On a farm: Accepting that everything always breaks and when to rally the troops

by Pamela Monnette

 

Now, I’m sure that my parents are thrilled that they put me through college in order for me to become a farmer. Although, to be fair – I did put myself through grad school. I’m sure they didn’t think I would have to learn building and maintenance skills in order to make a living. To be fair, neither did I. Modern day US pushes many kids through the higher education cogs only to spit them out with crushing debt and very little skills to actually jump right into decent paying jobs.

Here are a few things that I’ve learned to accept as I move into a new season of growing things. Everything breaks eventually. Know how to fix things that routinely need replacing or fixing. I don’t have time to wait for someone else to fix my weed whacker. Have good partners and know when to call in the neighbors and the pros.   Knowing preventative small engine maintenance and repair can be the difference between getting your planting beds prepped in time or not

Learn by doing

Trade schools that offer technical and practical skills are probably a cheaper, safer bet if you don’t quite know what direction you want to go with your career. I know that I would have benefited from some technically training in “fixing things” and “building things”.  But now I am trying to learn by doing. Learn by doing. It’s a practical approach to education that institutions like the Extension Service were built on, but funny enough – I didn’t learn by doing until I actually quit Extension and starting farming.

And boy, have I been learning by doing ever since. No matter how much reading and research you do, or tools that you buy, or Instagram hacks that you learn – everything always breaks on the farm. And you need to know how to fix it, or know when to cut your losses if you can.

Simple carpentry skills can also take your farm to the next level. Instead of buying a simple “hoop-bender” from a company, try to make one yourself! Start out with a simple design and test it – it can actually be fun to engineer very simple designs. Once you learn some basics and get more comfortable, you can start to work into bigger builds. Instead of buying a $2000 walk in cooler, we were able to build our own insulated room in the barn from recycled materials and use a cool-bot.  We saved probably about $1500 in start-up costs. And, since this is a farm and not your beautiful house that you live in … you can use recycled materials if possible! Not everything needs to look perfect, it just needs to be structurally sound and functional.

The team approach – calling all friends, family and neighbors

Another thing about farmers- we’re pretty dang independent. To a fault, some might say because sometimes it’s hard for us to ask and accept help. Luckily many farm businesses have at least a support team of family, if not staff, when things go south. I am very fortunate to have a partner who can fix or build just about anything. And, I didn’t realize just how important this factor is when I think about our farm business succeeding or failing. Where my skills end with growing and selling flowers, his pick-up with the building and maintenance know how that our team needs to keep growing.

And hey, there are always the neighbors.  If you offer to help your neighbors take apart and move their farm stand, they will be more willing to help you out when you need extra hands or skills.

Have the right tools – or know who to call

Have the right tools – now this takes some time to build a toolkit with everything you need. But once you have the basics, I am a big fan of borrowing tools or equipment that you only need once or twice a year. If you have the resources to hire out work, get on good terms with professionals that will regularly provide the service you need.  When you have to hire things out, your timeline for tasks can get very back-logged- so getting in good with the tractor repair man can go a long way.

And remember that tools are not limited to the type you store in the shed or barn. There are so many online tools are useful too. Buffer is a great tool to help you manage all of your social media from one account. Mailchimp is an excellent free e-newsletter tool that enables you to regularly reach your customers and let them know what’s available at the farm to purchase that week. And e-commerce sites like Food4All can help you grow your business and manage your orders and inventory, which saves a ton of time. And if any of these tools break, you can just call a dedicated support team to fix it! Online tools are all about managing your time better on things like marketing and taking orders.

It can get overwhelming to think about ALL of the skills you will need on your farm in order to be successful and not have to hire out work when things break. So, always keep this in mind when you start to build your team: Things always break or don’t do as planned. If you don’t have any staff, it’s ok to rely on your family and your farming neighbors for help with large tasks or build outs. Take a basic carpentry or small engine repair class from your local Extension Service or simply shadow a friend or other farmer while they are working on something you would like to learn. Skills don’t develop overnight so don’t be afraid to watch a how-to-video and get out there and try to fix something – you might surprise yourself with how easy it is sometimes!