Jenn Colby is one of the group of folks whose brainstorming helped create On Pasture, and we think of her as a Progressing Farmer because she’s been making progress towards her own family farm for awhile now. For years Jenn has kept a lot of balls in the air including working full time as an extension professional for the University of Vermont, coordinating the annual Vermont Grazing Conference, earning her Masters degree, hitting the competitive barbecue circuit with her husband, AND figuring out how to start a farm, which they purchased and moved to at the end of 2016. We asked her to share the story of how she and her husband found, and ultimately purchased, their dream farm as an example for others starting from scratch. This is the first in a series by Jenn. Enjoy!
A Short History of Hope Meeting Reality
Just to be clear, the sharing of this story is not in any way intended to assume that we’ve done things the “right” way or the only way. In fact, I’m sure that others can begin and refine their farming careers in a much smoother process than ours. For many, I hope that’s true, because our road has had some real ups and downs. It reminds me of the classic graphic:
As I look back, these ups and downs actually helped to put us in the position we are today, so I have a much better attitude toward them. I didn’t always, so I think starting with some background might help communicate why we’ve taken the paths we have, and how that ultimately got us to our dream farm. You might laugh when you see pictures of our “dream” farm, because I suspect it might not fit your mental picture of a dream farm. That’s a little piece of what we learned, too. Everyone’s dream farm is a little different, and that’s OK.
I’m not trying to frighten anyone, but we started the farm journey close to 20 years ago. Fall 1997, we closed on a small house with a tiny old barn and 40 acres. I was heavily pregnant with our son and had major plans to build sheds, structures and impressive garden beds with a baby strapped to my back all the next summer. I presume you, dear readers, have experienced delusional thoughts before. I should also mention that it was a big financial stretch for us at the time to buy a house at all. Both my husband and I worked full time just to keep the bills paid, and barely so.
Nevertheless, we bought some chickens in the first summer and some feeder pigs in the second summer. The first time processing chickens was like something from a horror movie and took us so many hours to complete THREE roosters that I never could actually bring myself to eat them; I was just so sick of the whole thing. It got better over the next few years as I developed a few steady pig customers, expanded into chickens and turkeys, and began selling bakery items and pottery at the local Farmer’s Market. I built a chicken plucker and began processing birds for some friends in addition to my own. During this time, my husband went back to graduate school. Money was exceedingly tight and we were constantly behind.
After about seven years messing about with some different enterprises, I finally took a farm pre-business planning class offered through UVM Extension’s Women’s Agriculture Network program. The class was designed to ask big questions about time use and assets and thinking about goals before starting a full business plan. It was a mind-opening choice. When asking myself the big questions of “what did I care about?”, “what was I good at?”, and “what caused the most stress?”, I realized a few things. The garden held little attraction to me once the chicks came in the spring, I could make more money, without pulling all-nighters, through freelance writing rather than selling bakery items, and I was ready for a next step — whatever that might be.
Turned out the next step was a full four-month business plan writing class. The class coincided with the start of my new job in Extension doing pasture outreach. Over the course of the…course, we looked at all aspects of building a farm business plan, with accompanying homework. If you did your homework, you should end up with a completed business plan at the end. When I finally completed my business plan–ahem–a year later, the numbers were clear: don’t quit your day job. In fact, you should probably go back to school and get more money at your day job, if you ever think you’ll be able to afford to farm.
That news was a pretty big kick in the stomach and extremely depressing. Farming was a big dream of mine, picking up where my original plan of veterinary school had left off. I knew that animals must be part of my life and livestock farming was a clear pull. Looking back, I realize now that doing the business plan was the best possible thing, because it saved me thousands of dollars in failure and maybe even my marriage. My husband was alternately supportive of and competitive with my farm and farm-related commitments, and he had his own music and barbecue interests. It seemed that we often argued over money and time, and whether each was being fairly divided between us.
I did graduate school part time over the course of five years, on top of my farm, parenting and full-time job commitments. Graduate school was a great opportunity to shed unworkable farm enterprises (goodbye, poultry) and focus on what would be easiest and cheapest (minimal grain-eating animals, more grass-eating animals). Some might say that I would have been smarter to put a hold on farming totally during that period, but the pull was too strong. That’s truly when I solidified what I was meant to do. During the last two years of school–when I should have had zero animals–I went out and bought four sheep who became the foundation animals for my flock today. I will always be grateful for those ewes and the mentor who sold them to me; they saved my sanity during grad school and set me on the path to Home.