A year and a half ago, my partner and I bought a farmhouse on ten acres of land in rural Michigan and moved there to start a small farm business. We had grand plans of raising chickens, goats, and sheep and selling the eggs, milk, and wool at the farmer’s market. We wanted to put in a large garden and orchard so we could feed ourselves and have some produce left over to sell.
However, we didn’t have much farming experience when we came out here, so we’ve experienced a steep learning curve. We didn’t realize how much time, money, and hard work we’d have to dedicate to get our farm off the ground. If you’re thinking about starting a hobby farm or small farm business, read this first. Here are all the things we wish we knew before we embarked on this journey to build a profitable, self-sufficient homestead.
It’s Hard to Keep Animals Alive
Before we came here, we thought raising chickens and other farm animals was pretty easy. All you have to do is give them food and water—how hard could that be? But after getting 12 chickens from our neighbors, we realized just how hard it is to keep animals alive.
Recently we had a horrible incident with a wild animal that killed all of our chickens. We thought our barn was secure, and we even had a separate chicken coop enclosure within the barn where our chickens slept at night. But somehow an animal found a way into the barn and reached through the mesh chicken coop to kill all of our birds one by one. This happened in the middle of the night and we didn’t hear a thing, so there was no way we could’ve stopped it.
All kinds of predators will try to go after your chickens and other farm animals day and night. Hawks, snakes, weasels, raccoons, coyotes, and foxes pose a threat to your livestock. Even if you think you’ve done everything you can to protect your animals, it’s still likely that you’ll lose some to predators or disease.
Losing Animals Cuts Into Already Tight Profit Margins
Besides being difficult emotionally, losing animals cuts into your profit margins. Because our chickens were less than a year old, we weren’t able to harvest any eggs from them before they passed away. All the money we spent on feed and all the time we devoted to taking care of them was a total loss. Small-scale egg farming already has tight margins of $2 of profit per dozen eggs, and losing chickens in their prime egg-laying years decreases those profits even more.
So before you adopt farm animals, make sure you have a solid plan for keeping predators away, like getting a dog for protection. And prepare for the reality that you may lose money or only make a small profit if something goes wrong like it did for us.
Gardening and Food Preservation Is a Lot of Work
My partner and I had maintained small gardens before we came here. But we weren’t prepared for how much work a larger garden would be. Weeding and managing the garden was like having a part-time job. We spent hundreds of hours throughout the summer canning all of our produce. Canning used to be a fun hobby, but it quickly turned into a chore once we had to devote all of our Sundays to it. This year we’re considering buying a freeze dryer and another chest freezer so we don’t have to can as much of our garden produce.
We’ll Probably Never Have a Self-Sufficient Homestead
We were also hoping to build a garden big enough to feed us for the entire year, which unfortunately won’t happen anytime soon. With our full-time jobs, there’s no way we’d be able to dedicate enough time to our garden to grow most of our food for the year. It takes between 2 and 17 acres of productive land to feed a person for a year. Our garden isn’t even an acre and we had trouble taking care of it, so we’d never be able to accomplish this goal while working!
However, we have noticed a reduction in our food bill as a result of our efforts last growing season. But we still have to go to the grocery store to supplement our home-canned goods and buy staples we didn’t grow like rice and flour.
We also spent hundreds of dollars on startup costs for our garden last year. Between fences, planters, and the irrigation system we put in, we probably haven’t saved much money yet versus just going to the grocery store. However, fences and planters are a one-time cost, so we’ll realize more savings this coming garden season.
Producing Enough Food to Sell Takes Careful Planning
Another plan that didn’t come to fruition was selling produce at the farmer’s market. Our garden simply didn’t produce a steady enough supply of veggies to make renting a booth worth it. We learned that you have to carefully plan your garden if you want to sell food at the farmer’s market or start a CSA business.
You’ll need to choose a variety of plants that all mature at different points throughout the summer and fall so you have a steady supply of fruits and veggies. You may also need to stagger your planting schedule so you don’t get an oversupply of a certain vegetable all at once.
My partner and I made the mistake of failing to plan our garden strategically. We mostly grew what we like to eat, but that style of planning didn’t provide us with enough leftover produce to sell each week. So I suggest starting your garden with a clear goal in mind. Decide whether you want to focus on selling produce at the farmer’s market or feeding your family. In my experience, you can’t do both at once, especially if you have a full-time job off the homestead. Then choose what and how much to plant according to your goals.
Keep Your Plans Realistic
All the hobby farmers and homesteaders I’ve talked to have lots of dreams and plans for their small farms. But especially in the beginning, you can’t take on every project or else you’ll get overwhelmed.
Decide which projects to focus on now and which ones to delay. Try to find the cheapest ways of doing things so you don’t dump thousands of dollars into your hobby farm before you find out if you enjoy farming, are good at it, and can turn enough of a profit to make it worth your time.
Do you have plans of starting a hobby farm, or would you ever entertain the idea of building a small farm business? Share your thoughts in the comments section below!
Vicky Monroe is a freelance personal finance and lifestyle writer. When she’s not busy writing about her favorite money saving hacks or tinkering with her budget spreadsheets, she likes to travel, garden, and cook healthy vegetarian meals.