The Financial Challenges of Subsistence Farming

After this summer, Amanda will be a retired professor. At 56, she is young to be leaving teaching, but her colleagues who have preceded her into retirement are unanimous: “Do it! You’ll never regret it.” I believe they are right; I believe we will be glad we have made the decision to become farmers. But I’m scared about having less money to spend.


I will continue my legal practice from Longleaf Breeze. I’m fortunate that I can conduct my practice exclusively by telephone and Internet now, and I believe most (not all, but most) of my revenue will continue. The modest income we receive from advertising on our web sites will continue. And Amanda will begin collecting her pension from Samford when she is no longer working. Put all that together, however, and we’re looking at a roughly 30% pay cut.

We expect that both of us will opt to begin collecting Social Security at age 62. That’s six and seven years away, respectively. At that point, we expect the additional income from Social Security to help us with the income gap and remove some of the financial pressure. So realistically, we expect the greatest financial stress will come during this 6-7 year period during which our incomes will be decreased.

I must say at the outset that it seems a tad self-indulgent for me to be publicly agonizing over a 30% drop in our income when I know others are dealing with much worse. I know we’re going to be okay. Perhaps instead of saying as I did above that “I’m scared” about having less money, I should be saying that we will need to begin looking at money differently. And I believe the challenges we face are not unlike those others will face soon, so I have authorized myself to presume that you care about this.

Amanda and I have a shared narrative of pain dealing with money. When we first moved to the house where we have now lived for 26 years, we agreed to a large mortgage payment, and then Amanda lost her teaching position. Without appointment to do so, I became the money cop of our family, constantly reminding Amanda and our two children of what we could not afford to do, complaining about purchases already made that I thought extravagant, and generally making myself an unpleasant companion for everyone. Reacting to what she perceived as miserly behavior on my part, Amanda carefully worked to keep me in the dark about what she was spending, particularly things she bought for our children. Mercifully, that sordid chapter of our lives ended as our incomes increased, but the memory of that dynamic is still searing for both of us. We don’t want to go back anywhere near that place again.

So our focus is less about “how can we spend less money?” and more about “how can we maintain our love, joy, and affection for each other even while coping with a new financial reality?” This therefore becomes less a financial challenge and more a relationship challenge.

Whenever we talk about managing our money challenge, Amanda and I approach it differently. Her first thought is always about new sources of revenue, and mine is always about things we can do to spend less. We know that; we know that we always have these complementary philosophies, and we choose to view them as a strength of our marriage rather than a challenge to it. So as I think through this, I will think first as if I were Amanda and search for new revenue. I will then think as if I were Lee and search for ways to spend less. I will finish with the most important piece, how we can nurture our love even while coping with the new financial challenges we face.

How can we bring in more money? Amanda is a Qualified Administrator (QA) authorized to conduct the Intercultural Development Inventory. This is a hot area right now, so we know Amanda could market herself to companies and organizations who want to help their employees deal more sensitively and competently with people in and from other cultures. Her income from this work would be modest, at least at first, and it would divert her attention from what both of us believe will be a busy growing schedule at a time when my attention will already be diverted by my legal work. And for Amanda to remain certified as a QA, we expect she would soon be required to attend training events that would require expensive travel and high fees, so she would either need to do this in a big way or (eventually) not do it at all.

We know that we enjoy modest income from our web sites now, primarily from the ads that appear on them. As we build the readership of this site and my divorce site, we hope and expect that revenue would increase somewhat. However, this is the slowest of slow builds. It took my divorce site 7-8 years before it began to produce a reliable revenue stream, so we don’t hold out hope that we will see any instant increase in revenue from this new site. It takes time, naked women, or a lot of advertising, and neither of us is willing to do either of the latter, so in our case, it’s going to take time.

I could ramp up my legal practice. We’ve known for years that I could make more money by broadening my practice beyond its present narrow focus on divorcing couples who are able to be reasonably cooperative. However, that would divert even more of my attention from the work we need to be doing at the farm, and it would also require that I maintain some form of off-farm office. One of the advantages of the approach we are taking to the management of my legal practice at Longleaf Breeze is that the additional expense load of it is so small. To open up the practice to other work would force us to forfeit many of those advantages.

There remains a possibility that I could add some other service that could be conducted without opening an off-farm office. Both of us will remain open to that, but we have not hit on an appealing option yet.

Could we sell products from the farm? That’s certainly what our friends think we could do. One of our farming friends has recommended we grow a high-value vegetable like artichokes or asparagus. We’re not close-minded about it (remember, one of our three simple principles is that we don’t make allness statements), but our tentative assumption right now is that the poor soil at Longleaf Breeze is more suited to the subsistence farming we have planned to pursue (small crops, low-cost inputs, small yields, lots of personal attention) than to a volume commercial crop.

Knowing as we do the way muscadines and blueberries grow in our area, several of our city friends have suggested that we bottle wine commercially. Again, no allness statements, but we know the wine business is exceedingly tricky, so we would have to begin very slowly and feel our way, and we also know there are regulatory challenges that may make a small-scale winery almost impossible to operate successfully. So there you have it on the revenue side. Many options, each with some advantages and disadvantages, and none that you would say is sure to be a success.

How can we spend less money? First, let’s state the obvious: this is our long-term strategy, so we would be focusing on this even if money were not a challenge. Another of our three simple principles is that we are approaching but will never reach subsistence. And we have agreed that this will take the form of our working to spend less each year off the farm. To the extent we focus additional time and attention on reducing our spending, we would simply be speeding up the timetable for a process to which we’re already committed.

As I’ve already noted above, my business expenses will be dramatically lower. My revenue will be lower too, but our hope is that we will save more than we lose in revenue. I will not have the expense of an office, nor will I have the expenses that go with it like additional telephones, furniture, or Internet access. We will spend less money keeping up a 600 sq. ft. apartment than we spend now maintaining a 2300 sq. ft. house. We don’t yet know exactly how much less, but we know it will be less. We hope to spend dramatically less on electricity, for example, because we hope not to use the little window air conditioner in our apartment and because we will use our wood stove for heat.

We will save most of the crushing travel expense we have had recently shuttling between our home in Vestavia Hills and Longleaf Breeze, on average one round trip per week of 240 miles or so. And we will spend less money traveling to California to see our children and our grandchild, not because we want to curtail that travel but because we must.

Over time, we will pay less for food, of course, because we hope to raise more and more of it ourselves. But at the beginning of our learning curve, we will still be dependent of food we buy. It would be unrealistic to expect our food budget to decline dramatically anytime soon. What we can do, of course, is to concentrate on buying large volumes when prices are low and quality is high, and freezing, drying or canning for use later.

Neither of us will need to spend as much as we have in the past on clothing. Amanda will spend about as much as she ever has on grooming; I’m not going to try and take that one on, and if you do, please give me advance notice so I can be well out of firing range when you do. I cut my own hair and have no grooming expense, so there will no savings there.

As I have already told you near the end of this post, getting robust Internet service on the farm is a challenge. We can get satellite service, but we would be paying about what we’ve paid in the city for distinctly slower and stingier service. We’re going to try to get by on our cellular Internet service at first. If we can make that work, that will represent a small cost savings. Satellite TV service will cost a tad less, because we have agreed to forego HBO and Showtime, but we will probably spend most of the savings on beefing up our Netflix subscription.

We will also save some money on taxes and tithing, just because our income will be less.

How can our love survive and thrive? Okay, now we’re getting to what matters. Neither of us is a huge spender. Having two professional incomes has freed us up so both of us can spend pretty much whatever we want without worrying about money. It’s been nice, but we think it’s about to end. Fortunately or unfortunately, whether we like it or not, we will need to make more financial decisions together.

When I grew up, my father kept my mother in the dark about finances. He had money stuck here and there that she didn’t know about, and quietly built up savings while telling her they had nothing. I don’t have any desire to do that because it just wouldn’t feel right, and Amanda wouldn’t let me get by with it even if I wanted to. So we will need to find some way for us both to know how much each of us is bringing in and how much each of us is is spending. Yet at the same time we want to avoid having every conversation turn to money. What could be more dreary than that?

We will have to live with less spontaneity about money. For years, Amanda has had her checking account and I have had mine; I haven’t paid much attention to her spending, and she hasn’t worried much about mine. Now that will need to change. We may continue to maintain separate accounts, but neither of us will have the freedom to spend from them the way we did before. And credit cards will present all kinds of issues as well. We will need to have a good clear understanding about who can incur what charges on credit cards so nobody gets a big surprise.

I think we can make this work. I think it’s going to be harder than we now realize, but we will figure it out together.

Because of her teaching load, Amanda is having to forego posting on Longleaf Breeze until her classes adjourn. I hope that when she begins posting she will share with you her take on these financial issues. It will certainly be different from mine, and she will have insights about things I don’t understand. Her classes end in mid-May.

1 thought on “The Financial Challenges of Subsistence Farming”

  1. How can we bring in more money?
    Farm products:

    From what I know about your soil at this moment, it sounds to me like you may have difficulty with a cash CROP. Except for perhaps something like watermelons which will grow almost anywhere(see my other post for more on this) and your fruit trees and bushes, which may take a while to establish. However, there is still hope. Most of the income from farming in our fair state comes from animals(to my knowledge). Alabama and always been(in the recent past anyway) a big cattle state, though this is not well known outside the people who actually have cattle and certainly almost all of the farmers from my home area had large herd of cattle, chicken houses, or some combination of both though they tend to also have large gardens for their families. Animal husbandry is well suited to locations with soil that is too poor for other uses; especially animals that are good foragers. You have a good bit of acreage and I think that your best bet for farm income is in animals. With all the space you have at the very least you could produce all of your own meat. Many animals are excellent foragers and with your large space, would require very very little or no store bought feed except perhaps depending on the animal during the winter. I wouldn’t expect to have to feed much of anything because the winters in Central Alabama are so mild(and likely to become more so with climate change) Also, you could grow a decent crop of corn too feed animals during the winter if that was necessary at all; feed corn is left to dry in the field so it requires almost no attention after becoming established. Also, corn is a crop that serves twice over as feed since the the dried stalks can be harvested for fodder or animals can simply be turned in on the field to feast thereby mowing down the corn and fertilizing the field with manure in one simple easy stroke.

    Goats: With some quick research I found that goats are the highest yield per acre meat animal(except maybe emu’s but there isn’t as much research or market for them) In addition to having one of the highest yields, they need not be feed if you keep your heard small. Goats are excellent foragers and will eat almost anything green that they can reach(trees, grasses, briars, various weeds) including many things that other animals avoid. I have seen goats stripe a pasture completely of everything green below six feet; which had the added benefit of clearing any brush that would need bushhogging to make the field suitable for other ruminants.

    Cows: Though turning a profit with cows tends to take a large herd and often commercial feed and fatting is used, you could easily raise a calf every year for your own freezer. Cows forage decently though not nearly as well as goats, but you have plenty of land on which to raise enough meat for yourself. Also, bulls raised for meat need to be fattened with sweet feed or molasses, but this is not expensive if their main diet is from the field. Also, this might be a bid ambitious, but I think you could easily make enough syrup on you place to fatten one calf.

    Poultry:
    Chickens are great foragers and need little feed, though I would suggest feeding them some to keep them coming back to the same place daily and staying used to human interaction. On a place the size of yours, you could easily have a couple dozen chickens. Chickens eat not only all sorts of bugs, but slugs, grasses, and seeds as well thereby giving the secondary benefit of reducing all kinds of pest bugs and slugs, but also reducing the the propagation of unwanted weeds since they will eat and digest the seeds. Additionally, if chickens are turned onto a field in the winter time, they will reduce the pests for the next spring by eating bugs larvae and eggs. But they will also reduce the weeds and grasses by eating the seeds. During all their eating chickens scratch constantly and will loosen packed soil for the upcoming spring reducing the need to till. Chickens also provide the direct benefit of a food source, both through eggs and meat both of which can be sold and command a good price for being organic besides.

    Geese:
    They weed. Geese are used to weed many broad leaf crops. They won’t eat plants with a broad leaf, when turned into fields with such crops they do a great job of mowing down the grass between rows and eating the grass and weeds out from between plants. Geese don’t scratch so they won’t destroy plants by scratching in an attempt to dig for grubs or get to choicer weeds. Geese can also be turned loose to forage, something at which they also excel. If loose they will also mow down your lawn and any other grassy areas you may want mown, fertilizing all the while and at the end of the season they can be sold to supply Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner.

    Ducks:
    Since you have a pond, ducks would be great. Duck eggs are much much more nutritious(and tasty says my Aunt) than chicken eggs. Though duck eggs are not in a high demand, you could easily produce enough for you own use and have the added meat from the ducks themselves. (I love duck) Also, many people with chicken egg allergies (one of the most common after milk) can eat duck eggs with no ill effect.

    Game birds:
    Pheasant and quail can be raised not only for their meat, but for sale to stock hunting clubs; however, raising these birds beyond meat for yourself would almost certainly involve incubation of the eggs which might be a big step for you and require some investment in equipment.

    Turkeys:
    I don’t know much about turkeys except that most domesticated turkeys cannot breed without the aid of a turkey baster(no pun intended) and that they are stupid to the point that they must be almost force feed during their first weeks of life.

    Emus:
    The wonder bird! I must admit some bias because I love emus. That being said, they truly are an amazing bird. They have a huge meat production per acre and by how much they eat. They forage very well and very cold hardy and well as being heat tolerant(something that may become increasingly important in future) being native to the Australian desert. Also, unlike some other animals, when an emu is slaughtered almost every single part is used. Their fat is turned in to oil which has many uses and commands a high price. Their feathers and claws are also sold for various uses in arts and crafts. Emu leather had gained much in popularity in recent years and also has a decent price. then of course there’s the meat and eggs. The eggs can either be eaten or blown and sold for use by artists. The meat though red, is low and fat and each emu can yield something like ninety or more pounds each. I know from experience that emu’s are easy to raise and especially to feed. Also a fact well worth taking note of is that the emu has no natural predators in it’s homeland or here once it reaches adulthood. Unlike chickens they are clearly not acceptable to fly predation. Unlike goats coyotes pose absolutely no threat to them. Emu’s are excellent runners and fighters and can easily outrun coyotes, foxes, and wildcats. They could also kill all of the above animals with ease do their tremendous leg strength and sizable claws, though they are almost never violent or aggressive. My own emus were so gentle that they could be petted like dogs, though they must have regular human interaction for that. Even so emus are still very docile because they have no natural predators.

    Guineas:
    They are great foragers and watchdogs(so are geese) They will greatly diminish horseflys and other such biting insects. Guineas do not scratch(pretty sure) so they can’t be used to till. Their meat and eggs are also edible, but I have no experience with either. Mostly they are kept to keep down bugs and mow grass in my home area, and will breed well on their own.

    Unusual/exotic:
    Some of my in-laws make their farm profitable by raising English bulldogs and other expensive breeds in addition to their cattle. The dogs are their mains source of income with most of their dogs going for well over a thousand dollars. They make quite a handsome living doing this. You could bring in a sizable income by breeding a dog kept as a family pet annually if it’s registered and of a costly breed. Working dogs might be especially beneficial by both working and breeding.

    Peafowl and other decorative bird species(cranes and other rare birds) also command handsome market prices along with the more rare breeds of chickens(some lay green and blue eggs), ducks, and geese.

    Parrots, cockatiels, and caries and other birds for the pet market might also be profitable though I don’t have or know anyone with experience with the previous pet birds.

    From some of my reading I understand that goldfish or other aquarium fish farming can be easily done and decently profitable. Koi might also be an alternative livestock

    Miniature horses fetch good prices because of their rarity and miniature horses and ponies are finding a new market as guide animals for the blind.

    Firewood:
    Firewood can also be a decent cash crop, though perhaps not in central Alabama; though, I still think it’s worth looking into.

    Ornamental flowers:
    Daylillies and other bulb plants and grasses multiple easily and mostly by themselves. They also sell quite well at flea markets and such. Selling to commercial growers might be difficult, but I think you could they could still be a good source of income. You might even set up shop to let folks come and dig them up themselves(only the ones selected by you for sale.) Ornamental plants are great moneymakers. There are two family owned commercial green houses with five miles of my mothers doorstep. Both are successful(even in this recession)and amply support their families. One deals exclusively in ornamental flowers while the other sells some trees and shrubs(I think they purchase these form a wholesaler). The latter also cracks pecans for a fee and sells their own.

    Ornamental bamboo varieties are increasingly popular(they are also great moneymakers, especially that lucky/water bamboo. I’ve seen it sell for $7 for one stalk) and bamboo just about grows itself. Also, bamboo is ideally suited to the type of soil that I think you have(from your podcasts and posts) and won’t just grow in it, it will thrive.

    Trees:
    Various types of magnolias are popular for sale as ornamentals these days. I think that it could be quite easy to sell saplings to nurseries.

    I know that you two are interested mostly in subsistence farming, but to my knowledge most subsistence farmers live in poverty in the third world. My ancestors who were what now might be called subsistence farmers were very very poor. Also, though you COULD produce almost everything you need, you would need a thousand acre plantation and a staff a hundred to do so. What is usually done, and to my mind is best alternative, is to grow most of what you will need for your own table and then raise animals or other cash crops to trade for what you can’t produce. You could for example, make homespun, but it would probably be a much better use of your time to sell chickens and buy your clothes.:) (My own grandmother sold eggs to buy flour and corn meal) Also, consider that a mixer of my suggestions would probably be the right fit for a farm such as yours. Becoming highly specialized makes you vulnerable to collapse.

    How can we spend less money?

    There is no reason you can’t be raising every bit of the meat you eat within a year. I also see no reason that y’all couldn’t be well on your way to producing a good cash crop or a variety thereof as well as having excess animals for market within that same year.

    Again, let me apologize for the excessive length of my post, it’s much too long!!

    P.S.
    I realize this post is far far too long; do feel free to moderate it out if you like.;)

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