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Tips From Fellow Graziers For Heading Your Farming/Ranching Career in the Right Direction

May is another Bonus Month and Jenn Colby is back to share more about what she’s learned as the host of the podcast Choosing to Farm. Enjoy!

In the course of my conversations with farmers and ranchers who have established new careers in agriculture, I’ve heard some great advice for other folks who are also be forging their own path. Here are a few highlights from our conversations along with links to full episodes. I think you’ll find even more gems of experience in each episode.

Build skills beyond the technical aspects of raising crops or livestock

Ashlyn Bristle & Abraham McClurg—Direct marketers of diversified livestock products.

Ashlyn and Abraham came into farming with backgrounds in education, art, and organizational management, and learned much of the production aspects of farming by doing it. When I talked with them, they emphasized the need for new farmers to build their skills in business, scientific understanding, and marketing (even farmers who do not direct market—all farmers and ranchers have customers of some kind). Ashlyn even found herself completing a degree while filling in her scientific understanding because she had so many questions.

As Ashlyn says, “We focus so hard on the technical aspect of farming. People think that if they know how to grow tomato, they know how to run a farm. I know that messaging was really strong for me early on. Then it’s like hitting a brick wall when you realize you don’t know how to make a budget or make budget projections or make a production plan, and have that tie into what your cash flow is going to look like. Get involved in the technical support that’s available. We did a beginning farm program and farm viability. Always having somebody to look over your books, look over what you’re doing with over your business plan or help you create a business plan. I think that kind of accountability was invaluable for us.“

Abraham added, [learning the] “science is very useful. It is really more so than anybody might imagine. I think it unlocks a huge wealth of potential to springboard into next level farming. Whether it’s livestock or fruit and veg or whatever you’re trying to grow, if you understand the magic and mystery that happens below ground or in plants or in livestock, it will repay multiple times over multiple times.”

Listen to the full episode here.

Find a community of like-minded people

Margaret Chamas—Goats on the Go grazing affiliate and livestock educator.

With a background in extension and outreach, Margaret is a big fan of connecting with other people doing the things you are interested in. For technical information, she suggests going to conferences, pasture walks, and online events. She says the conversation you have in a parking lot with a fellow workshop attendee, or the private message in a Zoom webinar can jumpstart these connections. She also recommends asking Extension…they will help! Even if your question is not their area of expertise, they will find someone for you.

Margaret says, “You need to find your community. For me, it’s a lot of my goat people. It’s the Goats on the Go people. It’s the friends I had back in PFI [Practical Farmers of Iowa] because I still go to the annual conference every year, you need to just be able to find those people. I’ve been able to make some really phenomenal connections by chance. You can’t force them, but you can make it more likely to hit those connections just by starting to stick yourself into the situations where you see these people. Also, when we moved to this area, I knew nobody, so I literally emailed the Extension office and said, I’m new to the area and I want to find farmers near me because I’m interested in doing this, this and that. One of the connections I made in the area was literally just from saying, I know I need to make this connection, and I know I don’t have it. Can you point to someone to connect with?”

Listen to the full episode here.

Get education and training working for someone else

Dallas Mount—Custom cattle grazier and CEO of Ranch Management Consultants (RMC).

Dallas started as a town kid and learned about agriculture through a combination of work on ranches and formal education. As an instructor for RMC’s Ranching for Profit Schools and facilitator of its Executive Link program, he’s seen a wide range of early-career farmers and ranchers. Dallas has a combination of suggestions including on-site experience, practice, and more formal learning opportunities.

Dallas says, “I think I would first tell them, go and work for a bad boss. Go spend some time breaking somebody else’s machines, losing money on their payroll, before you’re doing it on your own payroll. Somewhere between two years at a minimum, and maybe ten years at a maximum. If you do it for much longer than ten years, you’re probably going to be so dependent on that salary, it’s going to be really hard to step away and make some bold moves. I think it’s important to outline what does that farm and ranch residency program look like? Who do I want to go work for? Who are some of the people that are doing things that I someday want to do in environments that I want to do in, and what scale? Then it’s probably not spending all ten years with one person. Get a whole season or two under your belt and, and see what you can learn from those individuals, then go identify another one and go work for them for a while. Really be knowledge seekers.”

Listen to the full episode here.

Be a wide-ranging reader

This advice has come up a number of times in my conversations. And, just like the advice from Ashlynn and Abraham, folks recommend reading beyond the technical resources specific to what you’re growing or raising. Here are some book recommendations from two different interviews.

Matt Skoglund—Direct market bison rancher.

Matt started as a lawyer and found himself drawn more and more to ranching as a way to manage land responsibly, feed people, be close to nature, and create a living for his family. Matt is a big reader, and recommends technical resources like Stockman Grass Farmer, On Pasture, and Fred Provenza’s book Nourishment. He also read Dan O’Brien’s Buffalo for the Broken Heart, which he credits for sparking their decision to raise bison.

Matt says, “I would start at 100,000 feet with A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold, because I just think that’s my favorite book of all time. There’s just a lot of unbelievably helpful things in there about just nature and ecology that are applicable to life in general. If I look at the books that helped me, Let My People Go Surfing by Yves Choinard is really helpful. A book called Small Giants by Bo Burlingham on small business. The subtitle is why some businesses choose to be small and great instead of big, but it’s a really impactful book on business.”

Listen to the full episode here.

Marc & Cheryl Cesario—Managers of custom-grazed beef and dairy cattle, and hair sheep.

Marc and Cheryl spend a lot of time reading and listening to audio books while driving or moving animals. Marc says books that are not about production have been the most “earth shattering”. He recommends books by Simon Sinek (Start With Why), Robert Kiyosaki (Rich Dad, Poor Dad), Jim Collins (Good to Great), and Michael Gerber (The E-Myth). Marc has also appreciated Greg McKeown’s Essentialism to help pick out what’s most important, and the classic Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey.

As Marc noted in our podcast interview, “No one ever went out of business because they have the wrong breed of cattle or wrong breed of sheep, or they move their move their herd or flock one day versus four times a day or that they put the bull in, maybe a few weeks too late. No one ever went, out of business for those decisions, right? It’s those bigger picture questions that really are the factor when people go in and out of business.”

Listen to the full episode here.

Farmer/Rancher Success Hub

If you’re interested in exploring tips like these, plus plenty more resources, consider joining my Farmer/Rancher Success Hub. You will get access to full interviews, extra Chore Chat topics to consider, online meetups, and more from the production of Choosing to Farm podcast episodes. More importantly, we cover a success topic every month in a live (recorded) teaching session. You’ll get a workbook for each topic to help practice those skills, and we’ll do a live group call to discuss what comes up as you practice. There will be a monthly book recommendation to dive more deeply, and we’ll wrap up each month with a live book discussion (no, you don’t have to read the book to join us!).

My goal is to help you feel more comfortable with the tools in your personal toolbox, give you new ideas to improve your life, and introduce you to other farmers and ranchers working on this stuff, too. It’s like having a personal guide as you put your farming/ranching career into shape. You can join here, or if you’d like more information, feel free to drop me an email at I would love to hear from you!

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Jenn Colby
Jenn Colby
Jenn Colby has spent over 25 years helping livestock farmers find success and quality of life through non-profit, academic, Extension, and community roles. She writes, farms, consults, and hosts the Choosing to Farm podcast from her home base of Howling Wolf Farm in Vermont.

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