Starting a Farm, Generation ZERO!

edited November 2013 in Beginning Farmer
So I want to start a sustainable farm.........I have nothing but experience from many years ago as a teen working on a friends dairy farm and it seems daunting to even think of the idea. I want to do this right and it seems difficult as I am finding a lot of resistance from local agriculture. (more than I would have expected) I want to build into a fully sustainable business and it seems crazy to farmers that have several generations of experience under their sleeves. My local Ag extension office advised against it. We all have to start somewhere, right? Has anyone built an Ag business that was fully sustainable in one generation? Encouragement seems slim in this department. Any thoughts?


  • Tom,

    Not sure I have any sage words...just that we seem to be in the same boat...or wheelbarrow ;-)

    I do not come from a farming family or background. I picked it up only a few years ago working on a certified naturally grown farm in Longmont, CO. When I moved back to PA, it's all I could think about...starting our own organic farm, CSA in the town I grew up in.

    Needless to say, we've hit MANY roadblocks many just coming from the day to day nature of farming, the other however...just a resistance from existing conventional and "old school" farmers who think things like high tunnels, cover crops and the like are just nonsense to them.

    And having no equipment and little capital to go out and buy any, and not wanting to go into heavy's been really really difficult and I've come close to quitting many times. Right now it's a hobby farm as it's located 90 minutes away from where I currently live, at my family's place (luckily we have more land than we know what to do with)...and a new marriage with step kids, school and work...but I'm still trying to find every angle and leg up and I find. I'll be curious to hear your experiences as you continue to keep working at it!
  • Depending on where you live, look into the Land Stewardship Project's Farm Beginnings program. Join your local Sustainable Farming Association. Best to you, and don't give up!
  • I started with a small farms course through the state Extension (Oregon), which focused on small scale, integrated, sustainable farming. It focused on business and market imperatives, as well as fundamentals of production. Each state extension seems to have a different focus (they're not all on the bandwagon of sustainable ag), but a course through a small farms program or sustainable farms program is something I'd recommend. It's important to know what you're getting in for; it's not all fresh air, apple pies and checked table cloths - it's important to make it a viable business - unless you have the money for an expensive hobby.
  • Tom,
    I am a livestock specialist with NCAT in Butte, MT. My wife and I began a small dairy farm here in 1982. We had 30 cows and 50 heifers that I had accumulated (traded for my labor) over 5 years by working as a dairy herdsman. This gave us our start. We milked cows for 21 years on our farm before we switched to sheep. If you are interested in farming, I would consider a similar approach. It is profitable for one to learn the trade on someone else's dollar. Granted, it takes time to get a start. If you are interested in dairying, I would also take a look at the American Micro Dairies web site:

    If I can be of any assistance, please do not hesitate to contact me.
    Good Luck with your endeavor,

    Dave Scott
    Livestock Specialist
  • We started on bare land (it was inexpensive) The water was just a few inches deep so we dug out our first well with shovels. No power so started with solar. We were already living a trailer so it makes perfect sense to use dc power. Then we worked our asses off doing whatever till we got enough to build the house. Meanwhile I started the garden, got a couple of weiners, some chickens and off we went. After ten years or so I got to work full time on the farm. It took a couple of years more and my husband was getting chest pains from his job. I asked him"Could you be as creative working for me as you are working for the man?" Needless to say he took my offer and we worked and supported ourselves for the last 15 years.Now after 30 years on this place we can retire and be self sustaining. The great thing is we grow our own food,produce our own power,and can live a nice life with almost no filthy lucre.Hard work but it can be done with enough initiative.
  • I guess it depends on where you are, how much time and money you have to invest, and how entrenched the farm practices are in your area. If you are patient and can invest your own resources, you can simply ignore the people who have a hard time thinking out of the box. There is plenty of encouraging literature out there for the times when the ego needs stroking. I'd recommend the classic "You Can Farm" by Joel Salatin. I had to take some of the politics with a grain or two of salt, but his advice to march to your own drummer is very encouraging on those dark nights when it seems that you are marching alone down an empty road.

    Ten years ago, my husband and I bought 30 A of woodland on the Kenai Peninsula in Alaska from the original homesteader, with a plan to have a farm built by the time we were ready to retire from our "day jobs." There is no tradition of agriculture to speak of in our part of the state. When we began to develop the land into a farm, we were met with incredulity, as most people thought that the area was fit only for hunting and fishing. Over the years, we've cleared a few acres and built a small house with a plan to move there and operate the farm full time by the spring of 2015. Also over that time, small diversified agriculture has begun to take off. There are now at least four farmers' markets within a couple hours' drive of our land, and an active sustainable farming community.

    When we started, the likelihood of getting a loan or a grant was slim at best, so all our development work has been either sweat equity or out of pocket purchases. On top of that, the depression of 2008 set us back significantly. That's why it has taken us so long. Except for a couple small personal loans (less than $10,000 each), which we paid off immediately, we have not yet gone to any financial institutions or government agencies for money to pursue this plan. Now it looks as if our timing will be great. With no old traditions to buck, and a deep and growing concern about food security in Alaska, small sustainable producers are getting encouragement from all directions. I honestly can hardly wait to get my hands in the dirt full time!

    Louise Heite
  • I moved alone to Nicaragua and purchased approximately 140 acres on a mountain range, talk about not knowing what I was getting myself into, is an understatement. Like others, there have been many a times, when I have felt overwelmed. Nothing and I mean nothing but weeds would grow on this land because I later discovered that the land was basically raped from years of over usage and no nutrients ever being put back into the system. It will be five years come September and only now am I able to finally see positive results. It has not been easy, matter of fact it has been down right exasperating, but it all seems to be coming together and my fruit trees are finally responding to all of the attention they have been receiving. So stay strong and confident that with hard work, plants and soil, will respond.
  • Probably the best place to learn and prosper, especially the finer points of sustainability, is starting with Urban Agriculture. Be wary of get rich quick schemes, but scaling up a small operation is much easier than locating the time, money, and land to experiment with large scale. Ironically, what we have done to "Agriculture" over the centuries is constantly move towards mastering nature. Nature always wins, eventually. So having a place where you can notice the positive and negative influences you have on a multitude of processes when your loss risk is a few hundred to a couple of thousand dollars is much more sustainable than betting hundreds of acres and hundreds of thousands on being right enough to 1) make a profit, and 2) not degrade your resources in one way or another. Without both of these, you don't get to the third pillar of social where you, your family, and your community prosper from your farming. There are consultants who can help you get launched. Once you have the marketing and production experience to feel comfortable, how much further you go is up to you.
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