Reality Check for New Farmers

Courtesy of Roxanne C., Philadelphia PA

Still high from a full season of farming conferences, and primed by government funded training programs, new farmers are now heading back to the land to pursue their farm dreams. Most often they include a farmstead set amid rolling hills, a lone tractor silhouetted against the sunrise, and many peaceful hours of toil amid fields of plenty. This is what defines traditional farming, and it is what now makes it so challenging as a business. When the thing that makes you is the thing that breaks you, you are in for a tough row to hoe.

Before you strike out to pursue your farm dream, here is a quick reality check:
> the simple life does not come cheap
> you aren’t owed a living just because you choose a certain lifestyle
> the less land you put in production to start, the more success you are likely to have
> the further away you are from your markets, the more dependent you will be on the farm aid industry

For SPIN farmers, the starting point is not creating the perfect lifestyle, but responding to an opportunity where they happen to be. Just ask Wally. His business, Wally’s Urban Market Garden is now celebrating its 25th year. It certainly reflects his ideals and ethics, but he has always let the business drive the farming, rather than the other way around.

If you don’t know how Wally started out, you can read about it here. As he has said, “While the land base and expenses for a sub-acre farm are a fraction of the costs for a  conventional, multi-acre farm, the bottom lines are similar. And counter-intuitive though it seems, a backyard farmer can expect to make the same living as a large-scale farmer, but with less stress and overhead, and with more certainty of success from year to year, because more of the success factors are in a SPIN farmer’s control.

“Had I known about the feasibility of small plot farming when I started my career 20 years ago, I would never have bought large acreage in the country, and would have fulfilled my farming aspirations more easily and with less expense in the city.”

So consider this: when it comes to that farm dream: the grass is not always greener on the other side of the fence.

SPIN photo Gail and potatoes back forty

With SPIN-Farming, the back forty might be measured in square feet, instead of acres, but the satisfaction that comes from practicing intelligent, dedicated craft and soil -based farming is the same. Plus you make more money with less stress and more control over your operation.

DDG1 photo 13 On Wally’s large farm outside of town he invested in an expensive and elaborate irrigation system that depended on fluctuating river levels. In his backyard plot in the city, his irrigation system is a hose and the water faucet. 

Mod 2 Pest control 3

At Wally’s city-based farm, organic methods are much easier to abide by. With this backyard scale operation most pests can be controlled by hand…

SPIN photo Wally fertilizing

… and soil health is easily managed using local inputs. There is also very little waste. 

DDG6 photo 27 DSC00211

Think before heading for the hills to start your farm. Backyard -based farming offers a number of competitive and business advantages, micro climate and easy access to water and markets among them.

Drought, Raised Beds and Irrigation

Courtesy of Barb McK. , Mountain View Meadows Farm, Elbert CO
Due to money and time constraints, and my recollection of how I fought against my native prairie grass moving inside the fencing of my garden and then creeping under raised beds that I had about 15 years ago, I’ve ruled out raised beds. I suspect that native prairie grass is like most native grasses, a huge pain! This stuff thrives on drought and even manages to look dead, yet come back every spring. It’s great on pasture where my goats love it, but in my garden it becomes the bane of my existence, along with the thistle that thrives in semi-desert climates.

I am thinking that drip is the way to go. We are facing the potential regulating of water from our well, and we need to be able to use every drop. We recently had a ruling that we could collect rain water if we have a private well. (I know, hard to believe, but rain water technically belongs to the state here), so most likely rain water collection is the best use of my time/resources. Also, a bit of mulch is a good idea. I watched the YouTube video that someone linked about growing in wood chips. Interesting. But can’t till those things in, so wonder if that is a good idea since my tiller and I are good friends. No offense to the no till folks, but I’m a woman of a certain age and I can’t man-handle the spade all day like I used to. I do enjoy good power tools. 🙂

Time matters too! I use soil minerals after my annual soil test and combined with my compost, I’m getting a good humus soil. I’m terrified of animal manures after a batch of compost actually killed some of my garden years ago, turns out that broad leaf herbicides live on for years after being consumed, digested and pooped out of an animal. Chicken manure seems to be safest, but I only use that compost around my wind break trees.

I do mostly subsistence farming here, and raise a good portion of our own food, but I have a wonderful farmer friend who happens to be able to be retired from his previous life with a nice nest egg. He loves Farmer’s Markets and is nuts enough to drive into the pricier markets in the urban areas. He gives me a nice price on my produce that I want to sell, and I don’t have to even do the markets anymore.

He is very happy, and I’m even more happy. The local food movement is going strong here. I am probably going to be able to quit my day job this summer if all goes well, and be a farmer full-time. Now that’s some good news! I will double my bee hives this spring (I have one now, which provides for us and with two I’ll have honey for sale next summer) and now offer goat shares along with my free range eggs. For you newbies, keep on keeping on, this can be a valid way of making a living on small land holdings.

Drought, Raised Beds and Irrigation

Courtesy of John S. , Blue Ribbon Eggs, Franklin NC

There is no one solution that always works for every problem, and there are often several different solutions to any single problem.

Wally is dead on. The two big advantages to formal raised beds are elevating the soil temperature sooner and quicker, and better drainage for overly wet soils. If drought is your problem, raised beds certainly aren’t the solution.  Additionally they make tilling with machines difficult if not impossible. If your soil is ‘ideal’ you could till with a broad fork, but still that can be a pain.

Over head sprinklers have huge water loss due to evaporation and are usually ‘non-specific’, IE: water everywhere. Your best bet, in my view, is a well designed drip system.

I knew nothing about them, called up DripDepot ( and a lovely young lady helped me design a perfect system for my quarter acre of blueberry bushes in about 20 minutes on the phone. She sent me the stuff, and it took an afternoon to install – no tools but scissors and a hand punch, all hand tightened joints. Now I water 200+ berry bushes effortlessly, whreeas before it had taken all day (8 hours) once every week or two for the season. The system I have is convertible to gravity feed if I wish (I have low water pressure), by simply removing the pressure regulator from the line. I bought it 3 years ago and spent $239 including freight from Oregon to the east coast.

As we all know, the SPIN principle is to reduce labor, reduce costs, increase efficiency and increase profitability. It works from the Great White North to equatorial Africa and Central America because those principles make sense to everyone everywhere on the planet.

You need a tiller because it is cost effective and efficient (money and labor), you need a cooler of some type for the same reason, you need a watering system (see your SPIN intro book) for exactly the same reason. You can install a drip system for about the same price as the good quality hose you would need to drag around.

If I want a raised bed (some years are very dry and I don’t, some years it’s very wet and I do) I use a simple iron rake and rake the soil up in to 10″ high beds (low mounds) that keep their shape for the season. No boards, or walls so I can till and reconfigure whenever I need to. It seems somewhere along the line raised beds  became the default setting for anyone wanting to grow food. But there is no production advantage to them, and in fact, they mostly work against you, not with you.

Irrigating Sub-acre Plots

Courtesy of Michael K. , Good Fortune Farm, Brandywine MD
Here is some general advice regarding irrigating plots under an acre.

1. Check the volume your well pumps in GMP, time how long it takes to fill a 5 gallon bucket. Also the pressure using a pressure gauge. Do this at the faucet and at the furthest distance from the outlet to get an idea of pressure drop.
2. If you have a shallow or deep well consider the capacity of the well and the cost of operating the pump for prolonged periods of time. Also replacing the pump if you burn it out by pumping the well dry using overhead sprinklers. Home pumps may not be designed for prolonged ag. use.
3. For individual plants like peppers, squash, cucumbers, tomatoes, consider individual drip emitters fairly affordable at hardware stores, and low volume use. Can be run off a 5 gallon bucket or 50 gallon drum
4. By the time you purchase enough large volume hoses to effectively irrigate an acre overhead you may want to consider drip.
5. T-Tape type drip can be pretty cost effective except for the initial investment of the t-tape some places sell 1000 foot rolls in addition to the 7000 foot rolls. Supply line (1/2” poly) is fairly affordable commonly called orchard tubing you can use this for most head lines for drip use. Orchard tubing is not so good for sprinkler use as it tends to kink when you move it around.
6. Drip tape, buy 8 mil or thicker as it will hold up. 10-15 is preferred (more hoe resistant) but you get less per bulk roll.
7. For drip system design check out DRIP WORKS.
8. For effective drip use think long rows over many short rows to keep cost lower. 1 – 100 foot run over 4-25 foot runs.
9. Over head system may also promote more inter row weeds adding to labor over drip lines.

By the way, get started on that hoop house. You won’t have time in the spring to do a good job.

DIY Pumping System

Courtesy of John S., Blue Ribbon Eggs, Franklin, NC

I have poor water pressure and a variable well, but 400′ of year round creek on one side of my property. I also have a friendly neighbor who is also a subsistence farmer that spent 30 years on oil rigs in the Gulf fooling around with pumping systems. He showed me how to set-up an impulse head system using an inexpensive trash pump (>$200), tubing and hose and clamps from Lowe’s and a little work. Now customer service at the pump manufacturer will tell you there’s no way to use a trash pump because of ‘back pressure’. Not true! Just have to know how to do it, or know a guy who does.

Check out this link – GlobalBuckets. ( Simply put, it’s a low tech syphon-fed watering system applicable to developing areas that have very limited resources.(water, power and money). Two extremely bright teenagers motivated to help the world feed itself. Cool kids, and cool experiments.

I hate it when kids young enough to be my grandchildren teach me things, but I do take notes! And it gives an old man hope for the world. Watch their videos, and check out the links( to see how their thinking has evolved). And all that from high school kids. Wow!

Drip Irrigation Setup

Courtesy of John S., Blue Ribbon Eggs, Franklin, NC

With your ‘Mediterranean’ type weather system long, dry summers are your problem. Evaporation and plant scorching from any type of over-head system is going to be challenging. I would think some conformation of drip would be a natural for you.

Drip is fabulous. I highly recommend Drip Depot. They’re located in Oregon so they’ll have a solid grasp on your climate challenges.( )

I installed a system in my Blueberry patch 4 years ago and have hardly touched it. We can have very wet periods as well as protracted droughts. A lovely lady on the phone patiently helped me design my system, (Ten one hundred foot rows, ten feet on center with bushes five feet apart in the rows). Installation took me about four hours, no tools, all hand tightened connectors. She helped me select materials that can be used for our pressured house system or changed to gravity feed later (simply unscrew the in line pressure regulator and reconnect).

The whole thing cost me $235 including freight, and it covers almost a quarter acre. It had taken 8-10 hours of hand watering each time (about once a week when the plants were small; 2-3 years old and very tender). After I put it in I was resting on the porch having a cold beer(or two) and the wife came home and asked, “What’cha doin”? “Watering”. Now that’s farming!
They now also have pre-set lines for row cropping that have ’emitters’ (pre-formed holes in the line every 12″, 18″ or 24″, your choice) that I am thinking about. You’d have to move and modify over the season as your rotations changed so you could cultivate, but I would rather move a hose 3x a season, if need be, than every week or two. My tiller cuts an 18″ bed, so I reckon that two lines with 12″ drip emitters would do the job for my beds