February 3, 2017
Starting a farm can seem like a very romantic endeavor. In fact, if agriculture is your passion, there is something romantic about working the land and reaping your harvest. Those who have fallen in love with the earth know that love comes at a cost, takes a lot of hard work and maybe some exhausting learning opportunities along the way. If you are a new farmer or grower, keep in mind some advice when starting your operation to save yourself from facing certain hurdles.
Build up your soil
First, you must consider the land you are using and what kind of input it will need to become a healthy and productive canvas for you to grow on.
If you are raising vegetables or flowers, get to know your soil’s consistency, pH and nutritional value. Soil health is primary to growing virtually anything successfully. Test your soil often to develop an idea of what nutrients or organic matter is best to amend your soil. Using organic matter, compost, dead leaves or aged manure to build your soil allows nutrients and microbes to replenish your needy fields. Use a lab that tests for micronutrients, the more information the better. Educate yourself on what different nutrients to provide to your crop. If you are raising animals, as you learn to care for them, rely on an experienced and available vet for your herd or flock.
Irrigation for your crops is a necessity.
Have you considered your water source? Do you have a deep well, municipal water or will you need to dig a well? Digging a well can be your greatest cost. Look into NRCS funding and possible aid available for this project. If you are planting outside or in a high tunnel using row crops, implementing drip tape lines is recommended to distribute water conservatively, but consistently, at a controlled pressure. If growing indoors or inside a greenhouse, hydroponics systems like the HydroCycle Dutch Bucket System are recommended for a clean and efficient medium for your crops.
Especially in areas like The Northeast where we have serious deer issues, fencing is a vital expense for most vegetable or animal farmers.
These large but essential costs to a new operation lead me to the next important piece of advice:
Educate yourself on resources and money available
Take advantage of what Uncle Sam can offer to relieve your business costs. Luckily, if you are starting from the ground up with your land, the NRCS, Natural Resources and Conservation Service is a conservation program within the USDA that financially aids farmers or conservation practices such as forestry projects, greenhouses, and fencing. Many times, NRCS will fund the majority of an entire project.
If hiring excavators, pavers or other professionals to do large projects on your farm, choose a reputable business. There is nothing worse than overpaying for a bad job – and nothing better than having a big job done very well and quickly.
Keep in mind that constructing a safe and clean grow room is fundamental to a successful indoor operation. Some of the issues you will need to focus on while growing indoors are proper ventilation and air flow to avoid bacteria and pests, sufficient lighting, light deprivation and maintaining cleanliness. To avoid the mess of using soil as a growing medium, consider setting up a hydroponic system. Many indoor growers find hydroponic systems to be exceedingly cleaner, as soil can bring in pests or disease from outside.
Initiate and cultivate relationships with your fellow local farmers.
While each piece of land is different, you will generally run into similar problems as your local peers, and it is remarkably helpful and educational to learn from fellow community farmers about techniques, pests or disease, soil quality and the local market. Try to buy potting soil as a group with other local farmers for a cheaper price, cooperative delivery and quality product that your peers trust. Seek out podcasts like Farmer to Farmer to develop inspiring ideas and learn from others’ experiences.
Whether farming vegetables or animals, you WILL experience a long learning curve, one that never really ends in the business of agriculture. Though you will learn much from experimenting and failing, you can save yourself some pain by heeding warnings and absorbing advice from farmers who have been through the experiment.
Work smarter, not harder.
Beginning your operation with a 1954 Ford tractor and a set of shovels to double dig beds can become exhausting, time consuming and taxing on your body. But you might have to start up this way until you make some profit to invest into your business. Eventually you will want to invest in equipment that is reasonable for your operation size. A greenhouse or high tunnel structure will improve any growing operation. GrowSpan structures come with the help of a Greenhouse Specialist to guide you through your endeavor. A tractor with implementations like a rototiller, mulch spreader or plough can turn a daylong job into a 20 minute job. Use plastic and fabric mulches when you can to avoid time-consuming and labor intensive weeding to maintain aesthetics and avoid a degree of nutrient depletion and erosion. Get up at dawn and work as late as you can. The hottest part of the day can often be hot enough to stop work for a couple of hours, so take advantage of the milder hours of the day.
If you can find affordable insurance, get it! You never know what can go wrong with equipment, products or guests visiting your property. Many farmers markets require basic farm insurance to become a vendor.
Make sure you have done your math in your crop plan so you know exactly how much you will need to budget for seeds, potting soil, tools like fabric mulches and row space.
Find your local niche
Take time to have many conversations about what your marketplace is lacking, what is best produced and supported in your area, and choose your market accordingly. It might be best to start a CSA. Perhaps you have a large farm to table restaurant community in search of local micro-greens or heirloom varieties. Maybe your area has really prosperous farmers markets or hospitals and schools looking to source food locally. Regardless, staying local maintains a fresh product, a strong reputation amongst your customer base and peers, and a direct line of communication to and from your marketplace.
Most importantly, try your best to understand and respect the limitations of your climate. Observe Mother Nature’s patterns as the seasons go by each year, use your understanding to manipulate nature to your advantage, preparing properly for difficult weather, or knowing how early or late you can start or harvest your produce.
Being a new farmer or grower can be overwhelming. Understanding these basic needs will save anyone from making wasteful and costly mistakes at the beginning of their new agricultural adventure.
Contributed by Amanda Williams