by Andrea Woloschuk*
My husband and I decided that after years of dreaming about living on and operating a farm, we would take the leap into the unknown and let our dreams begin. We were living in Portland, Oregon. We owned a house with a standard 50’ x 100’ lot. On that lot, we kept three laying hens as well as berries, fruit trees, and a sizeable vegetable garden. Unlike all of our neighbors, we had no lawn to speak of. We found a farmers’ market in our neighborhood and began selling all our extra produce. It was great fun and we made some money.
We were urban farmers. We decided to take the next step and look for a larger tract of land in Vermont that we could call our own. My husband went to college in Vermont and the romantic notion of living in a rural and agricultural community there was very appealing. We searched for a farm in a weeklong trip that we made from Portland with our 18-month-old son in tow. We were hooked. We believed that with a little gumption and hard work, we could make our farm dream a reality. We found 20 acres in Eden, Vermont, on the edge of the Northeast Kingdom. It was affordable, and we thought, a mostly risk-free endeavor. We sold our home in Portland and moved our family to Eden.
Nearly three years later we have learned many life lessons that we will not soon forget. The most important lesson for us was that buying land to start a farm, anywhere, before living in the community (i.e., renting) for at least a year is a huge mistake.
There are many good reasons not to buy land right away. Our biggest mistake was sinking all of our available resources into the investment of land and a home, not the least of which, by the way, is the home. While we have an investment that may provide us a return in the future, we do not have an operating farm. Furthermore, we will not have an operating farm anywhere in the near future. What we do have is a small house on 20 acres in an area of the country that is so economically depressed that we cannot find jobs that will pay enough cover our basic living expenses, not to mention support development of our farm business. We have lost thousands of dollars that we thought we could easily earn back by selling our vegetables, flowers, and eggs in our first year of operation. In all of our number crunching and business planning, we did not plan for the unusual and devastating weather conditions we have encountered.
Today, our farm is too small to recover a profit and we are too poor to invest the resources that might make it large enough to become profitable. If we had decided to wait to buy and had leased land, even for a short amount of time, we’d probably be making a living as farmers today. However, at the time we bought, we believed that for the future of ourselves and of our son, we needed to own land and a home. Now, we believe differently.
The capital required to move across country, purchase land and a home, and then to finance a farm is so much more than we had figured in all of our planning. We naively thought that since we planned to farm without purchasing large equipment such as tractors, that we wouldn’t need to spend a lot to build our business. We expected that with a mostly sized Community Supported Agriculture farm as well as a roadside stand and possibly selling at one farmers’ market, we would recover any modest sums of money that we put into the farm each year and that we could eventually build our markets and start to turn a profit. During the first year on our land, we decided to learn how to adjust our growing methods to the cold climate and short growing season of Northern Vermont. We were not counting on selling anything that we grew, just in case. We planted a large “garden” that provided plenty of food for ourselves and our neighbors. The success we had growing vegetables and flowers in our first year gave us the feeling that we would be able to expand our operation for the following year and begin to market our produce. The second year, we bought pigs to till our fields and used them to create nearly an acre of vegetable beds. We also hired a neighbor to plow another acre for flowers. We were off to a good start with hundreds of seedlings looking healthy in the greenhouse and nicely plowed and fertile fields, compliments of our pigs. What we did not know was that occasionally, the land we were on flooded severely, leaving hundreds of vegetables to rot in the field. An unusually wet spring and early summer, created soil conditions on our lower fields that were too wet to support the vegetable seedlings that I planted and replanted. We lost thousands of dollars and countless hours of time.
If we had decided to rent land in the area, before we bought a place, we would have been able to withstand the lost crops and move forward with a new plan and revised growing techniques. Plus, we would have learned about the land and about our capabilities and farming preferences. As it is, there is no way that we can afford to spend as much time and energy as we should to grow the amount of produce that we need to recover our losses. What would really give our farm a boost would be to expand our chicken operation to include pastured meat birds in addition to our laying hens. Unfortunately, that would require more fencing and more housing, which we can no longer afford.
What we really need to make the farm profitable is to invest some money in a bit of new equipment and some labor and to cut back on the amount of work we need to do outside the home to support our family. This will not be happening anytime soon. Therefore, our farm will not be happening anytime soon. If we were able to go back three years and do it all over again, we would be looking at areas that we really liked where we could find better off-farm jobs and we would be establishing a farm business there on leased land. We would save ourselves the headache of owning land and a house, which requires so much more capital than we could have ever imagined. We would let the burden of keeping up a home and the responsibility of capitalizing the land belong to someone else. If we had done this from the beginning, the amount of time and money that we currently put into maintaining our home and managing the land would instead go into a farm business that would satisfy our dreams.
*Reprinted with permission from Holding Ground: A Guide to Northeast Farmland Tenure and Stewardship, New England Small Farm Institute (2004).