Series Intro: How To Start Farming Without Screwing Up Your Life


Because I damn near screwed up mine.

Me, Annie, Marienne, and the bun in the oven (Betty) — photos by PT Nguyen

Back in 2013, my wife (Annie) and I made an abrupt change. I was working as a software engineering consultant near Washington D.C. with a team that I loved (and still do), but a client that seemed determined to send me to an early grave. When the stress of the job finally culminated in a cancer scare, Annie exercised her spousal veto over our lives: our plan to start a farm as a retirement project got moved up to right that very minute, I left my job and she hers as director of Washington Printmakers Gallery, and off we went to Annie’s hometown outside Charlottesville, Virginia.

We had no background in farming. Neither of us went to ag school, had any experience as farm interns, or had even WWOOFed. The biggest thing I’d ever planted was a 100′ diameter three-sisters garden in a park in southern Maryland. My grandparents were farmers, but none of that knowledge got passed down to me. My formal education in farming occurred on the weekend of my 31st birthday, where I spent two hot days in July at the Polyface IDS. I devoured books and YouTube videos on permaculture and pasture farming, and that was that.

We bought 80 broiler chickens to see if we wouldn’t kill them all. Then we bought 120 laying hens. Then came six Tamworth pigs the following Spring.

The broilers did fine, except for the part where it took us three full days and nights to process and pack them all at the end. The hens, on the other hand were subjected to one mistake after another, the worst of which was an ill-fated scheme to raise a bunch of them in the woods with almost no feed. Raccoons, foxes, owls, hawks, and chupacabras (f*ck it) made off with about 40 of them before we came to our senses a week later. The pigs grew to slaughter weight… eventually.

Everything that could go wrong, did. The covers blew off the hoophouses. Bears attacked our chicken tractors. Our pigs spent more time in the road than in their paddocks; 10pm phone calls about escaped pigs were a recurring living nightmare. Raccoons ate practically everything. Our hens got sick when we introduced new birds from someone else’s flock. We got attacked by hornets and killed an entire hive of bees. I built one shitty, ill-conceived brooder and henmobile after another. I tried raising a set of pigs on nothing but hay and forest forage, and am still living down the embarrassment. We put thirty ducks in the field one evening; the next, we found thirty fox-mangled duck carcasses scattered across 10 acres at Adventure Farm. On one particularly hot day, a poultry waterer malfunctioned and I walked into my field to discover eighty dead broiler chickens, just one day shy of harvest. We discovered that popular farmers markets are really hard to get into. I called the slaughterhouse to get my pigs butchered in two weeks, only to learn they had a three-month waiting list.

Our first brooder. Too small, overbuilt, but made of cedar — so it smelled wonderful. The bottle waterers? A terrible idea that’ll ruin your back and doesn’t scale at all.

We lived with my in-laws and drove them insane. And we burned through every penny of our savings. We’d kept our condo in D.C. to rent out; the renter bailed on his last month of rent and the place sat vacant for nearly a year — leaving me to pay both rent and a mortgage. Then came the self-employment tax bills and the medical bills from our first and second pregnancies, and we went from no-savings to terrifying-debt. I found myself (thankfully) telecommuting part-time with the company I left to stop the bleeding, all while continuing to farm more or less full-time. Still, I had to ask my parents for loans to pay my taxes. In summer, I routinely worked over 90 hours a week. I was in a constant state of physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion. And Annie was absorbing all of it.

There were nights when we’d lie in bed and question our sanity out loud. There was crying, yelling, and episodic talking of one another off the ledge. There were times we were both sure we’d made a mistake.

This is the story you don’t get from our Instagram feed; the tale of the price paid for making a nearly-instant 180-degree lifestyle pivot. Striking out on an unconventional path yields little in the way of guidance or examples. The terror, and the thrill, are indescribable. It could have cost us our marriage, our careers, our health; everything. Four things saved Annie and I: the equity in our condo, my computer science degree, the gradual accrual of skill as farmers, and a commitment to one another that (thank God) seems to be the stuff that 70-year marriages are made of.

There’s an odd duality in our experience: I wouldn’t trade it for anything, Annie and I are incredibly happy, and I may write a riveting biography someday. But I wouldn’t wish what we went through on my worst enemy. And so I’m writing this article, because the world needs more farmers, but not everyone’s born with the Forrest Gumpian luck that I seem to be endowed with.

If you want to figure out how to pivot to farming without screwing up your life and that of your family, like I almost did, then this series is for you. I’ll be posting every week, sharing everything I know and wish I’d known, starting tomorrow (4/1) (here’s the first installment). Enjoy!

Chris Newman is a permaculture farmer in Earlysville, Virginia. You can support his writings and other beyond-the-farm sustainability endeavors on Patreon. Visit the farm and view the occasional on-farm livestream at @sylvanaquafarms on Instagram.

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