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Many urbanites dream of trading their hectic routines for the quiet life on a small farm. Few have actually attempted to make this swap, and fewer still have managed to succeed at making a living on a modest property.
Pete Larson and his family are among those who’ve successfully transitioned to making a living in the country. Pete and his wife, Hilarie, have three children under 18: Cora, Grace, and Henry. The family sells eggs and raises broilers, turkeys, hogs, and Dexter cattle to promote via a community-supported agriculture (CSA) program and local farmers markets. They’ve chosen Just A Few Acres Farm for the name of their 45-acre operation in the Finger Lakes region of west-central New York.
“This farm has been in our family since 1804, when it was deeded as a Revolutionary War plot,” Pete says. “I’m the seventh generation of our family to live here.” When Pete was young, the farm belonged to his grandfather. Pete’s parents lived next door and operated a commercial beef-raising operation.
“I loved Grandpa and spent a lot of time at his place,” Pete says. “Grandpa was born in 1901 and was chock-full of stories about how they did things back in the day. It really hit me hard when Grandpa passed away the year I was in third grade.” After high school, Pete enrolled at Syracuse University and pursued a degree in architectural design. “I was like most typical small-town boys. I couldn’t wait to get away from the farm and start living a fast-paced, glamorous life in the city,” Pete recalls. After graduation, Pete accepted a position with an architectural firm in Syracuse. He met and married Hilarie, who was working as a nurse.
Pete inherited the farm after his grandfather’s death, and in 1996, he and Hilarie moved their family onto the property and began restoring its dilapidated old farmhouse.
“Grandpa’s house had sat empty for almost 20 years and was in pretty tough shape,” Pete says. “The house was built in 1870 and was all original. It didn’t have any wiring or indoor plumbing. We did most of the renovation work ourselves. It took us 10 years, but we eventually got the house all fixed up.”
Meanwhile, Pete climbed the career ladder and was offered a partnership in his firm. “I enjoyed working on green architectural designs,” Pete says. He developed a philosophy and a set of values to bring people into harmony with nature. But despite these professional achievements, all wasn’t well. “After 20 years on the job, I decided that the field of architecture just wasn’t for me. I had a great job that gave me a lot of leeway, but I wasn’t happy. In February of 2013, I told my partners that I was taking a six-month leave from the firm. A couple of months into my leave, I raised and sold my first batch of broiler chickens. I was hooked. I never went back to my old job.”
Encouraged by this initial success, Pete began to seriously consider making a living solely from the income the family could glean from their farm. “By Labor Day of 2013, I’d made up my mind,” Pete says. “I sold out my interest in the firm, used the money to pay off our mortgage, and committed myself to farming full time. My goal was to have a small farming operation that’s totally self-sustaining. When I was a kid, the numerous small farms in our area were the bedrock of our local economy. I wanted to recreate that kind of farming operation.”
The Larsons took back the management of land that’d been leased to a local farmer and seeded it to a mixture of pasture grasses and legumes. “We have only 30 acres of pastureland,” Pete says. “Everyone was telling me that our farm was too small to make a go of it. But I like going against the grain.”
The Larsons knew cattle would convert their pasture grasses into beef they could market. The question was, which breed of cattle would be best suited to their operation?
“We have a friend who raises Dexter cattle, so we went to his farm to take a look at them,” Pete says. “Dexters are a heritage breed that originated in Ireland. They’re small and friendly and finish out really well on grass. The steaks are smaller, but our customers like that. Producing Dexter beef has enabled us to stand apart in the marketplace and helped us develop our niche. And it’s good to have a story to go with the food your farm produces.” Another plus is that Dexter cattle are a low-maintenance breed, and the Larsons haven’t had any calving problems with their heifers.
The family has created a series of paddocks and initiated rotational grazing with their herd of about 30 Dexter cattle. They control the movement of the herd with a series of inexpensive and easy-to-build electric fences. The Larsons raise broilers in portable chicken houses, or “tractors,” which are regularly moved to fresh patches of grass. Laying hens are given free access to pasture during warm months. The hens can enter a mobile laying house whenever they please.
Pete and Hilarie have adopted a pay-as-you-go system for their farming operation. “It’s critically important for a small farmer to have little to no debt,” Pete explains. “When we started out, we used money we’d saved to pay for our farming expenses. When we sold our products, we put the earnings into a farm account. Whenever we needed to buy something or build infrastructure, we took it out of the farm account. I estimated it would take five years for our farm to become financially self-sustaining. It took seven.”
Reducing personal expenditures is another monetary strategy the Larsons have adopted. “We’re living on about a third of what we did when we lived in Syracuse,” Pete says. “On the other hand, we don’t stop at Starbucks every morning for a latte and a scone. It was scary for the first few years, but Hilarie and the kids have been totally supportive.”
Bootstrapping a small farm means cutting costs wherever possible. “We only purchase machinery that’s been fully depreciated,” Pete says. “In other words, all of our machinery is old. But I happen to enjoy working on old machinery, so it’s a win-win for me. You have to be conservative if you’re going to make it on a small farm. You’ll never turn a profit if you run out and buy a bunch of new machinery. And we fertilize our land with manure that we’ve composted for a year. This has saved us the expense of buying chemical fertilizer. It’s also increased our soil’s organic matter and its overall health.”
The Larsons also turn to their neighbors for help and advice. “I grew up in this area, so I know all of the farmers in our neighborhood,” Pete says. “I network with them whenever I have a question or a difficult problem. It’s important to cultivate our connections with others in our farming community.”
Some of the skills Pete acquired during his previous career as an architect have proven useful in his farming operation. “I enjoy public speaking and interacting with people. I have an understanding regarding how to keep a business healthy and how to keep a customer happy. Those skills have been invaluable.” Pete’s public-speaking talents and his passion for sharing knowledge prompted him to start a YouTube channel. “I liked the public-speaking aspect of my old job, and the YouTube channel is another way to connect with people,” Pete explains. Most of the videos are viewed tens of thousands of times. “It’s like speaking to a full stadium. Hilarie and I are private people, and we don’t give tours of our farm. The videos are my way of engaging in agritourism.”
Operating a YouTube channel has some unique challenges and rewards. “It takes me 3 to 4 hours to edit each video,” Pete says. “It’s almost like having a part-time job. But it’s been a rewarding project. I’ve received a lot of positive comments from subscribers. One of my goals for the YouTube channel is to help people who want to start farming. I hope that others can benefit from my experiences.”
Pete’s advice for those who’d like to follow in his footsteps includes, “Start small, then grow your operation as you grow your market. Broilers are inexpensive and offer a quick turnaround on your investment. The amount of capital you need to buy land is awful, so hold down your overhead by renting land or by finding some marginal land. Be conservative and keep a tight lid on your expenses.”
Despite the years of struggle, Pete has no regrets. “I look forward to walking out my back door every morning,” he says. “That wasn’t so when I was working in the city.”
Jerry Nelson is a former dairy farmer who lives with his wife, Julie, on a South Dakota farm settled by Jerry’s great-grandfather in 1887. His book, Dear County Agent Guy, is available at www.Workman.com and bookstores nationwide.