I chose to attend Tony Kleese’s Whole Farm Planning workshop on Wednesday morning of the Sustainable Agriculture Conference because the idea of putting together a whole farm enterprise is maybe the most intimidating for me. I’m comfortable thinking about individual parts of the work–lettuce! herbs! chickens! kale!–but I get the sudden urge to weed carrots whenever time comes for me to actually look at the logistics and money of making my someday-farm work.
I also chose this workshop because I know from previous workshops that Tony Kleese is no-nonsense and full of great information as well as a great public speaker. I strongly encourage you, if you are serious about starting an organic farm, to seek out any workshops or courses led by Mr. Kleese or use him as a resource to help plan your sustainable business.
As promised, Mr. Kleese ran us through a dense course of information and items to consider before you spend a single dollar on your farm. Even though I’ve been thinking about my future farm for two years now, a lot of these items surprised and humbled me; I ended up with five pages of notes from his talk alone, not to mention all the thoughts and observations I wrote down to think about later.
First of all, Mr. Kleese stressed that you can’t go into farming without thinking about it as a business. Romantic ideas about eating eggs from your own chickens or chatting with customers at the farmers’ market won’t help you when you’ve run out of cash and the tractor needs to be fixed before you can get in your fields. To soften the blow of farm-as-business, though, Mr. Kleese reminded us that a farm is a food system; in order to have everything you need to run a successful business (weather and disaster notwithstanding) you need to make sure all the components of your food system are thought through.
The components Mr. Kleese identified are:
Every one of these topics, which we went through in detail, had some piece of information that I had never considered before. It was the question of farmers and labor that really got me: Mr. Kleese argued that before anything else, you should sit down and write out an essay on why you want to farm and post it on your wall–that will be what motivates you to keep going when it’s 100 degrees outside and the weeds are enormous.
Mr. Kleese also reminded the workshop attendants to take a hard look at the way they relate to other people as introverts or extroverts and consider from there whether to sell through direct marketing (high on the interpersonal contact) or wholesale (less so, but still requires good people skills).
There are also hard questions to ask about what skills you’re taking into farming and what skills you need to acquire, as well as from whom you can acquire them; how much labor your operation will need and if you’ll need to hire assistance; and how much you will need to make off your farm business in order to meet your personal financial goals.
Through my work at the Well Fed Community Garden, I meet a lot of people who are in love with the idea of farming without a real working knowledge of the skills farming requires, and I try give those people a reality check. The truth is, though, with a rapidly aging farm population, we need to educate and bring more young people like myself into farming. Unfortunately, those same idealistic young folks tend to be over-educated and under-skilled (not to mention lacking capital to start a business). We’re not just facing a lack of affordable farmland–we’re lacking a realistic understanding of the demands and rewards of farming along with the experiences and skills to make us into good farmers. In some ways, I think that’s the biggest barrier, and it’s definitely the one that keeps me from making the final leap into starting up my farm business.
Many thanks to Tony Kleese, whose picture I did not capture during his lecture because I was frantically writing notes, and to CFSA for arranging the 2014 Sustainable Agriculture Conference.