Model validation crashes my early migrations - what to do?

Migrations are for database management, not creation of test data.
The test framework works quite well to allow you to do setup tasks
that create test data and then run the test. If you are wanting to
create test data for manual testing then use a separate controller
action pair like test/create_test_data and point to that in your
browser. Migrations are at the database level and not the model
level. The test framework operates above the model and controller
level so it is a better place to put such logic. I would recommend
Agile Web Development with Rails as a first book as it is pretty clear
on the layering and where different types of logic best reside.

If you are wanting to insert static data such as system codes and such
do that in a final migration, and use SQL statements not model
methods. That way you are only relying on the database in the
Migration rather than other layers. The challenge here is that the
static data is not really part of the database schema and will mess up
the database versioning that is part of migrations.