Beginning farmers and ranchers seeking information and advice may find this question and answer series helpful:
Q. I want to start a farm, raise my family there, and provide quality food for people. Please send me anything that will get me started.
A. There are lots of opportunities today for people who look beyond typical commodity crops and who build solid businesses. The quality of life in raising a family on a farm has tremendous benefits as well. The short answer to your question is to treat your farm as a business so you have enough profit to stay on it, and to learn from people who are already doing what you want to do.
ATTRA is the sustainable ag information clearinghouse for enterprise ideas, production practices, and marketing; check its website for online documents and references. The USDA SARE program also has a number of publications that can help with marketing or raising crops and livestock . The USDA National Ag Library Alternative Farming Center has lists of resources for many farming topics. Your local Extension office can also link you with publications and experts for your area.
Q. I want to make my living from a small farm. Is that still possible?
A. There are literally hundreds of enterprises you can run from a farm or ranch based on the natural resources, history, or culture of the area or based on your skills and interests. Farm/ranch startups need high-margin enterprises and limited risk, particularly those that entail skilled labor and management.
A recurring recommendation for highest profit is with certified organic crops; low-cash-input enterprises reduce risk, such as grass-based livestock, dairy, and poultry operations. The most efficient approach is to “stack” enterprises that feed each other, using the same land base or facilities. That’s obviously not limited to startups, as crops and livestock are integrated enterprises on many farms.
Q. How do I get the money to buy farmland or start farming/ranching?
A. First, treat your farm/ranch as a business. Make a budget and cash flow projection to be sure all your decisions lead to profit BEFORE spending any money. Any lender will want to know that as well, so they can be assured of getting repaid.
Second, don’t expect free money. There are no grants for farm startup, but there are a number of loan programs. Start with the USDA Farm Service Agency, with offices in most counties. All states have low-interest beginning farmer loans through USDA Farm Service Agency: farm operating, farm ownership, and down payment loans. USDA also offers beginners special payments and access to the NRCS conservation programs. Look at our financial resources document. Resources in many states are listed here.
Third, consider other options to debt. Starting small, creating a work-in arrangement, or running a subscription market garden can reduce your need for cash. Look on these websites for examples: CFRA: Successful Linking Strategies for Beginning & Retiring Farmers and FarmProfitability.org (a series of case studies).
Additionally, many states have ‘aggie bond’ programs for land or housing purchases that give tax breaks to the seller. Some parts of the national Farm Credit System offer loans for beginners. Several states have direct loans (not just for beginners), and some have loan guarantee programs.
Iowa and Nebraska have tax credits for landowners who rent to beginners. Connecticut makes grants for farm expansion. Iowa supplements down payments for low-income borrowers. California FarmLink runs ‘matched savings account’ and direct loan programs. If your state does not have such programs, you could help get them started.
Q. I want to farm. I’m looking for a beginning farmer class so I make fewer mistakes.
A. There are two types of beginning farmer courses to look for: ‘how to farm’ courses, which should have some hands-on or go-see elements; and ‘business planning’ courses, which cover the financial, planning, and goal-setting elements of a farm business. If you're new to it all, you may need both to best reduce your risk of costly mistakes.
In addition to its library of how-to publications, ATTRA has links to information on college degrees, training programs, and on-farm internships, which range from four-year programs, to online classes, to weekend workshops, to season-long job shadowing.
Business plan information is available from a number of sources, but look for one that brings a farm perspective, such as ‘Farming Alternatives’, available from Cornell Extension (1988, 88 pages, $8).
Moreover, it’s unlikely that you (or anyone else!) is passionate or skilled at all three essential elements of running the business – production, marketing, finance – so your planning can identify how you'll overcome your weak areas.
Many new farmers benefit from the advice of an experienced farmer. Seek out a mentor who knows the things you want to learn and who cares about your success. Meet such folks at sustainable agriculture conferences and farm tours.