There is no set recipe for success in farming and ranching. What works for one person isn’t guaranteed to work for another. And even when you think you’ve figured out the recipe that works at your place, everything can change due to the weather or the marketplace. That means that in order to sustain a farm over the long haul, a farmer has to be a particular kind of person: someone who is a critical thinker, who has a grasp of the basic principles of how things grow, and who has one eye fixed on profitability. It also helps to be an expert observer as noticing what’s going well, so you can adapt to whatever comes your way.
None of us is born with all these skills and we have to gather them as we go. A great place to start, is with this new book by Forrest Pritchard and Ellen Polishuk: Start Your Farm: The Authoritative Guide to Becoming a Sustainable 21st Century Farmer. You may already recognize Forrest’s name. In addition to being a 7th generation farmer and an On Pasture contributor, Forrest is also the New York Times best selling author of “Gaining Ground,” the story of how he saved the family farm, and “Growing Tomorrow,” the story of eighteen sustainable farmers who are changing the way we eat. Ellen is a farm consultant, writer and teacher with 25 years of raising vegetables for 7 farmers markets, a 550 member CSA, and two roadside stands. In this book, Forrest and Ellen put their decades of experience together to help us think about what it means to be a sustainable, profitable farmer, and to give us the tools to become that person.
The Three-Legged Stool of Sustainability
The term sustainable means many things to many people. To Forrest and Ellen, it includes environmentally friendly, ecologically focused solutions, and two other “E’s:” Energy and Economics. Energy is human energy, and specifically your personal energy. A sustainable farmer needs to understand his or her capabilities and limits and manage him or herself to avoid burnout. Economics is the leg of the stool that ensures you pay your bills and make a living. Without a healthy economic base, no farm is sustainable.
Forrest and Ellen take turns addressing each leg of the stool. There’s information on harvesting sunlight and on the soil that we rely on, providing the basic principles that all farmers must understand to grow food. If you’re just starting out, you’ll find information on land access, with some great examples of no- or low-cost alternatives to owning the land yourself. The chapter on “The Three Golden Rules of Farming” ties the principles together with things we have to do on the ground to make it all work.
The “Energy” chapters, about the personal skills it takes to be a farmer, help us reflect on who we are and whether we have what it takes. They include excellent suggestions for how to get the education we need at little to no cost. In “Love, Work and Harmony,” Ellen talks about the importance of good communication skills and lays out what you can do to improve your skills so you can work well with friends, family, colleagues, hired help and volunteers.
Because it is often the hardest leg of the stool for many farmers to manage, there are a number of chapters on how to sell our products. Forrest starts with a short history lesson so you’ll understand how we arrived at the commodity market we have today and how you can choose a different place in the system. Then, whether you’re a beginning farmer, or someone who’s been doing it for years, you’ll find LOADS of ideas about how to sell what you’ve raised.
One of the things I love about this book is how many great ideas Forrest and Ellen have to share based on their own successes and, just as importantly, their failures. Forrest talks about how he might have grown more rapidly if he’d recognized some of his own personal limitations and hired someone to help who had the skills Forrest was lacking. He even addresses the importance of failure and all the things he’s learned from it in what may be one of my favorite chapters, “The Beautiful Paradox of Failure.”
Actually, it’s hard for me to pick a favorite chapter because there was so much here to like. I love books that make me think about things in new ways, and this book definitely did that. And because the authors are trying to help us think and grow, they end each chapter with a set of questions we can ask ourselves. I appreciated those reminders of what I should focus on and I think they could be the foundation for a great “On Pasture Book Group” discussion series. I’ll wait for you all to chime in with your thoughts.
In the end, I recommend this book because it does something rare for us. There are lots of very valuable books out there that will tell you when and how to plant your vegetables, or how to set up a good grazing rotation. But I’ve never read one, like this one, that focuses on helping us develop the foundations of what it means to be a good farmer or rancher: “resilient problem-solving, sure-footed prioritization, calm analytical thinking, and devoted profit making.”
Read it. I think you’ll be glad you did!