Starting A Family Farm
In all the years I’ve been representing the agricultural industry at farm shows, fairs, agricultural conferences and the like, I can’t count the number of times I’ve been approached by folks wanting to raise a few sheep to keep their place cleaned up or who’ve just bought a little place and are going to start farming, so they’ve come to the event to find out all what they need to do to get started. Oh, if they only knew.
Starting an agricultural venture (a farm) from scratch isn’t impossible, but there is much to consider before doing so.
Many well-intentioned people have failed miserably at the expense of their finances and innocent livestock simply because they decided to dive into the shallow end of the pool. But if the theme song from “Green Acres” is the song you have running through your head, don’t give up. Instead, keep reading so that you can do it right and do it well. The decision to farm is not one to be taken lightly. So before you trade your Nike’s for Muck boots, you need to be able to answer the following:
What will you raise? What you raise depends on a) the amount of land you have b) the type of land you have c) fencing and structures d) access to water and electricity e) personal preferences and abilities.
Farming is more than acres of soybeans, hundreds of sheep or cattle or rows of farrowing barns. Your 1 acre pumpkin patch or farm-stand garden can be considered a farm. Do you enjoy growing things? A greenhouse, when done right, can be a profitable business and can also be considered a farm if you operate it like one. No, it won’t be enough to your sole income, but you have to start somewhere. Do large animals intimidate you, but the property is fenced and has a great barn on it? Sheep or chickens are probably your best bet.
How will you educate yourself on the how’s and why’s of raising the livestock or produce you plan to raise? Anything worth doing is worth doing right-and in this case, ‘right’ can be translated as ‘prepared’. Visit with farmers who raise what you plan to raise. Ask lots of questions and take notes. Study their management practices to see what would and wouldn’t work for you. Get to know your farm services agent and make sure he/she keeps you informed as to what programs might be available to help you get started. And yes, all those farm shows and expos are a great place to network and get to know others in the industry who can be of help to you. Other resources include books and the websites of university schools of agriculture (especially Purdue and the University of Missouri). Your state’s department of agriculture is also an invaluable source of education and encouragement. On what scale will you farm? How much land do you need to farm? There are some small farms (5-20 acres) that are as profitable, or even more profitable than large tracts of land. It’s not completely about quantity. Not all farms are 300, 500 or 1,000 acres. Quality, management and diversification all play a large role in the success of your farming operation. When deciding how large your farm will be, you need to: decided a) how much time and energy you will devote to your farm b) whether your farm will be your sole source of income or supplemental c) how much land you need to adequately operate your farm.
Where will your farm be located? Do you already have the land you wish to farm or are you thinking of relocating? With unemployment being at near-record highs, jobs being few and far between and real estate prices being what they are, relocation isn’t a completely crazy idea IF you have all your other ducks in a row.
Did you know that the federal government still allows people to stake claims on tracts of land (up to 20 acres or 40 if married) for a mere $20? Millions of acres in states all across the country are available. For information on staking your claim, visit http://www.governmentland.com. Additionally, in an effort to bring people to small rural communities lest they die, Kansas and Nebraska are among several states giving land away in exchange for building a house and staying for a pre-determined amount of time. And since the areas are rural, agricultural opportunities exist in these communities as well.
Where will your start-up money come from? Grants and loans are available to farmers (especially women and minorities). www.sare.org, your state’s agricultural department or the USDA website will have plenty of information to point you in the right direction. Those escaping the city life and making a fresh start can use the sale of their house and/or buy-out money from their former employer.
Do you have a marketing plan for selling what you raise? When developing a marketing plan for your products, remember these two things:
1. No one has more to gain or lose from a successful marketing plan than you do.
2. You can have the best product in the world, but if people don’t need it or know it exists, you have nothing. You need to have several options for selling your products before you begin. For instance, farmer’s markets, on-site sales, direct to packers or retail outlets, internet sales’. Are you willing and will you be able to live on seasonal paychecks? Farming is a precarious business. You’re at the mercy of the elements among other things. Management and frugality are essential.
‘No farms no food’ is one of the truest statements ever spoken. And as long as you do it right and do it well, you can play a vital role in the very existence of society.