I’ve always liked the water. Over the years I’ve spent quite a lot of time wandering around rivers and lakes and made a few trips out on the ocean. There is something so pleasant about the way water makes me feel; I think I want to make water a bigger part of my life.
Turns out, a million bucks can buy you a lot of boat. I saw an ad for a 44 foot sloop the other day. I think I’ll go buy it and set sail for Hawaii.
Does this make sense? Of course not! Would any sane person invest their life savings or a nice inheritance in a highly risky enterprise of which they had very little knowledge, experience or skill? That’s just crazy!
Yet, people do it all the time. Occasionally with sail boats. More often with ranches. There’s just something about that fresh country air, the desire to grow food, the beautiful view…it causes people to make the most outrageous and disastrous choices.
Let’s go back to sailing for a minute. If someone told you they were becoming seriously interested in sailing and they were starting to have dreams about spending a bunch of time and money on the water, what steps would you advise? Even if you know nothing about boats, you probably know a little bit about drowning. Here would be my suggestions:
Do some reading about boating.
Go wander around the docks, chat with boat owners.
Find sailors who will take you out for boat rides. More than one.
Take a cruise on a big sailboat.
Sign up for some sailing lessons.
Do some more reading.
Borrow a used Sunfish (a tiny sailboat used mostly on inland waters).
Begin your sailing career.
I think the same process applies to people who are thinking about ranching, and here’s why: turns out ranching is a lot like sailing. A ranch, like a boat, offers plenty of great photo opportunities. Both require a serious financial investment and a wide range of skills. Very few people have enough money or skill to simply buy a ranch or a boat and begin running it, particularly not if the intention is to make money.
Happy Thoughts for New Graziers
If you are intrigued by rural life, plants and animals and ranching in general, well good for you; the world certainly needs more good ranchers. If you are hesitant to spend a few million dollars getting started in ranching, that’s also good news. Here’s something to think about: becoming a grazier – a person who manages plants and animals – requires the smallest financial investment of any ranching enterprise I can think of. Graziers can literally begin with nothing: no land, no money, no livestock.
Starting at Zero
Starting with no physical or financial resources may actually be the best pathway toward becoming a successful, professional grazier. If you have no assets, you will have to study hard and act smart. Starting at zero will require an intense interest in the topic at hand, intellectual curiosity about economics and ecology, a desire to be physically active and a commitment of substantial time and effort. Starting from zero means you begin with only your heart and mind.
Take another look at the list of suggestions (above) for prospective new sailors. I believe a similar menu exists for new graziers:
Do some reading about progressive, modern, managed grazing.
Look around your neighborhood for folks who are already running some kind of grazing operation. Hint: try to avoid outfits that have lots of farming equipment, feed a lot of hay, or have registered livestock. Sure, they’re real nice folks, but they probably aren’t going where you want to go.
Try to spend time and develop relationships with people who are already successful graziers. Most of them are happy to share their knowledge of the world.
Continue to study. Read good grazing books. Go to workshops. Be skeptical of authors or speakers who encourage you to spend money on anything related to oil or iron.
Consider riding along with successful graziers or doing chores for free. Suck up every bit of knowledge and experience you can.
Consider taking a part-time job helping one of those folks.
After all of this, you might be ready to begin plotting your own entry into the grazing world. If this sounds like a lot of work and preparation, that’s because it is. But the more time and effort you spend preparing yourself to be a professional, the greater your opportunity for success. Keep in mind that a large percentage of new small businesses fail in the first two years after opening. Obviously, many of these folks weren’t very well-prepared.
Some Final Thoughts on Starting Out
Plan on starting small. How small? How about ten cows, cows that belong to someone else, grazing pastures that belong to someone else?
Spend absolutely the smallest amount of money you can on infrastructure and none on machinery.
Keep your day job.
Make sure your spouse is 100% on board.
Finally, a note about people:
Starting out as a new grazier with limited resources will almost certainly mean you will need to “partner” with people who already have the things you need: grass, livestock, money, land. Be extremely cautious and selective in this part of your enterprise. These people will ensure your long-term success or drive you to quick failure. Keep in mind that most people in agriculture are attempting to make money. If you can help them, they will help you. That said, many people in business take a short-term view of profit and relationships.
Now, get to work. Winter is a great time to read and study and think and make plans. Start all of that…immediately.
Happy grazing and smooth sailing in the new year.