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I’ve been revisiting childhood memories as of late, thoughts of roaming across fields and farmland, the smell of earth, and the warm, morning sun beating down. COVID forced my hand and made me reconsider where I live, how I live, and why I live that way. National unemployment jumped from 3% to over 10% overnight, and people are thinking differently about the urban environments that keep them locked up.
Societies worldwide are craving self-reliance, open space, and bingeing fresh air rather than another original Netflix series. Suddenly, homesteading doesn’t sound half bad. Take a look at the Google Trend for a small farm.
The question we need to ask ourselves is, how do we make it work?
How Do I Start a Sustainable Farm?
Start by managing your expectations. A sustainable small farm is not achievable overnight. It requires research, planning, and determination to make it viable for the long term. We’re talking about years here, not months.
If you are a city slicker like I am, take baby steps. Consider backyard farming or indoor farming at first and then slowly transitioning to suburban hobby farming. You’ll quickly determine whether or not you enjoy it and can scale from there.
7 steps for getting started
You must understand why this is important to you. Are you looking for something to do as a hobby, or do you want to be self-sufficient? Do you want to…
- Quit your day job?
- Leave the concrete jungle?
- Live a slower-paced lifestyle?
- Have more autonomy?
- Spend more time with family?
- Know precisely what you are eating?
- Become a profitable business?
Knowing the answers to these questions will both guide you and keep you going when things get tough.
Here is an example:
Specific – “I want to start a small farm in my backyard where I grow produce and harvest eggs from a chicken coop.”
Measurable – “The yield of carrots, tomatoes, and asparagus collected, along with the number of eggs.”
Achievable – “My schedule allows me to manage a small farm and give it the attention it needs. I called my local city office and received the green light to have chickens in my backyard”.
Relevant – “I want to know exactly what I put into my body and maybe one day scale the farm and grow into something full-time.”
Time-based – “I am going to spend no more than one-week researching, another for gathering supplies, and two weeks for bringing it all together.”
Learning New Skills
After deciding what type of farm you want and setting goals, you need to consume information and learn by doing.
- Start Your Farm by Forrest Pritchard
- Back To Basics by Abigail Gehring
- The Backyard Homestead Seasonal Planner by Ann Larkin Hansen
- The Encyclopedia of Country Living by Carla Emery
- Field Guide To Urban Gardening by Kevin Espiritu
- Small Farm Nation with Tim Young
- Farmer to Farmer with Chris Blanchard
- Homesteady with Austin Martin
- The Beginning Farmer Show
- Small Farm Sustainability with Iowa State University
Yes, I’m telling you to download a video game that will teach you the fundamentals of commercial farming. It’s inexpensive and a fun way to fuel your passion while learning how to manage a farm business or hobby farm project. You will also learn how to scale without spending any real money to do so.
While Farming Simulator is an absolute blast, Agriculture in the Classroom has a laundry list of great game recommendations and partnerships that will lead you further down the rabbit hole.
Building a network and making new friends
It helps to make new friends along the way. The sustainable movement is widespread and fast-growing. It’ll be your support network towards achieving your dream of a sustainable farm, plus, they may be instrumental in building your farm-to-table supply and production chain.
You will need to start making friends with your suppliers and potential customers, including farmers’ markets, grocery stores, restaurants, and distributors.
Here are a few great online communities from Reddit, Quora, and Facebook to kick things off and help you join the conversation.
- (Reddit) Urban Farming
- (Reddit) Homesteading
- (Reddit) Small Farms
- (Reddit) Self Sufficiency
- (Reddit) Urban Homestead
- (Quora) Farming Tips
- (Facebook) Small Scale Farming As A Business
- (Facebook) Agricultural Business Ideas
- (Facebook) Farmers Group
- (Facebook) American Farmer
Planning Your Farm
Think about what crops you are going to produce, why you want to use them, and what methods you’re going to take.
Review the following categories and determine which you want to explore:
- Grasses, grains, and canes
- Tree, Vine, Bush, Bramble
- Animals including chickens, cows, pigs, goats, rabbits, sheep, and bees
The list below includes useful courses, most of them offer both free and paid versions.
Creating a Business Plan
Here is where your wallet comes into play. Unless your only goal is self-sufficiency, a business plan and strategy is critical. Running a farm requires frequent decision-making, crisis management skills, and a business plan that will help you make the best decision.
While it is possible to start a sustainable small farm for cheap, we’re still talking as much as $5,000. That doesn’t include fancy machinery, livestock, or other things that are useful but not vital. If done correctly, however, you should be able to supply food for yourself while also churning profit if done correctly. It would allow you to start reinvesting quickly and scaling your operation if you chose that route.
For reference, these are average annual costs in different areas of the farm:
- Cattle – From $500 to as much as $1,000 per year per cow, depending on their environment
- Pork – From $400 in Summer to as much as $800 in Winter per pig
- Chickens – $100/Year per chicken, plus $500 to as much as $2,000 for brand new coops
- Goats – Roughly $1,000/Year
$5,000 – 10,000 entry-level cost for beginning farmers is a lot of capital to invest; however, this is money that you can make back over time. Here is a list of things that you either need to consider buying or definitely must buy for your venture to operate.
- Vertical Grow Walls
- Microgreen Flats
- Row Bags
- Wire Hoops
- Insect Netting
- Landscape Fabric
- Silage Tarps
- Shade Cloth
- Caterpillar Tunnels
- Post-Harvest Station
- Washing Gun
- Walk-In Cooler
- Greens Spinner
Apply For Grants
Developing a system
Setting up your management system, even if it’s just preliminary, will help you feel less overwhelmed and make you feel more in control when you finally start to run your farm. It doesn’t also have to be complicated. If you plan to set up your farm with your family, a simple list of the designation of tasks to be done by each family member will suffice. For more complex enterprises, a farm management system might be in your cards.
- https://granular.ag/ – Market analysis
- https://www.agworld.com/us/ – Record keeping
- https://conservis.ag/ – Farm management built by farmers
- https://www.farmbrite.com/ – Midsize farms
- https://agrivi.com/en – Beginning farmers and cooperatives
- https://www.croptracker.com/ – For fruit and vegetables
- https://www.harvestprofit.com/ – Grain marketing
- https://www.easykeeper.com/ – Goats
Monitoring and Reassessing
Running a farm is no set and forget type of endeavor. Your first year will be full of frustration, but you must get started. It will take time to learn strategies to prevent weather and commodity markets from wreaking havoc on crop production and monetization. At some point, you will need to make sure that you have enough land for exceptional yields. It is a testament to the dedication that farmers have to their land and livestock.
How Many Acres Do You Need to Start a Farm?
According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), family farms take roughly 231 acres and get gross annual sales of less than $250,000. But if that’s too big for your tastes, between 1/4 and 5 acres will suffice. With the rise of city living, a new revolution emerged called urban farming. The practice caters toward those with as little as 1/4 of an acre. This acreage is realistic for the average urbanite looking to get started. For reference, the average American home sits on a 1/5 acre plot.
Having money to throw at your farm is not going to solve any problems. You don’t need to buy a large plot of land just yet or invest in fancy equipment. Start with your passion and drive, focusing on advancing your organizational, management, and people skills.
Outside of sheer acreage, your choice of crop, the quality of soil, water, and sunlight, and your hard work and steadfast commitment to sustainability will ensure your farm’s success.
8 Sustainable Farming Techniques
1. Integrated Pest Management (IPM) – Not all insects are the enemy of a farm. IPM acknowledges this by protecting beneficial insects so that they do the work of eliminating the scourges. It means less pesticide use, which is good for the environment.
2. Crop Rotation– This method plants crops in a sequential pattern each season. It allows the plants to replenish the soil whose nutrients were used during the previous crop cycle by returning nitrogen and combating pest and weed pressure. Simple rotations include only two or three crops, but more complex sequences will incorporate up to a dozen. An example of crop rotation is to grow tomatoes in year one, then carrots in year two, beans in year three, then back to tomatoes in year four.
3. Using Renewable Sources – The sun, water, and wind are alternate sources of energy that should be utilized by small farms. Use your found energy to run pumps and heaters, provide lighting, and allow farmhands to use equipment without relying on a power grid.
4. Polyculture Farming – This method allows for multiple crops to grow in one area and results in a high biodiversity. Polyculture farming is a great way to keep soil healthy, making it resilient to sudden weather changes.
5. Permaculture – This method allows for a holistic use of land resources, minimizing waste, and increasing crop production. Permaculture farms plant perennial crops that function well together, mimicking how plants in a healthy and natural environment grow.
6. Agroforestry– This combines good agricultural and forestry practices to promote soil health. Trees provide cover for crops while stabilizing the ground and help minimize nutrient run-off. They also provide additional income for the farmer through their wood and fruits.
7. Managed Grazing – Out of all types of animal farms, this method is the most sustainable way of paturing livestock. The animals are allowed to rotate their grazing across multiple plots of land. As the herd travels, the other areas can experience organic regrowth.
8. Biodynamic Farming – Biodynamic farming appears to be a modern and sophisticated method to farm sustainably, but it’s history dates back to 1924 and the scientific research of Rudolph Steiner. It relies on both sun and moon cycles to increase crop productivity. It carefully manages the interdependent elements: fields, forests, plants, animals, soils, compost, people, and the spirit of the place. Farmers work to nurture and harmonize these elements to support the health and vitality of the whole by listening to the land. Talk about being down to earth.
How Profitable is Small Farming?
Any size farm can make for great profits given proper management, efficiency, quality, and buyers. The world has seen an increase in local food demand and farm-to-table dining, and it is likely going to continue to experience growth. The food industry, along with its mega-farms, was hit hard recently, creating significant opportunities in agribusiness.
The small farmer able to pivot directly to customers can make considerable profits for being quick to adapt to the post-COVID normal. Experts say that the pandemic was a great catalyst to correct the flaws in the American food system and a signal of things to come.
5 Blueprints For A Profitable Farm Plan
1. Apiculture – Also known as beekeeping, the demand for honey and other bee byproducts can guarantee a steady stream of income. You don’t need a large plot of land either. You can utilize your backyard! New bee farmers can set up their bee farm with just $500-$1000.
2. Aquaponics – Aquaponics is an indoor food production system integrating both aquaculture and hydroponics. The fish waste provides nutrients for the crops, and the plants purify the water. For as little as $1,000, you can hire a professional to set up a 1,200 square feet aquaponics greenhouse and, if appropriately managed, harvest 10-25 times that from your crops in your first year.
8 best crops for aquaponics:
- Swiss Chard
3. Hydroponics – If adding fish into your venture is too messy, ditch out the fish and look into hydroponic crop production. Rather than relying on the fish, you add liquid nutrients to the water. Many high-profit crops excel in hydroponic environments and are cheap to produce.
8 best crops for hydroponics:
- Spring Onions
4. Microgreens Farming – If you’re looking for easy-to-grow crops with a fast turnaround and requires minimal investment, then growing baby veggies could be the thing for you.
Microgreens are tiny edible vegetables that are slightly older than sprouts but are not mature enough. They are grown in trays or tables, and you can harvest biweekly. Sell microgreens for approximately $25 per pound.
16 best crops for microgreens:
- Beet greens
- Sunflower Shoots
- Pea Shoots
- Rainbow Mix
5. Specialty – These are your a-typical farms, including cannabis, mushrooms, and snails (yes, it’s a thing!) and can prove to be quite lucrative. Each of these can be grown indoors and with minimal land. Even better, they don’t demand a lot of upfront investment, and the crops themselves are lucrative. Be sure to check the legality before you start.
3 best crops for specialty growers:
Is Sustainable Farming Possible?
American agriculture has been glossing over with idyllic fantasies of beautiful farmhouses nestled in fields fecund with green products for decades. It’s a Hallmark movie tableau, the modern version of the Little House on the Praire trope that’s both encouraging and misleading.
The reality is that smaller farms are declining and have been for centuries. We’re reaching an unprecedented level of reliance on mega-farms. Last year, Time magazine highlighted this crisis when it published an article discussing how to farm loan delinquencies have sky-rocketed, bankrupting farms across America and causing both stress and high levels of depression among farming communities.
Then the COVID-19 pandemic struck.
It wreaked havoc on the food industry, shutting down mainstream food outlets and disrupting the corporate-driven food supply chain. Food suddenly became precious and less of a commodity.
Amid all of this, one might expect small farms to struggle. But the opposite is happening. Small farms are experiencing an uptick in consumer spending. While many corporate farms scramble, many small farms are thriving.
The benefits of sustainability include better soil health, water quality, biodiversity. As concerns over climate change and healthy eating get intensified, the demand for sustainable farms is increasing.
Sustainable vs. Organic
The concept of sustainability took root sometime in the late 20th century. Rachel Carson, Wes Jackson, and Gordon McClymont are known pioneers of the sustainable ag movement between 1950 and 1980.
The practice seeks to utilize renewable resources rather than non-renewable; limit the use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers; reduce topsoil erosion by pushing conservative tillage methods, efficient applications of irrigation, and crop rotation; promote small to midsize farms rather than corporate mega-farms. These corporate ventures destroy rural communities and jeopardize the viability of the family farm structure.
Sustainable farms are not necessarily organic. Some call sustainable agriculture fusion farming because it incorporates techniques from organic agriculture. But it’s not above using conventional methods as long as it doesn’t damage the environment or pose risks to public health. It is your choice to include sustainability, organics, or both in your farm plan.