It’s a dream that many hold dear to their hearts but few will ever get to experience: a farm of one’s own. Not just any sort of farm, either, but a self-sufficient one running on nothing but the American Dream and a whole lot of elbow grease; the last bastion of a an era gone by in a world overrun with consumerism and identical globs of prepackaged food-like product lining the shelves of our local supermarkets.
How does a beginning farmer become an island of sustainability and self-reliance in a cultural sea dependent on cheap fuel and chemical inputs? The list of possibilities might seem daunting—solar panels, home-grown animal feed, a farm truck that runs on biodiesel … where does it end? Or, more importantly, where does it begin?
Here are five things that won’t cost a penny and are essential to creating a new life on a sustainable farm.
1. A Plan
Ask any farmer, and they will tell you: Farming is hard work. Add to that the desire to be self-sufficient, and you’ve gone to a whole new level. If you’re starting a farm, hopefully you’ve already developed a plan and a timeline for implementing that plan.
To reach your goals of sustainability, you’ll need to add the steps you will take toward becoming self-reliant to your plan. Perhaps in year one, you will restore the old well on your property so you no longer need city water. By year five, maybe you hope to be growing all the feed for your animals. Year 10, solar panels?
Jonas Hurley, owner of River Run Farm in central Kentucky, has been slowly working toward sustainability on his farm since he started it several years ago. “Less debt is always a good thing,” Hurley says, “which means building infrastructure over years and, at least for some time, someone needs a source of off-farm income.”
You’ve worked hard and saved your pennies to buy the perfect acreage to call your own. You can envision every last detail, from the rainwater-collection systems to the pumpkin patch that will provide needed agritourism income. You’ve mapped out your master plan, which includes a slew of beehives, rotational grazing for the cattle and retrofitting the bathrooms with composting toilets. It may seem obvious, but the No. 1 ingredient to checking these tasks off your list isn’t deep pockets or an engineering degree; it’s that most elusive of character traits: patience.
Going down the path to self-sufficiency is a long and slow one. After a lifetime of living and working your agricultural dream, your farm might still be just one more project away from being what you first set out to achieve. To manage your dream without losing your cool, Hurley recommends starting with diversity and working your way from there.
“I would encourage diversity in plants and livestock initially so at least most of your diet can be generated from the farm at first,” he says. “Then later you can find what component of the farm you are particularly interested in and good at to use as a source of revenue.”
Learning to keep your head down and stick to the plan will go a long way toward keeping you on track to your goal of sustainability.
Especially in the early years, it might feel like you’re a failure at self-sufficiency or perhaps farming in general. If you’ve set the goal to grow all your own food for the year but find yourself getting pretty hungry around January, it can be an intense disappointment to have to head to your local grocery to buy provisions. It’s important to remember that both farming and sustainability are evolutionary processes, not instant metamorphoses. You’ll have to compromise daily with yourself and, if you have one, with your farming partner. Choose what sustainable values are most important to you—maybe living debt-free or growing pesticide-free in the garden—and stick to them, but leave room to compromise on things that are negotiable.
It seems ironic that one of the most important ingredients to self-reliance is other people. It’s easy to look at farms as they operated 100 years ago and long for that same level of diversity and sustainability. Unfortunately, we live in a world that is drastically different.
As small farms have disappeared from our landscape, so has the like-minded community that enables small farms to thrive. Living near others with the same goals and ideas can be the difference between success and failure of your beginning farming venture. You can’t quantify the value of a helping hand on a building project or a friendly neighbor willing to barter for your morale.
If you can’t find anyone geographically close, consider looking online for websites or forums devoted to beginning farmers. A word of encouragement or an ingenious solution to a farm problem will be a huge help, even from a virtual friend.
You might even find help at the fiscal level. “Federal grants are available for fencing, if your farm has running water on it, as well as for high tunnels for extension of the growing season,” Hurley says.
5. A Crazy Streak
Farming sustainably makes perfect sense on one hand. On the other hand, there are times when the entire concept can seem almost foolish. Like when you’re getting up at 5 a.m. to hand-milk a cow in the dead of winter when you could buy milk prepackaged just a few miles down the road; straightening out old bent nails because you don’t want to spend any cash on doing barn repairs; convincing your customers to buy for something they could get for half your price for at the grocery store. At the very least, this lifestyle you’re choosing is definitively countercultural. If you are going to make it, you are going to need just enough of a wild side to make it all come together.
Self-sufficiency and farming go hand-in-hand. Start on the path today and keep working until you’ve reached a level of sustainability that is comfortable for you and your family. Your pocketbook and the environment will thank you.