Let me explain: I started down this road winter of 2004 when I began learning about the big picture. I was 19 at the time and newly on my own in life. I learned about peak oil, climate change, and the unsustainablility of the global economic situation. It came as quite a shock since I believed the future was more like Back to the Future, not the Great Depression on steroids. I have done a lot of research into these issues and have yet to find a good reason to believe I was mistaken. So I continue on.
Shortly before I had this revelation my dad died and I inherited the family property. 35 acres about an hours drive from Seattle. Its a decent amount of property for this area with timber and good soil. I was in college at the time. I changed my educational focus and took basically every hands on agriculture class the school offered. That's where I learned about Permaculture, though the bulk of my education was focused on running an organic veggie enterprise. I graduated summer of 2008 and the next day got to work.
I attempted starting a veggie operation several times and in several different ways without having any success financially. The best I ever did was a u-pick tomato enterprise from a variety I bred for the job. Demand was high, but the price the market supports is no where close to commensurate to the time/effort it requires. Basically $1/hour. That is not a typo.
I found success early on by boarding horses and renting out rooms. I still board horses today using a loose Salatin style of grazing management, but renting rooms went by the wayside. Too many tenant issues. From there I expanded the enterprise to include pasture finished beef. I still do beef, though it will never be the mainstay. I figure the most I will ever earn from it would be $10k/year. Thats net if I only raise beef, no horses or others. I want to raise a family someday and I don't know any women who are interested in being farm poor. So that's not good enough.
I did some sleuthing and realized that pigs were likely to be my best bet financially. I bought a batch of weaners winter of 2012. I found them easy to keep and fun, though they taught me pretty quickly the importance of good fences. As they grew I sold them and made a good profit doing so. I sold all but my best performing gilt and bred her.
She did great! She gave me a large litter of healthy babies. I sold all but two gilts out of that litter and made good money. That's when I realized my future was in pigs. It may have also been the beginning of the end for me as an aspiring farmer.
I started buying more pigs at that point. I bought some weaned gilts from a friend. They died from wasting disease. I bought a boar from that same friend. He ended up wasting away also, but not before impregnating my sow. The two gilts were too small at this point. She went into labor a week early with this batch. A couple were stillborn. I intervened and pulled out a few more dead piglets. No vet was available to help. After much tribulation I realized there was nothing more I could do for her. I let nature take its course and in the morning I found her with 11 struggling piglets. All but three died. I sold the remainder and the next fall filled my freezer with cull sow.
I took the punch and figured it can't always be this bad. Armed with the knowledge that I can make pigs profitable and a can do attitude I attempted to expand the pig enterprise again this fall. I bought five more weaner gilts from different sows to increase the genetic diversity of the herd. I know that good lines are key to success here. All but one of those pigs died mostly from wasting disease. The one that lived I have high hopes for. She is resiliant, friendly and growing well.
I also rented a boar this fall to breed my previous two gilts. The first one bred quickly and gave birth to 12 all healthy without need for help. Four of these pigs died. Three from bad advice I received for how to castrate. (I had a way that worked fine, but with a desire to improve my technique I failed) and one from shock after being attacked by the second sow. The second one took after the 4th attempt. She went into labor Saturday morning and delivered two piglets that died shortly thereafter. I waited with her to see if more would come. After 90 minutes of no new babies I attempted to intervene, but her vagina was too tight for me to get my hand in to. The vet was, as usual, unavailable. I attempted intervening several times yesterday with no success. Today she seems to be coming out of labor, but still very fat and full of milk. I expect to be culling her within the week.
Which brings me to the point of this longwinded essay/plea for help. I have experienced so much failure here. I'm becoming disheartened and questioning the viability of the whole farming thing. Obviously it works for some people, but as I stated before, I want to be able to support a family. I have sacrificed everything I can for this. I have a meager social life, I ride a bicycle to save precious resources. I can go on living this way until my knees and hips fail, but with no one to pass the farm on to I may as well develop it before the next guy does. Then I think about the big picture issues I alluded to earlier and think selling would be dumb. I've looked into other jobs in this area and my skill set doesn't apply. They are city jobs. So I'm writing this to any who will read and respond. I need some serious farm/pig/life wisdom desperately. Please help.
Pig advice: Ditch the breeding program and just raise and sell purchased weaners. You made good money doing that in the first place, after all.
Farm advice: Diversify. Don't look for the "one thing" that'll be your ticket. Beef is working, great. Add on some poultry, which ought not take any additional farm resources. Keep boarding horses, if they are equally or more profitable per acre than the beef cattle. If not, ditch them. You had high demand for U-pick tomatoes. If you could only make $1.00/hr., then I'd hazard a guess that you're either doing it way too time-intensively, or you didn't stick with it long enough to reasonably amortize out start-up labor and costs.
Life advice: You might not know anyone now who wants to be a "farm poor" wife, but they exist. I've got one. Obviously there are too many variables, and too much unknown, for me to tell you how you can raise a family on your place, but you would hardly be the first to do it with a small income. Heck, maybe you can meet a woman who has a nice steady job that would easily support her and children but who wants to move to a farm? As far as potentially having no one to pass the farm on to eventually, biological heirs aren't the only option--but I'm sure you knew that. Adoption is one method, and plenty of aged, childless farmers simply get connected with a young upstart farmer to take over their own place. Certainly beats "developing" the land.
Wes gave you some great advice there. Stick with what works. Only expand into a new enterprise when you have enough money stashed away that you can afford to take a few risks. We seldom make big gains without taking some risks, but you need to ensure your stability before you go out on a limb. Go back to your weaner pigs--on 35 acres, you've got a nice advantage over smaller-scale farmers and you can get some good profit out of that land.
Diversify: also a fantastic bit of advice. I use it to great effect in my business (which is writing books--permaculture is just my passionate hobby.) You never can tell when your comfortable market will experience disruption or otherwise take a dive. Those who are most stable are those who have their eggs in more than one basket. Which seems to go against the advice to stick with weaner pigs, but you expand and diversify a little at a time, not all at once, and you build your "portfolio" (of whatever makes you money--stocks, books/publishers, crops and animals) one piece at a time.
I'd look for ways to diversify that will allow you to utilize all your existing infrastructure. Turkeys pasture well, need minimal infrastructure (roosts instead of coops), and can run on a pasture after your pigs have gone through. They'll eat the insects attracted to pig poop and will graze on any grass the pigs didn't root up. Heritage turkey is a hot item in the Seattle area during the holidays. I paid over $100 for my two Thanksgiving turkeys! Worth every penny, too--I'm still eating off of them in the form of all the soup I made and froze from the left-overs. Delicious.
As for finding a partner, don't sweat that. Believe me, there are PLENTY of women who love the idea of being farmers. I've been one of those women my whole life. If you will only accept a Kardashian who's used to a posh lifestyle and having every luxury she could ever want, then no, she won't be into dating a farm boy. But if you are doing what you love, you'll soon attract the type of person who loves doing that, too, and sparks will fly. Trust me.
And always remember: failure is a part of success. We build our experience on failures; we learn how to do better from our failures. Nobody who's successful at anything ever got there without at least a few sad trombones playing in the background...womp-womp-wooommmmmp. The old adage goes, "It takes ten years to become an overnight success." I don't think ten years is necessarily accurate, but it definitely takes at least a few, and behind any big success is a whole mountain of fails that got them to where they are now. It's okay to fail. You're gathering valuable data by failing. You're learning from your experience.
P.s. I'm not going to have children (for myriad reasons, but primarily because I, too, care deeply about the planet's resources and I know the worst thing one can do to the planet is bring another Westerner into the world...) yet I am still buying and holding all the land I can. You don't need to pass your farm along to your own offspring. If you never have children of your own, maybe you have nieces or nephews who would like to work the land someday. Maybe your closest friend's kid will inherit it. Maybe you'll put it in trust to be used by the public, for future generations to learn hands-on how to do permaculture. There are tons of options beyond developing it just because you don't have a child to pass it along to.
My final p.s., I swear: If you're worried about money, look into writing fiction and self-publishing it. Anybody can do it if they're reasonably good at written communication; no special skill set required. If you enjoy reading for fun, you can make money as a fiction author.
It took me several starts to find the combination of things that I was both good at, my land was good at and the local market would pay a premium for. I'm very good at sheep but the prices I could get didn't make it worth it - I couldn't pay the mortgage on the wool and meat. I'm very good at rabbits but again the money isn't there. Everyone and their sibling does veggies and beef - too much competition. Meat chickens don't work for me and egg money is too poor. But pigs hit the spot. I'm both very good at them, they graze my rocky steep land very well and the market is excellent. BUT, you have to do a lot of pigs to pay the mortgage. I do. It took years to get to that point. I built my own on-farm USDA/state inspectable meat processing facility (a.k.a. the butcher shop) to reduce the cost of processing. I pasture to reduce the cost of feed. I have my own breeding lines to reduce my cost of piglets. Those are the big three costs. We do our own deliveries to stores weekly. That regular sales is key.
What's going to work for you may be something quite different than what works for me or someone else. Keep trying until you find your path.
If you're looking for a woman who's interested in farming then look where women interested in farming congregate. In addition to local places consider one of the several farmer oriented dating sites. (Tip: look at their hands. If they have no callouses, no dirt and fancy nails then don't believe them when they say they like farming...)
I am not a farmer. And I am on the opposite end of experiences from you: I've grown up in suburbia and am in suburbia now, contemplating a move into the outskirts of town to give this all a go. So I don't have any seasoned wisdom to offer, however I have been neck deep in research and what you've shared reminded me of some things I've been reading. The Independent Farmstead (Dougherty) has been hands-down the best book I've read so far. Two specific things from the book that might be helpful here:
1. The diversifcation advice shared above. This book made me realize how all parts of the homestead are interconnected and can provide cushion for failures in one area, as well as opportunities for bartering with others to help provide for you (and your future family) in a non$$$ way.
2. They emphasized very heavily the need for an in-person support system. Do you have close friends who live life with you, who understand your frustrations, who come to help when it's butchering time, etc? If not it seems like that's a critical next step, whether by being intentional with neighbors or other homesteaders/farmers in local organizations or guilds. Are you part of a local church? However you can grow very close with others it seems like it would pay off down the road.
I am very hesitant to share any of this because it sounds like an 8 year old telling a seasoned veteran what to do and I realize that's not the solution, but I am so sorry you've had such hard experiences and wanted to throw this out there.
The previous advice is really great, so I won't try to repeat it.
I just wanted to offer a little bit of support and also a couple of ideas.
I moved from the East Hill in Kent out to Kitsap to start our farm, and what drew me to the area was staying in a yurt on someone's bio-dynamic farm in the woods up by Belfair. Have you considered opening up a small part of your property for agri-tourism? Such as yoga retreats, silent retreats, farm stays, farm dinners, etc? There is a huge market in the area surrounding Seattle, especially as it becomes more cramped. You may also consider utilizing a section of your property, depending on how it's laid out, for weddings and the like. I had to search high and low for a farm to get married on in 2003 and I know many people who are looking for raw space close to the city (ie- less than 60 minutes away) to hold weddings.
The other thing is that you write very well. Have you considered starting a blog? It's a huge market, and many people are looking for well read blogs that just talk about farm life and what's going well (and not so well!)
My last idea is to look at the farmer's markets in your area this upcoming summer to see what is NOT being offered and then try to fill that niche - in my neck of the woods we have far too may artisans, but no one selling pastured poultry or eggs. You may consider looking in higher market areas - such as Maple Valley, Edmonds, Issaquah, and/or Redmond (depending on where you are). Go scope them out and make notes on what they aren't selling there, then think maybe if you want to fill that space.
It's like diversify, find your niche, think about value added product, agri-tourism and/or venue rental. Honey is in HIGH demand on the East Side, you could clean up. Our cottage food laws in Washington are totally nuts, so I would stay away from that. But everything else is on the table!
How about offering space for someone to park a tent in exchange for farm labor? Lot's of wandering veggie heads (including me before I had kids and got all domesticated) who will work for a pretty place to set down roots. Then you would have some help without having to pay for it.
You could also lease a portion of your land to a beginning farmer for THEIR endeavors.
Anyhow, just brainstorming. I would hate to see you give up, but I hear your frustration and discouragement. I hope you are doing better - this post is old, I know.
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