I received this email last week asking for some small farm advice:
First of all – congratulations on raising a large family! I wish more homesteaders would do the same. Now let’s jump into resources.
Small Farm Resources
I usually start by learning from mentors – and many of my favorite mentors are books. My favorite gardening books are listed here on a dedicated page.
I’ve also heard good things about The Resilient Farm and Homestead. I own a copy but have it packed somewhere at the moment and haven’t been able to read it yet, alas. The rest of the books on my list will also help give you ideas, but some are definitely more applicable than others.
You’ll also find some good inspiration from Marjory Wildcraft’s site Grow Your Own Groceries… and my friends at the Mother Earth News website share some good information. Permies.com is also a great rabbit hole… and if you really want to see some amazing projects, check out Skillcult.com.
Locally, be sure to visit the county agricultural extension and pick up all the data and handouts they have available. Ask what local farmers and gardeners are growing. Also check Meetup.com for gardening and permaculture Meetup groups. Every time you see someone with a nice farm or garden, try to stop and meet them. Leave a note on their gate if they’re not home!
Six acres is a lot of space to tend. Grazing animals really help keep pastures under control, though, so that’s good.
If you have wild areas and trees (since you already have some maples, it sounds like you may have more species too), don’t cut anything down or pull anything up until you know what it is. You could have wild nuts and fruits, not to mention trees that host edible mushrooms around their roots – some of which are quite valuable.
There could be valuable native medicinal plants or edible berries you’re not aware of yet. Even after a couple of years on my single acre I was still finding useful plants here and there. Don’t be too hasty to tear anything out!
Also, if you do take down a tree – compost it. All of it. Unless you chop the wood up for your fireplace, that is.
I still regret burning multiple oak trees six years ago when we bought our old homestead. I wanted them GONE RIGHT AWAY; instead, I should have made a pile of the limbs and trunks to feed the soil, edge garden beds and harbor fungi.
Finding Your Focus
Before you jump in to a bunch of projects and burn yourself out, it’s important to figure out what you want to do. Ask questions like:
- Is this going to be a profitable farm or just a hobby?
- Will my children be able to make money off this farm?
- Will I be willing to work like crazy outside?
- Are we really good with animals? All animals?
- Can I keep a large garden fed and tended?
- Am I hoping to feed my family from the farm?
My own farming and homesteading is primarily focused on research, not making money or producing crops for market. I know that a lot of what I try will fail. We raised goats for a while, then decided that wasn’t for us. We tried different breeds of chickens, plus ducks and guinea fowl. We raised meat birds and learned to butcher them, then stopped. One year we tested dent and flint corns in multiple different plots. Another year we spent creating beds of sugar cane and looking for simple ways to make our own sugar. We planted trees in the food forest that were unsuited to the climate, just to see if they’d live.
If I were interested in making money rather than gathering knowledge for this site and for my books, I would go straight to gardening in double-dug beds and growing tried-and-true high value crops.
If I just wanted to feed my family, I’d concentrate on chickens, yams, sweet potatoes, cabbages, pumpkins and some highly nutritious easy-to-grow greens. I wouldn’t bother with fun experiments like trying to grow coffee or grafting nectarines onto wild plums.
Other Small Farm Advice
Tip 1: Plant Edible Trees
When I get a new homestead, the first thing I’m going to do is plant fruit and nut trees. They take the longest to get going but they’re some of the very best investments you can make. You’ll have fruit for decades or even generations. Don’t wait on trees!
Tip 2: Garden Well in a Small Space First
Once you master a smaller garden, it’s easy to make it bigger. Tilling up an acre to start with may just end in frustration. Remember: you need to feed, water and feed everything well. You need to be able to deal with bug infestations and keep the soil in good shape. Learn on a smaller plot, then grow!
Tip 3: Secure Water Supplies
Make sure you have water stored up in multiple ways. City water and a well would be great. A tank fed by the roof is good. So are ponds. A creek is awesome. Just know that without access to water, everything else will fail. Build your gardens and animal areas around water sources first.
Tip 4: Keep the Garden Close
It’s best if you can step right out of the back door into the garden. Bonus points if you have to walk through the garden to get to your car. You’ll see problems this way. Wilting, insects, yellow leaves – issues can be dealt with right away. A garden far away will often fail unless you’re very dedicated.
Grow or Die: The Good Guide to Survival Gardening isn’t a rant on the end of the world or “an argument sort of book”. It’s a how-to manual on feeding yourself even if things get tough. You can use it as a crash-course in gardening, a way to get started in your backyard, or as a book or tried-and-tested ways to feed and tend your plants when everything around you is falling apart. It also covers the excellent man-powered tools we’ve tested on our own homestead.
If you liked Compost Everything: The Good Guide to Extreme Composting, you’ll like this book even more. It’s definitely applicable to a small farm.
Thanks for writing and may God bless your new venture!