Stages of Learning in Farming: Stage 0--Laying the Foundation

First, some background: I grew up on a conventional hay, corn and soybean farm in western Iowa and moved to Rochester, Minn., for work after getting a mechanical engineering degree from Iowa State University. I like engineering, but after a few years of working in an office environment, I was feeling the urge to get dirt under my fingernails and have a better way to spend time with my young children.

My wife Lisa and I eventually took the Land Stewardship Project's Farm Beginnings course and 14 years ago bought a 30-acre farm in southeastern Minnesota. But before we purchased the farm, we got started in food production by expanding our personal "farm beginnings" to encompass a quarter-acre garden, and we began marketing at the Rochester Farmer's Market.

We now have 20 years of experience growing our farming business. I'd like to share in this and future blogs our experiences from the front lines. I suggest some things that are 180 degrees opposite of the conventional wisdom of the “Farming Industry Advisers,” especially in the financial area. We also farm organically, which means we look at the world a little differently than our conventional neighbors. As a family we are very conservative and I am relating what has worked for us and what I would hope would work for you.

Why Stages?

In my experience, every new farmer goes through stages of learning in building their farming knowledge and expertise. Lisa and I completed LSP's Farm Beginnings class in 2001. We learned much in this class, which was organized to help beginning farmers get started. Even with this advantage, we had a significant learning curve to make the transition from growing on a small scale (literally gardening in our backyard) to taking the first steps into the commercial market place on a scale that is 10 or even 100 times the size of our starting operation.

I am going to organize these stages according to our recent experience. The farm calendar typically operates on a seasonal basis and whether you are growing vegetables like we are, or growing row crops and small grains, or livestock, the stages are similar. I have provided links to other articles on our website,, for more in-depth information on certain topics

Stage Zero — Laying the Foundation

I'm going to define our experience before we took the Farm Beginnings class as Stage Zero, but each prospective farmer or farm family may have significant experience prior to attending such a class. In our case, we had been growing a quarter-acre of organic vegetables in our backyard and marketing them at our local farmers' market for five years. We had a net income of about $5,000, most of which we reinvested in tools and equipment. The important thing in Stage Zero, or the "pre-farming" stage, is building experience, learning from others, and laying a financial foundation. You could consider Stage Zero to be a transitional stage, the end of which is an event like the Farm Beginnings class.

Key elements of Stage Zero are:

1) Hands-on experience. You will never have a better time to build experience than before you have committed to your farm enterprise full time. Mentorships, internships and actually engaging in farm activities on a limited basis will help you match your interests with real farming activities. Find farmers who will stretch you and challenge you—farmers who know what success looks like. This stage of exploration will either lay the foundation for the future or confirm this isn't the path for you. If you are married, it is very important that your spouse is on board with your direction. Small farms are a great lifestyle and a wonderful way to raise children, but not if you aren't both on board.

2) Learning. Most of us know that hands-on experience is valuable. But don't forget that learning from the successes and mistakes of others can jump-start your farming process by years and even decades. This can be through a mentor or reading farm books or business books in your area of interest. Every hour spent on learning will multiply your time ten-fold in avoiding mistakes that can derail your farming dreams.

3) Lay a firm financial foundation. Not everyone will agree with what we did financially. Some will tell you that you can grow faster if you borrow money to capitalize your farming endeavors. This is true, you can grow faster, but you can also fail faster. My advice is "don't borrow" to start farming! We didn't, it can be done. Here is a financial check-up:

• Find a way to save up for your tools and equipment. I spent about $5,000 a year on tools for about 10 years after our Farm Beginnings class. Here is an example of the money I have spent on pickups for our farm.

• If you can save a good nest egg prior to starting farming, life will be well. Our savings was used to purchase our first tractor for $7,000 and make a down payment on a farm. This was not the normal 10 percent or even 20 percent down payment. We paid 70 percent down on our 30-acre farm and house. We had been debt free in our urban home for over 10 years, so we used the equity from our home. I wish we had been able to pay cash because that last 30 percent has been the hardest to retire, especially with 3 of our adult children soon to be in college. (They are attending college debt-free by the way. Here is an article from my 22-year-old daughter on her debt free college journey and how she made $10,000 last summer towards that goal.)

• Get rid of all personal debt. Cut up the credit cards, pay off automobile loans and student loans before you start farming. You cannot service large amounts of consumer debt in the early years of farming. Debt will derail your farming goals faster that almost any other factor.

• Save up an emergency fund. My father would have said you need to save for a rainy day. One thing is for sure, sooner or later it will rain. You need to be ready. Financial teachers say the typical guideline is three to six months of personal expenses. If you have to dip into the emergency fund, then make it a priority to replace it.

• If you need to, get a second job. This is far superior to taking out loans. Better to work 20 to 30 hours temporarily off the farm to meet a goal for the purchase of equipment or land than cripple your farm goals with debt. Maybe this extra work could be done in the winter when the workload is lighter.

• Take advantage of free stuff. Most soil inputs can be almost free. This is thinking outside the box and is a different way to look at farm inputs than your local fertilizer sales guy will tell you.

• When I purchased our original tractor, I started saving for the next one because I knew a used tractor had a finite life and would need to be replaced. This is called a replacement fund.

• The only thing that I would consider going into debt for is land, but only if I could make a strong down payment and have a very strong plan to make the payments. Renting land is always an option and the Land Stewardship Project Clearinghouse connects landowners with beginning farmers.

See future posts for "Stage 1—Building on the Basics," "Stage 2—Becoming Self-sufficient," "Stage 3—Becoming the Expert," and Stage 4—Building a Legacy."