You’ve dreamed of becoming a farmer, growing food not just for yourself, but for your greater community. You want to live a life in harmony with the seasons, the soil, the moment. It’s a life of physical work, intellectual challenges, and uncertain finances, but you know that you’re ready. All that’s left is to trade in your suit and tie for sturdy boots and a dilapidated hat.
Congratulations. The world needs you. According to this article in the Atlantic, there are currently more bus drivers than farmers in the United States. While at first glance this might seem like an arbitrary statistic, consider this question: which is more likely, a bus driver needing to eat, or a farmer needing a bus ticket? Food ranks in upper echelon of human needs, right beside oxygen, sleep, and cuddling with your sweetheart.
The planet needs nutritious food, and that requires thoughtful, intelligent people to grow it. So if you’re genuinely considering farming as a career, tape these 8 rules to your refrigerator, tack them to your barn door, or commit them to memory. After fifteen years of running my own farm, these points were hard won, but continue to serve me well. Following them might not guarantee success, but they will certainly put you on the path to economic and agricultural sustainability.
The Eight Rules of Starting Your Own Farm
Rule #1: Avoid Debt!
Why is this #1? Why does it have an exclamation point after it? Because—attention please—it’s really important! If there’s one thing our national housing crisis has reinforced, it’s how economically debilitating debt can be for the average person. Farmers are not immune to these challenges. Many great producers have abandoned their farming dreams because they simply couldn’t pay their loans when the bank came calling.
In a nutshell, debt (borrowing money, with interest) allows us to accelerate our goals, turning dreams of tomorrow into realities of today. While borrowed money might buy us a tractor, a new barn, or even the land we’ll be farming, experience, the most valuable farming asset of all, cannot be purchased.
Experience doesn’t come with a Bachelors Degree in Agriculture, and it certainly doesn’t come from a book. Agriculture is fraught with uncertainties, surprises, and intellectual challenges. And that’s just before lunch. Adding monthly payments to this intimidating list financially handcuffs most people right from the start.
So, does this mean ‘never take on debt’? Definitely not. There are plenty of times when acquiring debt makes sense. As you gain farming experience, and create reliable cash flow in your business, those opportunities (or necessities) will become clearer. In the meantime, embrace this generalization: avoid debt as much as possible.
Rule #2: Allow Yourself The Opportunity To Fail
Wait a minute. This was supposed to be about not failing, right? Ironic, I know. Bear with me.
Our culture seems obsessed with failure, simultaneously terrified and captivated with the concept. I personally know people who spend their days avoiding the ‘humiliation’ of failure at all costs. Some of these people fear failure so much, they never attempt to accomplish anything. The thought of failure paralyzes them.
If failure is a major concern to you, here’s a spoiler: in farming, you WILL fail. 100% chance. In fact, with apologies to Benjamin Franklin, besides death and taxes, it’s your only guarantee of anything when it comes to farming.
But here’s what no one ever told me. It’s okay to fail. Moreover, in farming, it’s important to fail. While painful at first, failure can be an enormously useful tool. It helps us learn our personal limits of time and energy. It’s an instrumental timesaver in the long run, letting us know what works well, and what’s a boondoggle. Failure provides us perspective for future enterprises, and makes us intellectually stronger, more emotionally resilient.
So, thumb your nose at that sagging bookshelf loaded with self-help books, telling you you’re not a failure. Yes you are… get out there and fail! But while you’re failing, fail well; fail gracefully and thoughtfully. It’s the only sure way to recognize success when it finally arrives.
Rule #3: Identify Your Market Before You Start Farming
Perhaps you want to grow watermelons, or start a sauerkraut business, or even sell wool to local knitters. Fabulous. I like watermelon, sauerkraut and knit caps as much as the next guy. But how are you going to find customers like me? Do I live in your neighborhood, or 500 miles away? How will you find others like me? What will you do if I buy ALL of your products, and you’re sold out for six months? What will you do if I buy NONE of your stuff, and you’ve got a barn full of it?
Before you plant that first seed, jar your first kraut, or shear your first ewe, take the time (lots, lots of time) to figure out where you’re going to sell your products, who is going to buy them, and how you’re going to do it. Once you’ve done this, create a back up plan. Then, come up with another backup plan. Chances are, you’re going to need them.
For small and niche producers, an enormous amount of effort is spent finding our own customers. This is every bit as important as growing the food to begin with, because without appropriate sales channels, our fresh produce will languish. When all those watermelons ripen at the exact same moment, you’ll need a place to sell them, and quickly. Have a marketing plan ready well in advance.
Rule #4: Match The Land To Its Suited Use
Simply put, we can force our human dreams onto the land, or we can work with what nature gives us. On our farm, wild turkeys, deer, cotton tailed rabbits and grey squirrels naturally flourish. As such, it’s no coincidence that we’re able to raise free-range chickens, sheep, cattle and pigs on the same land. While the correlations may not be identical, there is a nice pattern here, an environment that naturally fosters both vegetarian grazers and omnivorous foragers.
Conversely, a few years back, we tried to raise free-range ducks on pasture, and learned the hard way that they evinced their waterfowl instincts by turning our fields into ponds. They accomplished this by methodically tipping over our automatic watering troughs (it’s a long story… but trust me, they did it), creating muddy, sloppy swimming holes in the middle of our pastures that we dubbed ‘quack mires’. In their own way, the ducks were telling us that they belonged near water, not out on grass. We eventually ‘listened,’ stopped raising ducks, and have been happier ever since.
Rule #5: Grow Your Passion
Everyone knows that farming is hard work, so do yourself a favor: grow something that you love. Want to grow blueberries? Then grow blueberries, for Pete’s sake. You might be the only blueberry grower in a county filled with turnip farms, but you’ll be happier for it. If you focus on your passion, it will help mitigate those difficult days when the sledding gets rough, and things don’t go your way.
It may seem like common sense, but often we find our decisions driven more by finances, tradition, or inertia than doing something that we simply love. Go out on a limb, and grow heirloom apples if you want. Consider it your first reward. There will be more.
Rule #6: Set Reasonable Goals
Yes, yes, we all know that you were a double major, the captain of the fencing team, and turned down a Fulbright to construct Mongolian yurts in Peace Corps. You’re talented… we get it! Now, Ms. Superpants, repeat after me:
“It’s okay if I can’t feed the entire state of Nebraska, so long as I can supply my local market. The world won’t end if I don’t make ‘X’ number of dollars this year, as long as all of my bills are paid. I’m not less of a person if I don’t add an additional enterprise, until I get really good at the 3 other enterprises I’m already trying to master.”
Listen up, you workaholics: it’s even acceptable to take Tuesday afternoons off to drink iced tea and read a book, especially if you work all weekend (like I do). Take care of yourself. Burnout is big in farming. You already know that farming is physically taxing, with unique emotional demands. Find your pace. Visualize a fifty-year career, and set annual, achievable goals that will get you there. Check in with yourself frequently. And by all means, if you raise flowers for a living, be sure to “stop and smell the petunias” from time to time. Or the daffodils. Whatever… I raise pigs, lay off me.
Rule #7: Don’t Worry About What Other People Think
In 1994, when I was twenty years old, I found myself talking to an older farming couple at a local picnic. We both raised cattle for a living, but they sold their animals straight to corn-fed feedlots. They asked me about my farming ambitions, and I told them of my dream to sell 100% grass-fed beef. The cattle would be completely organic, and I’d direct market the meat myself. I told them our farm could provide food for several hundred families, once it really got going.
Their reaction? I had barely finished speaking when they turned to each other, made eye contact, and burst into uncontrollable laughter. I must have turned ten shades of red.
Eighteen years later, despite this withering response (they apologized for their behavior after they finished laughing, bless their hearts), our farm has accomplished these goals and much, much more. If I had worried what my neighboring farmers thought of me, I certainly wouldn’t be sitting here now, typing this list. Believe in yourself, and just go for it.
As for that couple? Five years ago, they put a sign up at the end of their lane, “Free-Range Beef for Sale.” The sign is still out there at this very moment. Pardon me while I indulge in a moment of uncontrollable laughter.
Rule #8: Read. Ask Questions. Share Your Knowledge.
Don’t like to read? Start reading. Shy? Get up near the teacher if you want to learn anything. Have a chip on your shoulder? Better to lose it now, before Mother Nature loses it for you.
Last but not least, be generous with your knowledge, especially with people who want to learn from you.
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This was so great to read! I really love number 8. As a young family trying to raise and grow as much as we can for our family we are often reminded of how little we know. There is no generational knowledge hidden deep in my memories. Having people like you, who are willing to share their wisdom is huge! Thank you.
Hi Emmy, yes, if we could all be born with farming instincts that always pointed us in the right direction it sure would be easier. In the meantime, let’s continue to share our occasional farming triumphs with the community!
You all hit it right on the head. We have made our fare share of mistakes and learn from each one. You just have to keep on adjusting to each situation as it comes. You all keep on keeping on.
Aults Family Farm
Thanks for the great reminders…your timing is impeccable!
Loved your advice on failure I’ve always said there are only two ways to fail. By giving up or being to afraid to try. each “failure” is just a step to success. I’ve learned more from failure than anything else.
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I loved the article, and I find information like this liberating, but I always get hung up on the financial picture. Item #1 is an important point for maintaining the future of a farming enterprise (or any enterprise, really), but it always leaves me begging the question, How? How do I get started in farming without debt? I’ve got a very deep hunger to try it, to farm just as my family has done for generations, but since I don’t have access to land, or the money to attain land for myself, I just don’t know how to move forward at this point beyond dreaming and reading.
I think we all struggle with this one, and that’s why I chose the phrase ‘Avoid Debt‘ rather than ‘Never take on debt, ever, ever, ever!‘
It’s a fine line to walk. Let’s try looking at it this way. When I began farming, I thought that “making money” was the main way to succeed. If I could only make enough money, the farm would be okay, and I could learn as the years passed by. In short, I probably spent a lot more time thinking about money (and more specifically, what I could buy if I only had MORE money… hence, temptations of debt) than what I really should have been thinking about: getting free or low-cost experience.
In farming, experience is the most valuable thing you can have, and often, it only comes by working on a farm. So, my suggestion to you would be, if you feel like you MUST take on debt, spend a year or two interning or apprenticing on someone else’s farm, and learn HOW to best utilize that debt.
Experience multiplied by capital (in this case, debt) greatly stacks the deck in your favor. Best of luck with your farming dreams!
I really like this and am inspired to start a farm, am in Uganda.
Do you think it would be possible to start up a small farm for the purpose of being self-sufficient, ie not for profit?
I’m sure it sounds really naive, I’m a city girl but I’ve always dreamed of living off the land… I just don’t have the funds/knowledge for a business.
I too have this dream, and I too am a city girl and for a long while thought that I never could achieve it, but I persevered. I volunteered at a organic farm every weekend two and a half hours away from where I attended school, work a part-time job during the week ad saved up enough money to by a few acres. Where over time I slowly bought the surrounding land, I raise goats with is great because they love to forage in the abundant forests in my land- with is cheaper where I am then cleared farmland- and where I grow food for my self and local community. I don’t feed the entire province (I’m Canadian) but I do my part, doing what I love. If this is what you truly want don’t let anything hold you back. P.S I also live off grid, which means I have no hydro bill, which helps a lot with the money issue.
Hi Forrest, thanks for the tips. I live in the US but my dream is to return to my home country Chile and start a farm there. God willing I will be able to do it soon and raise my kids (My first one is on the way) in a farm. Thanks for inspiring us all.
You are very welcome! Best of luck, and please come visit our farm someday.
It does take time. And debt is a killer. We’ve been in our place 6 years and we are just finally getting to the point of having an established (very small) customer base. We are committed to debt free growth, and are working on refining what we want to do with our tiny little farm. One Step At A Time…..
Your list could’ve come at a better time; I am at a major crossroads in my life. I am 27 years old, with a beautiful 4 year old daughter and wonderful husband. I am at the point in my life where, I am confused about where my life is going and where I want to take it. Food and eating organically is an immense passion of mine, this happened after I found out I was pregnant with my daughter and I wanted to give her a fighting chance at life to live long and healthy. I started to read everything! Educate myself on the foods I was consuming. I read and watched Food Inc.: A Participant Guide: How Industrial Food is Making Us Sicker, Fatter, and Poorer-And What You Can Do about It. It changed my entire world, something so beautiful and honest happened that day I watched it, how real the world became for me. I decided than I was done with processed foods and organic was the only way to live. With that being said being 27, being married and raising a 4 year old, financially it’s straining and stressful. My husband and I find ourselves eating bad so that our child can eat better, because sometimes we can’t feed a family of three a pure organic meal. So sometimes I’ll skip eating organically so my daughter can eat it. Than I start to imagine, if I start eating badly and only feed my daughter organic food, than who will be here to raise her, if I can’t make it past a certain age because of what I am putting into my body. So we sacrifice everything to eat well, we budget accordingly and we try! But sometimes we just can’t do it, and it brings me down. I’m a firm believer of astrology, some people find it silly, but it speaks to me. I find myself seeing this quote every time I do read my horoscope.
“If you are not one with the earth, you will never truly be happy”.
These words play over and over in my head, it took my sometime to get to this, but after I read your blog, I realized I need to listen to myself and do what I really want and not let other people tell me I’m crazy or tell me it can never be done!. . . Damn it! I want to be a farmer and I want to raise chickens 100% vegetarian feed, no added anything just pure organic, humanly raised, free roaming happy as can be chickens! Sale to my local markets, eat my chicken, feel proud, offer the exact chicken I am selling to the markets and offer the community who can’t always afford that $17 dollar chicken breast and offer them an affordable price. They will be happy knowing exactly what’s in the chickens, where it’s coming from and be happy feeding it to their families. I guess I just want to know, how the hell do I start?? Ha!
A wise farmer once told me that you “start by starting.” I know it sounds esoteric, but it certainly worked for me!
I am from Philippines, I love reading this and I know I can start my own farm in a little.
I am from country Nepal and I am dreaming a cow farm. I want to start from very minimum level ( say from 4-5 milking cows). As my case is similar to Bob Welch and your suggestion for Bob really meets to me too. In my location, the market is potential and can use some minor proportion of debts too. I the main problem in me is; I only have an experience of traditional methods (low productivity) where hard physical works and less returns. I want to scale up from this experience to modern techniques. 🙂
Really, I surely request you to provide me a volunteer opportunity in your farm for some months, but I know this is not possible as the context is totally different (US and Nepal).
No matter, you can suggest me how could I obtain the technical skills as well as the major area of sensitive. My educational background is Busness studies and specilation in Finance, Currently I am working in one of the INGO as administration and finance Officer. I have also worked with Heifer International (INGO) in Nepal in similar position.
Now onwards I want to do something myself and is in the field of Agriculture………..
This was so great to read. I am getting ready to start a small organic vegetable farm in the Spring and all your points are a great reminder of the right path to follow.
God help me, I hope to make a decent living from farming. But even if it makes me no money, I know I’ll be the happiest person working in the field with my kids everyday and feeding not only us but others too.
Best of luck, Lee! You can do it 🙂
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I just started reading Gaining Ground and I love it. I hope to start a farm with my husband soon, maybe maple syrup and pigs. It’s just a dream for now, but reading what you write about farming makes me think we could do it. Thank you!
Thanks Siobhan! I like maple syrup on my sausages, so sounds like a natural fit to me 😀
Mr Forrest, yours is one of the few blogs on internet that is actually inspiring young people like to start farming without being scared. Most blogs and advises are only words on discouragement. They all say farming is hard work and not for city dwellers, luxury loving , sedantary ppl (like me). True, it is hard work and capital intensive, it isn’t something non doable. I am in technology sector looking to gain some farm experience first by doing a few farm apprenticeships. Having a hard time here in New Jersey even to find an apprenticeship on a farm for someone who has no prior farming experience and doesnt want to work with animals. It is hard for me to make a decision to quit my day job (a high paying job) and work on a farm as a farm intern. I am still determined to get started this year.
I loved your blog. Farming is one sector which is not very glamorous to say, but certainly a very promising field where young people with creative ideas are needed to make a difference.
Thanks K Pac! Sorry to have not been posting lately, I’ve got a new book debuting in September and it’s taken up all my time. New blogs forthcoming, however 🙂
Patience, staying positive, being resourceful with what you have to make the farm prosper. Breaking even is considered a very good year. Adopting that attitude with hard work will help you make it work!
Great article! The main thing in my experience is to have a passion for farming and a love of animals, along with buckets of common sense and patience. If you have these you will have half a chance.
Very informative article! I like the info provided by you. I am planning to starting a farm and this article is very helpful for me. Thanks for sharing.
I like that you explained how considering the conditions of your land can help you plan what you should add to your farm. My uncle is interested in starting a farm and needs a lot of room for his cattle to exercise, but he isn’t sure what kind of farm would be best. I’ll let him know that he should find a farm that has a lot of flat land on the property.
I like your suggestion for farmers to take time to themselves to ensure they don’t become burned out from trying to meet unreasonable goals. In my opinion, it would be beneficial for farmers to work with an agricultural solutions provider to help them get an accurate picture of the scale of work that needs to be done. IT was interesting to read your article and learn how to start a farm successfully, so thanks for sharing!