Plan Your farm

Me working on our Flail mower

Every beginning farmer needs a farm plan before they get started. I am one to believe if you fail to plan, you plan to fail. I have come up with ten steps that will help you plan your farm.

Step 1: Decide what type of farm you want to have.

This is important for all beginning farmers. Knowing what type of farm you want to have before you buy your land can help you buy the right type of ground. When considering what type a farm you want, ask yourself how much time you plan to devote to the farm and how much money you will have to spend. Is this going to be a hobbie farm or are you going to farm full time and have to make a profit to support the family, or will you also have to have a job outside the farm. What type of animals you want to raise, or are you going to be a grain farmer. These are questions you need to ask yourself. For me this is going to be a hobbie farm. Trying to make a living on a small farm is a lot more work then I want to do when I retire. I want this to be fun. I am going to raise, grow, and hunt for most of my own food and I might supplement my retirement income  by selling some of what I grow at  farmers markets and selling a few feeder pigs and a cow or two a year. We are going to have a pasture based farm. What that means, We are going to raise breeds of cattle, pigs, and chickens, that do well just on pasture forage with no grains. They will  be hardy breeds that can live out doors all year round, that don’t need expensive barns  (I don’t want to incur debt to buy machinery and buildings). Pasture based farming is what my farm and pocket book is best suited for. Most of my farm ground floods about once a year, so trying to grow corn or soybeans wouldn’t work very well anyway. The only crop I am going to grow will be hay, so when the pasture has gone  dormant in the winter the animals will have hay to eat. Knowing what type of farm you are going to have before you buy your land can help you buy the right type of ground.

Step 2: Design your farm.

After buying your land design your farm. Know where your farm buildings and home are going to be. Plan were you will put up fencing and where your gates will go. Plan a space for your garden, and fruit and nut trees,  you get the idea. I have planed it all on paper and have even decided how will I devide my pasture for rotational grazing.

Step 3:  Stay out of Debt.

This is probably one of the most important steps. Most big and small farms fail because of too much debt. The land, buildings and machinery, even the seed and furtilizer cost lots of money and if you have to borrow for this, you could land youself in big trouble. When I retire to the farm I hope to be debt free. I borrowed from my 401 k to buy the land in 2009 at 3.5 % interest, and 5 years to pay myself back.  Iowa farm ground has gone up about 16% the last two years which was a lot better then what I was getting from the stock market and a lot less riskier. Everything I do now on the farm, I save up and pay cash as I go. I plan to build my home for under 75,000.00 and not have a mortgage. I will do that by building a home that is built like a pole barn (lots of homes and cottages are being built like that now in Iowa). I will have the outside constructed by an Amish crew and I will do most of the inside work to save costs. I know it can be done because a guy down the road from my farm built one just like the one I plan to build for that amount.

The same type of pole building house I plan to build.

Step 4: Live Frugally and Save. 

To stay out of debt, most of us have to learn to live more frugally and save to make our dream of being a farmer a reality. For us to do the things on the farm we want before we move there to start farming we need to save more money so we can pay as we go and not have to borrow any. When I bought the farm in Sept. 2009 we were living downtown Chicago in a rented condo on the 30th floor at Randolph and State St. Our rent was 1800.00 a month. So what we did to help make our dream a reality we bought a forclouser for 90,000 in a southern suburb. This cut our monthly payment in half, with the savings we created a savings account for a building fund for the farm. The house we bought is only 3 blocks from the train station from the train line I work on. We both work downtown Chicago and this allows us to save big on gas and wear and tear on our truck. It also allows us to only have one vehicle that saves on insurance, licsence plates, and city stickers. We also cut back on eating out, and started doing some of the maintance on our truck myself, like changing the oil, filters and spark plugs. Our vacations consist of going to the farm and working there to save money. Believe me if your spouse is not 100% behind this dream you will know when you start spending your vacations working on the farm.

Veiw from our condo downtown Chicago

Step 5: Learn to be a DIY kinda guy.

If you are not already a Do It Yourself kind of person you need to learn to be, or you will not make it as a farmer. Farmers are a jack of  all trades. Some of the trades framers do besides farming are, Rancher, Gardener, Husbandry, Veterinarian, Carpenter, Mechanic, Butcher, cheif and Laborer to name a few. You don’t have to know how to do everything, but must have a willingness to learn. The internet and books can help you do things if you are willing to try and that brings us to our next step.

My wife and I built this gate after learning how to do it on the internet.

Step 6: Educate yourself

Read, read, and read some more. I have always lived in the city and did not know much about farming, so to educate myself I started reading lots of farm books. Books like “Salad Bar Beef” by Joel Salaton, “The Contrary Farmer” by Gene Logsdon to name a few. I also read magazines that talk about everything from hobbie farming to gardening.  The next 3 years before I retire to the farm, I plan to keep educating myself by reading lots of  farm books and magazines. There are a ton of books about farming and every beginning farmer should read as many has he can before he starts to farm. Also go on line and to do research, find out what type of pasture and weeds you have on your farm. Its a great tool to use, that can show you how to do things like putting up fencing or working on your tractor. You can check out what type of farm animals that interest you, and what kind of care and space they need. There is everything you need to know about farming there, so use it to educate yourself.

Step 7: Talk to Other Farmers. 

Reading and online research are great tools to gain basic and in depth knowledge on many aspects of farming, but talking to other people  who have done and are still doing what you hope to do, can’t be replicated by reading books.  Even if you you live in the city like I do, you can join farm sites, where you can ask questions of farmers doing what you want to do. One of my favorite sites is TBN Tractors By the Net. They have a lots of people on there who post all kinds of things like working on our tractors to building lakes, to cutting hay, all aspects of farming, and most  are more then happy to help you  with any farm question you might have. Also join farm blogs of people who have already have done what you are about to do, they can be good for learning what works and don’t work.

Step 8: Get into Shape.

Farm work can sometimes be hard physical work. For those of you who have ever baled hay with the old fasioned square bales or who have built a pasture fence, or have mucked out a horse stall know what I am talking about. Before you start your farm ask yourself if you are physicaly able to preform these tasks, if not, get into shape. This is harder for me the older I get. I work out at least 3 times a week. I go to the gym and do 20 mins of cardio and then head to the weight room. Ater age 30 we loose 1 to 2 % of our muscile mass a year unless we are doing some type of resistance training. Find a excersise that you enjoy doing so you are more apt to stay with it. My dream of being a farmer is what motivates me to go to the gym.

Step 9:  Set Goals

After you have bought your land and know what type of farm you are going to have, start setting goals to turn your dream in to reality. I like to set goals for one year at a time. Make a list of what you want to get done for the first year and then get those done. Before each year starts my wife and I sit down and plan what we want to acomplish on the farm and set out a order and time frame we want to get them done. If you are building the farm from the ground up like we are, it won’t seem such a daunting task if you break it down one year at a time.

One of our goals for the first year was to plant some fruit trees, we planted some apple, pear, peach, and cherry trees. You see how we had to protect the trees from the many deer there.

Step 10: Have Fun.

For us going to the farm and working on our vacations to accomplish our goals is a lot of fun. We get a since of accomplishment and satisfaction to see the farm slowly progress, it dosn’t seem like work. My wife and I always look forward to going there, we enjoy the country side and seeing the different wildlife. Each time we go, we always say we can’t wait until we can live there. So have fun setting up your farm. If this dosn’t seem like fun to you then maybe you have to ask yourself why you are wanting to farm in the first place and if farming is really right for you.

I got a lot of help for these ten steps at a site that helps small farmers is Small Farms written by Lauren Ware at

Check them out.

About Gordon Milligan

I am a retired conductor for a commuter railroad in Chicago IL, I now live in and have bought a 40 acre farm in South Central Iowa that I have built from the ground up. My wife and I are trying to raise and grow most of my own food using sustainible and organic methods. I have a blog that journals my journey to becoming a farmer.
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9 Responses to Plan Your farm

  1. Jewels says:

    I love the design you have planned for your pole building, and props to you and your wife on the awesome fence you two built! I’m jealous of all the fruit trees.

  2. Jewels says:

    I mean “gate” 😉

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  6. Isabella Goll says:

    We are now working on our plan to find property build a pole barn home and become pickle farmers. We are looking for a piece of property that has its water and good soil for planting. I love your blog and pole barn home. I currently live in suburbia and dream of becoming a farmer.

    • Hi Isabella, I know how you feel I was in your place not too long ago, living in a big city and dreaming of becoming a farmer. We are now currently building our home and hope to start the farming part next spring. I hope you do follow your dream to become a farmer, I have been living that dream now for the last 4 months and I have to say it has been the most satisfying days of my life. Good luck and keep in touch.

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