Starting a farm can be overwhelming since farming is quite the complex operation. There are many needs such as land, farm equipment, livestock etc. The easiest way to start is to write a business plan. The business plan is the vision of the farm on paper. It needs to be clearly defined so that others can understand it. If one needs advice and support the USDA is there to help. In the beginning stages of farming it is important to build the proper skills, set up the legal business and figure out how to finance the business.
Learning to Farm
There are several different ways one can learn how to farm. One popular way is to enroll in a learn-to-farm-program. Many are full-time, residential immersion programs where one will learn both the theory of farming and hands-on work.
If one doesn’t want to spend a full year immersed on a farm, there are also plenty of colleges that offer students to enroll in their agricultural programs such as farm management. Internship and apprenticeship opportunities are also available when it comes to farming. They can be valuable because one can get to learn through on-the-job training, working with a more experienced farmer.
There are numerous lists online for apprenticeships and internships programs, one of the more popular ones is ATTRA Sustainable Farming Internships and Apprenticeships List.
Financing a Farm
Starting a farm can be quite expensive, but there are a variety of entities that can help with financing. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has a Farm Loan Program with a variety of loans, for example a beginning farmer loan.
Many local banks participate with agencies to provide financing for beginner farmers. One can look into private contracts. Many property owners are willing to contract directly with a beginning farmer for sale of land, machinery, livestock etc.
The Farm Credit Services has a young and beginning program loan for people under 35 years old or with less than 10 years of experience in agriculture. There are also Aggie Bond Program which is a tax-free bond program to assist beginner farmers acquire resources such as farmland, buildings etc. Many states, but not all, participate in these programs.
ARE YOU A VETERAN? THERE ARE ADDITIONAL RESOURCES FOR YOU
Renting or Leasing a Farm
If one doesn’t want to start by buying a farm, it is possible to rent or lease farm land. It can be a cheaper way to start than to outright buy the farm, but it is usually seen as more of a short-term solution than a long-term goal. Farm leases can be paid for by cash, flex rent or crop share, the prices and payment arrangement can be negotiated with the landlord.
For a beginner, renting is an affordable way of getting into farming, and if one is lucky the landlord can offer insight and management advice. On the other hand, as a renter one has less decision-making abilities on the land and the landlord can decide to not renew contracts.
STARTING AN ORGANIC FARM
Just as in starting any farming venture, the first step is to find the right location. Ideally, there should be fertile soil, good drainage and access to good-quality water for irrigation of the land.
Is Organic Farming Worth It?
Organically managed land accounts for 1% of all farmland in the United States. However, organic food account for 5% of food sales, which make organic farming 22-35% more profitable than conventional farming. The cost of business is roughly equal where organic farmers substitute labor for synthetic chemicals. Organic farming also has some positive environmental impacts as it can help reduce global warming, keep water supplies clean and promotes biodiversity by mimicking natural practices. It also minimizes the farmer’s exposure to harmful synthetic chemicals used for pest control. With all that said, the average organic farmer’s annual salary fall around $21,000.
Organic Farming Regulations
All organic farming should follow the National Organic Program (NOP) standards in all areas of farming. The land where organic crop grows must be free from all prohibited substances on the National List for at least three years before a harvested crop can be labeled organic. The land must also have buffer zones and clear boundaries to prevent the unintended application of prohibited substances. The farmer must make sure to manage the soil and crop nutrients following NOP policies, such as minimizing soil erosion, use non-chemical methods of soil management and maintain or improve the conditions of the soil, among others. The farm must have a crop rotation plan including sod, cover crops, green manure and catch crops. There must also be a proper Integrated Pest Management (IPM) system in places, such as mulching, crop rotation, and natural predation.
Start-up Cost Versus Non-Organic
Both conventional and organic farming has similar start-up costs. Both need proper land to use. It might take a bit longer to find organic land, or the farmer might have to prepare the land organically for three years before the crop can legally be labeled organic. Both ventures need fertilizers, tools, and good irrigation, which will cost about the same. Organic seedlings can be more expensive than conventional so the start-up costs can be slightly higher for an organic farmer.
How to get Labeled as USDA Organic Certified
To get the USDA Organic Certified label the farm needs to follow NOP practices regarding production and handling and follow the standards on the National List. The crops must be grown and harvested in line with specific regulations without the use of conventional pesticides. A USDA accredited certifying agent will evaluate and approve farms that are following all the practices and regulations.
Is Organic Farming Better?
It depends. In the long run, it seems to be better for the environment because it is working with nature instead of against. Organic farming creates better soil health, leaves less residue in nearby water sources and the crops themselves. It might be more expensive for the farmer in start-up costs and more work to maintain though. In general organic farming usually yield about 20% less crop than conventional farms but the year-to-year stability is generally better.