“How’d they do that?” homesteading series (Post #1).
How to start a farm
Here’s how one New Brunswick family started a farm from scratch and how you can too.
They knew NOTHING about homesteading or farming. They didn’t grow up on a farm. They didn’t have any sort of farming education. Heck, they had never even raised a chicken.
This is an almost unbelievable story about how Jason Beaton and Stephanie Robertson of Maplehurst Farms fell “ass backwards”, as they like to say, into farming…..And SUCCEEDED!
Their tale really deserves a book, but here is the abridged version of how in less than a decade they started and now run a profitable farm raising the kind of meat money usually can’t buy.
I’ve also included some of the hard lessons they’ve learned along the way and their advice for us novice homesteaders.
Jason Beaton and Stephanie Robertson with their two children at their farm (Maplehurst Farms) in Colpitt’s Settlement, NB.
They used to be normal
Just 12 years ago Jason, a market analyst, and Stephanie, a teacher, were like most newly married couples. They had a house in the city, Ikea furniture and a new car. They travelled, had time for a social life and went skiing in the winter and cycling in the summer.
That is until they got the itch.
The itch to get out of the city, find a little place in the country and live the good life far from the hustle and bustle. So in October 2006, a year after they were married, they traded their bungalow in Moncton, New Brunswick for a 200 year old farm house and 300 acres of land in Colpitts Settlement, New Brunswick.
The farm was a fixer upper. It had sat fallow for 25 years and the entire farmhouse had to be renovated right down to the electrical and plumbing. The barn that came with the property was even worse. In fact, they had to raise the barn and install a new foundation as well as replace the floor joists and the floor in the mow. Since they couldn’t afford professional help, they did all the repairs themselves including making their own concrete forms. It took them about a year and a half just to fix the barn. It took another three and a half years to finish renovating the farmhouse, which he describes as their very own money pit.
Amidst the renovations they also welcomed their first child.
You might think that at this point they would want take a break and just enjoy their surroundings but instead they started thinking about how nice it would be to have a few chickens in the backyard and farm-fresh eggs on their plates, which led to…
The beginning homesteaders
They started their farming adventure as homesteaders with 16 of the sorriest looking chickens (a Kijiji special from Nova Scotia) they’ve ever seen. Much to their surprise, the chickens survived. Note: If you’re a beginner, chickens are one of the easiest and most forgiving farm animals to start with.
Bolstered by their chicken success, they added four Irish Dexter cows to their homestead. Why Dexters? These cold-hardy cows have several advantages. First, they’re a smaller dual-purpose breed producing milk similar to a Jersey and flavourful, well marbled beef making them ideal for smaller acreages. They’re also efficient grazers, easy birthers and exceptionally good mothers. So why don’t we all have a Dexter cow in our backyard? Because they’re rare. Acquiring them involved a trip to southern New Hampshire, on the other side of an international border.
“My father and I borrowed a cattle trailer and drove 2,000 km in thirty hours,” Jason recounts. ”After loading cows in the dark and dealing with the humourless CFIA folks at the border we were back home the next day with four cows and some missing sleep.”
Jason paused, and smiled. “We quickly realized cows were a much bigger adjustment than chickens. However, with some help from the neighbours, the provincial vets, Google and Joel Salatin’s books we got by.”
If you’re interested in livestock farming and you haven’t read Joel Salatin’s books, you have to get your hands on them. Polyface Farms in Virginia is likely the most successful alternative farm in existence.
Jason highly recommends reading one or several of his many books such as “You Can Farm”, which have been invaluable to him. In fact, Jason follows many of Joel’s unconventional methods.
For example, their cows are not fed any grain. Instead they’re moved on a daily basis around their pasture producing much healthier 100% grass-fed beef. Of course, this method is also better for the cows and the land.
Their pigs are also raised in a natural environment that lets them root in the brush, wallow in the mud, run in the grass… basically be real pigs. Why? Because pigs deserve to have a good life too and because happy, healthy pigs produce a better quality of meat.
Now this is going to get a little technical but hear me out. The extra space to exercise creates muscling (a unique characteristic of Berkshires), allowing intramuscular fat deposits to form, which is just like the marbling you see in a good cut of beef. White pigs raised in confinement (where hundreds or thousands of pigs are raised in a barn) do not have this, which is why conventional pork is often dry. Who wants dry pork chops? No one.
But raising pigs the unconventional way is not always easy. Despite many sleepless nights and moments of shear panic with the Dexters, Jason says the cows have been a fun addition to the farm. However, he groaned, the same can’t be said for the pigs.
Jason and Stephanie raise Berkshires, a heritage breed that is not only tasty but perhaps too smart for their own good.
The first disaster occurred when the pigs were about four months old. At the time Jason says their pen was made up of some 1×6 boards and a of couple strands of electric wire, which worked fine — until the first winter power outage. That morning they nearly tripped over four happy pigs resting behind the door from their night’s activity of destroying the barn. They had gone through every piece of chicken wire, broke the doors off the pens and let every chicken in the barn free. They also found all of the chicken food and either ate it or mashed it into the ground.Alas that wasn’t the last pig catastrophe. Just after they had finished planting $300 worth of shrubs, annuals and perennials around their home that spring, the pigs discovered a low spot in their paddock where they could slip under the fence. When the family arrived home from work, they discovered the pigs had dug up every bulb, flower and plant they had spent the past two weekends planting.
“So to say pigs have been a learning experience is an understatement,” says Jason. “They’ve cost us thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours with their destructive habits.”
He stopped and smiled. “But in the end we love the pigs.”
In fact, he loved his animals and the homesteading lifestyle so much that 5 years ago he decided to make the leap from homesteader to full-time farmer.
Homesteader to full time farmer
Shortly after acquiring the pigs and the birth of their second child, Jason made the decision to farm full time. He was tired of punching the clock for some other person. He wanted to do something meaningful and more fun. “I had been at my job 15 years. It was just getting old.”
But it did pay well…
Farming is a terrible investment
Farming may be more fun than a traditional desk job, but it likely won’t pay as well. Nor will it come with a pension or vacation.
In fact, farming in general is not known to be a profitable industry and although Jason and his family are able to stay in the black, overall he says it’s a terrible investment.
“I’d be better off to sell the whole thing and invest the money in an ETF of the S&P 500” he admitted. “I’d make more money, but it wouldn’t be as fun.”
They also wouldn’t be eating as well. One of the reasons Jason and Stephanie started homesteading was to produce better food than what they could buy at the supermarket.
Once you’ve tasted and experienced the nutritional benefits of the best food money can’t buy, it’s next to impossible to really enjoy anything else, which makes some of the challenges of farming easier to endure. There is no better way to eat like (or likely better than) royalty then to be a great farmer or buy directly from one.
Your job is your vacation
As a farmer you are free from scheduled work. No working hours. No boss. No timed lunch breaks. But alas…you are not free to go anywhere or do anything other than what is demanded by the animals, the land, the weather or the barns, fences, and anything else on the property.
“You can do what you want; you just can’t go anywhere,” laughs Jason. “It’s a double edged sword. We tried to go on vacation a couple times. Never again. It was an unmitigated disaster.”
A typical summer day involves 3 hours of morning chores, which could include feeding and watering the animals and moving the chickens and cows to new pasture. In the winter these chores only take an hour as the pastures are covered in snow and the animals no longer have to be moved. During the afternoons he works on the project of the week or day. For example, he is currently siding the barn and boarding up the hoop barns. In the evening he repeats the morning chores.If this doesn’t sound like a vacation to you or at least a fun way to spend your time, you might want to reconsider farming. Because you’re going to have to go to bed and do it all over again and again.
And that brings us to………
Have you got what it takes? Jason’s advice for new farmers
If you give up easily, don’t bother farming.
Toss all of your romantic farming notions out the window. Farming is hard work and only for those who are willing to stick with it for the long haul.
“This is the hardest thing I have ever done – hands down,” he says. “There are easier ways to live. I have kids that come here to work and after a few weeks they give up. It’s too much work.”
Farming is not only physically demanding, but emotionally tough. For example, they will never forget the day they lost a calf to pneumonia.
“It’s a financial loss, but it’s heartbreaking,” says Jason. “We should have caught the fever in the calf right away, but we didn’t know. We didn’t grow up on farms. We have since learned to take a cow’s temperature anytime it looks off. The $6 thermometer has been the best buy.”
When is the best time to start a farm?
Most likely when you’re in your early 20s, according to Jason. “We were in our late 30s and that’s too old,” he says. “You just don’t have the same energy and kids get in the way. If I could go back in time knowing everything I know now, I would find a way to make farming work after university and then I would apply for a six month to a year apprenticeship at a farm. You may give up a year’s salary, but you will literally save yourself hundreds of thousands of dollars in mistakes. And money saved is a heck of a lot better than money earned.”
However, there is one advantage to starting a farm later in life. You usually have built up some financial equity. Although Jason borrowed to start his farm, they also had savings and two good salaries to fall back on for the first number of years. They also got a great financial deal on their farm and have kept their debt manageable.
Remember: New businesses often lose money in the first few years of operation. Be prepared and have a financial survival plan. For example, this may mean living with your parents, taking on a second job or leasing land until you can afford your own.
Learn from the best — visit other successful farms
Before making farming a full time pursuit, Jason and Stephanie went on a farm tour around New England. They gained invaluable insights into the business and most importantly how to make money farming.
Jason and his daughter preparing the land for their first vegetable garden.
Consider vegetables instead of animals
If you’re starting without a lot of equity, vegetables may be the best farming choice. If you want to farm livestock, you’ll likely need significant capital to buy a large acreage along with outbuildings, equipment and the animals themselves. None of which is cheap.
Instead Jason suggests following Jean-Martin Fortier’s example in his book “Market Gardener”. On their 1 1/2 acre farm in Quebec, they are able to earn over $100,000 a year.
Unfortunately, Jason says he doesn’t have the personality for growing vegetables. “I could never sit there and pick potato beetles all day,” he admits.
Get as much farm as you can afford
Fixer upper farms are tempting with their “I can’t believe it” price tags. But you’re likely better off buying a more expensive farm that already has the needed infrastructure — ideally in good condition.
“We would have been better off to spend more money and get more farm than to start off with nothing,” he says. “I would advise those starting out to buy something with all the infrastructure there because clearing land is prohibitive and fixing up old barns and fencing is stupid expensive.”
Don’t cheap out on livestock
When it comes to livestock, you get what you pay for.
“We bought a $500 bull and got midget calves,” laughs Jason. “There are no deals. If there are, it’s for a reason.”
What’s your story? You better have a good one
Don’t produce what everyone else is producing. “You have to have a niche and you have to have a story because people buy from people” says Jason.
Fix it yourself or go broke
If you don’t have any mechanical abilities, don’t bother farming, warns Jason. “You can’t afford to pay someone to do your fencing, change your oil in your tractor and do all your repairs.”
Take home message
There are millions of easier and more profitable ways to earn money than farming, but for those who want to eat and grow real food, enjoy the homesteading, self-sufficient lifestyle and want to make a difference in the world, there is no better way than farming. Jason and his family are great examples of how it is possible to start a farm — even when you didn’t grow up on one.
You’ll also find these friendly goats at Maplehurst Farms.
Today, they no longer own a new car or Ikea furniture. They don’t travel, have limited social lives and have little time for skiing or cycling.
But they wouldn’t change a thing. They’re living the good life on 300 acres in Colpitt’s Settlement, NB and eating better than kings every day.
They not only raise chickens, cattle and pigs, but sheep, goats and heritage turkeys. In the future, they hope to open a maple sugar camp and offer more farming experiences including birthday parties and pancake breakfasts.
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If you want to learn more about how to start a farm, stay tuned. I will be interviewing several other farmers in our area to find out how they began their homesteading adventures and their advice for those starting out.
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