Farm Planning, Part 1: How Can I Feed Myself?

We're talking about more than vegetables or livestock. What do you really want out of your farm? What are the resources and people who can help you get it?

by Karen Lanier
PHOTO: Sterling College/Flickr

Farm planning can be approached from many perspectives. The following exercises have very little to do with market trends or the latest fascination with a gourmet product. Rather, this fundamental approach to a farm plan prioritizes two basic needs:

  • How can I feed myself?
  • How can I feed my land?

Answering these questions will set you up for true sustainability, because if you plan to sustain what you do, you must feel nourished by it. Feeding yourself goes beyond growing certain foods; our needs as humans are complex and interconnected with our environment. Caring for the Earth as a dear companion in your farming endeavors will also feed you and, ultimately, your larger community. In this post, we’ll focus on the first aspect, feeding yourself, whereas next week we’ll examine how to feed your land.

Grab a notebook and pencil and set aside some time to explore the following three questions about how to feed yourself.

1. What Do You Want?

Before reading further, take time to truly answer this question for yourself. Write down the first things that come to mind. Don’t limit this to a list of veggies you might grow. Dream broadly. Be wide open and ask what you really want in life. Write down all the ideas without judgment.

Now, look at your list and notice which aspects really stand out and grab your attention. Circle them. Look again and cross out anything that feels like a distraction from going toward those things you circled. Pay attention to contradictions or needs that don’t really belong to you. Notice feelings associated with the thoughts. What does your gut tell you?

As a bonus step, take your circled words and hold them close to your heart. Admire them, baby them, cherish them. They represent what you really value, and they will shape how you choose your priorities.

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Here’s an example: I want to interact with animals outside in fresh air every day, learn the names of the trees in the forest area on my property, support and connect with other farmers in my area, swim in clean water, enjoy the company of small children, provide a space for my aging parents to live out their final days, restore my health with herbal remedies, stay warm all winter, get over my fear of heights, have a happy and well-fed family, fix all the broken things in my house and on my property, eventually live off the grid, sleep until I wake up without an alarm, find a cure for arthritis, find a cure for cancer.

From the example list, these words were circled as most significant:

  • animals
  • forest
  • aging parents
  • remedies
  • well-fed

Look at your most precious wants. How do they connect to farming? Which can be satiated through growing, raising, clearing, canning, harvesting, turning or any other farm-based action? Brainstorm each item individually, as in this example:

A free-association brainstorm from the word forest = woodworking, log cabin, nuts, berries, timber, foraging, mushrooms, ginseng, ramps, herbs, pigs, chickens, free-range, organic material, soil, rocks, watershed, treehouse

As you work through your list, notice connections. For example, remedies might lead me to herbs that I can forage from the forest, which could help my aging parents. Animals might lead me to understand whether I want to hunt deer in my forest or raise hogs that can forage on fallen nuts. Notice where the paths you wander seem to converge.

2. What Do You Know?

Same as the first question, don’t overthink this. What do you already know about your most important wants and the farming activities that go with them.

Again, from the example: What I know about foraging in the forest includes all kinds of things I’ve learned from herbalism classes, a botany course in college about 10 years ago, a friend who is an expert at identifying wild mushrooms and taught me three types that I am sure of, the nature hikes that I’ve been on have taught me some of the local trees, I know a forester who gave me a good book on tree ID, the first thing I’d do is have that forester come out to my property, help me identify what I don’t know, and I would make labels for all the trees

If you don’t know where to start, try answering these questions for yourself:

  • Who have been mentors in teaching you about farming and your specific want?
  • What formal education do you have that applies?
  • What have you taught yourself to do?
  • What conferences, training sessions or books have helped you with this?
  • If you started one thing today to work toward fulfilling your specific want, what would be your first step?

3. What Do You Have?

Quickly jot down all that comes to mind when you think of the strengths, resources and assets within reach for you to move toward your most important wants.

Again, from the example: I have this forester connection, and several books, a topographic map of the land that I can mark where important trees are, access to a commercial kitchen and supplies for processing if I choose to do that, a knowledgeable extension agent who can help me with a grant for value-added products, a business plan and budget that is separate from personal finances, I have tools for collecting small items from the forest, my dog will accompany me into the forest when I go collecting, I know someone who previously logged his forest with horses and he knows how to get the wood processed

When you run out of ideas, go deeper into these specifics:

  • What land do you own, use or have access to, for doing what you want?
  • Do you have maps of your land, and if so, what type (for example, topographic, soil, or plat)?
  • Who do you know who is doing what you want to do?
  • What are your physical strengths when it comes to doing the work you want to do?
  • Who helps you? Who can you call on for the work you are unable to do?
  • What is your financial net worth? Subtract your liabilities from your assets to calculate net worth.
  • What are your monthly expenses and income?
  • In what ways do you exchange services or barter with others?
  • Who are your most reliable social connections? Who would you turn to in an emergency?
  • Who relies on you? Who turns to you in an emergency?

Another way to approach this is to assess what you have in terms of these eight forms of capital:

  • intellectual
  • spiritual
  • social
  • material
  • financial
  • living
  • cultural
  • experiential

After exploring what or who you can count on in each of these areas, where do you feel most rich and empowered? Where do you feel most poor or depleted? How will that affect your farm plans?

Who else is directly involved in or affected by your farm plans? Make sure they complete the same exercises and you all compare notes before moving forward.

Give yourself permission to revisit this exercise two or three times a year. Our wants, knowledge and resources shift with cycles of life, changes in seasons and when dreams are realized. Take an inventory and update your farm plan, and you will continue to feed yourself by the projects you choose.

To read about true stories of farmers who live this model of farm planning, see my book The Woman Hobby Farmer, available through my website.

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