Photo by Rachael Brugger
In days gone by, farms were passed on from one generation to the next. A farm was among a family’s most treasured and valuable possessions, and the knowledge of how to manage the farm was handed down with just as much care as the property deed.
However, in modern times, the number of family farms has drastically dwindled. According to U.S. census data, the number of farms that earn more than $1,000 in agricultural income annually has dropped from nearly 7 million in 1935 to just over 2 million today. As a result, there are far fewer experienced farmers than ever before. Many of us who work the land fall in the category of “beginning farmer,” leaving us without a family history of farming to support us and our new adventure. If you are indeed a beginning farmer, here are some essential things to do as you start to work the land.
1. Be realistic.
In recent years, small-scale farming has been romanticized to the point of idealism. Be careful not to confuse romance with reality. Farming is work—hard work.
“I think the current reputation of local food and farming has made farming look like a really glamorous career,” says Carolyn Gahn, who co-owns of Food Leaf Farm in Crab Orchard, Ky., with her husband, Jacob, and supports other beginning farmers in her state though the grassroots organization Community Farm Alliance. “All the publicity has really highlighted the nobility of the profession, but it is hard. And I am not talking about the physical work, which we all know is difficult. Looking at the business side of things, there is so much to think about: land acquisition, capital investment, finding the markets, et cetera. Then add the unknowns, like bad weather and pest and disease pressure, and you have a recipe for a big bowl of stress.”
2. Get experience.
The best way to get a realistic view of farm life and your goals as a new farmer is to try it out first before you make the big commitment. Reading books and looking at blogs can only get you so far. Get your boots on the ground, in the dirt, and fast. Visit local farms. Do an internship at a farm that looks similar to what you envision for your own. You wouldn’t buy a car without test driving it, and you certainly shouldn’t buy a farm until you’ve experienced how much hard work goes into it.
3. Prepare, prepare, prepare.
Todd Howard, beginning farmer in eastern Kentucky, has learned firsthand that thinking ahead can make things much easier later on.
“Spend some time plotting out what you want to accomplish,” Howard says. “Put it on paper, but don’t fret all the details (unless you want to talk yourself out of it). For example, this year we want to grow 5,000 feet of pole beans. With a few minutes of figuring, I’m able to know the amount of seed, posts, horticulture netting, wire, et cetera that I’ll need to make this happen. Part of being prepared is knowing that in March, I’ll have all of the material on farm to make this happen.”
4. Start small.
It can be tempting to jump into everything at once, but if you want to have a successful farming venture, try to avoid the temptation. Start with what you can handle in terms of finances and labor. And remember, it’s probably always going to cost more and take more work than you think.
5. Plan to profit.
Unless you’re really just wanting to operate a hobby farm, each move you make on the farm should be toward improving profitability.
“A big mistake made by many beginning farmers, myself included, is to start projects that haven’t been completely analyzed to ensure profitability,” Gahn says. “Sure, getting those 15 beehives or 500 pawpaw trees sounds like an amazing idea, but have you accounted for the costs involved (including your time) with such a venture?”
Considering your market is also an important part of ensuring that you will be able to sell what you grow. “If you live in an area that demands beans, corn and tomatoes, don’t grow rows and rows of Swiss chard (a hard lesson learned!) without having some kind of idea what the demand is,” Howard says.
6. Work efficiently.
If you have done all the work of planning ahead, don’t lose the time you saved by taking the long way to accomplish your task. Speed isn’t necessarily your goal, but doing each task the best way possible is. For instance, think about how you water your chickens. Is there a way it could take up less of your time or waste less water? Maybe there’s a way it can operate continuously so you don’t run the risk of the chickens getting dehydrated. A little recalibration of your chores and routines could save you time and money over the course of your farming career.
7. Invest in your own business.
“So many tools are available that will empower you to get more tasks completed quicker,” Howard says. “For instance, the standard garden hoe has almost been retired on our farm. We have five different types of garden hoes, all of which have certain advantages.” Invest in good equipment, understand their applications, and take the time to maintain what you have, as well.
8. Learn the rules.
There are myriad rules governing the sales of farm products. These rules vary from state to state, even from city to city. Don’t sell anything from the farm until you know what laws are in place related to that product. To find laws governing the sale of farm products in your state, check with your state’s department of agriculture, as well as your local health department.
9. Get marketing.
It is never too early to start marketing your products. The last thing you want is to end up with a refrigerator full of eggs and nowhere for them to go. Talk up what you’re growing to friends and acquaintances. List your farm on directory sites, such as Local Harvest. Start a Facebook page, which is a simple and free way to connect with customers. If you think you need to take it the next level, perhaps by creating a logo or building a website, consider finding a designer who will barter for food.
The good news is that you aren’t going to be a beginning farmer forever. At some point, if all goes well, you’re going to be running an established farming operation. You get there by learning from your mistakes and adapting to changes. Set aside some time at the end of each season to analyze what went right and what could be done better.
11. Enjoy yourself.
Farming can be challenging, and it’s easy to lose sight of the reasons you got into it in the first place. If you learn to enjoy the early mornings, the hard work and the obstacles, you’ll find yourself feeling like the farm is successful even on days when it might not look it in your bank ledger. Attitude is everything for the beginning farmer and beyond.