Whereas Mike Rowe encourages people to explore the trades as a permanent position or a jumping point to starting your own business, Joel Salatin regards that a backup job is necessary to transition into farming full time. Both are right, of course. If you have the interest and natural ability to be an electrician or other, you can make a lot of money! However, if your dream is to be a farmer or, for that matter, any startup self employed career, a good supply of cash on hand and steady income before starting makes the idea a dream rather than a nightmare.
Consider Joel’s latest musing on the subject – food for thought.
NEW FARMER BACK UP
My post last week about whether or not farm aspirants should attend college stimulated some extremely thoughtful and heartfelt responses; thank you all for chiming in. I was going to leave the discussion there but one young fellow asked if trade school would be beneficial to have a skill as a back up plan to the farm.
I always loved Gene Logsdon’s books and writings and am disappointed I never met him personally. His Contrary Farmer is iconic in sustainable ag writings. About the only thing that stuck in my craw about him, though, was his adamant position that a small farm was not economically viable on its own. He declared that you really needed an off-farm income to support the farm. His writing filled that bill.
I don’t disagree with Gene lightly, but when this question came out of the comments, I couldn’t help but think of Gene’s position. While I do NOT agree that an off-farm income is necessary for success, I DO agree that it’s wise and can smooth some rough edges.
Almost no entrepreneurial venture starts pure. Either it taps into an existing nest egg or it transitions using income from other sources to finance it until it scales to stand-alone viability. I’ve always told folks who want to go from zero to full-time farming to have at least one year of living expenses before making the leap. Scratch starting takes time to get things up and running.
That nest egg would include being able to buy a property launch pad for cash. Teresa and I were blessed with second-generation mortgage-free land, but didn’t jump until we had 1 year of living expenses in the bank. I fully expected to go back to off farm income when that ran out; it never did. But, during those first few years, I picked up some side jobs: built a fence for a friend, helped another friend plant trees in the spring.
Teresa and I lived on $300 a month in the farmhouse attic, so these little side jobs of $1,000-$2,000 a year were huge in keeping us afloat as we struggled to get our production and sales income high enough to cover all our living expenses. Fortunately, firewood sales were good at the time and I sold enough of that in the winter to keep gas in the car and utilities paid.
Although I had not been to trade school, I had acquired skills just growing up on the farm: building fence, planting trees, running a chain saw. I’d say these were equivalent to saleable skills you might acquire at vocational school learning a trade like plumbing, electrical, small engine repair, welding, construction.
While I wouldn’t say my bottom line disagreement with Gene Logsdon has changed, I would agree that at least starting out, a fall back option with a marketable trade is certainly wise, even if you never have to use it. Chances are, if you have a marketable skill, opportunities will knock on your door to enable you to leverage that skill. If you can synergize your willingness to help with some mastery, it makes your worth go way up.
So yes, if you want to farm I would encourage knowing a trade, whether you do an apprenticeship or go to a vocational school. In what I call the triumvirate of practical income strategies–building, growing, repairing–possessing a skill that complements growing (farming) offers another leg to your income stool.
I appreciated the probing question and this chance to examine a bit more of the college/farm nuance. It’s certainly not black and white. Income redundancy never hurt anyone. One more reminder: achievability is easier the lower your living expenses . Eliminating the mortgage, driving a $5,000 car, living in a camper, becoming a master of personal doctoring–these are all ingredients in the secret sauce of farming launch success.
What are your favorite farm-complementary vocational skills?JOEL SALATIN
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Kevin Pennell 9 hours ago · 4 Likes
Finally, something I can comment on.
I am a small farmer in Mississippi. I raise sheep and pastured poultry.
Before I pursued my farming dream, I was an electrician. I completed a five-year apprenticeship, and worked as a Journeyman for a few years before farming; and though it may seem like an unrelated trade, the skills, know-how, and work ethic I picked up during my apprenticeship was INVALUABLE in my farming venture.
Besides having practical knowledge of electrical theory, installation practices, and building codes, I also learned to calculate concrete, read blueprints and manufacturers schematics (which came in handy when I read Polyface Designs), and how to plan a project through. I learned the value of having a plan, and working hard to see it accomplished. I toughened my hands up. I learned that electrical tape makes a good bandage. Always lift with your legs. Do it right the first time. Have a positive attitude.
Watching the change in my attitude and work ethic during my apprenticeship really gave me a huge confidence boost. It was the greatest period of personal growth in my life, and I didn’t start until I was 22.
Also great to know that if farming doesn’t work, I have something to fall back on.
My apologies if this is hard to read, my written English skills need some work.
WILL 3 hours ago · 0 Likes
It reads just fine. I’m a pipefitter making the transition soon. I agree 100 percent the skills you learn will never be wasted. Just the problem solving you are required to have being in the trades has helped me exponentially when it comes to thinking outside of the box with small scale farming.
Alex Sanderson 9 hours ago · 2 Likes
A trade for income is valuable, yes. Any trade on a farm is absolutely invaluable. Whether it keeps purchase or repair costs down or helps with invention and innovation.
George 9 hours ago · 1 Like
Tinkering still makes a lot of sense.
Sam 3 minutes ago · 0 Likes
Thank you for answering my question and for the good advice. Also thanks to the people in the comments for sharing their stories. I do a lot of odd jobs already, cutting grass, landscape work, tilling gardens, etc. It might not be skilled work, but I’m building a reputation as someone who works hard. It seems like if your willing to work hard, jobs find you rather than you finding the jobs.
I thought about selling firewood, but it probably would not be worth it without a dump truck and front end loader. There’s so much good wood where I live that goes to waste.
I’ll think more about an apprenticeship or trade, and see where I am at the end of this season. What I would really like is a dependable winter job, during my off season.
Thank you again so much for the advice!
Permaculture Pimp Daddy 38 minutes ago · 0 Likes
I’ve been an IBEW journeyman electrician for the last 24 years. While every tradesperson I know was out buying new trucks and houses my wife and I were saving, learning and doing. We were following your example.
I retired from the trade two years ago and now spend every single day joyfully working my farm.
Teresa Seed 4 hours ago · 0 Likes
Just to say, Kevin Pennell, your English skills are well-nigh impeccable, you might have been self-deluding on that score!
Bonnie 7 hours ago · 0 Likes
Absolutely agree that an apprenticeship of some sort would be an excellent “Plan B”, in the event that your farming endeavor hits an unexpected roadblock.
Another similar idea is to gain skills needed by a farmer, by using Paul Wheaton’s skill-building program (www.permies.com). This link shows the details:
Plumby’s grandkid 7 hours ago · 0 Likes
Not sure it complies as a trade school vocation – but my cousin married into a Northern Illinois big farm family. They are big farmers but are also known in their county for being the go to people for professional tax preparation. Their son even went from school to working for the IRS – before returning to the farm when the dad had health issues (and grain price reached 8 dollar corn) That always seemed to me to be a particularly smart play.
BJ 8 hours ago · 0 Likes
Your advice to know a marketable trade is spot-on, and I don’t think it is at all in conflict with your disagreement with Logsdon about needing an outside income to support the farm. Having a back-up plan (along with the ability to implement it) is wise in just about any endeavor, whether it’s your life’s work or anything else. Not that one would pursue the trade to support the thing he or she really wants to do, but simply as a fall-back or temporary solution if and when it’s necessary. In a perfect world, we would all be able to simply pursue our passions and not worry about anything else. But in the real world, and especially in uncertain economic times, a backup plan not only is wise, it seems almost essential, even if the new farmer takes your wise advice and starts with at least a year’s worth of “nest egg” funds. The back-up skill will provide peace of mind, if nothing else, and I believe that having peace of mind will help facilitate the success of the farm.
© 2018. JOEL SALATIN. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.