By Marty Travis
This is an excerpt from Marty’s book My Farmer, My Customer published by Acres U.S.A.
Reprinted with permission from the publisher.
I can hear you now: “What is this? I thought we were going to have to give up a pile of stuff in order to make this work. I figured the chapter title was going to be ‘Getting By on Less!’ But you say ‘more?’”
Yep, I do. Give me a few minutes here to explain.
Let’s start by having you make a list of all the things you are thankful for that didn’t cost you any money. And actually, try to do that at the beginning of each new year. I find it is quite amazing to think about all the things that we are thankful or grateful for. I believe it also transfers into the rest of our relationships. Just this past Thanksgiving season, I sent out the regular Friday email to our chef community expressing our gratitude for all their support and encouragement this past season. The response we had back from so many of our chef friends was a bit overwhelming. We even heard from chefs who have since moved away and are no longer able to purchase from us, all expressing gratitude for what they had experienced in their time with us and sharing stories of thankfulness in their situations where they are today. Don’t underestimate the power of gratitude!
Feed Your Family First
If all goes well, you will be producing a lot of food. You must feed yourself and your family first! I mean that emphatically! I know of a number of farmers who sell everything they produce and then go to the grocery store and buy their family’s vegetables or meat there. What? You are growing some of the absolute finest products and you aren’t eating them or feeding them to your family? We have this huge opportunity to have the best. Please don’t waste that. Freeze, can, dehydrate, eat everything that you can. Knock your food budget down as low as you can. Grow things that your family is excited about eating. Make time to preserve all you can. And, really, feed yourselves first!
Find Free Resources
Next, as you work on this dream farm of yours, you must learn to acquire new resources. I read a great article a number of years ago that I still think about. It talked about beginning a farm with no money: https://smallfarmersjournal.com/how-to-get-into-farming-withno-money/. The basic notion is to begin with a mentor and to learn as much as you can from that mentor. YouTube is great, but having someone you can work alongside is invaluable. There are a lot of other important concepts, so take a look!
Save Seeds & Preserve Legacies
Here are a few other things to help you get by. Save seed! We plant nearly 100 percent heirloom varieties of grain and vegetables. We save our own seed from our corn, wheat, rye, sorghum, potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, beans, peas, and more. The crops have acclimated to our farm and our climate. We grow one particular variety of pepper from Mexico. When we planted them the first year, barely any matured before the first frost. Now, several years later, they are acclimated, and we now are getting ripe peppers before the average first frost. As time has gone by, yields have increased, as well as the quality of the crop. Saving that seed frees us from having to purchase seed each year. Also, some of those crops are really hard to find seed for. We were able to get a start of specific varieties from kind people all over the world, but we’ve had to save our own in order to continue to grow those same varieties. We have also passed some of those seeds on to others, either in trade or in donation. In the resource section I list several good books on seed saving as well as sources to get you started.
Bartering Still Works
Barter and trade! It is a bit amazing at times to stop and look at the things we acquire. We have traded goods for labor or other goods a number of times with other farmers. Develop community! Develop relationships! One amazing resource that Will has discovered is the Allis Chalmers forum (you know, like the tractors), which we like to think of as an online coffee shop we can visit to share ideas and seek knowledge from online mentors. If Will ever has a question about most anything he can shoot it out to the folks on the forum and have an answer or ten back in a matter of a few minutes. If he is in the middle of taking a tractor apart and replacing a part and doesn’t quite know how it goes, they have an answer and can walk him through it. If he needed a used part, somebody has it for him. He posted a question about old barns the other day, and wow—that got everyone reminiscing and sharing their thoughts and pictures of barns that mean a lot to them. A community! He has made that forum of folks a great resource.
Build a Lifestyle 2.0
I also believe we need to rethink the lifestyle that we wish to have. I know there are those that wish for a lot of material things and end up having to adjust their lifestyle to match their income. I challenge you to adjust your income to match your lifestyle! Being a farmer, you are essentially self-employed and responsible for creating income. Set goals. I think it is okay to say, “I need to create this much income to get by.” But then hold your lifestyle to that level. If you end up exceeding that goal, don’t go adjusting the lifestyle right away. Sock that extra away. Give yourself cushions! Remember, we are at the whim of Mother Nature, and some years it can get rough! When you get a good yield, put some extra back for later. As you grow and build your farm and its production, invest in the farm’s future, in your future! But do it wisely, with intention and purpose. You want to get to the place of less stress and worry. You want to get to the realization that the abundance is happening.
Be a Business Person
I remember hearing Joel Salatin give a talk several years ago. He said a lot of things that evening, but one thing I remember was that we as farmers need to dress and act like the business people that we are. There is no need to go to town looking like you just crawled out from changing the oil on the tractor. I know sometimes you have to go for a part and it just isn’t convenient to change clothes in order to run and get an oil filter. I am guilty of this as much as anyone, but there is validity in what Joel was saying. If we are going to be successful, we need to look successful. We need to speak successful words. No negative thoughts or words. Represent your farm as an important business in the community, because it is! People want to see and relate and spend time with successful folks. People want to support success. If we portray that image, we not only have that reflected back on us; it also reflects on other small farmers. We as a tribe need to support each other and re-enforce the vision of sustainable, successful, small-scale family farms.
Tell Your Story
So, when you develop your story or your narrative, keep all of this in mind. Not that you should use hyperbole, but keep it positive, moving forward. Keep it real. Allow people to see your dream. Listen to others—sometimes they are looking for a way to live vicariously through you. There are lots of folks who wish they could be in your shoes. They are the romantics. Heck, that may be you right now, wishing and hoping you had a farm and were living the dream. Just remember then, when you do get there, that there will be a good number of folks coming behind you, watching and wishing. Be real, be positive, and be encouraging. Be truthful and be willing to share your experience. By doing so, you are increasing your sphere of influence and also the number of folks who are looking to farm with purpose! This is a very good thing!
To keep learning about how to avoid the strategic pitfalls many farmers face today, how to make a profit, and how to position yourself for low-risk, high-yield seasons and more, find My Farmer My Customer by Marty Travis at the Acres U.S.A. Bookstore.
About the Author
Marty Travis is partner at Spence Farm. One step onto the Spence Farm in Illinois, co-owned and operated by Marty Travis and his son, Will, and the story begins to unfold. A former furniture maker who inherited the old family farm decided to return to farming, but saw the opportunity for true sustainability was a long away from corn, soybeans and convention. Instead, he turned to the city of Chicago and its restaurant community. As it so happened, they were looking for farmers who would give them unique food and vegetables, and work with them to build their seasonal menus. It was, simply put, a match made in foodie heaven. A thriving, sustainable business model grew from the ground up, from the hard work Marty Travis and his family put into the soil, the livestock, and the surrounding acreage, into the community of buyers he fostered with kindness, amazing products, and dedicated work. Today, the model has shifted again to encompass individual families in the wake of the COVID crisis. Caring and compassion along with a helping of gratitude is what leads a cooperative group of farmers lead by the Travis family. Currently serving dozens of restaurants and over 1000 families, this network of farmers is leading the way to a change in the landscape around food. (Fairbury, IL)
Marty Travis is a frequent speaker at the annual Acres U.S.A. Eco-Ag Conference & Trade Show event. Visit EcoAg.AcresUSA.com to learn more!