5 Pro Tips For Beginning Farmers

Ag experts from across the country share their advice for small-farm success.

by Jodi Helmer
PHOTO: Thomas Leth-Olsen/Flickr

You’re passionate about growing fruits and vegetables or raising livestock and have enough experience to start farming. But while passion and experience are as important to a successful farm as healthy soil, beginning farmers need more to grow a successful farm—just ask the farmers with several growing seasons in the books and sell-out crowds clamoring for their meats, eggs and produce at the farmers markets.

If you’re ready to take your operation to the next level, use these tips from real farmers across the country.

1. Emphasize Diversity

“A farm with one crop is much more susceptible to collapse. If the crop fails and there’s only one, you’re in real trouble. The more diversity you have on the farm, the easier it is to weather tragedy because there are other crops to help carry you through. I like to have plants and animals on the farm. Diversity also makes a farm more sustainable, both economically and environmentally. I send heritage turkeys into the pasture to eat the squash bugs; it’s cheaper because there’s no cost for chemical inputs, and at the end of the season, I can eat the squash and the turkeys. Diversity means the animals feed the plants, the plants feed the animals and both feed us.”

Lynn Gillespie, The Living Farm in Paonia, Colo.

2. Sell Direct To Customers

“Loyal customers will carry your farm farther than any big grocery chain. When you sell directly to customers, you earn retail not wholesale pricing. If you sell 20,000 bags of lettuce per year and earn $1 more at a retail price, it adds $20,000 to your bank account—that’s significant. Your customer base will also be receptive when you add new products. If they already love your strawberries and you start selling eggs, they will probably buy your eggs; a supermarket will likely say, ‘We already have an egg guy.’ The relationships you develop with your customers are going to make your farm grow.”

Lynn Gillespie, The Living Farm in Paonia, Colo.

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3. Lease Land

“When you’re getting a farm on its feet, it’s so much easier to lease land [than buy it]. There are no upfront costs, and if you lease land that’s part of an existing farm, you’re able to share equipment and coolers and that makes it much easier to start generating income and saving to eventually take out a 30-year mortgage on your own land.

Until you have a track record of generating income, it’ll be a lot harder to borrow money to buy land. A lot of new farmers worry about putting their energy into building up soil fertility on land they don’t own but, honestly, that’s such a small portion of farm labor and expense. There are so many more benefits to leasing land when you’re just starting out.”

Richard Wiswall, Cate Farm in East Mountpelier, Vt., and author of The Organic Farmer’s Business Handbook

4. Plot Out Profitability

“Every beginning farmer should have a realistic idea of how long it will take to be profitable and an understanding of what has the greatest impact on their profitability. By profit, I mean making enough money to cover the basic costs of production plus their farm’s overhead expenses, plus paying for their labor and setting aside funds to invest in things like a farm slush fund, family vacations, retirement, college education. It generally takes five to nine years to achieve this level of profitability—and that’s only if you’re carefully working toward it. Before you start farming, prepare yourself mentally for a long slog to profitability, ensure you have another source of income to invest in getting the farm business to full speed, and learn about those key factors affecting profitability of your enterprises.”

Erica Frenay, Shelterbelt Farm in Caroline, N.Y., and online course manager at Northeast Beginning Farmer Project

5. Seek Out Support

“A network of farmer friends is invaluable. Not only can they offer experience-based advice on everything from breed temperaments to equipment purchases, if they live close by, they can farm-sit while you enjoy a vacation. Our farmer-neighbors have saved us more than one vet bill by coming to the assistance of a livestock birth (but also advising when their skill level had maxed out and advance medical assistance was needed). Many producer associations have online bulletin boards or listservs that allow beginners to post questions or problems that experienced farmers can readily identify and offer solutions.”

Megan Bame, Bame Farms in Salisbury, N.C.

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