Michael’s story is fascinating. It’s the story of a brilliant kid destined for Wall Street. Okay, so maybe others thought he was destined for Wall Street. He had something else in mind entirely — farming.
Why farming? Why not start up a small business that will become worth billions? When asked that, Michael said, “It was really the only thing that made sense to me. I wanted to make something, create something of value. Farming allows me to produce something that’s useful, that matters, but that isn’t extractive, or exploitative. How many things can you really say that about? It’s satisfying for that reason. Plus, it’s a lot of fun.”
The Ethicurean interviewed Michael this week, and I was impressed. A few of my favorite excerpts:
How did you get started?
First I started reading, doing a lot of research into whether I could really make it work. And I was surprised to find that there were alternative ideas in agriculture that were actually sustainable in a financial sense…where you could actually make enough money to do it again after the first year. I had been to Caretaker Farm, a small CSA in Massachusetts, and so had a model of a small, successful farm in my head. A lot of the reading I was doing was about livestock and intensive management, intensive grazing, raising beef and poultry and pigs out on pasture. I read a ton of writers, including Joel Salatin. He is very optimistic, really gives you the idea that you can do it, which is refreshing.
Then I thought, I should work on a couple of farms, figure out how this works. ATTRA puts together a great database of farm apprenticeships. I started looking for something in the Northeast that has a similar climate to where I wanted to end up. I ended up on Homestead Farms, outside of Troy, New York. They raise chickens and turkeys and pigs on pasture, they have a small grass-fed beef herd. They have a 100-member CSA, so I was like “OK, I can cover everything in one stop.” I finished teaching and started up there the next week.
I was like, “Well, this is different from what I’ve been used to.” But it was great. I worked there for one season, then I apprenticed a second season at Maple Wind Farm in Vermont. They do similar stuff, but more meat, fewer vegetables. I learned a lot about meat.
Then you felt ready?
[Laughing] No way. But I didn’t see many ways that I would get much more ready, either. I felt like, “OK, I’m not ready, I’m never going to be ready until I’ve already done it and screwed up a bunch of things.” I just had to go ahead and do it.
What mistakes did you make along the way?
Horrible things. I mean, some of them weren’t huge mistakes — I didn’t plant enough eggplants, but that’s no big deal. Others were awful. For example, the first day we were killing chickens: we were so focused on the chickens and so worried about how we would screw that up. And that actually went really well. But then at about 2 that afternoon, we realized that we hadn’t vented the greenhouse at all that day. We fried everything in there; it was probably 200 degrees when we went in. We had probably 30 flats of starts that were just totally crisp. We had 50 tomato plants that we had just put in there that were totally brown and dead.
Another time, we lost about 80 chicks one day. We had them in an outdoor brooder that we had set up, and we had propped open the top for ventilation. But the wind blew, and knocked it closed while we were out in the fields. It was brutally hot that day; we checked on them about an hour later, but it was already too late. Maybe three out of eighty survived — it was pretty miserable. It sucks to bury chickens when they’re so little. It just sucks.
So, yeah, we’ve had some screw-ups. I’m sure we’ll have more, but I can tell you this: those mistakes, at least, aren’t ones we’ll be making again.
So, if you’ve ever daydreamed about farming or even think it might be in your future, go read Michael’s interview. What an inspiring guy.
(photos by squarerootsfarm@wordpress)
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