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5 Top States to Start Your Farm In

Looking for land? These states have the prices, resources and market outlets to make a beginning farmer’s venture successful.

By Jodi Helmer

5 Top States to Start Your Farm

Starting a farm requires a lot more than passion and determination. For beginning farmers, the biggest challenges are access to land, startup capital and services, like training and apprenticeships, explains Emily Oakley, interim executive director for the National Young Farmers Coalition.

"To be successful, there should be a combination of internship and apprenticeship opportunities, affordable land or available land leases, and a market for the products,” Oakley explains.

Based on research as of Feb. 2014, these five states are among the best places for new farmers to get their start.

1. Vermont
With 245 farmers’ markets and CSAs serving a population of 626,000, Vermont has the top ranking for per capita opportunities for farmers to connect with customers. Support for the markets is strong: In 2013, the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont offered grants to help farmers markets’ make capital improvements and build community collaborations.

Although farmland costs $2,800 per acre (just below the national average of $2,900), support is available through a number of organizations:

2. Nebraska
Although row crops might dominate the Cornhusker State, farmers interested in small-scale production will receive a lot of support in Nebraska. In 2013, the Nebraska Department of Agriculture introduced the Nebraska Beginning Farmer Tax Credit Program to offer new farmers a three-year land lease and $500 tax credit reimbursement to start their farms. Landowners who lease their land to new farmers are also eligible for tax credits.

In addition, a host of organizations is available to provide resources to beginning farmers. The nonprofit Community Crops runs a farm incubator called Prairie Pines to provide support and training for those new to the farming scene. NebraskaBeginningFarmer.org is a database that links new farmers to statewide resources for land, education and financial assistance.

With 111 farmers markets and CSAs across the state, Nebraska ranks in the top 20 for per capita access to farm-fresh foods.

3. California
With a temperate climate and growing conditions that accommodate a variety of crops and livestock, it’s no surprise that the cost of land in California averages $7,300 per acre. Despite that, there are more than 80,500 farms across the state producing 400-plus commodities and nearly half of the fruits, nuts and vegetables grown in the U.S., according to the California Department of Agriculture.

In 2013, California passed the Urban Agriculture Incentive Zones Act to increase the amount of vacant and private land used for urban agriculture by offering reductions in property taxes and to expand its agricultural reach even further.

In addition to a bumper crop of internships and apprenticeships, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition offers a Beginning Farmer and Rancher Individual Development Account Program that offers matched savings accounts to help new farmers in California build capital to start or expand their farms.

4. New York
From small-scale urban farms in The Big Apple to rolling pasturelands upstate, New York is a popular place for new farmers to get their start. More than 700 food-producing urban farms are spread across the five boroughs, and farmland spans more than 7 million acres across the state. Compared to an apartment in Manhattan, farmland is affordable, averaging $2,600 per acre—far lower than in neighboring northeastern states.

The Hudson Valley is a hotbed of sustainable farming activity. In 2013, the Local Economies Project of the New World Foundation created the Hudson Valley Farm Hub to provide training in sustainable agriculture, help securing affordable land and expanded access to capital for new farmers and their expanding businesses.

To further support new farmers, the National Young Farmers Coalition started a local chapter, the Hudson Valley Young Farmers Coalition, which provides support and resources to beginning farmers.

5. New Mexico
In the Land of Enchantment, farmland averages just $550 per acre, according to the 2013 USDA Land Values Report, making it the least-expensive farmland in the nation.

Along with affordable land comes the challenge of farming in the desert. Thanks to drought conditions that make it difficult to grow vegetables, there are only 108 farmers’ markets and CSAs in the entire state.

However, programs are in place to help new farmers willing to take on the challenge. The New Mexico Farmer-to-Farmer Training Program offers free training in sustainable farming and partners beginning farmers with supportive mentors. Through the Young, Beginning and Small Farmer and Rancher Program, Ag New Mexico helps new farmers start their first agricultural operation with financing, education and training.

If you’re already living in one of these states and are gearing up for your land purchase, you’re in luck! If not, connect with resources in your own state to make the transition to sustainable farming an experience that is both positive and profitable.

About the Author: Jodi Helmer is a freelance writer specializing in sustainable living and is the author of Farm Fresh Georgia (UNC Press, 2014).


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5 Top States to Start Your Farm In

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Reader Comments
I find it real hard to believe that you can buy farm ground in New York state for an average of $2600 an acre. Here in Iowa and northern Illinois even cheap pasture ground goes for more than $5000 an acre. Farm ground goes as high as $10,000+. I hope I'm wrong for the sake of the dreamers that want this but i only thought that was possible in Missouri.
Dan, clinton, IA
Posted: 4/18/2015 8:53:31 AM
California and New Mexico both have water shortage and drought problems. What about Michigan and Ohio? We have beautiful farm land in Michigan and the same for Ohio. I would be very interested in programs in the State of Michigan that would help current small farmers.
Dianne, Metamora, MI
Posted: 3/18/2015 10:35:00 AM
In light of all their water supply problems, which seem likely to only get worse according to recent reports, I have a hard time seeing California as an attractive place for a beginner to go start a farm.
David, Bloomington, IN
Posted: 3/18/2015 8:53:29 AM
Let me add to Bruce's wise words. As someone who has been vending farmer's markets my entire life, I can tell you that Vermont is becoming dangerously near to the over saturation point. As more and more young farmers start up in Vermont each year, Vermont's organic and local market is becoming so flooded that the feasibility of professional farming has greatly diminished. Sadly, some those individuals who were founding members of the local food movements here are now struggling to support their families when, ten years ago, they were making a livable wage.

If you think of things in terms of economics, you might ask: "If the old farmers aren't making any money, then how are the new ones doing it? If the marketplace has become over saturated, and the older farmers are the ones threatened, then doesn't that mean they are the least efficient?" And, of course, the least efficient entrepreneurs are those who must drop out before a system can reach equilibrium.

Let me explain: the older farmers are not lazy nor inefficient. They are professionals: they farm for a living. Meanwhile, many of the upstarts have second jobs and grow vegetables or else raise meat as a hobby. Thus they farm for the sake of ideological fulfillment rather than financial necessity.

An economically minded individual might also add, "Isn't that a good thing, then? These hobby farmers can therefore provide goods at a cheaper price." This also is not the case. Many professional farmers work on an incredibly small profit margin, making their money by producing great quantity rather than selling at a high price. Hobby farmers, however, do not need to worry about their profit margin and therefore set more arbitrary prices that ignore such factors as the market clearing price. Time and time again this summer, I was told by would-be customers that they had bought goods from their neighbor's backyard operation instead of from me, even though my prices are better and I have a better product. "But, you know, he's my neighbor, I had to."

With these words I urge anyone to consider the full implications of their actions. As yourself if what you are doing will truly be a positive addition to the community. Ask yourself if you are filling an empty space, or else cramming into a full one and thereby trampling others underfoot.
Jacob, Orange, VT
Posted: 1/12/2015 9:40:58 AM
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