The Tiny Farm Experiment


Seen in Portland
Seen in Portland

In May of 2015, I bought a small (tiny, some would say) 3-acre horse property on the edge of Portland, Oregon. We’re bordered on two sides by butte cliffs, in one of the few agrarian valleys inside the city limits that remain untouched by development. Many friends have wondered why a city kid like me would do such an odd thing. I’ve heard assumptions that my motives are naiveutopian, or even dystopian. But, I can assure you the scheme that led me to owning adorable animals and digging in the dirt are as cut-throat and capitalist as any Manhattanite’s designs on a rent-controlled pre-war apartment.

It started with a question: how can I afford to fail, to make stuff that nobody wants to buy? Taking a quick look at my finances, housing stood out as my biggest expense. That led to another question: what if I can live in a house that pays for itself? It occurred to me that if I could live in a home that is also a business, I could take the time to go back to school, learn new skills, build software, write books, and maybe even start a company…in other words, I’d be free to fail. By eliminating the neccessity of working to pay the mortgate or rent, I’d be able to work on whatever I want, or not work at all, right? That was my theory, at least.

I started looking at apartment buildings with an eye on becoming a landlord, but the buildings I could afford in the places I wanted to live tended to have an intimidating number of problems with them. Next, I looked at big rural farms, the kinds of places with orchards and fields full of crops, but upon crunching the numbers, it became obvious pretty quickly that low-margin crops require a huge amount of work for very little profit, and (at least in Oregon) zoning laws make it very difficult to use the land for anything more profitable than farming or ranching. I took it for granted that if we bought 30 acres, we could host weddings or rent out a cabin on AirBnB, but zoning laws in most Oregon counties forbid them. You know those tiny houses that get so many likes on Facebook? Turns out they’re illegal in most places. Finally, we looked at small farms closer to urban centers. Zoning near Portland is much friendlier to AirBnB operations, anything you grow can be sold directly to consumers at relatively high prices, and getting people to come to your property for events gets easier the closer you are to the city. Looking at profit margin, life-style, and initial affordability, a small urban farm made a lot of sense.

Farm Boss
The cure for computer work: a chainsaw

Now, I have to admit that there is big upfront cost, and no guarantee that I’ll recoup them. I’m building out a guest cottage, planting trees, painting the barn, building fences, building a chicken coop, buying animals, etc… And, I’m working harder than ever doing a lot of this upfront work myself. It is physically demanding work, shoveling, hauling heavy things, covered in dirt, and most nights I fall asleep exhausted. However, I have plenty of time for freelance work, and (if all goes as planned) it will only be a few more months before the income the farm generates will pay the mortgage (while feeding us like kings).

Once I get to that tipping point where my home becomes a profitable business, I won’t really need a job; I can finally hop off the tread-mill of having to work a full-time job just to pay the mortgage. That said, I’ve never worked harder in my life, and don’t see the work slowing down any time soon. Instead of mindlessly surfing Facebook to while away a slow afternoon in my cubicle, the moment my computer work is done I’m out in my wood shop. When everything I do is an investment in myself, it’s easy to work all day and not feel burnt out. Early morning emails and conference calls mean happy East Coast clients for my business. Working in the mid-day sun out in the pasture means increased equity and income for my farm. Working late nights writing tricky code is an investment in my own skills and the IP of my company. I feel like I used to be a consumer, but have turned into a producer, and it feels good.

Ironically, by giving myself the space and permission to fail, I finally feel like I’m succeeding.