Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms shares honest and important advice for young farmers who want to reduce the risk of failure as they embark on this difficult yet fulfilling path.
For aspiring farmers, here are some basics to reduce the risk of failure:
#1. Check your motive. We live in a day of extreme virtual fantasy. Video games, YouTube, and TikTok tend to minimize effort and exaggerate accomplishment. You will never drive a car like you can in a video game. You will not be as outrageous as TikTok influencers.
Too many idealistic young people think farming will be like a glorified video game where aspirations and do-overs are simple. Don’t kid yourself. Farming is a life of long hours, sweat, frustration, and exhilaration. People won’t knock down your doors to buy your stuff.
Folks routinely think our farm, Polyface — well-established with brand recognition — must turn customers away. On the contrary, despite decades of apparent success, marketing is still our number one hurdle. Customers come and go; it’s the nature of things.
If you don’t have an insatiable desire to grow things — to work in the soil, to sweat, to minister to people who don’t seem to care about food or frogs — don’t start. You need something deep within your soul to carry you past the powdery mildew on the cucumbers and the dead calf you couldn’t save. You won’t light the world on fire. But you can transform a piece of land, develop a cadre of loyal, grateful patrons, and become a master in a vocation desperate for enthusiastic leadership.
#2. What are you doing now? Too many wanna-bes twiddle their thumbs waiting for an opportunity to land in their laps. It doesn’t work that way. You need to be obsessed about this dream, this mission. That means reading, experimenting, and investing in mentors and experiences. Get rid of Netflix, eating out, movies, and hanging around with folks engaged in foolishness.
Start something where you are. Vermicomposting kits under the kitchen sink. Half a dozen chickens—if you don’t have a yard to put them in, take out the entertainment center/TV set-up and put them in your house (I detail this in my book POLYFACE MICRO). If you aren’t cultish about doing something now, you won’t do something later.
“Later” develops as a result of today’s activity. Today is the springboard for tomorrow. If you would rather watch a movie than tend your tomato plants, you don’t have what it takes to be a farmer. This may sound harsh, but I’ve watched too many flare-outs to sugarcoat the farming vocation. This is not a walk in the park. It’s a lifetime commitment to steward a piece of creation and minister life-giving sustenance to intentionally-minded folks willing to invest in healing. That’s your team; that’s your vision.
If your friends don’t call you a bit obsessed, you’re probably not serious. Your greatest joy and satisfaction must come from a ripened tomato, a healthy calf, or a freshly laid egg. If you find yourself easily distracted from the mystery and majesty of these simple pleasures, you won’t have enough determination to see you through the blizzards, floods, droughts, and ungrateful customers.
#3. Get experience. You don’t need a college education to be a farmer. The most valuable asset you can bring to the table is experience. Mastery requires repetitions, and repetitions require time — no shortcuts. Weather, price, pestilence, and disease are the four horsemen of farming’s apocalypse; handling your affairs successfully in their face requires time and persistence.
Two principles here come to mind: proximity and incrementalism. Proximity means getting as close to what you want to do as you can, as soon as you can. The second steps always follow the first steps. If you want to produce vegetables, grow some yourself and work with someone who’s a master at growing vegetables. If you want to raise cows, help someone who raises cows — in your spare time without pay, even if they aren’t organic.
You need to get comfortable with your vocational calling and that takes involvement. You can read and YouTube stuff all day, but until you participate, you won’t be able to develop mastery or make wise decisions. It’s like riding a bicycle. You can read all about it and watch tutorials, but until you get on a bicycle, you’ll never know how to ride it.
Incrementalism means being willing to take pieces on your way to success. You won’t get the whole enchilada straight out of the gate. Usually, mastery takes little segments and you need to be content with what you can get. Today’s or this year’s increment may seem small, but if you’re moving toward your goal, don’t worry about speed; be dedicated to progress. Most of life is two steps forward and one back. That’s okay.
Build alliances with folks. Start collaborating with partners who will let you move one step closer to where you want to be. Don’t worry about their philosophy, their politics, or even whether or not they use chemicals. Many pastured poultry enterprises have started on conventional beef cattle operations with no rent. It’s a win-win situation if you bring poultry manure to the cow pasture. Leverage these kinds of opportunities by circulating in the circles where you can get a toehold. You won’t find your farm partners down at the Applebee’s bar. You’ll find them in churches, at sale barns, at farmers’ markets, and at sustainable ag conferences.
As you start your farm, don’t bite off unrealistic expectations. Make attainable objectives. Shooting for the stars creates frustration and burnout. My dad used to say, “We make haste slowly.” It’s enough just to make progress. If you’re unsuccessful in little things, you won’t succeed in big things. Don’t worry about 10 years out. That far out will be the culmination of the thousands of steps you take between now and then. Do what you need to do today; tomorrow will take care of itself.
#4. Grow everyman food. Exotics and heritage have an allure, but they’re a tiny market. The big and broad opportunity is in stuff people eat daily; you can offer that common fare in much higher quality and get your differentiation and brand recognition through quality, not weirdness. Yes, weird sells, but not repetitively.
I’ve worked with many vegetable producers trying to sell to our upscale chefs. The constant feedback from our chefs is “I only use two pounds of purple tomatoes a week. What I need is 200 pounds of Better Boy tomatoes. I need 300 pounds of good-tasting, compost-grown Kennebec potatoes; I only use two pounds of purple potatoes as a garnish.” I’ve heard this often enough over the years that it’s almost axiomatic.
Grow what folks want to buy. It’s hard enough to find buyers; don’t put the hurdle of extremism in front of them and dare them to be weird. They won’t be. Give them something better that’s familiar enough to make them buy and then keep coming back. Most people aren’t as curious about weird food as you might be. Appreciate where they are and meet their needs today. That success will give you the license to offer something exotic occasionally.
#5. Offer variety. The one-stop shop is efficient. You don’t have to grow it all, but you can be the conduit for other producers with less marketing savvy. The person who makes the sale owns the customer. The quickest way to increase income is to turn $100-a-year customers into $ 1,000-a-year customers simply by offering greater variety.
Few farmers are good marketers. If you aren’t, hook up with someone who is. A friend or relative who can schmooze and tell stories is invaluable in carving out market recognition. Make sure you know who/what your market is — what characteristics make up your ideal customer? Knowing how to relate to those various characteristics is the foundation of your marketing program. Some people catch on quicker than others and if you don’t have that level of people skills, team up with someone who does.
Add complementary items from other artisans to attract more interest. People seldom leave supermarkets for one item, but if they can stoke their pantry from one stop, they’re much more liable to visit your venue, whether it’s an on-farm store, website shopping cart, or farmers’ market stand. The more needs you can service in one transaction the easier it is to find and keep patrons.
#6. Equity in everything except land. Most aspiring farmers assume their first priority is finding and owning land. Not so. Instead, put all your equity and effort into forming collaborations on other people’s land and developing your own brand. That includes value-adding to get as close to the retail dollar as possible.
Sometimes a commercial kitchen, for example, is far more strategic than land. What good is more land if you can’t value add to full advantage? With mobile infrastructure, you can place your farm business on land someone else owns. If the relationship deteriorates, you can pick up your farm structures and move to another land base.
A pastured poultry enterprise, for example, would benefit every orchard, vineyard, grain operation, or livestock farm worldwide. No farm fully leverages its resources. You can always layer another enterprise on an existing farm without competing with the farm’s core production. Many farmers would love having another set of hands and young energy as long as that person does not require anything from the farmer. No wages. No guarantees.
Many better investment options for time and money exist outside of the land. While owning property is wonderful and worth aspiring to, it’s not the first prerequisite of a successful farming operation. Furthermore, tying up capital in the land is often detrimental to the initial launch. A better strategy is to go ahead and develop the infrastructure, skill, and marketing component while waiting for the right property to show up.
These are some principles I’ve learned and observed that anyone aspiring to a career in farming needs to understand to increase their chances of success. If none of this scares you, then by all means come aboard. We need thousands of bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, entrepreneurial self-starting young farmers.