Starting a family farm takes passion and hard work. Before you begin, establish what you hope to gain from this endeavor. Some people want to provide fresh food for their families, some want to engage in the lifestyle that farming offers and others want to build a meaningful business that provides for their livelihood.
In this article, we will be focusing on folks who are interested in starting a farm to provide food for their families. Farming and homesteading provide you with delicious, nutrient-dense food, along with a greater sense of connection and community. Caring for and harvesting your own food is a meaningful process.
If you are trying to establish a family farm, you should follow a few guidelines. The following information will be most helpful to individuals who want to be self-sufficient and grow food crops. There are also tons of additional resources online if you are passionate about farming and want to start a small-scale farm business as your primary career.
Starting a family farm requires persistence, physical work and patience. First, you must begin where you are. What farming skills do you currently have? What knowledge would you like to gain before diving into the field? Becoming a successful farmer or homesteader calls for daily experience and exposure to all of the pressures and tribulations of growing crops. Agriculture is a labor of love, and while the reward can be sweet, you will have a lot to learn when it comes to initiating the process.
Learn Crucial Skills
Agriculture requires patience and persistence. Before you leap ahead, research your options. If you are interested in growing your own food but have never had a garden or engaged in outdoor physical labor, research as much as you can before purchasing seeds or putting on your muck boots. Farming is a skill, and unlike most endeavors in the information age, you cannot acquire it through an online course.
The complexities of farming require experience — which you can only gain by waking up early each day and trying what you can. Experience requires engaging with each season and letting them teach you what they know. Experience is planting seeds, weeding, prepping beds, purchasing livestock, building fences, dealing with irrigation issues and much more.
Depending on your location, connect with your local farming community. Most small-scale farmers who want to provide food for their families are a couple generations removed from farm culture. Much of the knowledge that passed through family trees has been lost, with people rediscovering farm life without any prior wisdom.
If you find yourself in this category, reach out to local farmers. Find people who are growing the crops you would like to raise, and ask about the challenges they have faced. After the direct experience of farming, the second-best source of knowledge will be your local community.
Farming is tough, physical labor — make sure you start small. Many homesteaders dive into farming without realizing the time, energy and resources required. Remember to take care of yourself as you learn. Just like tomato seeds take their time to germinate, there is no need for you to rush.
Define Your Goals
Even if you are not running a business, you will want to operate your family farm as if it is one. Farming, even for yourself, is a game of profit and losses. It requires inputs, equipment, labor and a close examination of finances. More than anything, it requires time and dedication. While constructing a formal business plan may not be necessary, it will undoubtedly be helpful in the long run if you map out your plans for the future.
If your main aim is to provide healthful food for your household, dig into the details involved. How will you achieve success in your family farm, and what steps will get you there? Your duties can include a range of tasks, including:
- Creating a germination schedule for spring vegetables.
- Ordering pellets to help hens provide future eggs.
- Learning how to milk a cow.
- Studying the intricacies of crop rotation schedules and cover crops.
Whatever you envision, be sure to write it down.
Defining your goals serves as a map for how to measure and achieve success. Agriculture is data-driven, meaning it requires precision and obsessive attention to detail. People acquire rhythms when they join the business of agriculture — patterns that are often hard to teach. For example, you will learn to check the weather first thing in the morning — and about twenty more times throughout the day.
You may obsess over rain in the forecast and care much more about temperature fluctuations than your non-farming neighbors. Paying attention is of the utmost importance, and combining this skill with goal-setting will help you measure your success. You can create meaning from all the daily notes you take on how things are progressing and what chores are still left to complete.
Establish Your Farming Method
The last important consideration to make before breaking ground is thinking about how you want to farm. Many small-scale farms engage in more sustainable forms of agriculture than those larger industrial farms that are the standard in the United States. Because small-scale farming is much more hands-on, it is crucial to assess what growing methods you would like to utilize.
For example, will you be using synthetic chemicals or fertilizers? Will you be working to improve the local ecosystem, such as creating pollinator habitats? If you are growing vegetables, will you be planting annual or perennial crops? If you own livestock, how will you feed them and house them?
Starting a family farm can seem like an endless stream of questions. While there are many resources out there for the innumerable inquiries you will most certainly have, remember that in agriculture, many questions remain unanswered — and that is okay. Agriculture requires a bit of patience and a lot of trust in everything working out, despite a few hardships.
Assess Your Land
Whether you are dealing with raw, undeveloped land or already have a small garden established and a barn on-premises, assessing your property is integral to your farming success. No two pieces of land are the same, and you should work within the framework that your parcel provides. Getting an official soil test is the first thing you should do if you haven’t already.
Soil tests are integral to your success, regardless of what you decide to grow. These assessments will tell you what nutrients your soil needs and what type of irrigation will be most effective.
Assessing your land will help you determine the size of your operation. You will want to calculate how much space you need to till for vegetables and how much pasture to set aside for livestock, as well as other ventures. You may make additional investments around the periphery of your farm, like honey bees along the edge of the woods or wood-grown mushroom production.
The last and perhaps most important step of assessing your land is to look at your infrastructure. Depending on the crops you want to grow, you may need to make a significant investment in new buildings, like a barn or shade structure. If you want to keep livestock, most species do require more infrastructure than plants. If you are looking to stick to fruits and vegetables, you will be looking at much cheaper upfront costs in the beginning.
Get the Right Tools
Just like a dentist needs the right equipment, you will want to acquire the best tools for farming. Investing in high-quality tools is one of the best decisions you will make for long-term success. High-quality does not have to mean expensive. Getting the right tools requires you to look into your growing goals and land capacity and retrofit your toolbox to that outcome.
You may already have essential instruments such as:
- Muck boots
Depending on the size of your operation and the food you plan to grow, you may also want to look into a greenhouse, bed prepping equipment, fencing, irrigation tape and compost.
One of the most substantial financial commitments you may make is purchasing a tractor. Take time before your purchase, as a tractor is a significant commitment — as well as an asset. You will want to ensure the machine you choose is best suited for your situation and provides precisely what you need. If you are not prepared to invest in brand new equipment, durable and long-lasting used agricultural tractors are available on the market for less cost.
Build Necessary Infrastructure
In the original assessment of your land, you established whether or not you would need infrastructure and what kind you would use. Now that you have a plan in place, it’s time to dig holes and put up walls. Depending on the project’s scope, you may be able to build infrastructure on your own or with help from family members and friends.
While most of us lack the necessary skills to build a barn, it is astounding how much you can achieve when you bring together a group. Whether you are constructing cold frame beds for vegetables or a small chicken coop, this is the ideal time to put your new farm knowledge to the test.
The most common infrastructure for a family farm includes buildings for crop propagation and storage, livestock and equipment. But your farm composition will also involve any necessary roads, electricity, water sources and irrigation. For example, you may need to build a second well on your property or invest in solar panels on your storage shed as a backup energy source.
Whatever the investment, keep track of which improvements are most vital to your success, and don’t take on too many projects at once. When starting a small farm or homestead, your long term success depends on your ability to focus on the most critical tasks and investments first.
Plan Your Growing Season
Once you’ve established where you are growing, how you are growing and what you will be growing, it’s time to order seeds, chicks or whatever else you need! Planning is an essential piece of building a manageable family farm instead of starting on an overwhelming scale.
Depending on your location and climate, the summer months will inevitably be the busiest season. But most of your farm planning for the year occurs months before. Garlic harvested in July must be planted the previous fall, and many vegetables need to be ordered well in advance. If you are raising pigs or sheep for meat, you will want to decide if you are going to overwinter them, which can require extra infrastructure and brings an added feed cost in colder months.
Remember that starting a farm is a family affair. There is much to consider beyond the task of growing food and caring for animals. Farming and homesteading are lifestyle choices and require a thorough examination of priorities as you shift into a more self-sustained life. For example, week-long vacations at the beach may no longer be an option. If you have livestock, leaving the farm even for a night can be a complicated endeavor.
As you schedule your growing season, remember to consider what life events may take place and how to make them complementary. Establish a weekly and monthly routine that works for you and your family. Maybe you are responsible for weeding on Wednesdays, while your partner waters on Fridays.
Maybe you take time every Saturday afternoon for a family barbecue and set aside some of the farm chores that can wait until Sunday. Perhaps you head to a tropical location during the colder months instead of taking a summer vacation. Whatever you decide to do, make sure to plan the farm around your life, instead of the other way around.
Get Your Hands in the Dirt
Now that you have acquired the necessary skills, defined your long- and short-term goals and purchased the essential equipment and tools, it’s time to get outside.
Starting a family farm takes courage and commitment. It requires a positive attitude, trust in the process and hard physical labor. Growing sustenance for your household is a gratifying undertaking, and there is nothing like sitting down to a meal that you raised.
The key to starting a family farm or homestead is just that — getting started. You will fail and make mistakes, and you will learn every single day. The best thing you can do when starting a farm and learning about agriculture is to live in the present. The experience you will gain will be invaluable. The family memories you make and the daily adventures of farm life can be incredibly rewarding. All it requires is grabbing that packet of seeds and getting your hands in the dirt.
[Note: This was a guest post.]