Beyond foraging, one of the only reliable ways to secure food in a lengthy disaster is by growing it yourself.
Small farms are more popular than ever, and that means there are a wide variety of resources available that you can use to start your own. This is good news for preppers and survivalists who are interested in learning how to grow their own food and using that knowledge in a disaster scenario. It’s also a good idea for those who want to become self-sustainable.
However, running a farm — especially full time — is no small undertaking. You’ll need to do some research and planning if you want to learn the skills you need and to keep it operational.
Plan How Farming Will Fit Into Your Life
If you want to quit your job or shift to full-time farm work, you need to know how much it will demand from you. You may have the stamina, but you’ll also be running a small business — or, in the case of a homestead, filling almost 100 percent of your needs. It’s also likely you’ll also be working with animals, in the sun and humidity, and with heavy equipment.
You may be able to hire people to help you. Often, though, you’ll be alone for long periods of time, especially if you plan on homesteading.
If you enjoy working outside with your hands and having a direct connection to the fruits of your labor, then starting your own farm can be a deeply rewarding and fulfilling experience. You’ll take comfort in the fact that your food supply is sustainable, unlike that of most preppers. However, your farm will be a full-time job and a half, and even the most successful homesteaders can struggle.
Even when providing a niche good, small farms also have to compete with agribusiness giants.
There’s ultimately no way to know if running a full-time farm is right for you without diving in. There are online resources you can use to help you figure this out. Be honest with yourself. Ask whether or not you have the right temperament for doing this and a decent idea of what day-to-day operations would look like.
Hobby farming is also an option, but you will need resources to commit to a hobby that is both money- and time-consuming. If you’re in a position where you don’t have to work a day job — for example, you’re a retiree with a pension or a veteran with significant benefits — hobby farming can be a good fit. You won’t have to worry as much about losing your livelihood, and you’re generally risking less by starting your own farm.
If you’re uncertain about how much time you can commit but still want to work outdoors, raising animals and growing crops, you don’t have to jump in right away. Instead, there are a few ways you can test the waters and begin to get a sense of what a farmer’s work looks and feels like.
Build a Farmer’s Skill Set
Research will be key, and there are several books that can get you started. However, research alone won’t be enough to prepare you for the full scope of your farm responsibilities. You’ll need to get hands-on experience and learn from other farmers if you want to run a successful operation.
One way to start is by working or volunteering at local farms. A part-time job as a farmer’s caretaker can get you experience working with the administrative and organizational side of farming. You’ll learn how to keep the books, as well as track essential information about animals, crops and equipment.
If you’re young and have a lot of time to spare, some programs will compensate you for your work even if you don’t have a significant background in agriculture. Others, like work-stay programs, allow you to travel, learn about farming and receive housing for the cost of your labor. With an organization like WWOOF, you can volunteer at and live on an organic farm, paying for room and board with your work.
What you shouldn’t do is go into debt to learn about agriculture. A degree might be a good idea if you’re committed to the field and learn best from a classroom environment with guided work. However, there’s no law that says you need a degree to pursue farming as a career.
If none of the above options appeals, you can still learn skills at home, even if you live in the suburbs or the city. Growing herbs on the windowsill or putting a chicken coop up in the backyard can teach you a lot about animal husbandry and horticulture.
By working with your hands — and with other farmers — you can learn better than you would with research alone. Talking to other homesteaders will help you learn from their experience and begin to develop the knowledge base and resourceful sort of thinking you’ll need to operate a farm on your own.
Nothing can fully prepare you for working on a farm, but you can give yourself the best possible chance with some preparation and research.
Know the Kind of Farm You Want
Do you just want to work on the farm in your spare time, or will this be your full-time job? Do you want to go even further and become totally self-sustainable and go off the grid?
You might be surprised to learn there are many different kinds of operations, even at the family-owned level — like small farms, hobby farms and homesteads. You’ll need to pick one to know what type of land to purchase and what kind of tools and equipment are required.
Homesteads are the easiest kind of farm to take off the grid and will likely appeal to preppers and those interested in becoming self-sustaining. They are relatively isolated and are sometimes built from the ground up — giving you full control over things like water supply and energy generation. These will take probably the most investment — in time, money, labor and resources. Hobby farms, or even smaller-scale gardening operations, are a good option if you are worried about your ability to put in the work.
If agriculture appeals to you but you don’t want to make it your full-time job just yet, you can always invest in a community garden or something small-scale before moving on to starting your own farm.
Buy the Land
When selecting a piece of land or farm, you can afford to wait. Don’t jump at the first opportunity. Keep in mind the crops you want to grow, the animals you want to raise and what kind of conditions you want your farm to withstand. The ideal place might not come along. However, you’ll get closer to what you want and have a better idea of what you can get for your money by spending some time observing the land market.
If you’re selecting land for a homestead, there are some best practices you can follow to ensure you get the best property possible for what you need.
For example, you need to consider the local soil quality. Is it tightly packed and of poor quality? You might not even know if you haven’t had testing done before. Prior to purchase, either test or ask about the quality of the soil. It’s possible to improve it, but it takes time that you may not have if you need to hit the ground running.
Match what you grow to what the land is suited for. Some environments will be a better fit for certain crops and animals. If you have a specific set of vegetables or herbs you want to grow, you should look for a piece of land that will accommodate them.
When buying land, know what you need access to. How close do you want to be the nearest town or hospital? Are you fine with living in the middle of nowhere with no entertainment but what you make for yourself?
You also need to consider local infrastructure, water sources and how you plan on energizing your farm or homestead. The land you pick might be remote enough that you won’t be guaranteed a phone line or internet access. If you need help, how do you plan on getting it?
How rough do you want to live? Be honest with yourself. An outhouse is an option, but so is a septic tank. You will be roughing it for the foreseeable future. When deciding what amenities you really need, be honest with yourself — especially if you choose to homestead.
Small, pre-existing hobby farms will probably need the least amount of planning. If you don’t live there, you don’t have to worry so much about how comfortable it is. That being said, even small-scale operations will require knowledge and planning — nothing is going to be easy to run, and that includes hobby farms.
Lay the Foundation
The most important thing to keep in mind while laying the foundations is that you should avoid debt, especially if you plan on relying on the farm as your primary source of income. Building a profitable operation takes time, and even the most successful ones can struggle to make a profit. The majority of small farms in 2015 had an operating profit margin of less than 10% — one bad season, major injury or accident, and you could end up in the red.
If you’re already in debt when you start, it can be that much harder to recover from plain bad luck.
Financing your farm is an option, however, if you’re confident you can make the most of borrowed money. The USDA offers financial advice and support for beginning farmers that you can take advantage of if you need it.
When making purchasing decisions, you’ll need to focus on what will give you the most bang for your buck. Take, for example, an air compressor. On a farm, it is a tool with an incredible amount of versatility including being used to inflate tires, for painting, for weeding, for septic systems, and more . Because you’ll be familiarizing yourself with a whole new range of equipment, you’ll want to focus on essentials rather than tools that fit one specific use.
As a prepper, some equipment may appeal to you more than other farmers. This is fine — just be aware of how much you’re spending on this machinery compared to more standard equipment that keeps the farm operational.
Apply DIY skills and ethos to how you approach farming. If you plan on really relying on yourself, you’ll want to repair and reuse what you can. Obviously, dangerous or heavy equipment repair should be left to those with expertise. However, you should learn how to do minor fixes yourself. This is especially true if you’ve opted for land that’s far from others, and the only other person who can help with repairs is miles away.
Even if you make it through the first weeks and months of starting your farm without much trouble, continue to monitor how you approach farming. Pay attention to what works and what seems inefficient. You can’t be afraid of radically re-evaluating where you stand and what your operation needs to succeed. This may take a major shift of priorities, but it will be necessary for the success of you and your homestead.
Starting a Successful Small Farm
If you want to survive in the event of a disaster, a farm is one of the most reliable ways to secure a steady source of food. A homestead can help you make sure you’re not dependent on the grid for water and electricity.
The resources available to small farmers are better now than they’ve ever been before. If you’re interested in homesteading, the market is accommodating and you’ll be in good company.
Running a farm will take both skill and grit. More than a million small farms in the U.S. are run successfully by all sorts of people. It will take some hard work and planning, but if your dream is to start your own farm, it’s up to you to make it a reality.
[Note: This was a guest post.]