By Tracy Sweely
As consumers of food in the US we’re spoiled. There is just no ifs, ands or buts about it… The industrial food system has been subsidized for so long keeping prices so low, most people don’t have a clue about the real costs of producing it. But the situation is even worse than that. We have been able to buy food for so cheap, for so long (this goes back a generation or two…) that not only do consumers expect to pay very little for produce but as new farmers, we think “Well damn, how hard can it be to grow a pound of beans if they only cost $1.00 to buy…?” Fact is, even if you’ve been farming for a while it’s damn hard.
I don’t mean to scare anyone or put anybody off. If you’ve read any of my previous blogs you’ll know I love farming and most farmers do, or they wouldn’t be doing it. I’ve always felt that if you want to do something bad enough, don’t let anyone tell you no you can’t do it, or any of that kind of nonsense. You can do it, but be prepared. It’s going to be a lot harder than you thought it would be.
Even though I’m childless and don’t have any plans to change that, I’ve had exposure to people who have gone that route. And from my careful observations, starting a farm has got to be lot like having a baby and raising a kid. There are just things you aren’t going to “get” about doing it, until you do it yourself. It’s going to be harder work than you imagined, and it’s going to cost more than you thought, and completely unexpected things are going to happen, and many of those things are going to make you feel powerless and like you don’t know what you're doing. But if it boiled down to only that, nobody would have kids or be farmers and we’d clearly die out as a species… Kids and farms bring indescribable beauty and joy into our lives and that’s why we keep on going.
So why do I bring this up? The reason is this: figuring out all the in’s and out’s as new parents and as new farmers, is not quite as “natural” as one might at first think. Who doesn’t know a new parent who has said “Oh, were going to figure it out as we go,” only to hear them later frantically say “Why didn’t anyone tell me about a, b, c and d…?!!” Not only have I been guilty of this as a new farmer, but I’ve met many other new farmers who’ve had the same experience. There are a lot of safety nets in place when it comes to raising kids: extended family, friends, teachers, social programs, and kids are pretty darn resilient so the chances of “losing” the kid are fairly low. In the case of agricultural production though, it’s really, really easy to lose the farm. This quote speaks volumes:
“Regarding small farm survival, analysts at USDA’s Economic Research Service, report that small farms, like all small businesses, have a relatively high exit rate of 9 – 10% per year. Two primary factors affect the failure rate of agricultural enterprises: the size of the farm and the age of the operator…exit rates are lower for both producers between 45 and 54 years of age and for those with prior business experience.” (http://www.beginfarmingohio.org/)
The bottom line is that you just can’t be too prepared.
The new farmers that I have interacted with are excited, enthusiastic, intelligent and ambitious. They know at a core level that farming is critical to a sustainable world and they want to participate in creating that. But very few beginner farmers I know, myself included, knew how complex and difficult starting a farm could be. Farming is not just throwing some seeds out there and letting Mother Nature do her thing. Farming is a business and businesses succeed because they have a marketable product, sufficient capital and well-laid business plans. Not to put too fine a point on it, but if you don’t have time to do careful research and make a thorough business and production plan before you start farming, you don’t have time to farm.
When we started our pilot study CSA farm in 2009, there was not a lot of “how to” information to go on. We pretty much farmed by the seat of our pants, but we were sufficiently capitalized, otherwise we wouldn’t have made it into our second year. Now going into year five, we are hopeful that we might eventually become financially sustainable after all. Unless of course the drought takes us out at the knees…
In the meantime, we are hanging in there, and we are holding up a light for others to choose to follow, or not… We have documented our entire farming experience and with the Small Farm Financial Sustainability Study we’ve tried to model what works and what doesn’t work. Part of being prepared is studying what others before have done right and what they’ve done wrong. Take the time to read our studies. We've continued to research new marketing options and new challenges. Take the time to make a production plan and a financially sustainable business plan, either from our tool suite or whatever else you can find out there that works for you.
Only four years after we set up our farm, the available online “how to” information on starting a farm has exploded, there are more workshop-type programs on how to start farming now than ever in recorded history. Avail yourselves of these assets. Now that the USDA Farm Service Agency is miraculously making loans to small vegetable farmers, capital is WAY easier to get than it has been for decades. The local food movement is in full swing and consumer demand for local produce is skyrocketing. Ironically, there have actually never been better economic conditions for starting a farming business…
But, for crying out loud, don’t think that makes it a walk in the park. These market, informational and capital resources simply provide you with tools and opportunities, you as the beginner farmer still have to do all the work. Go ahead and take the bull by the horns, it will be worth it. Don’t think that bull isn’t going to throw you around a bit, but if you prepare by doing thorough research and planning, you’ll have an idea how to roll with it and land on your feet. Beginner farmer beware, but then do it anyway!