much land? Ultimately, about six by three, according
to Leo Tolstoy and the Devil. The photo to the right is of
Here are answers to a few of the e-letters we
received from readers. We’ll feature more
in upcoming columns.
Feel free to write
us now with your questions and your stories.
Balancing Family With Farming
“I dream of becoming
an organic farmer, but am daunted by the challenges.
How can I afford to quit my job, buy even a small
amount of land with a home, and market enough
to pay the mortgage and provide for my family?
I would most appreciate concrete strategies that
would help me accomplish this.
I read about many farmers
retiring with few young farmers willing to take
over and learn from them.
I see many ads for
low-paying, seasonal, temporary internships designed
for college students or single people. I am 35
years old, married with three daughters under
What I need is some
full time, long term apprenticeship opportunities
which would help me learn to farm organically,
while providing for my young family.
Would some of those
retiring farmers consider taking me under their
wing and eventually transfer the farm to me in
a way that would financially benefit us both?”
You have the right idea,
but PLEASE don’t quit your job and plunge
right into farming!
And, PLEASE read all of
our Beginning Farmer columns (Nuts & Bolts
& Dreams), especially son Don’s pieces
and Mel’s cut flower columns.
A dear friend of ours recently
did just what you’re talking about. In two
years, farming a few acres of rented ground, he
lost nearly all of his life’s savings of
Before you make the plunge,
get all of the production -- and marketing
-- experience and information you can. Eliminate
or at least minimize your debt. Save as much money
as possible. Internships or apprenticeships can
help you earn while you learn. Many people, whether
beginning farmers or those who have been at it
for decades, have a spouse with an off-farm job
to provide a regular paycheck and health insurance.
It’s a jungle out
That’s why we’ll
be writing a whole lot more about how we and others
got started in farming -- safely. The idea is
to make your new farm dreams come true, not turn
them into nightmares. It takes a lot of hard work
and even harder planning, patience and preparation,
scrimping and saving, plus often burning the candle
at both ends, especially at first. If you’re
not up to that task then the new agriculture is
definitely not for you.
By the way, there ARE tons
of good resources out there for finding apprenticeships.
We’ll most likely do a whole column on just
that, sprinkled with comments from folks who have
had experiences (both good and otherwise) with
apprenticeships. But in any case, we’ll
pass along a few good resources in our next column.
What’s Up With Whatley?
“I read Booker T. Whatley's book edited
by George DeVault (“How To Make $100,000
Farming 25 Acres”) in the 1990s. Very inspiring.
My grandparents raised registered Herefords in
South Dakota, so I had enough exposure to farm
life to see there was a lot going on in that book
that would work.
Is Mr. Whatley still farming? What was your
uptake on his ideas?
At age 49, I can begin to envision those
things for myself. Your web site is great. You
wanted feedback on content. I'd like to see some
practical applications of ideas, "farm biographies,”
how people started and made it work.
Thanks for your web site. I'll be here often.
--Robert R Scoles, Sr.
Dr. Whatley is 87 years
old now. He is enjoying retirement with his wife
Lottie at their home in Montgomery, AL.
Whatley was retired from
Tuskegee Institute when his classic book was first
published in 1987. It sold more than 150,000 copies.
Dr. Whatley paid for the last print run of 2,000
copies in 1996 to meet residual demand, then said,
For our money, Whatley’s
ideas on diversification, year-round cash flow
and direct marketing of high-value crops are still
the most sensible, practical -- and profitable
-- advice to come from a university scientist
since George Washington Carver.
Hey, we might even try
to arrange to reprint portions of Dr. Whatley’s
book here on the web site, if there’s enough
interest. Cast your vote by clicking
here and telling us you’re interested
in the Whatley reprints.
Glad to hear you’ll
be coming back to NewFarm.org often, because there’s
a slew of “farm biographies” that
you request on the way. Stay tuned!
March 5, 2003: “How much land do you
need to do something ike this?” I asked Scott Nearing
about 30 years ago. He and Helen were busy building with stone.
Time was short.
“What’s your crop?” Scott replied.
Crop? What crop?
“Gee, I dunno. What crop do you grow?”
And so, when we finally bought our land in 1984, we quickly
noted that our land was on the sour side and “lay wet”
in spots, as the old timers say. Perfect blueberry ground.
The first Father’s Day we owned the place, Melanie
and the kids bought me six highbush blueberry plants. We still
have those bushes. We have added hundreds more over the years.
With drip irrigation and minimal care, they are thriving --
and adding considerably to our farm’s bottom line. Since
they began bearing, blueberries have been one of our most
popular crops, which is why we will be adding even more bushes
this year, along with serious bird netting. (More about all
of that in other columns).
Fresh market vegetables, herbs and cut flowers -- all certified
organic -- are our other main crops. At most, we cultivate
five of our 19.2 acres. And we have our hands full! We don’t
really have time, the money or the energy to properly take
care of the rest.
Scott was right. How much land depends on what you intend
to do with it. Over the years, I’ve seen people gross
more than $250,000 a year on a half-acre city lot in downtown
Berkeley, CA, and others go broke on hundreds or even thousands
of acres of prime farmland in the heart of the Corn Belt.
It’s not only what you grow, it’s also:
- Where you grow it.
- How you grow it.
- Where you sell it.
- How you sell it.
Then there is how much you pay for land or, more importantly,
how much you owe on land.
“How Much Debt Can A Body Stand?” was the headline
of a Gene Logsdon column in The New Farm magazine in the early
1980s. Good question, and one you definitely need to ask yourself,
again and again. Just how deep are your pockets? How much
risk can you, your spouse and your family stomach? You may
well bet the farm on your prospects as a farmer. But are you
willing to bet your children’s education? How about
your retirement? If you’re raising corn and beans, hogs
and beef and you’re a million or two in the hole, it
doesn’t matter how much land you have. These and many
other pieces all work together. Fudge just one factor in the
equation and the bottom line changes drastically, often for
So, how much land do you need to earn, say, $40,000 a year?
The American Farmland Trust asked that question in 1987 in
a report titled “Small Is Bountiful.” Here are
the answers that AFT found in six different states:
30-acre vineyard yielding seven tons of grapes per acre.
- Texas: 65-head
beef operation on 650 acres.
- Iowa: 175
acres producing 150-bushel corn and 30-bushel soybeans.
- New Jersey:
20-acre truck farm producing 9,000 pounds of broccoli and
3,200 pounds of blueberries per acre.
- North Carolina:
13-acre farm producing one ton of tobacco per acre.
200-acre dairy with 25 cows, each producing 13,000 pounds
of milk a year.
How much land? Probably even more today, since production
costs have soared and prices paid to farmers have generally
plunged in the last 15 years.
The question goes back probably 10,000 years to the earliest
beginnings of agriculture. Ancient Greeks and Romans wrestled
with it. We’ll focus on more recent times in just North
“Our farms ... though small, are generally too large
for our capitals; that is, we work badly too much ground,
instead of cultivating well a little,” Nicholas Biddle
said in 1822 in his address to the annual dinner of the Philadelphia
Society for Promoting Agriculture (www.pspaonline.com).
How much land?
Too often over the years, the answer has been, “Too
much to take care of and not enough to make any money on.”
One of the most dangerous myths of modern agriculture is
that you must have a lot of land. Nothing could be further
from the truth, according to Peter Henderson, the great-grandfather
of truck farming in America.
In the mid-1800s, Henderson supplied New York City with fresh
vegetables from his farm in what is now downtown Jersey City,
NJ. He had this to say when a man signed a 10-year lease on
20 acres next door for a song and proudly announced that he
was going into the vegetable business:
“The place was cheap enough, only I was afraid he had
got too much land, if he attempted the working of it all,”
Henderson wrote in his classic book “Gardening For Profit”
“The result was as I expected; he began operations
in March, his little capital ($1,000) was almost swallowed
up in the first two months, and the few crops he had put in
were so inferior, that they were hardly worth sending to market.
Without money to pay for help, his place got enveloped in
weeds, and by September of the same year, he abandoned the
“Had the same amount of capital and the same energy
been expended on three or four acres, there is hardly a doubt
that success would have followed. Those who wish to live by
gardening, cannot be too often told the danger of spreading
over too large an area, more particularly in starting. With
a small capital, two or three acres may be profitably worked;
while if 10 or 12 were attempted with the same amount, it
would most likely result in failure.”
Bargain-priced land in the boondocks is no bargain, Henderson
added. “It is always better to pay rent or interest
of $50 or even $100 per acre on land one or two miles from
market, than to take the same quality of land, six or seven
miles distant, for nothing.”
How much land?
That very question furrowed the brow of Abe Lincoln.
“The ambition for broad acres leads to poor farming,
even with men of energy. I scarcely ever knew a mammoth farm
to sustain itself; much less to return a profit upon the outlay.
I have more than once known a man to spend a respectable fortune
upon one; fail and leave it; and have some man of modest aims,
get a small fraction of the ground, and make a good living
upon it. Mammoth farms are like tools or weapons, which are
too heavy to be handled. Ere long they are thrown aside at
a great loss,” Lincoln told the Wisconsin State Agricultural
Society in 1859.
“The prudent penniless beginner in the world, labors
for wages awhile, saves a surplus with which to buy tools
or land, for himself; then labors on his own account another
while, and at length hires another new beginner to help him.
This, say its advocates, is free labor -- the just and generous,
and prosperous system, which opens the way for all -- gives
hope to all, and energy and progress, and improvement of condition
One of the more popular -- and practical -- farming books
on the American market in 1875 was Edmund Morris’ “Ten
Acres Enough.” Yet, a few years later, Morris followed
it with a book called “Five Acres Too Much.”
In 1935, M.G. Kains gave us “Five Acres and Independence.”
The theme was the same: Grow a diversity of high-value, high
quality crops and sell them directly to consumers at retail
prices and you don’t have to make yourself crazy by
trying to farm three counties.
Naturally, we all want to have lots of land, if for no other
reason than to enjoy ample elbow room. That’s simply
human nature. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that,
I believe, just as long as we keep in mind what Leo Tolstoy
wrote in 1886 in a short story called “How Much Land
Does A Man Need?”
“If I had plenty of land, I shouldn’t fear the
Devil himself!” said Pahom, a perpetually disgruntled
peasant. The Devil was listening and quickly devised a scheme
that answered the question, once and for all:
“Six feet from his head to his heels was all he needed.”
advice on buying and renting land, and even farming it for
The photo of Tolstoy’s
grave was taken by George in August of 1991, a
few days before the coup against Gorbachev. Here’s
what he had to say about the trip:
“We’d gone to Tula to interview the
director of the Soviet Union’s leading state
farm. Only he wasn’t there. He’d suddenly
been recalled to Moscow. We didn’t know
he was one of eight hardliners trying to take
over the government.
So, we dined like kings on borscht and liver
and onions in his executive dining room, then
watched a fistfight break out between men and
women over a pan of fresh sausage in the farm’s
grocery. 50 years ago that month, the woods and
fields around us had been filled with Nazi tanks
Visiting Tolstoy’s nearby estate later
that afternoon was the perfect ending to a long,