Farming: The Journey
My mind often wanders back to a time when the romantic thoughts of how running a small sustainable farm with a focus on feeding people were an invasive desire.
Circa 1995, Louanna and I were traveling though the winding mountain roads outside of Sparta, NC looking at property. We grew up in Upstate New York working farms and picking vegetables in our family gardens, but life had led us away from the country to the coast of North Carolina. We longed to return to our roots, but had no money.
As we rounded a corner we came upon a small white house surrounded by gardens, beehives and animals. Off in the distance, many small shed-style guest houses were spotted. I forget the name of the farm but a sign said, “come work for you meal.” It was my first experience with agro-tourism, a term that wasn’t used a whole lot in the mid 1990’s, and I was sold. Little did I know from that point, I would spend sixteen years living in subdivisions. The dream was still alive but very dim.
Good things come to those wait. With the help of our family, we now operate Footehills Farm, just under twenty acres of rolling hills in NW Georgia. We have had a great time growing vegetables, hunting game, running a CSA, delivering fainting goat kids, butchering hogs & meat rabbits and serving our customers some of the freshest meat and produce available in our neck of the woods.
I have learned enough to know that it is not easy to be a farmer and hopefully I can share some ups and downs through this blog that will help you on your journey to the farm, on the farm, in your backyard or even at the store or farmer’s market. I intend to post tutorials of success and warnings of failures. Until then, keep your hands dirty!
Failing, to do it better
It is easy to pick up a magazine or read a blog about a farm related endeavor and say ‘I can do that’ or ‘that would be easy’, only to find out my project doesn’t look like the picture, fails to work and has cost me way more in materials then I figured. Humility goes a long way and I can honestly say what I have just described has happened to me on many levels.
After you recognize the fail, you have three paths. First, throw up your hands and say I quit and let the fail win. Second, take a humble approach seeking to learn from you mistake and rebuild. Third, you set the thing you built three weeks ago on fire then you throw up your hands and walk away. Stay off the third path because you can’t reuse material that has been scorched by fire.
Honestly, one of the best things you will learn from farming is to learn from your mistakes. I know it sounds like a huge cliché, but clichés are around for a reason.
Below is my rabbit tractor graveyard. The items in the picture will be used again at some point, but obviously I chose to wander down path number one. Our first generation tractor was a huge heavy wooden thing that was too hard to move and too easy to dig out of. We did make it last for a year and raised many rabbits in it. Our second attempt was a tractor made from PVC. These tractors were lightweight and cost effective but not durable and not fox proof.
Enter the fox. One early morning as my wife and I were sipping coffee before chores a red streak made its way across the side hill. It had been over 25 years since I had seen a fox. As a youth I would tag along with the older kids that trapped near our property in Upstate New York. Fox pelts were a hot commodity at that time. I remember the beautiful sleek red fur and how they would frustrate the trappers that pursed them when the traps often came up empty. As the memories of my youth flooded back I stopped and thought how lucky we are to have fox on the property. I would soon find out assumed blessings are sometimes a curse.
The fox soon had his way with our free range ducks, feasting on all eight of them before we could take action. Next the fox targeted the rabbits, pouncing on the tractors until they were compromised. The all you can eat buffet was now open. Some rabbits survived by hiding under equipment or wood piles. As I approached the war zone, the refugees, wet and shaking, peered at me from cover. I grabbed the food bucket and gave it a shake; slowly they came out and gathered around me. One by one I picked them up and placed them in the cage I normally used for harvesting.
We were so frustrated that we put them in hard cages in a small out building. This allowed us to harvest the rabbit droppings for fertilizer, but it slowed the growth rate down considerably as the rabbits no longer had access to the all-day clover salad bar they were accustomed to. Keeping them confined in the rabbit house went on and on, we noticed food cost going up and prolonged periods of time between harvesting. The question, “is this really worth it?” has crossed my mind more than once.
The answer is, yes, it is worth it. We had a very productive system going before the fox entered the equation and we needed to get back to basics. Oh yes, if you are asking yourself, ‘why didn’t they just eliminate the fox?’ Well, that story will be told at a later date!
We now have a new system that is fox proof ‘so far’ and really much more cost effective. We are using large and medium dog creates that we have found on Craig’s List or at yard sales as the main tractor, people are really just giving them away. We have had to place a fourteen inch high wooden barrier wall around the outside of the cage. This wall keeps the fox from digging in or nipping at the rabbits through the openings in the cage. We have hinged the wooden surrounding wall so it is easy to open it to gain access to the rabbits inside. What a simple design, much less labor intensive than the previous tractors. If it weren’t for the fox we would have still been lugging huge wooden rabbit arks around the farm. So in short, by failing and almost giving up we learned how to do it better. That kind of sums up what it means to be a farmer and fulfills that cliché I mentioned earlier, farming is learning from your mistakes!