When it comes to farming, the most common story told is one of land that a farmer can trace back through many generations of his or her family.
Growing up on the land you farm gives you an advantage when it comes to farming because you have long-standing knowledge of what that land has done in the past, how it has been used, and what it is capable of. But what happens when you are brand new to a piece of land?
For Joseph Monroe, he’s not new to farming but he is still in the getting-to-know-you phase at his farm, Valley Spirit in Henry County, which he has been on for just three years.
“I didn’t do much the first year, but I did grow up in the region so I knew a lot about it,” he said. “I knew a lot from similar properties. I knew what the soil types could do. There are definitely some special things about this farm that I had to figure out that were different, but I had a good start, I had a good leg up.”
He said farmers need to be observant in the beginning and listen to the land rather than try to force their will on it. Doing so allows them to learn where it floods, where the wind blows in, and simply how it works under various conditions. Having that knowledge can help you avoid preventable disasters.
“It’s so many little things that compound” Monroe said of learning your land. “One of the things I learned about this farm is that I had to do raised beds; this soil just doesn’t drain very well. If I don’t do raised beds, things might get flooded once or twice (a season).”
Working the soil deeply and raising it up allowed him to avoid losing any plants when several days of rain bucketed his farm in late May.
“I didn’t lose any crops,” he said. “If someone was growing on flat ground on this farm, their crops would have been under water. So just draining the water off, finding a way to do that was important.”
Monroe said he is slowly learning the best way to use his 118-acre farm.
“Most of this farm is pasture, it’s good for animals,” he said. “Only one acre is set aside for vegetables, and 117 acres are for cows and pigs. I had to learn how grass grows and how to mob graze, and how to finish beef with only grass.”
It’s been quite an education for someone who had never owned a cow before. “Now we have 50-60 in a year-and-a-half, which is going from zero to 60 really fast,” he said. “It all came from observing for a little bit.”
Water also has been part of Monroe’s learning curve.
“We don't have city water out here, so just figuring out how to get water from the pond into a drip irrigation system,” has been a challenge, he said. “I had to set the whole system up; I didn’t know how to do that.”
Monroe said community has been invaluable in getting his farm up and running.
“Another important thing was learning how important it is to have neighbors and a community when you come to a new place,” he said. “There are just some times when you need help, you can’t just do it alone.”