The realities of starting a farm from scratch

This topic will be discussed as part of our online bonfire on July 14 at 7:30pm, “New to Farming – Learning from Experience.”

Growing up, Louise* had always wanted to become a farmer, just like her grandfather. That was until the creeping realisation that owning a farm is hard, if you don’t have any land to start off with.

Louise wasn’t in the line of succession. So, for a long time she parked her dreams and went on to become a solicitor. But, in her late 20s, the farm dream came back and she couldn’t shake it.

“It was probably when my husband and I started thinking about having kids. We were living in Geelong, but whenever I pictured children, it was always on a farm,’ she said.

“My husband, Richard, is also a lawyer and is originally from Melbourne, so there really wasn’t much farming skills between us.”

Despite this, the couple started working and volunteering on farms in their spare time and later bought 90 acres, one hour west of Geelong.

“So many people said to us, it can’t be done. They’d say, ‘what’s the point of running 25 cows on 90 acres? You won’t make enough profit’,” she said.

Six years later, the couple now runs hundreds of sheep and cattle on more than 600 acres.

Louise admits it wasn’t easy. Financially, she and her husband both had to continue working their regular jobs, while running up to the farm on weekends and hiring help.

During that time, Louise and Richard also started a family.

“It was an incredible juggle. And if I’m honest, there were days I felt driven and then days I felt so stressed out” Louise said.

“Chasing my dream was putting a lot of pressure on my family and at one point I nearly sold our land and gave up altogether.”

The workload of starting out and running a farm can be high, but there are ways of planning and managing the work that can reduce work-related stress. Louise’s turning point came, when she applied for and was awarded a Young Farmers Scholarship, which gave her a framework for running the business, improved her grazing management and connected her to the broader farming community.

“There are just so many things you don’t know, when you start farming from scratch. I would definitely encourage anyone considering entering farming to explore the opportunities that are out there for training. You don’t have to do a degree—there are lots of short courses and hands-on learning opportunities.”

“But on the mental health side, the scholarship program also put the business into perspective. I learnt how to better manage and operate the farm. This in turn gave me more of a sense of control in how to design and manage the farm work and farming as a way of life, which reduced my work-related stress.” Louise said.

“We had been so fixated on the bottom line and proving everyone wrong, we almost forgot about why we got into farming in the first place. It enabled me to prioritise time for family and for myself.”

The tree-change movement has taken off in the past decade and even more so recently, under Covid-19.

Melissa Connors created This Farm Needs A Farmer, to connect aspiring farmers with farmer mentors. She says the early years can be incredibly stressful and that she often receives phone calls from distressed newcomers, saying “What have I done?”

“These words immediately transport me back to when we first moved onto our rural property, 8 years ago when we knew nothing, knew no one and the only tools we owned were a set of screw drivers and a hammer,” Melissa said. Melissa says people move from the city with an idyllic picture of rural life, not realising all the infrastructure they’ll need to put in (such as sewage, drains, bores etc.)

This is not to discourage people from chasing their farming dreams, but to be more realistic about how long it can take to create a liveable home and a profitable farm. Connecting with mentors and training opportunities can help to manage expectations regarding workload and other aspects of farming and fishing life – proper preparation and early decision making can reduce future stress, be it financial or personal, and maintain a healthy primary production workplace for both those in charge and those employed.

Sam Marwood of Cultivate Farms, told the Beyond the Farmgate podcast  that aspiring farmers are increasingly using vendor finance.

“No one is born being a doctor, or a lawyer or an accountant, they figure it out and they go train and they get there,” Sam said.

And that’s what we want to say to the next generation, is if you’ve got this desire to produce things, farming is an option and ownership is absolutely an option,” he said.  “It’s just going to be hard work and you will have to be a bit creative to get there.”

For Louise, she now realises that the hard work she put in early on, should never have come at the cost of her mental health. Louise has come to see just how important it is to prevent risks to mental health from the start. She’s also learnt how valuable good staff can be in supporting her goal of running a successful business, and she makes a big effort to ensure that workers are treated well, feel valued and have a say in how the farm is run – all factors that can help to retain staff and create a mentally healthy workplace for workers too. After all, they often have a lot more knowledge and experience than Louise.

Workplaces impact mental health but there are ways to design and manage work to reduce the risk of work-related stress and create mentally healthy workplaces. Looking at Worksafe Victoria’s guide on managing work-related stress, Louise had set unreasonably high work demands for herself and before having a business plan, she had low levels of control over her work.

These days, Louise is still working towards her dream of building up her own farm, but values her mental health and well-being just as highly.

“Just as we want a sustainable farm, we need a sustainable way of working,” she said.

This blog is part of the Primary Producer Knowledge Network led by the National Centre for Farmer Health to promote mentally healthy workplaces. Campfire, part of The Primary Producer Knowledge Network, is funded by the Victorian State Governments WorkSafe WorkWell Mental Health Improvement Fund.

Join the online bonfire session, “New to Farming: Learning from Experience” on July 14 to hear more from Melissa Connors, Julie Crowle and Josie Zilm about strategies for managing and designing their workload to reduce work-related stress in their primary production workplaces.

*Primary producers featuring in this blog are fictional, but based on research interviews with farmers, and developed with the assistance of the National Centre for Farmer Health