This is The ChangeUnderground for the 6th of September 2021.
I’m your host, Jon Moore
Decarbonise the Air, Recarbonise the Soil!
Bit of a longer episode this week but I hope it’ll be worth the listen.
So you’re ready to start your journey into the world of regenerative smallholding? Well done. But what next? Well I’ve found an article from the site Grow Journey: 15 tips to start a small farm using regenerative practices. Fifteen seems a fun number so let’s dive in, see what Chris Miller of Horseshoe Farm in South Carolina has to say and tease out some ideas of our own.
Tip #1. Get farming experience on multiple farms BEFORE you start a farm.
This is a great idea, if you can wangle it. There’s nothing like going to a fon t or indeed, several fonts of knowledge. You will develop your own practices anyway but having a starting point based on reality is a good start.
As it turns out, my “real farmer” mentor was John Seymour for poultry on my forst place. To be fair, you’d have to have serious issues if poultry were a challenge. Our second place was larger and I enrolled in a Farming Small Area course at the local technical and further eduction college. It turned out the teacher and I connected so that not only was I learning in class and pracs, I got to watch him in action. He gave me our first flock of sheep, Sussex and a couple of non-show standard Saanen dairy goats and we were away. For me the idea has always been to support ourselves and maybe have a small surplus so the need for money making, minimal cost, highly efficient practices didn’t and hasn’t featured highly in what we do. If you’ve borrowed to buy land or are renting, then the pressures of constantly recurring debt might focus the mind a little more. This raises the question of “Why?” as in why are you going into growing? Well worth a decent amount of contemplation.
Tip #2. Read and learn from the world’s best small farmers.
This I concur with. The amount of available material nowadays is mind boggling. There was plenty when I started dibbling my toes into the waters of food production. As I imagine you all know by now Seymour was my first dance, then Fukuoka, Jeavons and the Rodale thing but there was also two magazines here in Australia: “Grass Roots” and “Earth Garden”. I read them hungrily. They are written by smallholders, living the dream, as they say and full of hands on, practical advice.
Tip #3: Have one year of savings and/or a second job when you start your farm.
This is an idea I wish I’d known about. The list of unexpected costs can be quite staggering. Equally, the rural mindset is to improvise, adapt and overcome. Having the cash as a reserve is nice so too is the ability to creatively solve problems. In our current location, I allowed Mrs ChangeUnderground to talk me into sheep before her kids came to visit. It was fine, one ewe lambed while the first wave were visiting and then the younger grandkids managed to see a young lamb. All was good, the electric fence was holding the four ewes and the ram. Then as the season dried out and the sheep decided they should roam further to find feed, the electric fence didn’t hold and we weren’t fenced on one boundary. At the time, I couldn’t afford to fence that side either. No amount of extra strands and second energiser on a backup fenceline made no difference. The solution was to sell the sheep on and fence that boundary over time. The pigs have never had an issue with the electric fence. Too bright to test too often.
As a rule of thumb, have as much money in reserve as possible.
Tip #4. Don’t break ground, cover ground.
This one is a no-brainer. No dig is the only way to go for all the reasons we’ve discussed on this podcast feed for five and a half years. That being said, sometimes the choice to break ground will be the rational one. Just get something growing as soon as you can. The engine of photosynthesis is what drives the soil biota. The more living plants the better.
Tip #5. Remember: regenerative farming is a business, not a non-profit.
This is where the reason for living out of town really matters. If you’re farming for business, run a business. If you’re homesteading, it’s still a business but the debt levels will probably be much lower and options like barter make more sense. If you’re “fortunate” enough to afford to be a modern version of the 19th century’s “gentleman farmer” then money spent is a tax loss and the incentives are different. That model can be useful for experimentation because if you hit a profitable vein, you do well, if not, you still learn and you get your tax loss.
Know why you are on the land and go from there.
Tip #6. Cultivate personal resilience.
This is a good idea, generally, for life, I’d suggest. Resilience in farming is a particular variation. Drought, floods, fires, diseases, dogs and then there’s the world off the farm. The meme doing the rounds has a farmer saying: “Next week things will slow down.” and of course, next week never comes, it’s always this week. This pod is hardly the place for deep psychological analysis, resilience is a thing we need to develop but I’m not the person to lecture anyone on that. Google might help or your medical practitioner.
Tip #7: Grow your buyers before you grow your crops.
This is a good one. Understanding who will buy from you and why makes selling much easier. Selling before growing ensures cash flow and a certain pressure to perform. The CSA model encapsulates this. As do futures trading and so on. I would suggest having plants in the ground and photosynthesising as you find your buyers for the sake of the soil. Remember too, on a smallholding/homestead model you are your first customer. Grow what you want to eat, if it grows where you live. In the end it’s a punt either way as the weather always has the last say. Or as Gabe Brown puts it in baseball terms, Nature always bats last.
Tip #8: The 85/15 Rule
This is the idea that 85% of what you grow is the same year in and year out. It works, people buy it and everyone’s a winner. The other 15% is for experimentation: new crops, different varieties and so on. This % I think holds true for market gardening especially. If you’ve got some slack in the system, e.g. off farm work, the 15% can grow. This gives you the liberty to experiment more and perhaps, find the next “superfood” even though such thighs don’t exist in Nature but do in economics, if you see what I mean.
Tip #9: Don’t go it alone.
This is a tricky one on some levels. The power of networks and peers cannot be overstated, especially when you’re kicking off. Support, knowledge, access to markets and so on come from these. The counter argument is the power of the individual. I think this has been overblown in the last half century. We are never alone unless we are truly the hermit type, in which case you’d not be listening to this. On the other hand, what you grow, what you sell and where comes down to you so you’ll need tip #6 resilience. So yes, join with others for support and keep your feet on the soil.
Tip #10: Buy land or lease land… Or be creative?
There is a certain security in land ownership. From the Ancient Greeks onward, access to land ownership and declining numbers of producers has been a theme in “progress”and rebellion. The reforms of Solon, the land grants to Pompey’s troops after the conquest of the eastern mediterranean, the absent landlords of the latifundia following the Roman victories in the Punic Wars, the absent landlords in colonised Ireland, the Highland clearances in Scotland and I think I’ve made my point. Ownership gives a certain stability. In a stable society, leasing is a legitimate option, as is share farming when it’s not in the post US Civil War model used in the south but when it’s a genuine partnership between landowner and skilled operator everyone wins.
There are other options, the Be Creative Option. Older people with larger yards in suburbia are sometimes happy to allow a gardener to grow on the space. Local authorities often have unutilised land you offer to “rehabilitate” and make productive. You may even be able to charge a fee for this service. The opportunities are unlimited. If you want to grow for a living, there will be a way.
Tip #11. Get your basic tools & infrastructure in order
This depends upon what you’re doing. Sheep, goats and so on will need good fences and yards and milking facilities if dairy animals. Growing veggies for sale you’ll need washing stations, hoes, shovels, rakes and other implements of destruction (apologies to Arlo Guthrie).Speak to others in your chosen niche, observe carefully as you travel about. Clues are everywhere if you are observant. Notice the shapes of fruit trees and how they are pruned, watch them grow through the seasons and observe results. And remember this one truth: No matter how well you are prepared, once you start on your journey, you’ll have missed something.
Tip #12: Reinvest rather than pay ahead.
Following on from the last point, make do and adapt until you are certain you’ll need that apparently lacking piece of infrastructure. When you do invest in equipment make sure you buy the best quality you can afford. Cheap tools when you have a choice are a false economy. You can guarantee they’ll fail when you need them most. Mistakes will be made. I’ve bought what I thought were great mics for mobile podcasting to discover they didn’t match the hype. Eventually I found what I needed and paid for it too but it works. They same holds true for gardening/smallholding/farming tools. Be judicious.
Tip #13: Standardize to boost efficiency.
This is a key to productivity. Write down everything you do. This way you will see the things you do repeatedly. The repetitions can be systematised. You will know when you start doing so I’ll leave that there.
Tip #14: Diversify through biodiversity.
- Perennial hedgerows
Hedgerows are great. I’m planning some herbal ones. Rosemary, sage, thyme and borage with calendula scattered throughout. Onto these I’m going to add dwarf fruit trees so the hedges are low enough to withstand the roaring forties breezes we receive in this part of the world. Build yours to fit your locale. The tree based hedges of Normandy slowed the allied advance after D-day because they were so well established armoured vehicles, tanks, had trouble crossing them. Not sure if anti tank structures are a good starting point but those hedges were ancient and I think that was more the point.
2. Crop rotation
This is a thing we are all familiar with, I assume. It does seem to be counter to the Fukuoka grain bed idea but even those allowed for some “weed” species to bulk out the biodiversity. Otherwise the brassica, legumes, roots, tomato/potato family rotation works well.
Tip #15: Plan to lose so you can plan to win.
The subject of the original article plans on a 40% crop loss each season. This seems excessive at first reading but it isn’t. He grows vegetables and things just die. It’s the same with livestock. Some lambs just don’t make it no matter how hard you try. Predators will take all of your chickens in a night, it happens. Remember the resilience thing. This part of the world is known for both poppy and pyrethrum daisy production. Last year half the daisy crop failed, that’s 50% so planning for 40% loss is a realistic place to start. If you manage to only lose 10% you’re in front. This tip is a brutal wake up call to those who are new to this game. It happens.
Take Home Points
Things are going to go wrong, you’ll doubt your own ability, you’ll question what you’re doing and why. Frosty mornings and numb fingers make for a difficult start to milking but the milking will get done, you will replace the chicken flock, the fruit trees will be pruned a little better next year and the apples will come in abundance. If you are called to the smallholding life you cannot avoid it forever. Life in all its rich variety will fill your life. Deaths, ruined crops, great successes and a sense of being fully alive are the rewards for the decision to live as a food producer.
And if you’re thinking about or even ready to make the leap into a smallholding go to the website: https://worldorganicnews.com/freeebook/ and you can obtain a free copy of The ChangeUnderground No-Dig Gardening System.
If you have any questions, thoughts or suggestions there’s the ChangeUnderground Podcast Group on Facebook. You can search the Book of Faces or there’s a link in the show notes and in the transcript over at WorldOrganicNews.com/episode269.
Decarbonise the air and Recarbonise the soil.
Thank you all for listening and I’ll be back next week.
The ChangeUnderground Academy No-Dig Gardening Course:
FREE eBook: https://worldorganicnews.com/freeebook/
Bubugo Conservation Trust
15 tips to start a small farm using regenerative practices