Top Ten Clueless Farmer Blunders from Season One

It’s December 10th. Our last market day of 2011–our first season as farmers. While we sold out of most of our goodies, we left loaded down with gifts of greens, sweets, and festive greenery from our fellow farming buddies. For the first time this year, we can glance at our “To Do” list without our stomachs knotting up. The chickens are nestled all snug in their freezers, while visions of hoop houses dance through our heads. But before we get ahead of ourselves and into the wintry days of the planning season, it’s time to reflect on the lessons learned this year.  Otherwise known as the Top Ten Blunders of the Clueless Farmer. Go ahead, learn from our mistakes!

This was a lovely sunroom with tiffany lamps and braided rugs. We set it up as a greenhouse, but will settle with it as the all-important mud room.

1o. A sunroom is the same as a greenhouse. Not! Sure, it may have windows all around and look quite suitable for starting seedlings. But if those windows are the energy-efficient kind that are treated to screen out UV light AND have screens, the amount of photosynthesis going on in your little darlings’ cells will be minimal. Screens block out at least 50% of the available light. And who knows about those windows. Scraggly, leggy transplants were the result of our oversight. We got them in the ground and they grew, yes, but with twisted stems, and not as vigorously as they might have. One of our winter projects is rigging up some cold-frames lined with heat mats on our southern-facing deck.

9. Storing seeds in a sauna. Since we were using the sunroom as a greenhouse, and doing all our potting there, we naturally kept the seeds handy there as well. Pretty little packets of them sitting in a basket on a table by the sunniest window. Even when July turned the room into a 100-degree sauna no matter how many windows were open. The sauna continued right through August. About that time we thought, “Hey. Aren’t we supposed to store seeds in a cool, dark location?” So we moved them to a dark cool drawer in the back room. When September came and we started some spinach, is it any surprise that we had a rather paltry 15% germination rate? We could blame the seed company, or the fickleness of spinach in general (it’s true, spinach has germination whims according to our umpteenth generation farming buddy, Max Lacy!). But I have the feeling it might have been the sauna storage scenario. Which leads us to the next blunder…

8. Starting Spinach, and all other manner of “Fall Crops” in September. Because Fall Crops are planted in the Fall, right? Granted, I came across some written advice to get Fall stuff in the ground in July, but we were in the middle of a heat wave and drought in July. I figured that advice came from folks who were farming up in Maine or something, where the season was always cool and short. The ground in our parts at that time was like asphalt covered in dust. Tilling was not an option. So the broccoli, cabbage, lettuce, and spinach went in the ground in September. And we dutifully covered the broccoli and cabbage with row covers, initially not to protect them from the frost, but to protect them from the cabbage worms. November came and went without broccoli or cabbage. But finally, this weekend, we managed to harvest a whopping SIX POUNDS of pristine, unravaged little broccoli heads from our 125 feet of broccoli beds! We’re still waiting, patiently, for our cabbage to head up. Stuff don’t grow too fast when the days are short. (Except maybe arugula.)

Enough talk about vegetables, you say, you want to hear about chicken blunders! Where to begin?

Scruffy Bird! Hen or rooster? Too early to tell.

7. Getting emotionally attached to broiler chickens.  Nursing ailing broiler chicks in our spare bedroom? Paying a vet to euthanize a broiler chick?Naming our favorite broiler chicks? Sparing deficient roosters from the chopping block because, well, they have “personality?” (The same goes for our friendly neighborhood dog, who would never ever harm one of our

Scruffy is slowly integrating into our laying flock. We hope he will be come a "Scruffilina!"

chickens, so why not feed him  raw chicken necks on processing day? Was I ever surprised to find him hovering around the flock in our pasture later that day–the pasture that contained a bird missing its head. What was I thinking there?  “Gee, this friendly dog has not yet developed a taste for chicken and is leaving our livestock alone. I will help him develop a taste for fresh, warm-blooded chicken and maybe then we’ll have something to worry about.”) You would think, even hope, we learned our lessons on being sentimental about meat birds. But see, now we have “Scruffy,” a runt from our last batch of the season who was just too small to butcher when the time came. We’re hoping Scruffy turns out to be a hen, then we’ll call her “Scruffilina” and add her to our layer flock. But we saw him raise his hackles today and do a lot of strutting about, and there is some iridescence starting on his feathers. We only have six hens in our laying flock, and they barely put up with the virile antics of the two roosters already in with them. We really hope to report that Scruffilina has joined the flock. Optimism dies hard around here.

6. Taking the rototiller to a patch of wire grass. We’re not sure what the right way is to break ground for new beds where a thatch of wire grass is entrenched, but we’re pretty sure breaking wire grass up into little pieces that reroot is not it.

5. Basing entire profitability of farming enterprise on a faulty calculation. See, to figure out how much money we were going to make on our chickens, one of the factors is how much feed they would eat on average, and how much that feed would cost. Based on my research, it looked like we were set to make enough money to pay our mortgage and then some with just a few hundred chickens! Hooray! Let’s quit our jobs and become full time farmers! But I forgot to multiply when doing the figuring. Math wasn’t my strongest subject in school. It turns out  feed costs are about 4-5 times more than that number in our draft business plan. Oopsie. But hey. At least we can pay our electric bill with the profits.

Really, we're farmers, not gardeners! Don't let the garden plot fool you!

4. Not having a vegetable growing plan. As much edumacation and planning expertise as Amir and I have, we were simply rookies when it came to growing vegetables at any kind of scale. We knew people who were making a living growing vegetables on small acreage for market, and that was enough for us. We ordered a large variety of seeds from a local organic seed company, figured we’d grow as much as we could and sell as much as we could, and we’d have thousands of dollars. With everything else we were trying to accomplish in the spring, including packing up and moving to our new farm, we ended up with about 1/20th of an acre planted to vegetables this season. Not quite the scale one needs to eek out a living as a vegetable farmer.

3. Having high expectations of the responsiveness of chefs. In the beginning of the season, I dutifully compiled a list of restaurants that might reasonably be expected to have an interest in serving local, high-quality, fresh, unique food. IHOP was not on the list. I sent emails on behalf of the farmers at the Madison Farmers Market, and myself, raising awareness of the availability of our products. When I got no responses, I followed up with phone calls. When I got no responses, I followed up with visits complete with customized brochures and a whole chicken as a sample for many of them to try out.  I followed up with emails and phone calls.  Our customers acted as our agents, infiltrating restaurants as diners, complimenting the chefs and telling them about our fabulous chicken that they really should serve at their restaurants and handing out our business cards. So far, these efforts have come to naught. It seems the only occupation that may rival farming in terms of how many things are on your plate at any one given time is Chef. But I haven’t given up. I’m cultivating perseverance!

2. Nothing screams “ROOKIE” like not recognizing the difference between a tulip bulb and an onion. But in my defense, it was the tulip planting season. And the onion planting season. And because Amir was doing some work exchange with our friends at EcoTulips down the road a bit, our sunroom (which was now chilly at all times) was filled with plastic shopping bags containing an assortment of both tulips and onions ready for planting. We had “walking onions,” “multiplier onions,” “Old-timey” onions, and about 1,000 onion sets. All of them looked different. Some of them were the same size of the 100 or so various tulip bulbs we had laying about. So I grabbed some bags of bulb-y looking things and planted them out in the beds I had cleared and prepared for onions. “Hmm, these look funny. Don’t smell like onions. Must be them “Old-timey” onions,” I thought. And I buried them just beneath the surface. Wasn’t until the next day that I happened to glance inside a clearly marked bag of tulips that I realized my error. My ever supportive and slightly concerned parents were visiting when I announced my latest blunder. I’m not sure I eased their concerns about the potential success of our farming venture much. But at least I didn’t put the tulips in the stir fry.

And the number one Clueless Farmer Blunder from Season One is:

1. Thinking, at times, that we were in control. It rained when it was supposed to rain, and the irrigation was there for when it didn’t happen when we wanted it to. The sun shone almost every single day. Our neighbors came to our aid without asking and offered no end of assistance, from tools and machinery to labor, plants, sustenance, and Good Advice. People with resources to help fledgling small farmers like us came to us with offers of support to help us succeed. Our plants grew, and some of them even thrived. Same with our chickens. Our circle of friends grew, and some grew closer. At times, our home is a respite for visiting world-weary souls.  We are well fed with nourishing home-grown food and well watered with our own sweet untreated well water. Our pantry is full with much of the abundance of our summer garden, and our freezers are filled to overflowing with our own birds and wild game shared by friends. We were never too hot or too cold for comfort this year. We really can’t take credit for much of what happened this year at all.  It turns out our little blunders didn’t stop God from fulfilling His promises. We have new-found appreciation for the wisdom in Proverbs 15:16-17:

“Better a little with the fear of the LORD
than great wealth with turmoil.”

“Better a small serving of vegetables with love
than a fattened calf with hatred.”

The thing is, we actually have a lot with the fear of the Lord, and prodigious servings of vegetables with love, along with lovingly-fattened meat.  Plus some really good books on business planning for small organic farms. Blunders or no blunders, things seem to be going according to somebody’s plan.

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8 Responses to Top Ten Clueless Farmer Blunders from Season One

  1. Coulda happened to anyone-tulip bulb, onion. In fact, deer hate onions so if you planted the tulips with the onions its actually a brilliant deer detractor since they love tulips.

  2. Diana and Amir, This is a beautiful summation of a year full of labors and wonders. Your “blunders” are all learnings, and you share them with a lightness of touch. Your happiness shines through all the hard labors and disappointments that come with your venture. And don’t give up on all those chefs out there–we talked to one just last night! Best of all was your no. 1 “blunder,” thinking you were “in control”! Thanks for the word of grace. Kim Beach

  3. Gayle Lorenz says:

    Hi, Diana. Thanks for the laughs. I roasted my second – and last – of your chickens last night. I still am amazed at the difference in taste !! (I’m the friend of Mary Jo & Michael from Madison; I met up with you at your Church). If you consider doing a CSA type of thing next year, please let me know. I won’t be able to purchase your chickens too often due to the price, but will try as often as I can. Here’s to a good 2012, God’s blessings and lots of laughs!!

  4. Peg C says:

    Your chicken is fantastic, and your writing is amazing. Thank you for coming to Madison and bringing both! Peg

  5. Laura W. says:

    Hi Diana,
    I’m just catching up with your farming life and this essay is just the best. I’m sure Season Two will bring new and exciting stories. I admire you for taking on the big adventure!!
    Best,
    Laura Whittemore

  6. Cheryl Groff says:

    Hi Diana,
    Throughly loved my virtual visit with you at Glean Acres this morning! It was a real treat. Just wish I was close enough to drive over for one of your fabulous chickens! You certainly sound far less clueless about farming than I could have imagined possible in just a few years. Its raining today in Uganda. Hope you get all the rain …and sunshine you need. Warmly, Cheryl (& Ron)

  7. Lisa Curran says:

    Hi Diana,
    my husband and I are thinking of going self-sustained… so I’ve been reading farm/homestead blogs voraciously! I’ve been enjoying going through yours the last day or two, and loving the unvarnished coverage of the unseen pitfalls. Could you recommend a couple of those really good books on business planning for small organic farms for me to pick up to read?
    Fellow future homesteader;
    ~ Lisa

    • Diana says:

      Good for you! The one and only book you need on business planning/practices is the Organic Farmer’s Business Handbook. Other good books on setting up homesteads and growing guides include: The Self Sufficient Life and How to Live It–complete with a map of how to set up your small homestead to grow everything you need. Elliot Coleman’s The New Organic Grower, Joel Salatin’s You Can Farm (it’s kind of the basics, you might be beyond that.) I would highly recommend consulting an accountant/ lawyer friend on whether you need to set up a corporation or just do a sole proprietorship for any income you might get from your activities. It can make a big difference in the long term. We tried to figure it out on our own and it was confusing and we still aren’t sure we did the right thing. Keep in touch!

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