Any number of videos and articles might tell you how, for example, you can “start a profitable vegetable farm for $600” or a similar figure. Well, maybe. But the reality of your situation will probably require more—and reality is a good place to be if you’re serous about starting a farm.
The costs you face depend wholly on context. Do you own land? Are you willing to lease? What equipment do you have or need? What kind of marketing do you plan? So many variables exist. To help you calculate the basics of your situation, I’ll outline the areas that cost money up front, and I’ll provide a basic guide for your own farm so you can pick and choose what you need. Then you can price it out based on what’s around you and what you want to do.
If you own farm land, skip to the next one. If you don’t own any land, and you are on a budget, consider renting first. (Here’s a more extensive guide on how to farm rented land.) Spending all of your startup capital (provided you have some) on a down payment is dangerous. Farms cost money to start. Start your farm, build your business, establish your growing chops, then consider buying land. If you plan to certify organic or otherwise, that carries an expense depending on your certifier. You also need to conduct a soil test, which can be as cheap or as expensive as you make it.
The cheapest way to prepare a plot of ground is to ask a neighbor to plow it. Don’t have that option and don’t want a tractor? Mow the grass heavily where you plan to farm, tarp it over the summer, then work your beds up with a broadfork. Compost overtop of that and you’re good to go.
Fertilizers & Hand Tools
Compost can cost from a few hundred dollars per acre to a few thousand dollars, given what’s available to you and what your goals are. You also probably need some lime and perhaps other amendments given your soil test. Beyond that, you need some hoes, a shovel, a wheelbarrow, a hammer, a drill, maybe a broadfork and some five-gallons buckets. Tools will add up fast.
Whether you buy a tractor or not, I recommend getting a loan for it. This way you won’t spend all your savings up front. Research tractor options extensively and also ask yourself whether you need one—we farm with just a small walk-behind tractor, and that is plenty for our 1.5-acre biointensive farm. Tractors can be a huge expense for a small startup farm, so really think about this.
Seeding & Propagation
You can order certified organic plant starts, but it’s more profitable to start your own. So a small propagation house is essential. This can be very inexpensive if it’s scrapped together, or it can cost a lot—your call. You need to buy or make soil mix. You need to decide between cell trays or soil blocks and purchase the requisite equipment. You will probably want a seeder and bed rake.
Field tomatoes require trellising stakes and string. So do beans and peas, some flowers, and even cukes if you want them to. Row cover might be essential for early and late crops. Instect netting might be needed for sensitive crops such as arugula. Also consider some sort of hoops to hold them up. The cost of these items can add up, so calculate it all liberally to avoid surprise expenses.
Plants need water to survive, so you need to determine what type of irrigation you want—drip, overhead or a combination—and put together a kit. This can be expensive, so really consider how much space you need to cover and for what types of crops.
Harvest tools depend on your crop selection. You will probably want a couple harvest knives. You might want a Quick Cut Greens Harvester from Farmer’s Friend if you plan to grow lots of greens. A potato plow perhaps. Some shears. You will also need harvest bins. These can be nice produce bins or covered totes.
Crops need to be washed in a sanitary way and location, meaning tubs, clean tables, cleaning supplies, a dedicated shed and so on. You must cool them somehow, too, for longevity. A walk in cooler with something called a CoolBot is ideal, or you can simply use coolers with ice. Those two essential elements can easily be the most expensive part of the farm, but also the most important.
Don’t overlook the fact that you will need tents, tables and signs for farmers markets. You should also plan out packaging materials—clamshells, boxes, bags and so on.
Depending on your context, the above list might cost you a few thousand or tens of thousands of dollars. Regardless, establish savings before moving ahead, and buy the essentials before buying any fancy tools. You can plant carrots without having a flame weeder, for example, but you cannot keep carrots without having a cooler.