Farming as a way of life: making a living off the land
I tend to romanticize farming. I like muddy farm boots and the south wind whipping the fresh towels off the clothesline. The recent rains bubbled our newly-planted onion sets right out of the garden rows. Our root cellar flooded so my jars of pickled beets and green beans bobbed up to the third step. Two cider barrels tipped over, too. As we pumped out the cellar water, the sweet smell of last year’s hard cider spread across the grass around us.
There is a rhythm in farm life, nature, and hens who wander back to the coop every night. A blue heron swoops down on the pond’s edge about the same time every morning. The dog runs faster than his nose can keep up as he chases down rabbit smells in the gardens.
My husband Klaus is practical. He once found a four-foot blacksnake in the chicken coop with an egg in its mouth. It was during one of those months when the hens were molting and egg production was waning. Klaus grabbed the snake in his bare hands and squeezed its neck (however you find the neck on a snake) until its jaws opened and the egg popped out. He put it in his pocket and carried the snake to the edge of the pond to release it in the tall grass.
He says we don’t buy a new hoe; we get one at the Amish school auction in the spring. We keep our horses in the stable once in a while just to collect the manure for keeping our pastures well-fed. He would say no one ever grows too many radishes.
We produce organically grown vegetables and free-range eggs on a 17-acre farm in Platte County, Missouri. Our primary source of farm income is our CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) program which we have operated on this farm since 2005. A CSA grows vegetables for families who pay early in the spring to share in the farm’s harvest throughout the season. We have had as many as 95 shareholders and have a waiting list each year. There is also income from horse-drawn wagon rides in the fall.
I bought the farm in 2004 on a mission to rebuild my life after being a widow for six years. It has a house over one hundred years old, a huge red barn, several outbuildings and a root cellar. There are pastures, trees and a pond. The first night I stayed on the farm I slept in the barn loft, listening to the farm around me. I could see the stars through holes in the roof. I married Klaus, three horses, four dogs and two cats in 2006.
We try to live sustainably. We have no tractors; we use the horse power of four big Belgian draft horses and one smaller Haflinger. Two of the horses are used for wagon rides. We farm with used machinery we buy from the Amish in Jamesport. Our truck is a 1978 cargo van. Our vacations are trips to an occasional auction nearby or reading together in the middle of a winter day. We heat our home with two wood burning stoves, feeding them firewood we log from around our farm. We rarely use air-conditioning. We use a clothesline, preserve a lot of our own food, and recycle. We feed organic grains to our hens.
Farming is lifestyle, workplace, income, home. The number of small organic farms is growing across the United States. Many new farmers are dedicated to offering an alternative to conventional growing practices, industrialization and globalization of the food on our supper table every night.
You can be a farmer, too. Farmers have to adapt, grin, improvise, be patient and get their cues from other living things around them. Nature sets your hours. Caring for plants and animals that become part of your universe is both demanding and satisfying. You are the steward of your land.
Pick up Wendell Berry’s book, The Unsettling of America before you talk to your real estate agent about a piece of farmland. Further homework might include a farm apprenticeship and visiting or volunteering at local farms. Those who want to be farmers must first experience farming or farm life. There are farmer conferences on planting, growing and harvesting; building up the soil; avoiding pesky garden thieves; and even farm business planning. This may help you decide what kind of farmer you want to be and what you want to produce on your farm. You will want to explore start-up costs, facilities you’ll need, and a market for your product. Assess your talents and resources.
You cannot be in a hurry to buy your farm. Your farm might look like your Grandpa’s farm and it might not. Rural properties are sometimes priced high because owners see development potential. Find a creative real estate agent who understands your dream and be open to the possibilities of the farms you see. Be realistic about the costs of restoration and adding what you need for your farming operation. How rural can you be, or do you want to be, remembering your market?
In building your farm, it is important to be frugal and sustainable. Buy used. Borrow. Share. Repair. Find your way to Habitat Re-Store and Dan’s New and Used in St. Joseph.
Farmers who want to create a new income-producing career have to be willing to take some risks and understand there are few guarantees. Klaus estimates the average row crop farmer nets about $150 an acre. Organic vegetable growers can sell up to $20,000 of vegetables from one acre of well-nourished gardens. A farmer will tell you breaking even takes a while, no matter what your farm produces. Meanwhile buy a few hens and eat eggs.
You can earn money on your farm while still working your full-time job. Or you can add farm income to your retirement checks. But this is not retirement; this is re-toolment. Farming can fit almost any life cycle if you’re practical and honest about your energy, flexibility and resources.
Farming is physical. The hours are long. When the sun goes down and the hens have settled on their perches, you might have to pull on your boots to go check a fragile baby calf or find the hole in the fence where the foxes are sneaking in. It can be lonely and filled with setbacks. Farmers need a community of farmers and most are willing to help grow new farmers, especially those who still have the passion in their bellies. Extension agents can help you find each other.
I like to say our farm is “going back to the future.” The small farms of rural America are the future of our nation’s food supply, a great force in recreating communities, and preserve the future of our planet. Be a good steward of your land and it will take care of you. Your greatest farm input should be your two hands---deep in the soil. Grow vegetables. Feed humans. Make a goal of self-sufficiency, throwing in a lot of neighborly farmer support and good weather.
You are embracing a way of life; not just a new workplace. When you get up in the morning, you know you are where you want to be. And when you go to bed at night, you know you are home.
“We come from the earth. We return to the earth. In between, we farm.”
Klaus Karbaumer came to America from Bavaria in 1991. He has degrees in history and education and was a teacher educator in Germany. Klaus has worked with draft horses almost all his life. As a small child he was called “Klaus the Horse” because he carried a small wooden horse with him all the time. He has grown vegetables for over forty years. He is reads voraciously and often sits at night studying the World Atlas in his lap.
Lee enjoyed twenty-seven years managing two teams in psychiatric emergency services for a mental health center in Kansas. She has Masters degrees in Social Work and Public Administration and coursework toward a degree in Cultural Anthropology. She grew up on a Nebraska farm where she milked cows, shucked grain, drove tractors, and picked wild asparagus along the fencerows.
Karbaumer Farm www.karbaumerfarm.com.
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