Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Thoughts from a Seasoned Veteran after a Long Year

I have had some time to reflect on this our first season, at the end of our first fiscal year.  We are running a business after all, and we do have detailed documents with our every expense, our every sale (well, we tally up our totals at the end of a market day).  We have surpassed our expectations, but not by a huge margin, only in the sense that our season ran longer than we had expected and more money came in as a result.  I am currently in the midst of improving a rail fence for the yard the goats will graze in next summer, and I was lucky enough to find a large braiding of wire amidst some old farm machinery parts.  This can be unbraided and made into thin wires that will be excellent for securing the rails together.  Welcome to the world of a small farmer:  where the highlight of the day is not finding a sleek new pair of shoes or getting a nice hour-long massage.

What I would like to say is, I recall reading about farming through books written by farmers who clearly had made it.  I recall hearing stories about farming success at farm tours, and articles in farming magazines.  I recall things like, "well, we figured we had beef now, so we might as well try going to the farmers market.  Well sure enough, we sold out within the first half-hour and I've been struggling to keep up ever since"..."I had as my goal to become the biggest barley grower within four years, and now that I've achieved that in my first year, I have to find a bigger challenge for myself"...in fact, I just saw on TV a commercial for small business accounting software, in which an attractive woman in her late forties has had a good month at her modest sheep farm and is rewarding herself with a brand new (what looks like a) Silverado, which she refers to as her "office".  That romantic portrayal of farming comes from within the fringes of the small farming community and from the mass advertising industry.  Wholesome successes, but worldly success, on par with any other worldly success out there.  Wherever it comes from, it rings false to me.

What I would like to say is that ours is not a story of worldly success.  We are only in our first year of course and it's early to know, but we are not projecting a worldly success in the foreseeable future.  We live frugally - our senses have become sharpened to seeking out ways to reuse things, ways to use old junk, ways to save energy, ways to patch clothing.  I guess what I would like to say is, anyone looking into farming should be very aware that, just like in showbiz (the furthest business from farming) there are those very few that do quite well for themselves that land the right market spaces or TV talkshows and people gravitate to them, they sell everything in the first half hour, or their agents call them with a list of multimillion dollar roles.  For most people farming is a tough slog and like in showbiz, the person doing it always has in the back of his mind, that given how tough the first year has been, it's hard to imagine doing this in twenty years after an even tougher year.  old farmers and old showbiz people tend to show their age.

Every month, we spend a lot of money to keep the business going and to meet our personal household needs.  In peak season, it seems we are able to just about maintain financial buoyancy with the amount we make from markets.  As the season slows though, there is no cache from the busy summer.  The ultimate goal would be to steadily maintain that balance between how much is going out and how much is coming in.  It would be a bit much to expect to achieve a state where we have additional income to spend frivolously.  In the meantime, we try to be frugal enough that that the gap between the amount we are spending and the amount we are making is as small as possible.

If I could counsel anyone looking into farming, I would say be prepared for a stark experience, and make sure you are able to find something satisfying in navigating scarcity.  Also, consider that it is not all bleak.  As I was told by a friend of mine when we started this, "You won't make a lot of money but you will eat well" and this is very true.  We have had a great abundance of very fresh seasonal food, and a great food cache for winter, and farm eggs and pastured chickens.  I don't think that even those with the means to do so can truly enjoy a farm's harvest the way a farmer can.  In that respect, farming has been a success so far.  And on balance, the good seems to be outweighing the bad, if slightly, and I think I am being honest in saying I don't miss the life I had before taking on this business of farming.

Monday, 22 December 2014

...From my Cold Dead Hands

This has been such an easy winter so far.  It is slushy, ugly, grey, everything in weather that I dislike, but managing the weather conditions has been effortless, if annoying.

Last year was a challenge:

And I get a lot of advice that includes the words "Snow Blower" or "Tractor" or "ATV".  In a civilized, modern world, it seems that shovels should no longer be needed, yet I am stubbord.  I won't give up my right to shovel my lane.  For me, it may be that the appeal of the shovel against snow is similar to guerrilla tactics against a massive lumbering army.  A shovel is nimble and can be maneuvered almost as a direct extension of the arm's movement.  When snow drifts are halfway up one's thighs, one can stab the shovel in the top layer and chip away.  ATVs and snow blowers get overwhelmed pretty quickly as the little flakes of snow become a deep mass.  Tractors are very handy because they are built to overpower the elements, including snow and soil, which are forces that generally require massive horsepower or very fit, well-nourished muscles.  While the snow shovel remains my guerrilla implement in the winter, the force of the pig's snout and the digging shovel are a pretty strong combination for summer, in the absence of horsepower, mechanical or from an actual horse.

Horses would be the final frontier in potential animal acquisitions for us.  We have, however, added goats to our collection.  They are penned in the greenhouse, beside the two pigs, whom the goats probably find absolutely disgusting.  We let the pigs out the back to dig in a fenced off future garden patch, and the goats we bring out the front door and out in the open range.  But because they aren't penned in, they could wander all over if they wanted to, and they could get attacked by predators, so we stay out with them and watch them munch on grass, dead leaves, flowers, cedar and pine trees.  They have been bred, should give birth in May, and will produce nice milk throughout the summer.

The December market at Memorial Centre is finished now, and it was a good month.  We have seen our stand slowly become a little hub of regular customers.  There is an occasional lineup and it is great to be at a market that keeps you moving, thinking and talking (especially when it is below zero and your feet are cold).  Thanks to everyone who helped extend the season all the way into Stollen season.