A New Direction

In Apprenticing & Partnering, My Farming Experiences by James1 Comment

This is my second post in the past eight months.  I have just finished an eight-month apprenticeship  on a pastured meat farm. A lot happened, but I can’t recap everything so I’ll try to condense it into a digestible amount.  The past eight months have been a major life changer. Going into the apprenticeship there were many unknowns and lots of opportunity. I was charged up and expecting the best. It didn’t turn out the way I had hoped going into it, but it turned out to be exactly what I needed, and that is always “the best.”

Hopes & Expectations 

For the three prior years approaching the apprenticeship I had been immersed in the world of pastured meat farming – primarily through books. I didn’t know anything about farming but I soon discovered I was going to be a pastured meat farmer – at least in my mind. I read all of Joel Salatin’s books and wrote book reviews  for each one. I read and reviewed many other farmer-authors who are authorities on the subject and even did a five-week internship  with a holistic planned grazing educator in Australia. I was ready for this opportunity, to say the least. When we arrived at the ranch my wife Anna and I were finally doing it, we were living the farming lifestyle that we’d been reading and talking about for the past three years, and it felt right. The ranch was in a growing phase when we arrived, they were raising chicken, pork, beef, eggs and were planning on building an on-farm store, which I later helped lay the foundation and septic tank for. The ranch was and still is one of the most well known pastured meat farms in East Texas. Matt, the owner, has a vision for the ranch being a one stop shopping place where you can get everything from meat and milk to vegetables and soap – all grown and processed on the farm. Only a few months into the apprenticeship we were offered the opportunity to start our own goat milk dairy under the ranch’s name, and we’d also be able to produce vegetables as well. Just like that, we had opportunity thrown in our laps to stay on long term and make a living salary. Life was looking good for a couple of wannabe farmers like us.

Mindset & Values 

Obviously, we did not run with the opportunity presented to us, although at first we did, and put a lot of research into it and thought on it for a very long time before deciding we wanted to move in a different direction.  As the days went on something changed in my mindset. I was getting tired, physically and mentally, and I stopped enjoying the work, and the more I thought of a future at the ranch the more I realized I didn’t want to stay.   My mindset was in a negative place, and I needed to figure out why and then do something about it. I can’t recall the process exactly but I do remember at one point asking myself how I would feel if I was doing the work I was doing, but doing it with full autonomy – working for myself, rather than somebody else.  I knew right away that my primary problem was that I wanted to be independent. Even if we stayed at the ranch and had our own enterprises we would not be independent, we would not have full autonomy or even equal leverage on making big decisions. I realized that although farming was a value I had it was lower than my value of working independently and making decisions in an entrepreneurial capacity. There were other variables that influenced my decision, but “not being an employee” was the biggest driver – it was one the major reasons I was pursuing farming to begin with. Now this is where mindset comes into play. There were two ways for me to look at this realization.  One way, a negative momentum killing way, would be to view this realization as a failure – a failure to make it work at the ranch and take advantage of the opportunity. Another way to view it, a growth mindset way, would be to recognize that I would have wasted a lot of time and possibly money before I was able to differentiate where my values lied hierarchically and learning what I did through the experience propelled me to the next level of where I needed to be – and that’s how I view it.  If you study or read about anyone who has had any success in life they all tend to lean in the growth mindset camp and do not interpret unexpected realizations or even outright failures as negative experiences. And when you take a second to just think about it, it makes sense from a practical point of view. The key is creating the habit of growth mindset and being able to get yourself to that place when things start going in a direction you did not anticipate. Some people struggle with this more than others, but there are techniques and habits everyone can adapt to achieve a consistent positive mindset. Just do a search for “mindset” and you’ll find plenty of articles and books on the topic.

A Few Tips for Apprentices 

When you take on an apprenticeship at a farm there are some important things to consider. Coming away from this experience I’d like to give some tips to any would-be apprentices/interns considering taking it on. First off I highly recommend doing it. There is no experience like hands on experience. It’s during that time when you find out what you like and don’t like, and it enables you to better choose the type of farming lifestyle you should be pursuing. Before you make an agreement with the farmer research their operation thoroughly. Scour their web page, Facebook page, Instagram and anything else you can find.  When you’re discussing your working days and hours make sure you get one full day off a week.  I had a half day every Tuesday and Sunday, and most Saturdays were not full working days. However, I did take a few full “vacation” days off and just after having one full day off I felt physically and mentally recharged. In my opinion, this works out better for both parties because the farmer has a more engaged less burnt out worker and the apprentice gets some time to reboot. It’s a win-win that even working a few half days will not provide in my experience. Humans are driven by incentive and the apprentice has an entirely different set of incentives that is motivating him compared to the farmer. If you can find a farmer who understands this it will pay off for you both during your apprenticeship.  Find a farmer who will give you structured lesson time once a week, or at least every two weeks.  This is where you both sit down and he teaches you something in a classroom like setting. The topic could be about electric fencing, marketing, bookkeeping, or anything useful. If you’re just doing labor and not getting some sit-down instruction you’re going to start to feel like you’re just cheap labor as once you do enough repetitions of the physical work in the field there’s a point where you stop learning new things. Farmers are very busy people, and depending on who you’re working with you might have to regularly remind them of agreements you made before you started the apprenticeship. If they don’t stick to the agreement don’t feel obligated to stay on as an apprentice. Don’t agree to a one-year apprenticeship until you’ve worked with the farmer for at least four months first. Even if you’ve had experience farming there are too many variables to consider to commit to a full year. If both you and the farmer you’re working with are still both energized and looking forward to having a future together you will know after four months.  I think that’s why most farming internships offer an initial four-month internship and then offer a one-year apprenticeship if both parties are still looking to move in the same direction. I would give the same advice for farmers looking for long term partnerships. If the apprentice isn’t totally invested after four months then it’s not in the farmer’s best interest to keep them on.  These are just a few things that I learned from my experience, that I hadn’t read about prior to my apprenticeship. Everyone is different, but the relationship between intern/apprentice and farmer is a voluntary two-way street – if both parties aren’t happy and on the same page then it’s not going to be as good as it could be for either one.

A New Direction

My wife and I recently left East Texas and the ranch, and headed north to Rocky Mountain country. We’re currently in Denver where we have family. We like the environment here more – not has hot and humid and no fire ants. Realizing that my primary value is being a business owner rather than pastured meat farmer, I’m still going to pursue farming but within a different context – at least initially, I’d like to raise some pastured pork for market at some point if I have the land, and would like to raise pastured chickens and pork for personal consumption. Along my journey I discovered J.M. Fortier’s book “The Market Gardener” and quickly after I found Curtis Stone and his book “The Urban Farmer.” Both of these farmers produce vegetables on very small plots of land – often referred to as “Micro-Farming” or “Spin-Farming.” Fortier is growing on 1.5 acres and Stone is doing Urban farming so he is growing in various yards that have been converted to gardens throughout the city on a total of 1/4 to 1/2 acres. They both make a very good living with their intensive systems, and when you consider the cost of land and infrastructure, they are farming in such a way that anyone could jump into it as an independent producer with very little capital investment. I’ll try to write book reviews for both of their books in the coming months as they have inspired me to change my farming direction in a major way.  Curtis Stone also offers a comprehensive online course which walks you through every aspect of his model covering both the production and business sides of his operation. I’m currently in the process of taking Curtis Stone’s online course and searching for a land base to start operations.  Thanks for reading and I plan to keep the blog going with more regular posts about our new adventure into micro-farming.

Comments

  1. Addye Thole

    Enjoyed your blog article!!! I found it to be a very forthcoming, honest and a helpful read for me and any future farmer really. May each endeavor that you and Anna encounter/choose continue to guide and provide for you a rewarding sense of self worth, accomplishment, knowledge and a blessed/productive life!! 🙂

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