When does one cross the line from becoming an avid gardener to hobby or weekend farmer? I recently put that question to three converts during filming for a new episode of "Growing a Greener World." The unanimous reply: "When you stop taking family vacations!" Ouch. As I write this, the rest of my family is enjoying some time on the beach while I stay back to tend to the farm.
As more people embrace an active outdoor lifestyle, growing food is a common part of their routine. They want more control over where their food comes from and how it's grown. In recent years, that desire for a more proactive role has led many people to move beyond just growing fruits and vegetables for themselves. With a productive food garden, the gateway into a new life of hobby farming often starts when gardeners begin selling their bounty to others, typically as a member supported food co-op. Yet the most recognized point of no return happens when animals are added - usually a few backyard chickens to start. They're a natural addition, easy to care for, fun to watch, and just like a homegrown tomato, you can't beat the flavor of a farm fresh egg.
For many suburbanites, space constraints, county or city ordinances, and even sub-division covenants can limit what sort of critters and quantity you can have on your property. Yet woe be the gardener that has no such restrictions. Next thing you know, gardening space is increasing, the flock is expanding, and you're thinking about what animals to add next. For us, it was goats. Sheep and rabbits are common additions, along with ducks, turkeys and pigs.
The romantic notion of hobby faming can prove to be a great move for those who are willing to take on the significant responsibility that follows. For others, failing to properly consider your new reality can spell disaster for you and everyone involved - especially the animals.
In my conversation with the three farming couples interviewed for this show, all were adamant about the significance of time required to properly care for even the smallest of farms when animals are added to the equation. With just growing food, weeds grow, pests and diseases find your crops and plants need watering. Yet even in a worst-case scenario, you simply start over next season. It rarely keeps you from taking vacations or losing money if just growing for yourself. Add animals to the equation and everything changes.
Beyond the need for fresh water and food every day, weather plays a significant role on their health and survival. The forces of nature will come fast and furious, without ceasing. Predators are everywhere. They strike from air and ground, and are tenacious at getting to your animals. Adequate protection is a must. New farmers often fail to realize just how critical this is until they lose an animal to a predator. It's only a matter of time. Any farmer will tell you that.
It's impossible to know everything you need to know before taking on even a small hobby farm. But all farmers I talked to agree, the best thing you can do is take it slow. It's tempting take it all on at once. But resist the urge. It's far too easy get overwhelmed quickly. Other advice included building a network of farmers that can mentor or help in a moment when you don't know what to do. This is especially true when animals get sick. The best advice is to learn on someone else's dime. Volunteer, intern or spend as much time as you can in a similar environment before committing to the same for yourself.
For the person not afraid of hard work, long days and a long-term commitment, there's no better life. The world we've created here at my farm for my family and me is one I wouldn't trade for anything. Every day is adventure. What we get in joy and satisfaction is far greater than the small price we pay each day for the joy of raising a few animals in a safe and humane environment, and living off the land with organically grown food we've raised ourselves.
Joe Lamp'l is the host and executive producer of Growing a Greener World on national public television.