Failed Farm Lessons… Or… How a Philosophy Professor Makes Goat Decisions

Oct 20, 2017 by

By: Patrick Toner, Associate Professor of Philosophy at Wake Forest University

How often it happens that families become caught up in agrarian dreams, leave their suburban homes and buy a piece of land in the country to farm…and then, within a few years, sell off the farmland and head back to the suburbs.  In the back-to-the-land movement, the failed farm must be nearly as common as the successful one.  I have no data on this, of course, just anecdotal evidence.  Possibly, I’m entirely wrong.  But suppose I’m not.

If so, these failed farms are very unfortunate.  I say this from the standpoint of an enthusiastic proponent of the back-to-the-land movement.  How can this movement be taken seriously when it engenders nearly as many failures as successes?

I can’t answer that question in full, but I do want to look at two failed farms in particular in order to see if we can draw lessons for other aspiring farmers.  I’ve been hesitant to write this piece, because it could seem cruel to analyze these real-life stories of Catholic families who have made the attempt to get back to the land.  But, first, both cases that I’m speaking about are already entirely public.  And second, my response to them is hardly that of an expert looking down at a couple of newbies who messed up.  My response to them comes, rather, from a novice hoping to learn some lessons from their publicly-available reflections on their farming lives.

The two cases are quite different.  In one case—Devin Rose—the farm was a part-time endeavor, funded by a full-time off farm job.  In the other case—Kevin Ford (well known to readers of this site, obviously)—the farm was full-time.  Rose’s family spent about two years on the farm.  Ford’s spent a total of about four.  Rose left the farm voluntarily.  It seems as though the Ford family more or less felt like they had to leave.  Rose worked mainly with livestock, Ford mainly with vegetables.  Still, for all the differences, the cases have a striking similarity when it comes to tracing out what led to failure.  In a sense, you could say the farms failed for the same reason: namely, bullying.  That’ll take a minute to explain.

Let’s start with Ford.  He tells his story in a series of blog posts here.  But to hit some highlights, Ford, a high school theology teacher, did some homesteading on a small scale in town.  Eventually, he and his wife decided to take the plunge and go into farming full-time.  The details of the story needn’t detain us: the short version is that they started a vegetable farm in Kansas, selling their produce via CSA.  But they suffered serious drought, grasshopper plagues and hailstorms, and lost most of their crops in successive years.  Eventually, they decided to leave the farm.  They still homestead, with Kevin also working in an off-farm job.

In retrospect he says that attempting to start a vegetable CSA was a mistake for multiple reasons.  First, and most centrally, his vegetables didn’t grow due to the weather and the grasshoppers.  But also, he doesn’t really care much for vegetables.  And that raises a question: why start a vegetable CSA at all?  The answer is that he felt bullied into it.  “It was the least expensive way to get started farming, and it provide the most income return per acre. Since I was very limited on land I was pushed into a corner of farming for profit through vegetables.”  The lesson I see here is that in Ford’s case, you can see a farmer being pushed into an area of farming he wasn’t especially interested in (and which he says wouldn’t actually work where he planned to try to do it), because he believed that it was the best financial option for him at the time.  He didn’t choose it because he wanted to do it, he chose it because he felt like he had no other choice to make.  Bullying.

Lets’ turn to Rose.  He is a computer programmer who wanted to farm.  He and his family found a nice farm, moved in, got some cattle on the land, and started working.  Rose had to drive in to work in town a few days a week, but was also able to do some work at home.  He had difficulty finding time to get the farmwork done on top of family life and his off-farm job.  Eventually, he decided to apply for a new job that would pay him a great deal more money: he got such a job, but it required him to drive in to work every day.  He and his wife quickly (within an hour) decided to sell the farm and move back to suburbia.

Can Rose’s case be considered a failed farm?  Well, no, not really: but, then, yes, really.  The Roses felt called to the land, and having gotten there, turned back away.  Their “failure” was quite different than the Fords’ but there is, interestingly, a similar lesson to be found in the Roses’ story.

When Rose arrived on his farm, it appears he didn’t have a fully developed plan in mind like Ford did.  After all, again, Rose worked full time off the farm, and wasn’t depending on the farm for his family’s support.  But he quickly arranged to lease his pasture to a neighbor, Cobb, who put some bovines on the land.  When Rose first went out to say hello to the cattle, he encountered an ornery one.  When he mentioned the mean cow to Cobb, he was informed that the ‘cow’ was actually a bull.  Full credit to Rose for telling this little story on himself!  I report it here to show that Rose didn’t exactly go into this farming adventure from a standpoint of deep familiarity.  Despite that, he very quickly became a cattle famer: due to some conflicts with Cobb, the Roses decided to end his lease and buy seven of their bovines.

Why seven?  Their county offered an agricultural property tax exemption, worth $3000 per year to the Roses.  To be eligible for the exemption, they needed to have seven bovines on the land.  (Or forty-some goats or sheep.)  If they let their exemption lapse, it could take up to seven years to get it back again.  So there was a significant financial incentive to keep the exemption.

But diving into cattle farming was in many ways a very bad idea for the Roses. First, as we’ve seen, they didn’t know anything about cattle.  Second, the seven bovines required were way too many for the Roses’ ten acres: he figures their land could reasonably support three bovines.  Pasturing more than that would cause significant damage to the land.  (For a little on that point, see here.)  Third, and most directly relevant to my point here, their cattle led to all kinds of problems for the family, particularly when they bought a milker (the rest were meat cattle) with chronic mastitis—and without anyone in the household really having the time to easily deal with twice-a-day milking duties.

There were lots of reasons why the Roses wound up selling the farm and moving back to the city, and it would be overly simplistic to reduce the failure to just one thing.  But at least one central reason the Roses quickly became so eager to get off their farm and back to the city was that they took on farm tasks that weren’t appropriate for their farm or for them.  Leaping into cattle farming wasn’t a good choice for their family.  But they felt bullied into it for financial reasons.  They wanted to keep that agricultural exemption!

Now, there’s really no hint in the book that the Roses needed that exemption in order to stay on the land.  (And, even given that exemption, they didn’t stay on the land.)  Rose talks about the farm truck he bought ($5000), the farm tractor he bought ($5500), all the cattle he bought ($lots), and the various other ways he spent money on the farm.  I have no grip on the family’s finances, obviously, but the story doesn’t read as though that extra $3000 in taxes would have broken them.  It seems like they wanted to keep that exemption just because—well, otherwise they’d be throwing away $3000 a year!  Surely understandable.  But my point is that they felt forced into farm activities that given their druthers they wouldn’t have adopted if not for that $3000.  Would the Rose family have stayed on the farm, and possibly made a go of it for the long haul if they’d just given up the tax benefit and eased their way into farm life much more slowly?  I have no idea.  But I know for sure that they very quickly burned out because (in part!) they were bullied into getting cattle.

So the lesson I draw from these two stories is: don’t be bullied into farm decisions.  I’m grateful for the lesson, and we’re trying to apply it on our own little homestead.  For example, we have two female dairy goats.  The first one was given to us by a neighbor—long story—and we of course had to get a companion for her.  So, two.  They are now both 1 ½ years old.  Last fall, the choice not to breed them was easy: giving your goats an extra year isn’t a bad idea.  Many goat farmers breed them in the first year, but some don’t.  This fall, however, there’s no good farming reason for not breeding them.  If we fail to breed them, we’re basically saying these goats are just pets, not livestock.  We definitely felt bullied to breed them. Yes, we want our own raw milk.  But are we actually ready for dealing with breeding goats?  Daily milking?  What about the bucks?  Do we buy them?  Rent them?  Do artificial insemination?  What?  Is this really something we want to get into?  It was difficult for us to honestly come up with good answers to all of these questions, because we felt like we had to breed the goats.  There they are, these beautiful Alpines, taking up our time and resources, as we continue to buy cow’s milk from the grocery store at the rate of a gallon a day.

Reflecting on the stories of the Fords and the Roses helped me to get a grip on that feeling of being bullied.  I was able to put the question to my wife: do you feel bullied?  Yes, she did.  Just knowing that we were being bullied helped us to see the problem in a new light.

We’re shooting for breeding next month for late spring kidding.

Hey, sometimes you can be bullied in the direction of doing something you’d want to do anyway!  Now we’ve made our choice because we decided it’s what we wanted to do, not because we felt it’s what we had to do.  And we’ve made it with the explicit acknowledgement that it might not work out.  We might need to quit milking and just let the goats be pets.  That wasn’t what we had planned for when we bought the place and it’s not economically sound policy, but we think it’s better that we’re here doing what we’re doing, even if we’re not doing everything we could do, than that we burn out and have to leave.  Your approach may be different.  (I’ve got a full-time job in town, so the financial pressures we’re facing are very different from the financial pressures others may face, for example.)  But I wonder if it’s ever a good idea to allow yourself to be bullied into farming a certain way.  Anyway, I believe I learned an important lesson about decision-making from the stories of Ford and Rose.  At best, however, I was aware of being partially “bullied” into the decision.  We’ll have to see how it turns out.

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  1. Great third-party analysis!

    In hindsight, we should have just let the ag exemption lapse. While the $3000 per year was an important driving force in that, the county also had the authority to add five years of back taxes if you let it lapse, adding up to around a $15,000 penalty. Now, whether or not the county would have done that, I don’t know. But it was a looming threat for us.

    Even so, if I did it again I would have just let it lapse and built up more slowly.

  2. Kevin Ford

    Indeed, there are a hundred different things I would change now if I did it all again. The difference is that now I am doing it again. Our climate and distance from a customer base doomed us. Now we are farming in a much better climate 4 miles from the city limits of a major city. We shall see how our next adventure plays out.

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