8 Ways to Improve Your Farm Skills
Bottom Line Up Front: When it comes to farming or homesteading, there are several ways to improve your skills and abilities. Books, mentors, workshops, working on other farms, and managing your workload are among the various ways to achieve self-improvement.
I'd bet a steak dinner that if you're a small farmer or a homesteader you have some sort of new project (or projects) lined up, whether on paper or in your head. We always want to be doing something, and we want to improve our operation. But have you ever stopped and asked how to really improve? Do you ever feel like maybe you're spinning your wheels and not making much progress toward the goals you have? We all find ourselves in a rut from time to time, or feel like we reached a plateau and can't find the traction needed to move ahead. So what to do? There are the 8 things I do to keep my gears turning and improve my skills used on our farm.
1. Attend a Workshop or Conference.
If you think talking to your neighbor once a week about the weather is good networking and idea sharing, then maybe it's time to branch out. Workshops, conferences, and conventions are great ways to get engaged with new ideas and meet others who may be able to help you in reaching your goals.
Workshops typically focus on one subject and may range from a short seminar to a weekend-long event with hands-on training. I look at workshops as a great way to brush up on skills and knowledge I may not regularly put to work on my farm, and there's the opportunity to meet others in my area who are engaged in similar enterprises. And they don't demand much time. As such, I'm willing to attend workshops that cover topics which I may not be directly involved in but might be considering.
Conferences and conventions are bigger affairs, usually lasting several days. While they require time and usually a larger financial commitment to attend, the payoff is exposure to a wide variety of topics, presentations by subject matter experts, and opportunities to network with other producers beyond your immediate area.
Check with your county extension office or your state agriculture department website to see what workshops are offered in your area. You may also find workshops offered by local groups that wouldn't be advertised through the extension office - Facebook groups are a great place to look. In Texas, you can find extension service events at this link, and there are also Texas Agrability training events which can be found here.
I also encourage you to check out the Small Business Administration's (SBA) resources. They host many workshops all over the country geared toward assisting and training small business owners. When you're running a farm, you are not just a farmer, but you are a operating a small business. SBA classes will help get your mindset right for understanding resources available to you and give you advice on how to succeed in making money.
2. Check Out Some Books From Your Library.
We are library folks in our house. The public library system is one of the most underutilized tools we have available for improving our knowledge. It's understandable - experts discussing and demonstrating nearly any topic can be found on YouTube, and the internet has countless resources available to us. They're great, and I use them daily. But there is something different about a book. A deep dive into a topic by someone with extensive knowledge and experience that took months, or even years, to complete. A book is without flashing advertisements and other distractions that undermine your ability to retain information.
Pick books on business and entrepreneurship, leadership, or technology. These are topics that can help you improve your ability to run a farm successfully.
There may be obvious book choices for reading, something that discusses the kind of agriculture enterprises you are involved in. But I encourage you to consider reading books outside your normal areas of interest to expand your knowledge. Perhaps your focus is on producing vegetables. Maybe pick up a book on beekeeping or livestock production. Not interested in that? Then maybe look at other sorts of produce, like fruit orchards or raising olives.
Or even get out of the topic of agriculture altogether. Pick books on business and entrepreneurship, leadership, or technology. These are topics that can help you improve your ability to run a farm successfully.
3. Take a Class, Attend a Training Program.
If you want to learn a new skill or improve your knowledge, there is hardly a better way than attending a class or training program. There are countless options for furthering your education and training these days. Perhaps you'd like to learn welding - an excellent skill to have on any farm. My local community college offers six week classes on welding, and chances are there is a nearby college to you that would offer classes like this. Carpentry, fabrication, business planning, agricultural management - there are many options.
The local college is not the only avenue either. I took part in an agricultural training program aimed at teaching business planning to military veterans who are either new to farming or thinking about going into it. We met just once in person for a weekend seminar, then we took part in online classes, webinars, and assignments for several months. This allowed me flexibility to learn at my own pace.
For an in-depth agricultural training program, I recommend looking at the Holistic Management International (HMI) website. They offer numerous agricultural management courses with various goals in mind.
4. Find a Mentor.
Watching Joel Salatin videos online are fine, and reading all the books you can find on farming is great. But there's nothing as beneficial to improving your knowledge and skills as working side by side with a mentor.
Mentors are people willing to share their experiences with you and show you how to accomplish your goals. Mentors don't just teach you, they show you what you are capable of doing. They are willing to help when you need it. And if you have pursued farming for more than, oh about an hour, you know how valuable it is to have someone you can turn to for help.
So how do you get a mentor? Well, you don't have to make it weird. In other words, don't go up to the old farmer across the road and say, "will you be my mentor?" It doesn't need to be anything more than asking someone you look up to if he or she would be willing to help you improve your operation. Odds are you'll find very willing would-be mentors all around you. While there are curmudgeons out there to be avoided, you'll find most folks like to help and share their experiences with others.
5. Work on Another Farm.
Why do you plant your vegetables the way you do? Why do you manage your animals' feed the way you do? If your answers to these kinds of questions is "because that's how we've always done it," then it might be wise to get a different perspective. New perspectives help you in the way you look at and solve problems. A great way to get a fresh perspective is to spend time working on someone else's farm or ranch.
Spending a little time on another operation will give you insight on different ways to accomplish a task. And you can always learn something on any farm, even if it's not an operation like yours. Do this enough and inevitably you'll have an aha moment (or several) and see a better way to do things on your own farm.
It's as easy as asking a fellow farmer in the area if you can help out for a day or two. He or she will be happy for the help and in most cases eager to share with you how they run their operations. Perhaps it's time for harvest or taking animals in for processing where you may want to jump in and do work, in any case it'll be valuable to get experience outside of what you know. And be sure to refuse payment if it's offered - the payment is the fresh perspective you're getting.
6. Take a Break.
Start listing out all the things that need to be done on your farm or homestead. There are recurring tasks (planting, harvesting, milking, feeding), and there are maintenance tasks (tractor won't start, fence needs mending, trailer tire is flat). Likewise you have a list of goals you want to achieve (plant flowers, add a farm store, put down gravel on the driveway, add laying hens to the farm). The list is likely never-ending, populated with big and small to-do items. And most all of us are wired to go, go, go... don't stop until it's done. If this is you - and it likely is - then consider slowing down and taking a little break.
Cutting your brain off from the farm grind is kind of like rotational grazing with your animals - like the pasture the cows just finished grazing, your mind needs to recover.
We have a family vacation planned every year. It's nothing fancy or exotic, usually just a few days at the nearby lake or heading down to the Texas coast, but it's immensely valuable to my mental state and ability to think clearly about our farm. Usually by the time our vacation is planned, my mind is a jumbled mess of to-do lists, and quite frankly, inefficient at thinking through problems. After a few days away, disconnected from all the tasks I'm fretting about, my mind settles. It's like hitting the reset button, and I return refreshed with clarity about what I need to work on next.
Can you get away for a few days? If not, can you disconnect for a weekend or a Saturday? Take a day trip with the family, and don't talk about the farm. Cutting your brain off from the farm grind is kind of like rotational grazing with your animals - like the pasture the cows just finished grazing, your mind needs to recover.
7. Add a New Operation.
New challenges are great ways to expand your abilities. Let's say you want to raise chickens, but you've never done it before. Like most people you'll probably start researching chickens. You'll watch videos on YouTube, check out books on raising backyard birds, you'll talk to your neighbor who has them. All along the way you're learning and expanding your knowledge. Then you get the chickens and the learning curve with managing them continues to go straight up. Every day presents new problems to solve, new behaviors to observe, and new lessons learned. After a year, you'd think back to where you were just 12 months prior in knowledge level and abilities, and you realize how much you've grown.
Maybe it's not a brand new revenue stream, but perhaps changing how you run an operation. Let's say you have cows and you want to start rotating them to new paddocks on a daily basis, but you've never done that and haven't used electric fence before. Same as the chicken example above; you'll research, you'll ask questions, you'll do it, and you'll learn and get better along the way.
8. Remove an Operation.
Perhaps you got to #7 above and thought, Pphhfhhptft! I don't have enough time to take care of what I'm already doing, much less add something new! Well, then maybe taking something off your plate will help.
The problem with being a "Jack of All Trades" is the inevitable "Master of None" caveat to that phrase. We can't do it all, although we truly want to. When we first started on our own little farm adventure I was enrolled in an ag training program that helped farmers and ranchers create business plans. In my first business plan draft I basically said we're going to raise everything imaginable, and we're going to do it right away. It didn't take long for me to see the folly in that pursuit, and we settled on starting with one thing and getting proficient with it before adding another operation.
Instead of eliminating a line of effort altogether, downsizing an operation could improve your ability to get things accomplished. I think back to the heyday of my dad's peanut farming. He leased lots of land all over the area to raise peanuts. It was a logistical nightmare, moving equipment from one farm to another, dealing with different landlords and different infrastructure at each location. It created endless stress and strain. His productivity suffered as a result. When he later downsized to just one location he was able to improve the efficiency of his farming.
I have not met you, but I'm guessing we're similar. We both are ambitious and enthusiastic about our farms, and we both want to be the best we can at what we choose to do. These 8 tips are all ways I believe we can continue improving and getting better along the way. What would you add to the list?
The Maverick Acres Blog: Tips and Strategies for Success on Small Farms and Homesteads.