By Hannah Becker, Willow Springs Farm
There are pros and cons to every endeavor, and farming is no exception. As a first-generation farmer, I did not have ancestral insight into the world of agriculture; the majority of my education came via trial and error. Looking back on my experiences thus far, here are the top five things I think new farmers should know:
Farming is expensive
I’d always heard, “it takes money to make money”—well this entrepreneur’s adage is certainly relevant to farming! The cost of land required to make a living is often seven figures. Property improvements can cost thousands more. And those costs will only get you a place to farm—what about seeds and/or livestock? Equipment alone can cost more than the average American’s mortgage (and they give you 30 years to pay that off!).
Farming is expensive, especially for us first-generation folks. It took me several years to accept the endless stream of zeros behind the initial investment for farming—more money than I thought I’d even make in a lifetime! Don’t be daunted; we’re all in the same boat. First generation farmers have a unique set of challenges, and startup capital tops the list.
Farming is dangerous
Noted as one of the most dangerous professions, farming is no joke. Growing up a tomboy, I’ve always considered myself pretty invincible. Sprains, cuts, and broken bones accompanied my years of playing sports; however, the risks that often accompany farming pose unique dangers. Much of my farm work involves beings miles away from civilization with no cell service. Just me, my equipment, and my animals. I can attribute a broken leg, muscle tears, and a back injury to my agricultural efforts. Thankfully I’ve never suffered a more serious injury, but I’m always seeking to minimize risk.
Farming takes a family
I’m really fortunate to be married to a man who shares my farming dreams. My husband has derailed his career and delayed the acquisition of many material things to ensure Willow Springs’ development. He’s always the first to help out with bushhogging, fence mending, and sick animals. He understands the demands a farm presents, and he supports all our efforts. Maybe you don’t have a supportive family; that’s ok. Develop a family around your farm: your neighbors, your customers, your community leaders. To be successful, every farm needs a “family,” supportive people who will be rooting for you even through the bad years.
Farming will stretch you
It was 4 degrees Fahrenheit and a winter storm was blowing across the prairie. As the only people within 5+ miles, it was up to my husband and me to repair the barn roof before the surprise storm ruined hundreds of dollars’ worth of hay. Straddling rafters 50 feet in the air while trying to keep sheets of tin from blowing off in the wintery gusts, my crippling fear of heights had no place. Mid-panic attack, I pounded roofing nails and asked myself if this farming adventure had been one big mistake. With the barn sufficiently sealed and hail coming down, I hunkered down in a stall corner and threw up. I hate heights.
Farming will take you out of your comfort zone. It’s just you and Mother Nature—a relationship that fluctuates between symbiotic and full blown enemies. Rising to the occasion will stretch you, push your limits, and give you confidence to take on the world.
Farming is awesome
Theodore Roosevelt said, “Far and away the best prize that life has to offer is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.” While I may not have the six-figure salary or half-a-million-dollar home enjoyed my many of my business school classmates, I’m pretty excited to be “working hard at work worth doing.” Despite the massive investment, the physical risks, and hours of hard work with no guarantee of return, I still believe farming is the most amazing profession. The pride I feel in creating something out of nothing is worth every drop of sweat, blood, and tears I shed over this labor of love. Farming isn’t for the faint of heart. It’ll test you and everyone around you. You’ll be pushed to the max, and then some—but farming is awesome.
Friends and supporters of local farming gathered earlier this month in Hinsdale, New Hampshire to celebrate the permanent protection of Wingate Farm.
Wingate Farm’s new owners are Olivia Pettengill and her brother James. In their second season growing, Olivia and her business partner, Susan Parke-Sutherland, raised 700 pastured laying hens, hundreds of broiler chickens, eight forest-raised pigs, and a variety of vegetables and flowers.
Until recently the 60-acre farm was jointly owned by sisters Carroll Pettengill and Alma Niemiller. In addition to transferring the land to the younger generation, the family conveyed an agricultural conservation easement to Mount Grace Land Conservation Trust. Language in the easement prevents the land from ever being split apart from the house and barns—protecting the whole farm.
An option to purchase at agricultural value (OPAV) has also been placed on the land. These options are increasingly used to guarantee that protected farms stay in agricultural production and in the hands of working farmers. The option allows Mount Grace to ensure that a sale of the farm would be to a farmer at agricultural value. This is the first time an OPAV has been used to protect farmland in New Hampshire. Without this tool, farmers will continue—as is happening across the country—to get outbid by non-farmers, taking irreplaceable land out of farm production. (more…)
By Maggie Bowling, Old Homeplace Farm
This September I’m feeling the anguish that comes with the end of tomato season. Tomatoes are synonymous with summer for so many people, and they seem to be a crop that draws customers to my buying club and to my market stand, where they will then buy other items as well. This September I mourn the end of the crop that has helped fuel my sales since Memorial Day, but that isn’t the only reason I’m upset this year.
For the first time in my life, I know the joy that eating a fresh, homegrown tomato brings! Those who know me well knew my secret: despite growing up in a family that grew around 1,500 tomato plants each year, I never liked tomatoes. I’ve actively been working to overcome my dislike for years, finding ways that I liked eating them (dehydrated and roasted primarily). This summer, however, I turned a corner and fell in love with tomatoes. I found myself wishing that I had to eat more meals every day for the express purpose of making more recipes that used tomatoes. I even found myself picking and eating tomatoes in the field. While slicing our last tomatoes of the season, I lifted the cut tomatoes to my face and breathed in the sweet, sweet smell of summer one last time.
Bittersweet this fall season is. Autumn brings cooler days, less humidity, and the knowledge that some rest is ahead this winter. Autumn also brings the realization that the main portion of my growing season is ending, and it is time to take stock of what happened this year. A week in my life on the farm is full of emotional highs and lows.
There are so many small (and large) moments of joy and wonder. There are beautiful flowers to be picked and arranged, and the first harvest of any crop brings a surge of happiness through my chest. Working outside during foggy mountain mornings is a treat; I’m pretty happy with my summer arm muscles; I always have my choice of homegrown vegetables, eggs, and meat to eat; and I’m my own boss. On the days that I can see a concrete task accomplished—a fence finished or a new section of field planted, I’m having a good day. Having wonderful conversations with satisfied customers gives me the best feeling. Recently, one of the local restaurants we provide food for hosted a special supper club meal featuring our veggies and meat. It was lovely to see our food prepared for a fancy dinner, and to enjoy it with community members we had just met. I love being paid for something I produced, while working with Will and building our farm for the future. (more…)
By Maggie Bowling, Old Homeplace Farm
The winter before we started the buying club, we counted twenty-two deer in my future vegetable field over the course of one night. I’m sure you can imagine what we chose as our very first farm investment. Will has an off-farm job as an elk biologist (yes, there are elk in Kentucky), so luckily he already had experience building deer and elk barrier fences. One-and-a-half years later, and we still haven’t experienced any deer damage!
I should back up to the previous summer. The day we decided to purchase land felt much more like a proposal than the day that we decided to get married a few months later. Our very first investment was a piece of land a few miles from Will’s parents. While we began farming with our own land, we don’t think that it’s necessary to own land in order to begin farming. This property ended up being right for our lifestyle and farming goals, and we were able to afford it without going into too much debt. (more…)
By Caitlin Arnold, Furrow Horse Farm
Brandon and I started Furrow Horse Farm this year not entirely sure where it would take us, or where we would take it. We are farming on leased land, and signed a one-year lease to start out with. It is difficult to plan long-term for the farm and business when we don’t know how long we will be on this land or even how long we want to be on this land. We also both have off-farm jobs to help pay the bills, so not all of our time is dedicated to growing our farm business.
Given all of that, our business plan for this first season was fairly simple. We knew we wanted to start a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) and our goal was 10 members at $500 per share ($5,000 total CSA income). I am happy to say we have exceeded our goal and are now at 14 members. However, over half of them started at some point once the season was underway, and we had to pro-rate the weeks they had missed. So, even though we surpassed our goal, we did not make the $500-per-person amount we were hoping for.
Our next piece of income was farmers’ markets. We knew we needed to do two markets a week and began applying for different markets around our area, up to an hour’s drive away. I kept my expectations pretty low for market income, and set our goal at $200 per market, per week. That works out to $1,600 per month during the market season, June-October ($8,000 total market income). We ended up in a busy Tuesday market, and a slow Saturday market. (more…)
By Derek Emadi, Emadi Acres
So many stories about farming in the media feature people who left their well-paying jobs in corporate America to start a farm business. The stories always include the folks admitting how difficult their type of farming is, but conclude with how prosperous they have become in their venture. If you to want to be a farmer and are fortunate enough to have a large bank account, I can imagine things being a lot easier. The articles portray picturesque images of rolling pastures with big red barns and sparkling green John Deere tractors with equipment in tow. As great as some of these stories are and as inspiring as they can be, I’m always left asking myself the same question that never seems to be answered: How much money did they start out with to begin their farm business? This is important because, to get the tires rolling, money is the start key.
Now, I speak as someone who is still considered a young farmer with only a few years under my belt. I work by myself all day, pinch many pennies, and save when I can, just to be a farmer. If I could do what I do every day and never worry about money, I would literally have no stress, except of course for the occasional sick hen with a pasty butt. But I have to pay for the mortgage, water, electric, feed, etc. Money needs to be made. Where you start will be dictated by how much debt you have and how much money you have saved. (more…)
This past week, USDA announced two big changes coming to your local county office. First, USDA will be hiring five new staff members at the state level to coordinate new farmer programs for the Farm Service Agency (FSA). The National Young Farmers Coalition (NYFC) has pushed USDA to provide specialized expertise for new farmers, and this job description is exactly what we have been asking for. Second, USDA announced that it is expanding it’s Farm Storage Facility Loan program to cover a host of new products including dairy, eggs, meat, poultry, hops, and flowers. NYFC helped USDA expand this program to fruit and vegetable growers, laying the groundwork for this new expansion.
Here’s a little more information about both of these news items: (more…)
By Hannah Becker, Willow Springs Farm
One of my earliest memories is sitting on an old Paint gelding outside of Memphis, Tennessee. I couldn’t have been more than three or four, but from that moment on I was obsessed with becoming a “cowgirl”. Despite growing up on quarter-acre lots in suburbia, where the only cows I saw were on old Bonanza reruns, my passion to own my own cattle operation never wavered. Completely ignorant of all things agriculture, I knew educating myself would be the first step towards owning my own cattle farm.
At 19, I enthusiastically enrolled as an animal and dairy science student at Mississippi State University. Week one, I was informed by a seasoned Delta farmer and distinguished alum that “people don’t ‘become’ farmers—you have to be born into it.” Discouraged (I was one of the only students not hailing from a multi-generational farm), I was determined to pursue my education and find a way to make my farming dream come true.
As an undergraduate student I began to recognize the immense market potential many “traditional” farmers were overlooking. The agriculture industry seemed oblivious to the inevitable evolution of consumer demands, driven largely by millennials and their purchasing power. Organic and natural products, community supported agriculture (CSA) and reformed animal husbandry techniques, etc. weren’t even on “those old Delta farmers’” radars until the GMO debate began making headlines. The industry was teaming with opportunity. (more…)
By Ruthie King, Director of Operations, Grange Farm School
Two very short months have zipped by since welcoming our new class of students, and boy have we been busy!
The Grange Farm School is located in Mendocino County, California, on a beautiful 5,000 acre ranch. We host residential students, 18 and older, who participate in our three-month Practicum Student Program. Practicum Students are taught a rigorous curriculum five days a week, blending organic food production with sustainable entrepreneurship, industrial arts, and more. The learning experience is a blend of classroom time with guest lecturers and staff, field trips to production farms and supporting services, and guided field work on our nine acres of mixed vegetables, pasture, and orchard. (more…)
By Caitlin Arnold, Furrow Horse Farm
On February 13th of this year, I came home from work and played the new messages on our answering machine. My mom’s voice came across the line crying and hysterical, informing me that my grandpa had died that afternoon.
My grandpa, Richard Norton, grew up farming cherries and apples in the Yakima Valley of eastern Washington State. He witnessed the transition from draft horses to tractors and the arrival of DDT as the “farmers miracle.” After leaving the farm at 18 to serve in the army, he returned, not to the farm, but instead to college to become a music teacher.
Supporting himself by playing in jazz and big bands, he received his degree, married my grandma, and began his thirty-year teaching career.