The following information comes from Five Acres and Independence by M. G. Kains. Five Acres and Independence is also available to purchase in print.
Anybody can buy a farm; but that is not enough. The farm to buy is the one that fits the already formulated general plan—and no other! It must be positively favorable to the kind of crop or animal to be raised—berries, eggs, vegetables, or what not. To buy a place simply because it is “a farm” and then to attempt to find out what, if anything, it is good for, or to try to produce crops or animals experimentally until the right ones are discovered is a costly way to gain experience, but lots of people will learn in no other.
Even supposing that the farm discovered is exactly suited to the branch of agriculture decided upon—where is it located? Are there good neighbors, schools, churches, doctors, stores, electric power and bus lines and other features of civilization near by? How are the roads kept, winter and summer? What about taxes? Still more important, how and where can its products be marketed? “Before deciding on a spot for a garden,” wrote Peter Henderson, 75 years ago in Gardening for Profit, “too much caution cannot be used in selecting the locality. Mistakes in this matter are often the sole cause of want of success, even when other conditions are favorable.”
Failure in other instances is due to lack of either “investment” or “working” capital or both; for though one may have sufficient funds to buy and perhaps stock a place, other moneys must be available to carry the venture until the “cash crops” are able to produce them. For instance, though certain vegetable crops and everbearing strawberries may make individual cash returns within a few months of being planted, “regular season” strawberries require 14 or 15 months, bush berries, grapes and asparagus three years; peaches four or five and apples from five to ten or even more! How is one to pay expenses, taxes, insurance; in fact, how is one to live until they pay for themselves and something besides?
This was the fix that an acquaintance got into. As his case is typical a rehearsal of its main features may serve as a horrible example and warning to some reader at present headed that same way! He had bought a farm on a good road and good for his purpose but—seven miles from the nearest local market town. There was considerably more land than he needed, especially as nearly a third of it was second growth woodland on which he paid taxes but got no return except a little firewood. The house being an old one and about as well ventilated as a corn crib, was inadequately heated by stoves, so he installed a furnace: it lacked plumbing and electric current so he put these in. These improvements reduced his capital but did not increase his income from the place. With high hopes he planted and cared for 1,000 fruit trees and had plantings of small fruits. For three years he strove to make ends meet but just as the trees were ready to bear their first crop he was obliged to sell—fortunately not at a loss of actual cash but at one of time, effort and hopes.
Another common cause of failure is tumefaction of the cranium, popularly known as “big head!” Though this malady is not limited to people who take up farming it is perhaps most conspicuous and most frequently characteristic of city people who start in this new line, especially the poultry branch. With fine nonchalance they disregard fundamental principles, turn a deaf ear to the voice of experience, adopt crops unsuited to the local conditions or without regard to the market demands, and so on. Usually not until the disease has run its course is there hope for such cases, but after the most virulent ones have been well dosed with ridicule or have paid a heavy fool tax the victims may not only recover and become immune but may in time admit that farmers, like Old Man Noah, “know a thing or two!”
Many city and town dwellers who are dreaming of that “little place in the country” are peculiarly susceptible to certain lures connected with small-scale farming. It should be understood that some men have made a success with one or more of them. But on the average the beginning farmer is well advised to steer clear of them, or at least to go into them on a very small scale until experience has been gained and the profit possibilities assessed.
Some of these less usual means of making a living on a small farm include: squab raising, rabbit raising either for meat or fur or both, growing mushrooms, raising pedigreed dogs, goat dairying, canary breeding, raising ponies, operating a riding school, raising game birds such as pheasants and quail, duck raising, and raising herbs, particularly ginseng. There are men who make a good living specializing in one or more of these lines, but as a general rule after a beginner has invested anywhere from $100 to $1,000 or more in one of these enterprises, he suddenly realizes that he is not making a success and suffers a considerable financial loss.
On the surface it is easy to make a good case for these lines. Literature on the subjects is voluminous and usually stresses the profit possibilities, and the eager beginner who reads that one unit means a dollar a year simply figures that 2,000 units will give him and his family a comfortable living.
It does not work out that way. Probably the one greatest single trap for the unwary is “chicken fever.” Just why so many inexperienced people think there is an easy and profitable business in poultry keeping is a minor phenomenon. The farm papers and poultry journals carry articles from bonafide poultry keepers, who have a flock of 25, 50, or 100 hens, showing that the profit per hen runs from $2 up.
But there are many traps in poultry keeping. A small farm flock is usually profitable. The flock has excellent care and attention. Hens respond well to close care. But when the flock size jumps to 1,000, for example, the picture is likely to change with startling rapidity. No longer is the attention so close and detailed. Diseases are peculiarly prevalent. Production per bird goes down. And most important of all, whereas a small farmer can sell the eggs from 50 to 100 hens at retail prices at his farm, with 1,000 layers he has to dispose of his eggs on the wholesale market. The range between wholesale and retail prices varies from 10c to 20c. This reduces the profit per bird very sharply. If a hen lays only 12 dozen eggs a year and the difference is 15c a dozen, the difference in profit is $1.80.
There is only one safe way to explore the profit possibilities of poultry on the small farm. That is to start with a small flock, increase gradually, and keep accurate records of all disbursements and receipts.
After they have taken up farming, many a city man and his wife—particularly his wife!—have run the gamut of emotions through all the descending scale of delight, gratification, pleasure, surprise, perplexity, annoyance, disgust and exasperation (a full octave!) to discover how popular they have become since moving to the country. Not only do their intimate friends drop in unannounced on fine Sundays but less and less intimate ones even down to people who just happened to live around the block arrive in auto loads and all expect to remain for dinner, perhaps supper also!
This sort of thing is highly unfair, first because the city “friends” never return the courtesy, second because unreasonable amounts of produce—especially chickens, eggs, and butter—are wasted (yes, wasted because there is no quid pro quo), and third, because of the work, particularly the wife’s.
Sunday after Sunday one wife of my acquaintance made such a slave of herself as cook and hostess that at last her husband laid down the law. In brief he said: “These people come only for your good dinners. They drain your energies and our profits. We must stop both losses.” And they did!
As you will probably have to solve the same problem let me tell you the answer: For Sunday dinners have corned beef and cabbage, beef stew or hash! Good luck to you!!
Among various other ways which help lead to failure are unfavorable soil; undrained land; rocks and stones; wrong crops; improperly prepared and tilled land; too large area devoted to lawns and ornamental planting; excessive time devoted to pets, especially such as occupy areas that should pay profits; inadequate manuring or fertilizing; failure to fight insects and plant diseases and many others.
In farming, as in every other enterprise, success depends primarily upon the man who undertakes it. Not everybody who starts will succeed. On the other hand the man who has the following personal qualifications, no matter what his previous calling or location may have been, stands a good chance of succeeding. Natural liking for the business is the most important asset because it will assure willingness and patience to work and be painstaking, to be open-minded and to be as alert to detect irregularities as to adopt and apply new knowledge.
Farming is a business characterized by abundance of small but essential details which demand close observation and application to prevent loss. In few businesses are cleanliness, orderliness and timeliness of so much importance, for without them weeds, pests and diseases thrive and profits fail to appear. Above all the farmer must be enthusiastic, a condition that will become permanent and characteristic as soon as the business shows a profit.
Of all the many farms I have visited that of a Delaware County, New York, farmer presents fewer natural factors that might suggest success than any other. More than 80% of it is “on edge,” rocky, stony, marshy, or otherwise unfit for cultivation. In fact, to quote the owner, “it is just the kind of farm that no sane man would think of buying!” He inherited it from his father who “bought it for its timber and couldn’t sell it after logging.”
If any farmer ever had excuse to fail this man had, but every year he makes it pay! Moreover he uses less labor than does many another farmer more favorably located. He grows corn and hay on the tillable land, grazes the hillsides and marshes, feeds dairy cattle, makes butter, and gives the skim milk to hens for the production of eggs and meat. These three products—butter, eggs and dressed poultry—which constitute his “money crops”—he sends by express to city customers who pay a premium above market prices quoted on a specified week day. The manure goes back to the land which is thus kept in highly productive condition.
As this man “capitalized his drawbacks”—thought his problem through—and deliberately formulated the plan which has worked well, his case may be taken as an indication that one of the surest ways to succeed is to have a definite plan and a definite goal. To attempt to farm without either is merely a form of gambling. The penalty for one’s folly is a loss surer than in a lottery.