Have you ever been sitting at your office desk and found yourself daydreaming about becoming a farmer?
My guest today has written a practical, all-encompassing handbook to help you turn that dream into a reality. His name is Forrest Pritchard. He’s a farmer and the co-author of the book Start Your Own Farm: The Authoritative Guide to Becoming a Sustainable 21st Century Farmer. We begin our conversation discussing the state of the farming profession and the social and economic forces that have made it harder and harder to pursue. Despite the headwinds facing would-be farmers, Forrest makes the case for why farming can still be a fulfilling and financially sustainable profession. He then delves into the nitty gritty of starting and running a farm, including start-up costs, land acquisition, deciding on what to farm, creating multiple revenue streams, pricing product, and figuring out where to sell your goods. We then discuss the mental and emotional toll of farming and how to manage burnout.
If you’ve ever dreamed about becoming a farmer, this episode will provide a lot of useful information. Even if you don’t want to become a farmer, you’ll find this to be a surprisingly interesting look at a lesser known lifestyle, and gain insights that are applicable to any business and to life in general.
- Has the state of farming changed in the last six years since Forrest was last on the show?
- How farming has changed in the last 100 years or so
- Why should someone decide to become a farmer?
- The primary obstacles modern farmers face
- The erroneous assumptions that young prospective farmers make
- Farming as a business
- Deciding on what kind of farming to do
- How to get the land needed to start a farm
- Why farmers should actually focus on their limiting factors
- Forrest’s food truck business
- Pricing philosophies as a small farmer
- Selling your goods once they’re harvested
- How do you avoid burnout as a farmer?
- What’s the first thing someone should do if they want to become a farmer?
Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast
- My first interview with Forrest on starting a farm
- So You Want My Job: Farmer
- 9 Rules for Starting Your Own Farm
- 7 Reasons to Become a Gentleman Gardener
- Blue Apron wants to fill your freezer with heirloom chickens
- Detroit’s urban farms
- 22 Ways to Get a Better Night’s Sleep
- Are Modern People the Most Exhausted in History?
Connect With Forrest
Listen to the Podcast! (And don’t forget to leave us a review!)
Recorded on ClearCast.io
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Pod by Eight Sleep. Try the Pod for 100 nights, and if you don’t love it they’ll refund your purchase and arrange a free pickup. For a limited time, get $150 off your purchase when you go to EightSleep.com/manliness.
Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. Have you ever been sitting at your office desk and found yourself daydreaming about becoming a farmer? My guest today has written a practical all-encompassing handbook to help you turn that dream into reality. His name’s Forrest Pritchard. He’s a farmer and the coauthor of the book Start Your Own Farm: The Authoritative Guide to Becoming a Sustainable 21st Century Farmer. We begin our conversation discussing the state of the farming profession today and the social and economic forces that have made it harder and harder to pursue. Despite the headwinds facing would-be farmers, Forrest makes the case for why farming can still be a fulfilling and financially sustainable profession.
He then delves into the nitty gritty of starting and running a farm, including startup costs, land acquisition, deciding on what to farm, creating multiple streams of revenue, pricing, product, figuring out where to sell your goods. We then discussed the mental and emotional toll of farming and how to manage burnout. If you ever dreamed about becoming a farmer, this episode will provide a lot of useful information. Even if you don’t want to become a farmer, you’ll find this to be a surprisingly interesting look, a lesser known lifestyle and gain insights that are applicable to any business and to life in general. After the show’s over, check out our show notes at aom.is/startyourfarm. Forrest joins me now via clearcast.io.
Here we go. Forrest Pritchard, welcome back to the show.
Forrest Pritchard Thanks Brett. It’s always the greatest honor being invited a second time. I think.
Brett McKay: Well, yeah, we had you on about six years ago, talk about your experience of becoming a farmer. Now you’ve got a new book out called Start Your Farm: The Authoritative Guide to Becoming a Sustainable 21st Century Farmer. This is basically a how to guide for other people who have had that itch to become a farmer, this is how you do it. Let’s talk about the state of farming as a profession today. Has it changed in the six years since you were last on the show or is it about the same?
Forrest Pritchard Well, I think it’s changed in ways that consumers, which is all of us, you, me and everybody that’s listening because we all eat three times a day hopefully, can identify in kind of an unexpected way. I don’t think agriculture itself has changed nearly so much as consumers being more conscious, whether intentionally or unintentionally about where their food comes from. To wit, yesterday Walmart announced major headline sourcing cattle for 500 different Walmart locations from a network of a Co-op farmers down in Texas.
So their customers who are interested in knowing more precisely where their food comes from, can have a direct source of putting a face to that food. A college roommate of mine 20 years ago heard what we were doing and he got a faraway look. He’s an MBA guy and he said, “Look, Forrest if what you’re saying about organic, consistent, sustainable food is half as good as it sounds to me,” and he said, it sounds very good, “eventually the “big boys” are going to want to get into it.” It’s taken two decades, but here they are.
Brett McKay: Well, so there’s an uptake in interest in independent farming. But as you talked about in the beginning of the book, farming as a professional, getting into it, it’s been declining for the past 100 years. I think it’s now like, what is it like, 2% of the population are farmers. Is that correct?
Forrest Pritchard Yeah, a little bit less than that, but not to split hairs.
Brett McKay: Right. I mean, what’s, I mean a lot of that is just due to mechanization, correct?
Forrest Pritchard Yeah. Well it’s due to a lot of things I think. Mechanization is certainly part of that. Post industrial revolution, once that really hit its stride, let’s just throw a number out there and say post 1920 things really started to decline. We’re talking industrialization on a multi decade level and the advent of improved seed varieties and things of that nature. But I think there was an intersection that eventually led to specifically the decline of the classic American farm, which is that one we imagined our grandmother and granddad farming, or aunt and uncle in some recent distant past, which is the mid-size farm.
It’s the one with the dairy cows, some pigs and chickens. Which isn’t completely extinct, but it’s largely mythological at this point. There’s a whole number of reasons. We could devote a full hour drilling into the economics of all that. But for the sake of this discussion, we’ve got mega farms on one end and smaller economically sustainable farms on the other and the missing link is that classic mid-sized American farm.
Brett McKay: So not only are the number of farmers going down because we need fewer farmers. It’s possible to get the food we need with fewer farmers next to these giant agribusinesses. There’s that aspect. But there’s also, it’s hard to become a farmer too because there’s less land. I mean you go 150 years ago, the country was given away land even then.
Forrest Pritchard That’s right. I should back up just a second, put an asterisks next to enough mechanization to grow our food. It’s to grow a certain kind of food. From a large scale agricultural standpoint, we’re talking farms in excess of 1000, 2000 acres and up into the tens of thousands of acres. We’re largely talking about corn, soybeans, wheat and confinement livestock systems, confinement chicken, things of that nature versus a lot of times what we identify as food, as our salads and our other items on the menu that aren’t called chicken sandwiches.
So there’s just this big disparity between mechanization and what has to be more intentionally hand grown. But yeah, I mean, to your second point, you’re out in Oklahoma, it wasn’t more than 150 years ago that the Homestead Act enabled folks to literally go out there with their sooner wagons and do these land rushes and get a hundred plus acres up to 300 acres. As recently as I think the late ‘60s, early ‘70s, one could homestead in Alaska. So the government was giving away this land if you could demonstrate that you were “improving” the land that meant growing a crop and putting a house on the land.
So there was this free land. There was all the way back to the American Revolution when we didn’t have an economy so to speak, soldiers were given free land as compensation for fighting the American Revolution. This land has been handed down to people to a certain degree. People like myself. I didn’t purchase my farm it was hand down to my grandfather. It was originally purchased, but I didn’t go out and purchase it. So there’s hundreds of thousands of folks out there that either were given the land in one way or another, which makes it really challenging to create a level playing field when it comes to business.
Brett McKay: We’ll get into the land topic of what you can do to overcome that issue if that’s something you want to do. But let’s say despite all these headwinds that are going against farming as a profession, you’ve got economic incentives thanks to subsidies where corn, soybeans, wheat, all that stuff, that’s their incentive to grow that stuff. There’s fewer, we need fewer farmers to produce that thing. There’s less land available. Also, farming is just really, it’s expensive and hard to do despite all that. Why should someone decide to become a farmer?
Forrest Pritchard Well, you’ve listed all the very pragmatic, sensible, logical reasons not to do it. Then this is something we immediately tackle in chapter one of the book. We don’t beat around the bush with asking the question, why be a farmer? Which is followed by chapter two is do you have what it takes? These are very introspective questions. So why do you do anything? Why did you start The Art of Manliness brand? Presumably you had a passion for it. You had something that transcended just dollars and cents to saying this is something you want to devote yourself to. It means something to you.
Farming fits all those categories, I believe, for many of us. What’s not to like about growing food? What’s not to like about healing the land? What’s not to like about having a family on a piece of property where kids are able to free range and come home to the ring of a dinner bell? It sounds a little dreamy, but it’s also very realistic and attainable when one puts their mind to it. It’s one of those questions you have to ask, how can you justify or do anything that isn’t just getting on the hamster wheel and getting in the car every morning and getting into the commute.
A lot of people wait their whole lives to some fictional retirement that never really fulfills itself either. You start farming just like you do any passion. You just start.
Brett McKay: Well, I’m curious. You’ve been working with people who are just getting started with farming. Who are these people that are doing it? Are they people who have had a family history of farming or it’s like these are just city dwellers, they went out for a vacation to Vermont and they decide, “Oh, this looks really nice. I want to become a farmer.”
Forrest Pritchard It’s a terrific question, but it’s not an easy one to answer. So I think there’s burgeoning interest that’s pretty widespread. I’m sure your listeners will be able to identify themselves through this. As I alluded to earlier, there’s the dreamers of the worthy dream. You think to yourself, “Well, maybe I’m not satisfied with the job I currently have. What could I do that would provide more meaning to my life?” Farming certainly fits that bill. You have young people and make no mistake that farming requires energy, enthusiasm and physicality.
You get these 22 year olds who have just graduated with a BA from whatever college and get to looking around and saying, “Geez, is this what I want to participate in? Maybe I want to do something to get my hands in the soil after 18 years of being under fluorescent lights. Maybe I don’t want to sign up for that anymore.” Then you’ve got folks that maybe inherited land and get intimidated by the thought of $500,000 combines or thousands of acres of monoculture corn and soy beans and say, look, maybe I want to pivot into something where I can be more of a participant in my community.
Maybe I want to be able to get an authentic paycheck for my food instead of what’s dictated by the Chicago Mercantile Board of exchange. Things like that. So I think there’s a whole different bunch of angles that folks can be taken to arrive at a similar destination.
Brett McKay: So you mentioned in the book, you start off talking about just the practicalities and it’s a very, it’s a rude awakening, right? You guys lay out, your coauthor, and you lay out like, man, it’s tough. You’re going to, you might lose money, there’s going to be years that you’re just like, “Man, I don’t know if I can do this.” But then you talk about there’s certain mindsets and skills you have to have going into being a farmer so you can prepare for that.
So what are some of those like the mindsets and… I don’t know, they’re like, I wouldn’t say specific hard skills like how to till and things like that, because you can learn that. But the softer skills that you need in order to make a go at farming.
Forrest Pritchard Yeah. Well we were chatting briefly before we went on air about how this is kind of a sneaky business book and a farming is a business. I think it’s a wonderful primer for an MBA. I think you get a lot of transfer credits by trying to operate a farm for a year and then enter in any MBA program in the country. So first and foremost, we need to think about farming from a profitability margins and all those wonderful didactic terms that we get before our eyes glaze over. But pursuing that passion, we have to think some really practical considerations.
Are we physically fit for this? Are we willing to face seven day a week work? Are we too introverted to promote our products? Are we intellectually curious enough to do the hard work of understanding all the science that goes into successful agricultural production? Last but not least, are we willing to put all those things together and risk emotional and mental burnout? Are we able to pace ourselves and be our own best ally in taking care of ourselves? Something we could all probably improve on.
Brett McKay: No, for sure. When you work with young farmers, what’s the most common erroneous assumption you see them have that makes farming a lot harder than it needs to be when they’re first starting out?
Forrest Pritchard Well, that’s a terrific question. We’ve all probably heard some iteration of do what you love and the money will follow. I think that’s certainly been the case for me, but it works a lot better after 10 years. Once you’ve got all the economic frameworks, the customers and the hard business of failure. The hard business of struggling through failure. So I think it is wise to pursue farming from a passion and a dream standpoint. But to go in, as my co-writer Ellen says, with eyes wide open to this. Because the money will eventually follow, but it does, it just, any business takes so long.
I mean, the average business takes five years of running at a loss. With farming that can just be terrifically debilitating on top of the physicality, the dependence on the weather, the competition of dealing with corn that’s $3 a Bushel, the same price that’s been since 1975 for Pete’s sake. Price of a pizza, which is 5.99 delivered from Dominoes. I can put in my old VHS tapes from 1995 and see the same pizzas from 25, 30 years ago at this point. So there’s just terrific headwinds to success and that’s the most important thing to be aware of. It’s not insurmountable, but one needs to be aware of it.
Brett McKay: Yeah. Just, it’s going to take time.
Forrest Pritchard That’s right.
Brett McKay: Yeah. I think that’s one of the hard things with particularly younger people who are getting into farming for the first time and never really had grandparents or aunts and uncles who run a farm. When I was reading this book and when I’ve read, talked to you before, you said, one thing about farming is that the timescale you have to think on is years, two years, maybe 10 years. Because sometimes it might, that takes that long for a field to get ready or a cow to get ready for slaughter.
We’re so used to today, if you haven’t any experience with it, it’s like, well it’s like the quarter. What can I get done in a quarter or next week? So being able to expand your time frame or how you think about time. I imagine is a shift that it can be really hard to make for a lot of beginning farmers.
Forrest Pritchard Yeah, I’d agree with that wholeheartedly. I don’t want to ignore the fact that we have huge assets that didn’t exist previously too. I mean our ability to brand ourselves, to share our story on social media, Instagram, websites, Twitter and all that stuff is extraordinary. The ability for us to provide transparency and authenticity on one end and then consumer, as I alluded to start the conversation of Walmart is finally got on board with this. The former CEO of, what is it? That home delivery service? Blue Apron, right? He’s now the biggest fan of free range chicken and they’re going to “revolutionize” the prairie and chicken business.
So all these, it’s Silicon Valley on one end and Arkansas from the point of Walmart is getting in into this on the other. That’s a huge corporate asset to a new farmer because that’s just driving consumer awareness. So it’s not all headwinds. There are some remarkable tailwinds as well. Again, as long as we go in here with the knowledge that some things from a biological standpoint such as the restoration of soil just physically it’s seven to 10 years, it’s a mandatory thing. There’s only so much for rush job you can do and rush jobs generally get us into trouble.
Brett McKay: All right, so let’s say someone’s listening and they decide they want to go in on farming. The next decision you have to make is what kind of farming are you going to do? So how do you make that decision? Because you mentioned earlier, because the stereotypical farm that we think of where it’s aunt Bess and uncle Joe or whatever. It was like a dairy farm, there was corn, there was lettuce, there was chickens, multi things. But it seems in the book you said that’s pretty hard to pull off, especially when you’re starting off.
Forrest Pritchard Yeah. Well, I mean, think about it Brett. I mean, how many things can you be an expert at?
Brett McKay: Yeah, not many.
Forrest Pritchard Are you going to be an expert accountant and a plumber and a car mechanic? Probably not. I mean, how many… We live in a time of specialization and I joke, at farmer’s market, people often say, “Well you raise cattle, pigs, sheep and chickens. Do you also have a dairy? Do you have a garden and raise fruits and have horses?” I say, “Of course I do. I’m also a cowboy astronaut and I drive a mechanical Unicorn to work.” You know what I mean? How many ways can we spread ourselves thin? So, knowing that, and I think there’s wisdom in taking a big step back and saying, “Look, can I grow blueberries and goats at the same time?” Maybe.
But to fool ourselves into thinking that there’s not an infinity of information out there on both of those subjects is truly delusional. So what can we do to circumvent that? We do apprenticeships. We go to the source of people who are experts and we politely ask for their knowledge. So we do that by being an intern or an apprentice and there’s no age barrier in this stuff. If you’re 40 years old and you’re saying, I’m not going to be an apprentice on a sustainable vegetable farm, then your ego is much too far in the way to become a farmer. So you need to work on that first.
Then once you’re able to realize that there’s this just a huge ocean of very useful experience out there, then we can use the goodwill of other people to leverage that to our benefit. This is how, this isn’t romantic or new age thinking, this is how we got forward as a civilization for millennia. You had apprentices apprentice to masters, you had apprentices to the apprentices and it’s a succession of knowledge.
As much as I like to jump on YouTube, watch a five minute video and feel like I now know how to grow hops, for example, life just doesn’t work that way. There’s too many variables to it. That’s always going to be a human component where the master used to teach the student.
Brett McKay: So you can sync in with somebody to learn this stuff. You don’t have to start off from scratch. You don’t want to overextend yourself. It’s like any business. I mean, there’s a lot of business and if you’re a small business owner and they’re listening to that, it’s like, well, of course I wouldn’t try to do five different things in my business. That would just lead to failure. The same applies to farms. You have to pick one thing that you’re going to do really well at. But here’s the question, is it going to, say you decide blueberries are your thing, is it always going be blueberries or are you going to have to change some time?
Forrest Pritchard Well nature hates a vacuum as much as the human spirit. So if I was this new farmers starting out I would… and we’ve got a whole chapter devoted to this. It’s called Matching the Land to its Suited Use. So you’ve identified yourself as a farmer, you’ve got the passion, you’ve got the spirit, you’ve got the physicality. Next we need to say, “Hey, I’m in Temecula, California. This is ideally suited for citrus. Probably not suited for growing cattle.” For example. Perhaps, maybe that’s not the best example, but you get my point. It’s aired, it’s dry and it’s a high elevation. I’m in upstate Wisconsin, maybe it’s not best suited for citrus and vice versa.
So we take a big look at this and then we have to say, well, what’s our market? Is the market saturated with blueberries? Is there an opportunity for goat cheese? Is there enough on the opposite end of the spectrum, are federal subsidies so compelling that I should be growing 1,000 acres of wheat this year. So there’s all these various metrics that combine to overlap into a Venn diagram, where you find your sweet spot in the center. So you start with blueberries, for example, build your expertise with that.
Then of course you’re going to expand. If you’re selling blueberries, people are going to want to know, well, where are the raspberries? So you expand into raspberries. If you’re in the raspberries, people were going to say, well, where are the peaches? So maybe you dip your toe into these different areas, but probably you don’t try to start out in the first five years of becoming an expert on brambles and bush fruits and also try to be raising aquaculture where you’re raising a rainbow trout on the side. For example.
Brett McKay: But here’s the thing about specialization that can get you trouble strictly on a farm is that berries only grow a certain time of year, there’s a harvest season and they’re going to sell a certain time of year. How do you figure out what do you do with the rest of your time? Or what do you do if the berry crop just sucks that year? I imagine you don’t want to diversify too much, but there has to be some diversity in order to keep the income coming in so you can stay afloat.
Forrest Pritchard Right. Well you are already thinking like a businessman farmer, so kudos to you. You are a shining example for our listeners. So terrific questions, what do you do with that? Well you, probably the first thing to do is immediately go into a concept of year round availability, which would require what we call value adding, right? So you take a fresh product and you somehow turn it into additional value. You could freeze that product, you could turn it into pies, jams. I’m just spitballing from the blueberry standpoint. What I do as the livestock farmer in a parallel universe is we raised lamb about six months out of the year.
So what I do is I stop, because that’s the optimal growing season for us. Is when pastures flourishing, the lambs are going to grow at the cost of me, of photosynthesis, rainfall and my personal management. It’s going to cost me a lot more to feed those lambs hay in the middle of January at where I am than in the middle of July when nothing’s are flourishing. So we’ll grow way in excess number of lambs that were able to grow and then we will process those lambs, vacuum pack them, freeze them at zero degrees and then we’ll spend that product off throughout the next six months.
So there’s indoor rounds on all this stuff. Your listeners might be thinking, “Well, what do you do with 10,000 acres of corn or soybeans?” Well, that’s our commodity system. It goes into rail cars and gets distributed to confinement livestock systems or it turns into bio Ds or things like that. So these are less perishable goods. But when you’re dealing with perishability from something that’s not going to be turned into diesel fuel or animal feed, then you’ve got a lot more considerations for sure.
Brett McKay: So let’s talk about, so we’ve figured out what we want. So you don’t have to, you’re going to grow whatever’s good for the area. You’re going to take into account the demand for it, see if that… Put on your economics hat and look into that. You also have to think about diversity. Diversifying in a way that you don’t overextend yourself but still allow yourself to have income coming the entire year. There’s ways you can even diversify within the niche you pick.
Let’s talk about the thing you need to have a farm which is land. As we talked about earlier, that’s in short supply now and it’s getting expensive. So how do you start? How do you get the land you need to start a farm when it’s pretty hard to get a hold of?
Forrest Pritchard It’s an enormous question. I think historians will probably look back for the early 21st century and say this is one of the elephants, the big elephants in the room that we were all ignoring. So terrific question. Again, complicated answers. We try to provide a lot of answers to this. I think chapter five is getting your hands on land. We acknowledge this problem first and foremost in so much that land is mostly valued on what kind of house you can build on it, not what kind of roots, berries and chickens you can raise on it. So we’ve shifted historically near the bull’s-eye on what land is for. Land is for subdivisions and strip malls.
No disrespect, people have to live somewhere. I get that. But we also have to eat. So the bull’s-eye has shifted so radically it’s left people who want to buy land in the lurch. So it’s my opinion, and listeners might be saying it’s easy for me to say because I already had my land, but it troubles me that I’m unable to go out and replicate my business. That’s not a sustainable business model to me.
You’re like, yes, I’m profitable from an operating cost standpoint. But from an investment standpoint, I’m still trying to recoup those costs. That bothers me because beware of false profits.
So we have to move the bull’s-eye away from land ownership, which is a very romantic part of our American dream and manifest destiny, our American experience and all these things and get into what we call land acquisition. Or land access is a better word for that. Land access can mean a whole suite of things. All those farmers who have traditionally inherited their land, more commonly than not, I think it’s up to 70% of those landowners, the statistic’s bouncing around in my head, have children and, or grandchildren that are not interested in either becoming farmers or managing that land.
Light bulb, huge opportunity to leverage the land that you need at a long-term lease or some kind of profit sharing arrangement where you never have to take physical ownership. You never have to go to the bank and say, “Hey, would you loan me $2 million so I can capitalize my farm outside of Denver or outside of Chicago?” In a business that’s lucky to return five to 10%, you’re not going to get that loan. It’s not going to happen. So we have to creatively utilize, again, going back to the passion and the dreams of these land owners who want to see their farms remain farms and try to pair that goodwill with our ambitions.
I think it’s a very sensible way to do that. Now, if we’re intent on having to own the land, Ellen and I have come up with about five or six different what we think are pretty clever ways to go about doing so, which would take too much time in this podcast. So I encourage you to go out and read chapter five.
Brett McKay: So yeah, you encourage just leasing, finding someone just to lease the land from to grow your land and look for a long-term lease. You’re looking 10, 20 maybe 50 years.
Forrest Pritchard Yes, certainly to start with at least. That way you’re softening, you’ve got a soft landing if things don’t work right, because typically it’s extraordinary. You can lease or rent land as, pick your terminology, for a fraction, an absolute fraction of what it costs to buy the land, but be able to produce the same goods. So I mean if you’re a factory and you’re able to produce the exact same goods for a nickel or the same goods for 90 cents, I mean what are you going to do? Presumably if everything else is absolutely equal, you’re going to take that advantage.
This is just the… Farm land rents for $70 an acre, or depending on where you are, versus $7,000 an acre. I mean these aren’t numbers I’m pulling out of thin air. You just get on your local Craigslist and look for a pasture rental or crop land rental. It’s somewhere between 50 and $150 an acre across the country, maybe as high as 300. But you’re not going to find land even in the most remote areas of the country that are likely to be less than $3,000 an acre. If you’re anywhere at all near an urban population where you’re likely to get the highest return for your goods, we’re talking tens of thousand dollars per acre.
So yeah, we have to be intelligent business people and maybe compromise what a concept to compromise our dreams or to pull the reins momentarily on our passions to have the economic return to defer that dream to somewhere in the future. It’s a real concept.
Brett McKay: I think this is why that’s one of the most interesting chapters I read where you made the case don’t buy land because you’re never, you’re not going to get your money back basically. I mean for a very long time if you even do. Let’s go back to this idea that well, there’s a downside to farming is if there’s less land, because a lot of it’s been going to development for the suburbs and things like that.
There’s actually an upside to that because now you can have farmland, access to farmland, if you’re leasing, but still be close to a market. You don’t have to drive two or three hours, it might just be 30 minutes.
Forrest Pritchard Right. The distribution, marketing and overhead of getting this food onto RBs, Chick-fil-A and Panera across the country from sea to shining sea, is largely taken care of by the commodity system. So the farmer receives a nominal price, which is determined in Chicago for corn, soybeans, wheat, chicken, hogs, all these things. Then food makes its way through the distribution, the processing and the trucking and the warehousing and into these restaurants. The farmer receives historically 10 cents on the dollar for that. It’s a diminishing thing. But the benefit is you don’t have to worry about your own warehousing and distribution, all those things.
Ellen and I posit that the biggest value in all likelihood in our peer group and we travel around across the country, speak at conferences, meet people and all this stuff, the biggest advantage is to grow on one to two acres of intensive vegetable or fruit production or some micro laying hands or something like that. Or maybe a goat cheese, dairy, something that can sustainably be produced on a couple acres and perhaps even purchase those acres. But again if you cannot do that, then don’t. Then you’ve got your customer base built in. It’s pretty remarkable I think.
Again, going back to those consumers who are already keyed into having that connection with the land, which is now missing, not just a generation but two generations, to borrow your uncle Joe and aunt Bess analogy from earlier. On top of that, social media, you can just acquire 10,000 fans practically overnight. So what an amazing time to be thinking about especially small scale sustainable agriculture.
Brett McKay: Yes. Being in a small scale and being close to the market. I think in Detroit they’re doing that thing where they’re taking neighborhoods that have just been abandoned and they’re turning it into little small farms where they’re growing lettuce, carrots, goats, and it’s right there in Detroit.
Forrest Pritchard Yeah, it’s extraordinary. So one farm I visited, it’s called D Town and [inaudible] was spearheading that a few years ago. She’s one of the main partners there. They took a river rouge park, which is Detroit Central Park. It’s truly, it’s, I don’t want to overstate, I don’t want to insult people from Detroit, but I think anyone would agree with me. It was overgrown and the budget wasn’t there to maintain this place. They had Olympic swimming pool that they put in and it’s just, it’s got tires laying in it at least a couple of years ago.
They negotiated with the city and said, “Look, we’ve got the manpower and the motivation to put a farm in the middle of this park and start teaching kids how to grow asparagus and lettuce and honey bees, but we don’t have any money. What can you do?” They leased it for 10 years for a dollar a year. Seven acres in the middle of Detroit. That’s extraordinary to me. So, let’s be creative and we have to move the bull’s-eye on this idea of land ownership. Because once we pulled back the curtain, we realize that land ownership has never really been a level playing field to begin with, with the land giveaways and the inheritance. So that’s just an incredible story to me.
Brett McKay: Yes. You have to get creative and don’t… Also, move the bull’s-eye like it has to be out in the country somewhere to have a farm. You could be in a suburb literally, and you can have a good, sustainable small farm.
Forrest Pritchard Yeah. Brett, last week I was up in Central Park in New York and I was walking through just enjoying the lilacs and the splendor of Central Park. Two guys come walking past me and they’re talking very volubly and saying, “Oh, the future’s in vertical farming. These abandoned warehouses.” The other guy’s just agreeing. I’m thinking to myself, “My gosh, when you’re walking through Central Park in 2019 and two guys are talking about vertical farming, you know we’ve reached a different level of consciousness in this country.”
Brett McKay: So, you get the land, you’re going to look for something maybe you could lease when you’re first starting out, there’s a little more cushion there in case things go wrong. But besides the land, there’s other stuff you need to start a farm. So you’re going to need capital like any business. So what does that, besides, what are you going to use the money for when you first start your farm? Is it just buying, I mean, I guess it’s just going to depend on what you’re farming, right?
Forrest Pritchard Yeah, of course. Yeah. So there’s going to be, there’s mandatory stuff that you have to have. There has to be some infrastructure. So, just nuts and bolts is going to be some packing shed/workshop, where you going to keep your tools, park your hopefully modest amount of diesel and gas burning equipment and a place to store your products against weather. Ability to pack for whatever orders you have, whether that’s going to be a restaurant business or a CSA, Community Supported Agriculture, farmer’s market or up from there. You have to have these things. What else are you going to need?
You’re going to need water supply. You’re going to need presumably some fencing to either keep varmints out of your pumpkin patch or coyotes out of your flock of lambs. So that’s a safe bet. You’re going to need a reserve fund for unexpected contingencies such as weather catastrophes, rainy days at your markets, times when the restaurant that’s been reliably buying $3,000 every week of your product suddenly changes ownership and says, “We don’t know who you are anymore.” Don’t ask me how I know how that feels. It’s heartbreaking. I’m stabbing myself in the chest right now.
So all those things are just practical considerations that also happened to be mandatory.
Brett McKay: So I mean, I guess, what’s it look like? I mean you’re imagining beginning farmers going to have to take out some debt to get going or is it?
Forrest Pritchard Ideally, again, if we are uniting. The ultimate sweet spot to me is to identify with one of these older farmers, and I’m not, this isn’t like a ride at Disneyland. There are services out there that pair older farmers that want to supply a mentorship. Now nothing in life is easy, especially when you get into human nature. You’ve got to deal with personalities. But so many of these farms exist with barns, power, water supplies, packing sheds, pickup trucks, tractors. These things, these items, if they’re not utilized, gets sold for insultingly less than pennies on the dollar.
I mean, just cue the John Mellencamp songs from 1985. Blood on the scarecrow kind of thing. It’s a tragedy. So if we can have the wisdom to not only find these places that are willing to lend the experience, sorry, the expertise, the experience as well as infrastructure, then our debt requirements can be much lower. We just have to have the, hopefully, the wisdom to deal with the personalities of a potentially crotchety old farmer.
Brett McKay: Right. Potentially crotchety. So my uncle Joe is pretty crotchety.
Forrest Pritchard I tell you, man. I’ll tell you, but it’s pretty valuable if you don’t have to lay out a couple hundred thousand dollars.
Brett McKay: No, for sure. One of the most, I think useful chapters for me, even though I’m not a farmer I thought it was really a good business thing to think about, is that a farmer should focus on his limiting factors instead of trying to maximize their strength. Which is, it goes against to what you typically hear people say. “Oh, you should focus on your strengths, not on your weaknesses.” Why is it important for farmers to think about their limiting factors?
Forrest Pritchard Because it’s really hard to throw money at these problems. See, with so many modern businesses, we hire a consultant. We’ve got a problem, we hire a consultant. The consultant supplies a solution for us. That’s all well and appropriate for a lot of businesses. Hey, I don’t know how to network my cloud, so my app is that maximum functionality.” “Hey, there’s a guy that can fix that for me. I pay him $4,500 and off to the race as I go.” It’s much more difficult for me to say, “Hey, my soil is lacking in organic matter. I need to move my organic matter from 1.5% up to 3%.” Well how do you do that efficiently?
Nature can do that. Nature has done that. It’s called the Great Plains, where the soil used to be presumably where you’re sitting right now. The soil used to be 30 feet deep or something like that. Then we had the dust bowl and it all blew to where I am in northern Virginia. The clouds turned dark in Washington DC and there went all our soil 2000 miles away. So our limiting factors can’t just be solved by throwing money at them. Especially because money is so hard to come by with farming. So we have to be patient by building our experience, growing our markets, developing a relationship with the land where you become like a doctor, for lack of a better analogy.
Where the land is communicating with you, telling you its symptoms, saying my elbow hurts over here and my stomach is grumbly over here. Well, we need some different fertilizer over here and maybe we need different plants planted not in a moist place on the farm, but a drier place and et cetera, et cetera. These things are just gained by hard won experience rather than financial solutions. So whatever our limiting factors are, we just have to be very patient with knowing that’s going to take time.
Brett McKay: Your limiting factors is also going to control your growth, right? If you might have current crop, but if you don’t have a market for it, like a manufacture, you’re not going to grow. Right?
Forrest Pritchard Yeah, that’s right. Yeah. Maybe your limiting factor is, it my, it could be all number of things. It can be a human component from emotionality to physicality to experiential. It can be biological, it can be soil related, it can be weather related, it can be financial related. Name your limiting factor, name the weakness of your farm and that’s what’s going to hold you back. But typically by necessity, that’s the place where you have to address things slowly in order to move everything else forward.
If you have a bar graph, if you’ve got six different bar graphs and one’s human energy, one’s economic resiliency, one’s biological potential, one’s experience, and insert a couple more. If five of those are within 10% of each other, but the sixth one is 50% reduced, it’s going to hold back the growth on the other five.
Brett McKay: Then you also give an example of playing to your strengths can work out for you in the short run, but then bites you in the butt in the long run. The example you gave that stuck out to me was your food truck business. Can we talk a bit about that?
Forrest Pritchard Yeah. Well my food truck business was the most successful business that ever failed. So at this point, I’ve been farming for 22 years straight out of college and I’ve reinvented the wheel so many times. I’m very prepared not to try to do that anymore. But one of the things we tried to do was to take our product and embed a food truck within farmer’s markets and it was a staggering success. Right out the gate we had lines 10 people deep, but it was too much of a success. So I hired, I had a manager and everybody says, “Oh, just hire a better manager.” Well that’s a, no disrespect, that can be very a naive thinking.
There’s only so much a manager can accomplish without good ownership. I was not being a good owner. I was not being the farmer that I needed to be. So suffice to say we had too much success. We’re running out of things. I had personnel issues. I wasn’t able to produce the quality of goods that I wanted to either back at the farm or to put out a great product on a bond in the form of a cheeseburger in DC. We got what’s called half smoke, which is our native street food. I realized that if I couldn’t be the farmer that I needed to be, there was no point in running a farm to table food truck.
I could have all the management in the world. But if I didn’t have the authenticity of the product, then it was only a matter of time before everything unraveled. So I ended up getting this food truck stuck in a tunnel in Georgetown University, because, long story short. We were supposed to take some measurements, the measurements weren’t taken and I’m in the middle of Georgetown during dinner time and the food truck is stuck in this tunnel. I said, “That’s it. That’s it. I cannot be an hour away from the farm driving a food truck and being a farmer at the same time.”
Since it’s one of those classic things and any business person’s going to say, “Well, you just outsourced that.” Well Brett, in my opinion, outsourcing leads to mediocrity. That’s how we get everything everywhere, all the time. Food is 24/7 available, but is good food, is nutritious and wonderful food available 24/7? No. It can’t be by definition. If it’s not good food, I’m not interested in growing it. So there.
Brett McKay: All right. So you got to pick your battles. Yeah, I like it. This is a great example. A success actually being a failure. So, you’ve got your farm going, you’re growing the product, but you got to price it to sell. Pricing things in any business is tricky, but it gets trickier in farming because, I mean, your approach can be your guidance to go with the market rate is, but maybe the market rate, if you sold it there, it would cause you to go bankrupt for various reasons. So how do you price a product when you’re a small farmer?
Forrest Pritchard So we take you through a whole thought diagram or a thought exercise in the book. But to nutshell it real quick, you’re basically dealing with externalities that you can’t control, largely “cheap food”. So despite never growing food, as you alluded to earlier, more than 98% of us don’t do that, we all seem to be experts on what foods should cost. We take deep umbrage very much to the core of our hearts when we think food is expensive. We make all sorts of jokes and snide remarks perhaps without really fully understanding what food should cost.
The axiom that I try and keep in mind and tell folks is if we say, why is organic and sustainable food so expensive, we say, Why is that so expensive?” Well, we never ask, “Why is that other stuff so cheap?” So as farmers, we have to have an understanding of why these corn and soybean based products, aka, corn, soybean fed chickens and pigs, aka, bacon and chicken sandwiches, you find my train of thought here, have been the same price practically for decades at this point. So that’s what we have to deal with from a consumer standpoint. Then from business people, we have to pick the wisdom of people Warren Buffet who says, never get into a business where you couldn’t raise your prices 10% overnight and not lose your customers.
So you have two very opposite ends of the spectrum right there. So it’s our opinion, again, this is way over simplified and we give it a lot more color in the book too. Don’t apologize for your prices. If you apologize for your prices, you’re doing yourself a disservice. You’re dishonoring the hard work that you put into the product to push the high end of the limit of what the market will bear because you are growing a unique product. If you are putting your passion and turning your mineralized soil into a delicious product, whether that be heirloom tomatoes and everyone knows how good a home grown tomato tastes relative to this January tomatoes you get at Costco. Everybody knows that.
Everybody knows that fresh eggs taste better than store bought eggs that have been sitting on the shelf for a month. That translates onto the plates and the taste buds of customers. If you are putting out a quality product, people don’t mind paying for it. It’s when you put out a mediocre product that you can’t charge a high price for it. So that was a lot of information shotgun at you. But if you can figure out the message and all that, then you’re doing okay.
Brett McKay: So, you’ve priced it, how do farmers sell their products? So there’s farmer’s markets, obviously. I think that that’s everyone would think. “Oh, I’ll just go the farmer’s market.” But there’s other places to go to sell your product because farmer’s markets, they don’t happen year-round either.
Forrest Pritchard Yeah. Well let’s not have any confusion for any of your listeners who are our farmers who are thumbing their noses at farmer’s markets. Farmer’s markets happen to be the poster child of a very charismatic face of a strapping young [inaudible] suit, 25 year olds wearing plaid and having perfect smiles. I say that very good naturedly but farmer’s markets comprise way less than 1% of the way our food, I think even the way food is direct marketed is less than 5%. Let’s just, I’ll just throw some numbers at you. So 96% of our food system is commodity based. Corn, soybean, wheat, grain fed cattle, all this stuff.
There’s only 4% that’s being tracked marketed, and only a fraction of that, maybe less than 10% or even 5% is through farmer’s markets. So farmer’s markets is a very infant testily small component way food gets transacted. Now for farmers who aren’t commodity farmers, which again is less than 4%, the vast majority of that is going through wholesale. So it’s going to co-ops and wholesalers where people were making bids much like a stock market, except this is the livestock market, or the fresh vegetable market, or the fresh fruit market.
So then the distributor purchases and aggregates things that goes to a warehouse and then it gets to downtown Oklahoma City on one end or mom and pop stores in Newark, New Jersey on the other end. Then the other places that food gets distributed is to restaurants direct from the farmer community supported agriculture where farmers take subscriptions from individual citizens consumers. The customers buy shares of the farm up front and then they get food spun off throughout the course of the year.
The list goes on and on and on. It’s just about as long as one can be creative to shipping. Of course you can put it in a [inaudible] box and overnight. So yeah. That’s plenty to think about. I think.
Brett McKay: No, this is different ways to do… I don’t just think farmer’s market. There’s other ways you can get your product to the market besides going to a place in a park in downtown Tulsa to sell cabbage.
Forrest Pritchard Yeah. Think about farmer’s markets to take your first date on. That’s a good first date move.
Brett McKay: Not a good farmer’s move. First farmer day move.
Forrest Pritchard Debatable.
Brett McKay: Debatable. All right. Well I mean, so we’ve mentioned throughout this that in farming there’s a lot of external factors that are outside of your control. Whether you get pestilence, animals get sick, die, it can happen at any time and it can just decimate you for that year. So how do you take that in account with your business when you don’t know if it’s going to happen or not that year?
Forrest Pritchard Yes. So we take our cues from nature. Every farmer, irrespective of whether you’re growing 10,000 acres of corn or a quarter acre of Tomatillos in New Mexico you have to take your cues from nature. So nature provides excess of everything. There’s always more seeds on a tree than there are going to turn into seedlings. I just had a sheep, a yoe that gave birth to quintuplets two days ago. Out in nature. If I wasn’t there to assist her, statistically at least two of those lambs would be preyed upon or not be able to get enough milk to survive. So nature provides all of this excess and we as farmers operate under the egotistical illusion of control.
We all have that egotistical illusion despite whatever enterprise we might be pursuing. But farmers have to build abundance into their control mechanism so when bad things happen you either have that extra or you’re able to allow it just to go fallow to cue the birds for everything. There’s a season turn, turn, turn. One great example of this is Lloyd Nichols, who’s up in Marengo, Illinois outside of Chicago. Nichols farm and orchard sells to the Chicago farmer’s markets and he has these migratory flocks of Canadian geese that come through and they just tear through his onions.
So he’s got 100 acres of onions, but he doesn’t plant them all on 100 acres. He spreads them in different patches. So if the geese come down, they can only do so much damage. Then of course he takes precautions to scare the geese away and all this stuff. But you could, there’s only so many places you can be at once and so much technology you can have. Or his farm is so spread out that he might have a very strong storm at the north side of his farm, but the south side of the farm has no weather impact at all.
So he grids his whole farm a checkerboard, even though he’s got redundancies of all his crops to help mitigate that. So that’s one clever way to help solve that.
Brett McKay: That’s another practical aspect of farming that can be hard on folks, is that, man this is a job and occupation where it’s 365 days of the year. It’s Sunday and it’s four inches of snow outside, the cows still need milking or whatever. There’s no weekends. So how do you avoid burnout as a farmer?
Forrest Pritchard Terrific question. I don’t know. I’ll take advice in the comment section of this podcast, please. Well, how do you do that? By being kind to yourself, by realizing that you’re human. Making a good night’s sleep a mandatory part of your schedule. By being very honest with your partner and taking care of your partner so that you’re taking care of. You need support. Whether that’s with a romantic partner or business partner, your family, whoever that is, you need other human contact.
We need to be able to grouse, have be able to blow off steam appropriately. That doesn’t mean yelling at people, but be able to say, “Hey, this thing really frustrated me today and thanks for listening.” That’s very therapeutic. Yeah, but most importantly is to have that intentionality of good habits. My best friend from childhood is a neurologist down in Florida. We went to Duke University and got his MBA and… Not his MBA, his MD, I’m sorry. He sees all these patients and I asked him, a couple of years ago, I said, “Let me ask you a question. You see all these people,” I said, “what’s the number one complaint?” He says, “Headaches and fatigue.”
I said, “That sounds right to me. Now let me ask you this. I don’t know anything about what you’re doing really, but what percentage of folks, if they just stayed hydrated and got a good night’s sleep and did some meaningful exercise every day, would eliminate their problems, their symptoms?” He kind of got a faraway look in his eyes and he goes, “You know, I’d guess about 90% of them.” These folks come in, God bless them, wanting a pill, or an MRI, or CAT scan. Now, let’s not make any mistake. Some of these people have serious medical conditions, but the vast majority of folks are just like farmers.
Just like anybody who would benefit from good night’s sleep, staying hydrated, getting your heart rate up for 30 minutes a day, and having love in your life that you nurture and cherish. So that’s how you do it, Brett. Simple, right?
Brett McKay: Sure. Yeah, simple. Before, let’s say someone’s listening to this and they’re like, “Man, this sounds great. I’m ready to quit the corporate job, exchange my necktie for a… Do farmers were bullet ties? No, I don’t think farmers were bullet ties. A John Deere truck-
Forrest Pritchard They can. We get dressed up sometimes.
Brett McKay: You get dressed up for the hoedown.
Forrest Pritchard That’s right.
Brett McKay: But you know as many farmers stereotypes as I can. Let’s say they want to do that, what’s the first thing that you think they should go do? What would be the first step to make that idea reality?
Forrest Pritchard You mean besides reading Start Your Farm of course?
Brett McKay: Besides reading Start Your Farm. What would be the first thing, actual thing, this was concrete, this is going to put you down the path to get you going to become a farmer.
Forrest Pritchard Yeah. Wonderful question. Get excited. Don’t restrain yourself from enthusiasm. If you’re feeling enthusiasm, if you’re feeling passion, then you’re feeling something right. Farming is an ancient, beautiful component of how we all got here. Whatever your opinions are about whatever you want to raise, whatever part of the country you are, know that this morning you probably ate breakfast, you’re probably going to want to have some lunch and maybe later you’re going to have dinner.
Where does that food come from? Could you be a participant in that? Could you contribute to that? Could you do it better than what you’re getting? That’s a worthy dream. Then beyond that, could you feed your community? Could you do this profitably? Again, these are worthy dreams. Then educate yourself to the nth degree. Watch all the videos, read all the books, then take it to the next step. Go out and identify people that are actually doing it and talk to them. Get the hard lessons. But do all this certainly before you start getting on Zillow and Googling available land near me.
Brett McKay: All right. Forrest. Where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?
Forrest Pritchard Well, real easy for us, pritchard.com. Of course, there’s a little website out there called amazon.com but I suggest you march boldly to your local bookstore in your hometown, which may not exist. So then you drive boldly to the town next to you and go to that local bookstore and patiently order the book so they get full retail value and you’re supporting your downtown. Presumably as well as your values. I say that with no eye rolling.
Brett McKay: Forrest, thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
Forrest Pritchard Brett, pleasure’s mine and congratulations. The Art of Manliness is… What am I trying to say? You’ve done a tremendous job.
Brett McKay: Well, thank you so much. I appreciate that. My guest here was Forrest Pritchard. He’s the author of the book Start Your Farm. It’s available on amazon.com and bookstores everywhere. You can find out more information about his work at his website, forrestpritchard.com. Also, check out our show notes at aom.is/startyourfarm. You can find links to resources. We can delve deeper into this topic.
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