban setting like Curtis, Chris Thoreau or the Brooklyn Grange? That could determine what farming model you pursue, but don't be afraid to start where you are, gain skills and move later. Most people live in cities, so the Urban Farming model may be the right place to start for many aspiring farmers.
Which of the letters to a Young Farmer speak to you the most?
STEP #4 EAT LOCAL FOOD
At this point, having read these books, and especially if you are continuing to listen to more shows from Permaculture Voices, you have a lot of farming knowledge, whether you realize it or not. Keep it up! You should have a good picture now of what it takes to live as a farmer, although you may not have actually gone and tried it out. Trying it out is essential in my opinion, because until you try something, how can you know that it is or isn't for you? You don't marry someone blindly -- you spend a lot of time getting to know them first. Now it's time to to start getting to know farming in person. It is totally fine, and even a good idea to begin this step while in the process of reading and listening to Steps 2 and 3. You don't want to get caught in a "reading funk" where you hole up and think about this forever, without getting your hands in it. Ideally, steps 2 and 3 will be ongoing -- don't stop! Keep listening to great content, and come back to those books again and again. See the Resources section for more books too.
This step may throw you for a loop, but it's an essential one. You need to start thinking about food. Where does your food come from? Are you buying food from local farmers, or do you eat out a lot? There's nothing wrong with eating out, but you need to start tapping into local farm food. You need to get to know and love the products you may be growing someday, so you can pass that love on to others. A farmer that doesn't eat and love his own food is not very convincing. Why would you spend your life producing something you don't love? God doesn't want that for you, and you won't do a very good job if you don't love it.
A few ideas for connecting with local food and farmers.
Is there a farmers market in your area? Go shop there every week! Try different things, ask questions about them, about the farms, get to know the scene. Make a habit of shopping there before going to the grocery store. Get an idea of what grows seasonally in your area. Don't push yourself on farmers, just get to know them, and show them you appreciate them by buying their product. If some items are too expensive, focus on the items you can afford. Produce is usually more affordable at farmers market than meat and dairy.
Join a local CSA. If you don't know how to cook something, look it up!
Eatwild.com is a great resource for finding farms that sell grass-fed meat and dairy directly from the farm.
Where does your food come from? Are you buying from farmers, or from the grocery store and eating out?
If you were a farmer, what kind of customers would you like? Are you that type of customer for the farmers you buy from?
What do you like to eat? This is not the only factor, but it's an important one in deciding what to grow yourself. Don't grow something you don't like! If it doesn't sell, at least you can eat it!
STEP #5 GET ON THE SCENE
Step 4 flows nicely into step 5. If you are already forming relationships with local farmers by buying their food, you are beginning to get in touch with your local farm scene. Now, it's time to step into it not merely as a customer, but as a truly aspiring farmer. Here are some ideas:
Take advantage of ANY opportunity to work on a farm. It doesn't matter what kind of farm, and ideally it will be more than one. Each one will give you a new perspective. Be willing and eager to work for no pay at all. You are in this for the long term experience and opportunity building, NOT to get quick cash. If you get a paying job, that's a great bonus, but don't make that your main goal.
See if any local farms have volunteer programs, and jump into it. Show the farmer you are more serious than the other volunteers. He will notice, and opportunities will arise.
Offer to help a farmer weed, or any other task for free.
"WWOOFing" is a great way to be able to visit multiple farms to trade labor for room and board and experience. http://wwoof.net/
Questions for reflection:
How's it going so far? If you've taken the step to actually work on a farm, even if just for one morning, that's huge!! Congrats! You've done it! How does it feel? Are you eager for more? Or was it not a good experience? Either way, think about why, but make sure you go out and keep at it! First impressions are important to reflect on, but usually not a good idea to act on. Give it time!
If you worked on multiple farms, which one was your favorite? Least favorite? Why?
After doing it for a few months, even if one morning a week, do you feel like your body can handle the wordload?
At the end of each work session, how do you feel?
What did you see on those farms that you want to imitate on your own farm?
What did you see that you do NOT want on your own farm?
How do these farms methods match up with the info, methods and recommendations you are getting from the farmers you are reading and listening to, like Joel, Jean-Martin, Curtis? Could those farms possibly benefit from having the same info you do? Or, are they doing something that looks like a good idea, which you haven't run across in the books yet.
Re-reading some of the books after working on farms, what stands out to you in a new light? What became more relevant, or made more sense after actually doing it with your own hands?
STEP #6 GROW SOME FOOD!
Step 6 is start growing food yourself. It's great if you've been doing this all along, but if you haven't, you've got to start doing this now. Here are some ideas:
Grow a garden in your yard. Or your parent's yard. Or your friend's yard. If something doesn't grow well, do some research and find out why. Ask a farmer what he would have done differently. You will be gaining real skills as a grower, that you will take with you onto your farm.
If you don't have space for a garden, grow in containers inside. You can do this anywhere. If your plants don't thrive, and generate a yield, do some research, find out why. Making mistakes on a small scale like this is a LOT cheaper than making them on your farm!
Grow some microgreens inside. Fast, easy, cheap and you will learn a lot about growing. It could also turn into a business of its own later on, if you get good at it, like it, and find a way to sell them. If they don't become your main focus, they can be a year round or seasonal crop to add some cash flow to your farm. It's a great crop to have in your back pocket. Start with sunflower greens. They are the highest yielding, and most popular, and pretty easy.
Raise some chicken for eggs or meat.
Raise a turkey for Thanksgiving or Christmas.
Raise a batch of meat rabbits.
Questions for reflection:
What have you chosen to grow / raise? Did you enjoy it? What did you enjoy about it? What was more challenging than you expected?
What are some obstacles and failures you encountered? What did you do to find a solution, and what did you learn in the process?
STEP #7 ADVANCED READING
By this point, you should be taking advantage of some of the more advanced and specialized reading available. Below are book recommendations based on various types of enterprises. The list is not exhaustive by any means, but a good start, and ones that we have found helpful ourselves.
If you want to start a market garden, you already have the books you need from Jean-Martin and Curtis. Study them in depth! I also highly recommend the following books if you plan on starting a market garden. total cost for all 5: $100 Well worth the investment!
The Lean Farm, by Ben Hartman
How to Grow More Vegetables, by John Jeavons
The New Organic Grower, by Eliot Coleman
Four Season Harvest, by Eliot Coleman
Crop Planning, by Dan Brisebois
If you want to raise poultry, I recommend the following. Of the two, Joel's book is more geared toward commercial production, but Ussery's book has a lot of relevant information.
Pastured Poultry Profits, by Joel Salatin The Small Scale Poultry Flock, by Harvey Ussery
If you want to raise cattle, I recommend Salad Bar Beef by Joel Salatin. However, unless it fits your context, I don't recommend starting with an animal that big if you have no farm experience. Plants and poultry yield a much faster return on investments, are easier to contain, and don't require as much land.
STEP #8 START YOUR OWN FARM
By this point, it's time to start your own operation. I recommend starting small. The smaller the better, really. Raise 15 or 25 broilers in your yard, and sell them to friends and family. Or even give them away as a sample, and tell people there will be more to come. If you don't feel comfortable doing that yet, just eat the first batch yourself, and raise a 2nd one for others. The point is to start getting a feel for what it takes to raise food for more than just yourself, and if you can make a little money doing it, that's great. But don't make that your goal at first, you are still in the experience gaining stage.
Needless to say, you will still need a means of off-farm income to support yourself at this point. Do NOT quit your job and jump in whole-hog, unless you have enough savings to live through your first year of mistakes.
Grow a garden, and plant enough to have extra to sell. Start an urban farm on one site, and then expand to 2 if it makes sense for you, and you are selling everything. Remember NOT to put production too far ahead of sales. You don't want to end up with 100s of pounds of product that you have to compost because you didn't have a plan for selling it.
Start by selling to friends and family first. They will be happiest to buy from you in many cases, and will likely put up with inconsistencies while you figure out your game. Collect an email list of interested customers. Ask them to refer their friends. Email them with what you have when you have it, keep it simple in the beginning. No need to go set up a whole online store at first, although modern web program do make this pretty easy. In some situations, that could be a good idea.
Here are some things I recommend NOT doing at the beginning of your fledgling commercial operation.
Grow more than you think you can sell or eat.
Rent a large plot of land.
Start a market garden on anything over 1/4 acre.
Raise more than 25 broilers at a time.
Buy a tractor.
Buy anything really expensive.
Negotiate sales relationships with institutions (like restaurants) until you are pretty sure you offer them consistent product.
Rent land more than 15 minutes away from your home.
Build anything permanent on a farm property.
The best bet is to utilize what you have on hand at the very beginning. The time will come very soon for you to make some bigger equipment purchases, but you definitely want to have trialed your operation on a small scale before sinking money into equipment.
Questions for Reflection:
You're all in now! You are doing it! Although it's on a micro-scaleyou are now a farmer. Think about that. Soak it in. You have joined the ranks of those called by God to provide His people with Food and Fiber. A lot of discernment, education and hard work got you here. Take a moment to reflect on the process of getting here. How does it feel? Do you feel in your heart that you are doing God's will for your life?
If anything is troubling you at this time, what is it? Be very specific about it, and even write it down. Then ask yourself what the solution is.
You are still very much in the learning stage. Expect to make many, many mistakes. It's OK! You will not fully learn without them. What are some important mistakes you have made so far? How have you benefited from observing them? Do NOT deny them, they will only get worse. Have the guts to stare them in the face, name them, write them down, and find steps to a solution. The process will make you a stronger person and better farmer.
STEP #9 SCALE UP (GRADUALLY!)
Once you feel comfortable running a micro-farm for friends and family, it's time to begin scaling up, because that alone probably won't generate enough income to support you and your family. This is probably the single hardest phase of farming, and some people get this far and then quit, because of the pressure of scaling up an enterprise. There's a lot you can do to minimize that pressure though, especially by just taking it slowly. That being said, at some point you are going to need to purchase some equipment and machinery, no matter what type of operation you are running. Make those purchases wisely.
Consider scaling your large home garden, or 1-2 Urban plots to a 1/4 or 1/2 acre. We rented a whole acre for vegetables from the very beginning, and it was a waste. It took us 3 years to get the whole acre shaped with beds and planted. We would have been much better off starting with a 1/2, and growing from there. Consider raising 50-100 broilers at a time, or increasing your laying flock.
Don't stretch yourself too thin. Get good at 1-2 things, and let those cash flow other enterprises.
Always have a plan for where you will sell your stuff. Maybe that will be a farmers market. Maybe you can do a little marketing each week, and expand your list of email or webstore customers. Maybe you could sell to some restaurants. Maybe a grocery store or wholesaler wants a product you offer. Whatever it is, plan that before planting seeds or buying chicks!
Generally only buy a machine if you are sure it is going to pay for itself over time by reducing your labor, or allowing you to do a task you couldn't perform without it.
Seek advice and counsel from neighboring farmer mentors, consultants, and books every step of the way. Don't presume you know what you're doing yet. A lot of the farmers on the Permaculture Voices podcasts offer consulting services, and Diego generally links to them from the show notes. Consulting could be the best investment you ever make. Books will only get you so far. Once you run up against a wall, you can describe your exact situation to an expert in trouble-shooting at your industry. This is the point at which consulting will yield the most value, because you already have your hands in the pudding, and have LOTS of questions to ask. When you have questions, the answers stick better in your mind. Write down a detailed list of all your questions before going into your consulting session. I did a consultation early on in our farming venture, and it literally saved me thousands of dollars in mistakes. It doesn't matter if they charge $100 / hour -- it is worth it! Prepare for it well, and you will walk away with enough new information and solutions to keep you busy for months.
It's may or may not be time to quit your job yet. Do this very prudently and cautiously. If you are making 2/3 - 3/4 what you need to live on from your farm, and have some money in savings, AND have a concrete plan how you will increase farm revenue in the short term, then it may be time. Maybe your spouse could continue working full or part time while you make the leap. Make sure you have a financial cushion, and a back-up plan. At the very least, consider the risk you are taking. It could help to write down what a worst case scenario would look like, and have a plan in your back pocket should that happen. Keeping living expenses low is crucial at this time. Be honest about luxuries and necessities at this stage. In our case, I quit my job a little too early, and it was more stressful than I would have liked at the time. I don't want others to make the same mistake.
Questions for Reflection:
You've been doing this for some time now. Check in with your heart, check in with God. Still feeling it? Are you following His plan for your life? Talk to your spouse about this. He/She knows you well, see what they think. Are you both in this together? Are there tensions that you need to work out before going any further?
What have you learned, and what still needs to be mastered? What questions would be good to take into a consulting session?
How has becoming a farmer made you a better person? A better spouse? A better parent?
How has farming brought stress into your life? What can you do to alleviate that stress?
Take a moment to remember why you are doing this. Why are YOU farming? Write it down, journal about it in prayer. Keep the main goals in focus, don't get too bogged down in everyday concerns about plants and animals.
STEP#10 AND BEYOND... KEEP LEARNING!
The rest is really up to you. I don't know what type of farm you are running, or where it is, or what your specific assets and problems are, so I can't offer very specific advice. I hope your farm continues to grow over the years. Not necessarily in size, although that may be part of the plan. Remember that Jean-Martin recommends growing better, not bigger. Joel always says to make the most of what you've got before moving on. You have the tools and experience now to make these decisions wisely.
Don't forget that you can always learn more. We are living in exciting farming times, and new books and tools seem to come out every year. Don't presume you couldn't be doing something better. Look forward to constantly farming better every year.
Remember the big picture too. Remember the vital role you play for society. Remember the school in virtue and hard work you are giving your children. My prayer for you is that you are wildly successful, and pass your knowledge and experience on to others who will carry the torch further.