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Farming 101: Reality Check Results in a Challenge

AphotoofColleenNewquistAh, reality. At this weekend’s Central Illinois Farm Beginnings class, it made a strong appearance.

In the previous two weeks, I’d spent time pondering the vision and mission for my business, with the help of worksheets provided by Purdue Extension. It was time well spent.

I clarified my overall goals and values, deducing that I want to connect people to their food in a meaningful way and create a unique, engaging, and educational experience around my farm. My “farm enterprise,” I’ve been calling it, because it has taken on dimensions beyond farming.

What I envision is not just land that I farm, but plots that I rent to people interested in growing their own food but who might not have access their own land, and who would enjoy learning to farm within a community of like-minded people. The enterprise will include raising livestock for meat and dairy. We’ll have a commercial kitchen for baking, canning, and cheese-making, and a climate-controlled room for aging cheese and sausages. We’ll have a retail shop on premises to sell all that we produce. And, since my husband is an artist, we’ll also have an art gallery—and since he has trained as a barista, maybe even a coffee shop! 

But wait, there’s more! We’ll bring in young chefs to give cooking lessons. Once a month, we’ll host fabulous dinners featuring food from our farm or other local farms. It will be a destination, a magical place that makes visitors feel warm, welcome, and part of a terrific community. 

Don’t you wish you were there right now?

Excited about having this big picture in place, and buoyed by the fact that there is a couple successfully combining farming and art at the Wormfarm Institute in Wisconsin, I headed off to class feeling good that I know what I want to do. The topic of the day was doing a SWOT analysis, identifying the Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats to our farm business ideas.

Strengths came first. I had a list of about 20 or so, from having strong communication skills and marketing experience to knowing when to ask for help.

Then came weaknesses. A much shorter list, but the items on it revealed serious issues: No farm. No farming experience. No experience with livestock. No money to buy a farm in the near future. Debt.

Then came the assignment: Have a proposal for our farm business ready to share with farmers for evaluation in two weeks. Two weeks!  

The proposal should include our vision, mission, and personal goals; a map of our proposed farm; rough estimates for one or two enterprises (such as selling eggs and/or selling chickens for meat); and a rough plan of how we will market our products.

Ah, reality. Hello. 

On the drive home, I couldn’t decide if I felt like a deer in headlights or a deer who can’t stop herself from leaping onto the road and into the side of semi. Either way the fate of my dream seemed bleak, mirrored in the long, dark-red streaks I kept seeing on the highway.

Lucky for me, my list of strengths also includes determination, not afraid of hard work, and embracing creative problem solving.

I thought over my lists again, and moved one of my listed weaknesses to my strengths: the half-acre lot we live on. It’s mostly wooded, shady, and half of it slopes sharply down to a creek, but work with what you’ve got, I told myself. Figure out how to turn this far-from-ideal-for-farming suburban plot into a mini-business, and scale it up to farm-size when the time is right.


Welcome to Half-Acre Farm. 


I’m now researching what might grow in this space, starting with the 12-by-24-foot garden that gets maybe four to six hours of sunlight. (Skip the fruit-bearing vegetables like tomatoes and squash, I’ve already learned, but greens, herbs, and root vegetables might do OK.) 

I had already planted winter rye in an attempt to improve the soil (clay fill that was packed in—and I mean packed in—after the in-ground swimming pool was destroyed last summer.)  


The rye will grow through the winter, and I’ll cut it down and till it in come spring. I’ve also started composting, creating a bin for us and one for our neighbors, who are happy to contribute.


I need to plan for chickens next. Where this shed is located seems like a perfect spot for a coop that I could keep fairly secure from raccoons, coyotes, and foxes.  


But as I learned today from John Franzese, who provides the most excellent Fran’s Farm Fresh Eggs to our South Suburban Food Co-op, it’s not enough to have a secure coop. I need to consider, too, how to protect chickens from hawks, which are in abundance in these woods. He keeps a couple turkeys as deterrent, although he said owls are not afraid to take those bigger birds down—and we’ve got lots of owls, too!

I’ve also started looking into mushrooms, since this environment seems like a natural (wild varieties are always popping up in the yard.)


Suddenly, what seemed like the easier solution—working with what I’ve got rather than creating a hypothetical, non-existent situation—is seeming not so easy at all. Which is good. (My optimism is out of control.) I believe that if I can work this out and actually create a feasible, profitable business, no matter how miniscule that profit may be, I’ll be better prepared for full-time farming than had I worked with an imaginary, idealistic setting.

Reality, bring it on! I'm ready for the challenge.

I think. 

I hope. 

Can I do it?

I’ll keep you posted. 

chuck mallory
11/1/2011 9:32:44 PM

Go for your dream. I can tell you there are a lot of people in Chicago who are followers of Henry's Farm in central Illinois, and the Prairie Fruits Farms "dinner on the farm" events are always sold out. City people want to learn about canning, growing vegetables, etc. It might seem far away to attract to Chicago-area metro people but believe me, I know they are going to central Illinois for things like this.

nebraska dave
10/26/2011 5:54:11 PM

Colleen, I wouldn't lose the dream because that's what keeps us alive and working hard. Life has a way of twisting and turning in the most unusual ways. I've had a dream for years about a large garden. Much larger than my five garden beds in the backyard. It has definitely been a learning experience to get as much as I can from five 4X8 beds. Just this year I discovered my city had a department with a Website called "Land Reutilization Commission." This commission takes the foreclosed property in the city and puts them out for bid. After cruising the list for a couple months, I found the best garden property for the money. It would difficult to build a house on the property but it's great for gardening. It measures 160' by 168'. Not all of it is tillable but enough to keep me busy for years to come. My dream is to have enough food to store away for myself and then give the rest away to others. Possibly supply the homeless shelters with fresh vegetables. The only caveat is there's no water on the property. Ah, but then, there's another dream. I see another bigger gravity feed watering system on the project list. Colleen, all you have to do is start doing something and it just seems to grow from there. Good luck with your dreams that WILL become reality sooner than you think. Have a great planning day.

almost country_1
10/26/2011 12:09:03 PM

Thanks, Cindy!I appreciate the support!

cindy murphy
10/25/2011 6:49:20 PM

Hi, Colleen. I've been trying to impress on my oldest daughter (the I-know-all-there-is-to-know age of sixteen) the difference between fantasy, dreams, and reality. Fantasies rarely come true; on the other hand, it is very possible for dreams to become reality with some optimism, determination, and hard work. And it sounds as if you've got all that! Best wishes to you!