Starting a Farm from Scratch: Part 1

Starting a Farm from Scratch: Part 1

by Chris Grataski

Know Your Context and Goals

One of the most common mistakes people make when starting a farm or homestead is that that they dive headlong into building the farm of their dreams without first considering what makes for a healthy and integrated farm ecosystem. Even worse, many of us forget to examine and understand the strengths and limitations of our own contexts before we march out to start altering the landscape and putting in permanent systems. Call it the “I want an orchard” syndrome, or the “I want a dairy cow” syndrome. Insert your own brilliant idea or favored technique here… it’s all the same.

The problem with this isn’t so much that we start off driven by a certain interest or goal—not at all—but that too often we begin implementing our vision without first “consulting the genius of the place,” as Wes Jackson has famously put it, and without examining the social and economic elements of our contexts, as Allan Savory has taught us to do in the book pictured above. The result is that we often select the wrong tools for achieving our goals, thereby creating new problems for ourselves, wasting energy, and sometimes even doing more harm than good in the landscape. I speak from experience, and certainly not as someone who has left such habits in the dust, but rather as someone who is, among other things, prone to taking on way too much, way too quickly, and as someone prone to burying his head in specific projects at the expense of the larger picture.

And yet, another common mistake is to get bogged down in planning and analysis. For some of us, (myself included) it’s all too easy to imagine that if we just plan everything out as completely as possible, the rest will just fall into place. But it’s never that easy. This is because we simply cannot fully understand our context without actually interacting with it, whether we’re talking about the physical landscape or the landscape of the market.

So when we started Stone River Homestead in Vermont a year ago, we decided that rather than jump immediately into establishing the permanent systems we hope to focus on in the future—systems that will explore the intersection of agroforestry, medicinal plants, and regionally adapted seed—we would start our farm and homestead in a way that would give us maximum feedback about the existing conditions of the land—the water cycle, the mineral cycle, and the energy flow on the landscape—and that would simultaneously begin to set us up for economic success in future years.

But what does this look like in practice?

Select the Tools Appropriate to Your Context

We began by considering which tools might help us nourish ecosystem vitality and that would simultaneously help us meet our immediate needs and bring us a bit closer to our long-term goals. We asked ourselves questions like, “What must we do now to help create the conditions for what we want to do later?” and “Which tools, techniques, or systems will enable us to advance the health of the landscape while using the least amount of energy and investing the least amount of capital?” 

Now, when exploring which tools to use, it’s important to try to think outside the box, since someone else’s perfect tool or technique might not be best for you, and because some of the best tools are often overlooked. In fact, many are not even thought of as "tools" at all, at least not in the technical sense of the term.

For example, given our interest in tree crops, medicinal herbs, seeds, and all things plant-related, it might strike some as a surprise that we decided to begin our new farm with a focus on livestock. We did this not because our interests changed or because our priorities weren’t in order, but precisely because of the ways that livestock can help prepare the way for future plant systems, can help us meet our most immediate food needs, help us build the agroecosystems we want to establish in the coming years, and help us obtain the capital needed to establish other systems. I jokingly call it, "pig-funded agroforestry," but there's definitely some truth in the joke!

When managed properly, livestock can be employed to rapidly build soil fertility. Given our goals of obtaining “maximum feedback about the existing conditions of the land“ and “advancing the health of the landscape,” all while helping to create the eecological and economic conditions for future plant-based systems, animal power seemed like a wise “tool” to employ.

Over the last ten years we’ve designed multiple farms and managed livestock in a variety of contexts, and one of the most important lessons we’ve learned is how the tool of animal impact can truly benefit a landscape. Indeed, working with livestock can be dramatically beneficial in the earliest phases of site development. Not only can animals be used to build soil fertility, but they can also help transform existing plant composition, shift or reset successional dynamics, and even sequester atmospheric carbon, all while providing food and pleasure for humans.

As for our goals of getting to know the patterns of this landscape and nesting our intentions within the land’s own inclinations, working with our animals has been invaluable. Since we practice a management-intensive approach, we move our pigs, sheep, goats, and chickens on an almost daily basis from spring through fall. This has given us precious insight into our site’s hydrology (where is it wet when other places are dry? which locations are vulnerable during floods? where might we easily store water high in the landscape?). Assessing pasture and determining paddock size on a daily basis forced us to learn the phenological differences between this site and our previous home in another region, as well as differences that occur exclusively within this site itself. In turn, this can then tell us something about the soil and the mineral cycle, as plant composition often correlates in some ways to soil types and the parent materials those soils come from. We have also learned something of where wildlife activity is more concentrated, when, and why. We’ve gotten to know neighbors who were drawn in to meet us by the presence of our animals as they drove by. We’ve discovered fishing holes while fetching water from the river for our sheep, and we’ve even reduced the pressure of poison ivy as the goats and the pigs tag-teamed its removal while converting it into food for us and building fertility in the soil. The list goes on. 

In future posts, I’ll explain the reasons why we chose the specific animals who are now here with us—sheep, goats, pigs, and poultry, and who we hope to welcome onto the farm in the coming years. I'll also explore how partnering with livestock is really just an excuse for us to partner with what the ecologist David Haskell calls “the inconspicuous proletariat”—that vast and nearly invisible community of microbes that constitute the soil beneath our feet!