So you want to be a farmer? Thirteen words of wisdom from me to myself

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Posted Sep 3 2017 by Chris Smaje of Small Farm Future
Vallis Veg squash A bountiful squash harvest. Credit: Vallis Veg

In this post based on an original at Small Farm Future, farmer Chris Smaje relates words of wisdom curated as part of a talk he gave at the Oxford Real Farming Conference in 2016.

It explored he and his wife’s experiences establishing a small, ecologically-minded farming business, the obstacles they faced and how they overcame them. It’s recreated here in the form of thirteen maxims he’d like to have been able to pass on to his younger self at the point he started his switch into the agrarian life.

  1. Make sure you live on the land you farm, however you do it, whatever it takes, LIVE ON YOUR LAND!
  2. Run a small, mixed farm – we need maybe 2 million farmers in the UK, equating to an average farm size of 50 acres or less depending on how you crunch the numbers with permanent pasture, so if you think your farm needs to be bigger than that you need to be able to convince someone else why theirs has to be smaller.
  3. Try to insulate yourself as much as possible from depending on open market prices – it’s not easy, but there are various possibilities. Be creative. Start a non-profit social enterprise if you have to, but if you do tread very, very carefully.
  4. Try to sell retail, not wholesale.
  5. Farming is full of get-rich-quick schemers, and people obsessed with a pet approach of one kind or another. Listen to what they have to say with an open but sceptical mind, then discard what’s not useful – which is usually most of it.
  6. Or to put that another way, there’s essentially no such thing as a low input – high output farming system. Modern farming is generally high input – high output. The safe bet is low input – low output.

    Vallis Veg beetroot

    Harvested beetroot. Credit: Vallis Veg

  7. If you’ve learned farming via a traditional agricultural education, then consider diversifying. If you’ve learned it (as I did) via an alternative agricultural education like the permaculture movement, then consider un-diversifying.
  8. Focus generally on producing basic foodstuffs and ignore the advice to ‘add value’ by getting into processing as a way of making money. ‘Add money’ rather than ‘adding value’, possibly by growing a high-earning cash crop. The best high-earning cash crop is usually people – get them somehow to come to your farm and to pay you for the privilege.
  9. Hold on to your ecological idealism, but don’t kill yourself. Use some diesel. But imagine if diesel wasn’t available or it had a carbon price attached to it of, say, £50/litre – would it be remotely possible to continue farming as you do? If not, rethink.
  10. Be completely honest and open about what you do with your customers, and show them your genuine gratitude for their custom. But don’t toady to them – let them know subtly that it’s producerism and not consumerism that makes the world go around.
  11. Be as open and honest as you absolutely have to be, and no more, with anyone else, especially government bureaucrats.
  12. Don’t worry too much about the howling errors you’ll inevitably make – the only people who’ll really scorn you are people who aren’t actually running a small farm business themselves…
  13. Remember that every farm and every farmer are different, and that you’ll be different too as the years pass. Remember too, as I’ve already said, that farming is full of charlatans offering their unwanted advice. So feel free to ignore everything I’ve just said. Except maybe this – if you start a new small farm enterprise you almost certainly won’t get rich quick, or even get rich slow, but if you’re lucky you may just stay in business and you’ll be doing something more interesting and more worthwhile than many, many other things you could do.
A Vallis Veg polytunnel

A polytunnel on the farm. Credit: Vallis Veg

With thanks to Chris for sharing the original post available here on the Small Farm Future blog.