How To Start Farming
You’ve bought the farm! Your own farm! Now, how to start farming? You are entering an entirely new world, and if you prepare for it, you can prosper as a farming business. A farm operation can be a lot of work, but it can also be one of the most rewarding experiences of your life. This is the time when you can turn your dreams into reality.
Whether you are going to make your farm into a farming business as a new business venture or a simple retreat from your off-farm job, you must realize that you have to put time and effort into this project to make it work. Farm businesses, done right, can be profitable and fulfilling. So often, people buy acreage, then learn that weeds take over, fences break, and animals get sick, so they quit before the good times start. If you know what you have and what you need to do, you don’t have fail. You can be successful with your new small business.
Table of Contents
Review What Resources You Have
On a computer or in a binder, enter everything that we are going to cover, then maintain it over the years. You will have, in your portfolio, both natural resources and man-made assets. In the future, you will find that you constantly look back on what you had, did, or needed. These records will become part of the critical assets of your small farming business. All of this data will provide the structures for your small business start-up.
At the Beginning
First Step: Take One or More Pictures
I know it sounds a bit corny, but over the years, you will be glad that you have been chronicling your progress visually by taking pictures and dating them. Find one site on your place where you can take a comprehensive picture of your land and buildings and note that place. You will want to return to the same spot every year, at the same time, to take your picture. I suggest that you print it out for your binder or upload it into your computer records.
By taking pictures of everything each year – house, barns, fields, fencing – you will see the changes you are making. Farming can be quite discouraging at times. Your successes are measured in inches and you can’t always see the progress you have made. When you look back at where you started and where you are now, you will be amazed that you really have accomplished some of your goals.
2nd Step: Gather your important documents
When you start, it is important to have your paperwork in one place so that you can access it. Some of these documents you will keep forever, and some docs change regularly. You can scan these into the computer or make a copy for your binder. Documents you will appreciate having easy access to include the following.
You might want to keep copies available and put original docs in a safe.
- Parcel descriptions
- Land survey (and note on paper where the survey stakes are located)
- Tax documents
- Real estate documents (some of these will have more intelligible data on them about your small farm)
- An aerial picture (google, USDA, etc.) that outlines your property in relation to those parcels around you
- Outline map of your property, usually obtainable from your title company
- Your sketch of the location of every building, every fence, the well, the septic tank and septic fields
- Papers from your insurance company
- From personal experience, I recommend you also keep on hand a copy of the well and septic permits and specifications. You will be amazed how many times you will have to refer to them.
These documents are the basis of your successful farming operation. As with any farming business, it is important to keep them safe.
3rd Step: Write Down Your Goals and Limitations
What do you intend to do with your investment? What is your immediate goal and your ultimate goal? Are you planning for a small farm business?
When you write down goals, studies show that you tend to work toward those goals. If you don’t write them down, the goals are ephemeral and soon are forgotten. Make a chart for yourself with the columns listed below and fill it in. On a computer, this is easily done in Excel or make a table in Word. Not using a computer? In your binder, just draw some lines on a page and start writing. The important thing is to get your goals down on paper.
Some ideas for your chart:
- Your goals for your farm
- What resources you need to reach your goals
- Date finished
When you collect this data, it becomes similar to a simple business plan for any small business. You have laid out what you want to do, what you need to accomplish it, what limits you, the deadline, and the finish date. Farm operations can be complicated, so you need data at your fingertips to make quick decisions. Refer back to your chart, just as you would to a business plan. This is your road map for your future.
Inventory your Resources
You are building a small business, whether you depend on income from it or not. Beginning farmers frequently jump in with both feet, never considering what they have. This is a big mistake for they are unable to make decisions and do any farm planning if they don’t know what they have and its potential. Look hard at every asset you own. Record and retain this information in your document file. Remember, hopefully you are building a success farm business.
Your major asset is your land, a beautiful natural resource. They simply don’t make dirt anymore, so this is a valuable part of your portfolio. The foundation of your farm business is your land. Look at your land from all angles. Record how much total land you own, then record how much is reserved for your home and yard, the barn and barnyard, pastures, corrals, arenas, and so on. Do you want to repurpose any of your small farm for some other use in the future?
Talk to the other farmers who live around you. Many of them are willing to share their experiences with you and help out when needed. Some of them might even know the history of your land–which you will find interesting.
If you don’t have a lot of land or if you don’t have the time to farm all of it, consider micro-farming as an alternative. Using the permaculture theory, you can easily raise enough food to support a family and even have enough to sell at a farmer’s market.
Land management is the basis of any farming business, so before you begin, know what you have plus have some ideas as to what you want to do with it. The ideas are endless: you can grow fruit trees or fresh produce for a farmer’s market.
Analyze the fencing. Some fencing might be appropriate for use, but other fencing may not be good for your purposes. Perhaps your crop fields are not fenced or just simply fenced with barbed wire. Maybe your pasture is surrounded by barbed wire fencing and you want to use the pasture for horses. Sheep and goats need fencing (electric and/or woven) that keeps them inside the pasture and predators outside. Chickens, depending upon your animal philosophy, need an area surrounded by chicken wire or an area where they can free-range yet return to their yard for safety or egg-laying.
Of all the equipment on your farm, the fencing will tend to need the most thought (and probably a bit of money) to make sure your animals and land are secure.
Hopefully, you have purchased land with a barn, but if not, plan to build one within a reasonable amount of time. Barns can be used for a myriad of functions. You can store equipment, make lambing pens, portion off stalls, stow tack and other animal equipment—the list can go on and on.
Some people even store hay in their barns, but I am going to recommend that you have a separate building or hay stop to store hay. Keep it away from your animals for a good reason: hay can combust and cause a barn fire. When I was a child, I lost a horse in a barn fire caused by combusting hay. It’s a nasty memory that you don’t have to experience. This type of tragedy doesn’t happen too often, but when it does and animals are kept in the same area, the situation becomes tragic. A barn fire can break your heart. With planning, you can keep your animals and your hay safe.
A bonus for you, the new landowner, is if there is a small shop, chicken coop, rabbit hutch, or goat/sheep shelter. These outbuildings can get your farm business off the ground quickly for you can put them to a myriad of uses. The less you have to build, the sooner you can start to make dreams happen and even make money from your small farm.
Bee hives are a great addition for the right bee wrangler. With bees in decline, this is a valuable and vital farm business with growing demand. Raising and supporting bees takes a unique person with specialized training and equipment to take care of them well. Bee farms can rent out their bee hives to other farms for pollination of seed crops. If you don’t know how to take care of bees, there are plenty of classes and organizations which can teach you the skills needed.
Sometimes equipment will come with the small farm that you purchase. It may be in all degrees of working order, but having that farm equipment gives you a start. Before you buy any equipment, wait. You can rent different types of equipment, and when you see what you are renting regularly–that may be the time to buy.
You have plenty of options when buying. You can buy new, from a dealer. You can buy used from farm sales, ads, or individuals. If you buy new, consider cost vs use and be sure to look hard at the warranty and service offered by the dealer. If you buy used, you might consider having some of your neighboring farmers go with you to take a look. They can give you perspective on what the mechanical issues are.
Regardless, the equipment takes a beating so expect maintenance to be in your future. If you care for the machines, they will last. Keeping them under a roof will extend their lives, too.
Irrigation and Water
US agriculture draws 42% of the nation’s ground and surface water for irrigation. Not every farm needs to be irrigated, but a significant number would cease to exist without water rights. It’s called ‘chasing rain’.
So you are thinking of irrigating your land from your well? You have several things to consider here: local and state governments may have rules that regulate what you can do with your well water. Even more critical, does your well have enough water to be able to irrigate? Being in an area where wells go dry regularly, I would be very cautious about irrigating from a well. Irrigation water is a much more practical solution.
If you have purchased a small farm with irrigation rights, understand that this is a very valuable asset for your small farm. Meet the water master, and know where the ditches, valves, and runoff should be located. Learn how and when to order water. If you are starting from scratch, research the different types of irrigation systems and choose the best for your land that is within your budget.
Learn How to Irrigate
If you have an existing system, learn how to use it. I have never mastered siphon tubes, but my husband and grandson are masters at that irritating scoop business. I can, however, open gates on the pipes with my shovel with ease. Learn everything you can about the system, for I can promise you that at some time in your future, you will need to call on that knowledge.
The basis of it all! If your farm business is based upon growing crops or animals, the very first thing you must do is have a soil test. The state extension offices as well as a number of commercial companies can test your soil for a number of things.
You will learn all types of valuable information such as the amount and type of nutrients your soil needs, organic matter needed, and what will grow well on your land. The results will not be immediate and there is a cost involved. If you just plant willy-nilly, not knowing what your soil is good for, you may have a number of disappointing crop years.
The soil test is the basis of good land stewardship. You might decide to do organic farming or perhaps grow your own food. But! You have to know what will grow well in your soil. You don’t want to fail at growing plants. The local market will welcome your fresh produce. If you are building a small business, a soil test will be one factor to make it into a profitable business. You won’t spend a lot of time making mistakes in planting the wrong crops.
Technical Assistance for Beginning Farmers
This can be daunting for a newcomer to agriculture, but there are almost unlimited resources for you to access.
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is one place to start. They have a website, Small and Mid-Sized Farmer Resources, listing technical advice on every aspect of farming that you can think of. And this is just the beginning! Tap into the USDA resources and view grants and other sources of assistance, depending upon the project.
Every state, thanks to the Land Grant University Program (Smith-Lever Act of 1914) has Extension Offices which provide technical assistance through a number of services to farmers and ranchers as well as urbanites. Staff at these offices can identify bugs, help with canning issues, know where to get a soil test, and just about anything else you would want to ask them. The 4-H clubs are based out of the Extension Offices, and the staff provides great support.
Most universities in the US have agricultural programs and assistance for farmers–yes, even small farmers. Many schools, such as Cornell Small Farms Program, have started online classes to boost ag knowledge. The universities do research and publish studies of best farming practices. Sign up for regular newsletters and learn what is new in agriculture. This is where you can get good technical assistance, if you need it.
Now that You Have Begun
The information here is just the foundation of what you will be doing for years. You have gathered important information about your new project, and you will probably refer back to this data on at least a yearly basis. You also know where to find more information, should you need it.
Now you can sit down and plan your future. Will it be a hobby farm or will you create a farm business that will eventually support you and your family? Will you do organic farming or maybe become one of the small, specialty dairy farms? Will you be supplying local restaurants with custom lamb or will you sell plants at the many farmers’ markets in the area? You can grow your own micro-greens or sell them to the public. Perhaps you will open your small farm for RV camping or glamping. With careful planning, look at all the roads you can go down. You are simply limited by your imagination. Good luck!