Think You Have What It Takes to Become a Farmer?
Traffic jams, morning meetings, and bad office coffee: It’s no wonder you’ve found yourself staring at the wan bamboo plant wedged in the corner of your cubicle and daydreaming of a simple life down on the farm. The more crowded, expensive, and stinky the city becomes, the more we yearn for the freedom of working with our hands, plucking homegrown vegetables right off the vine on glorious acres of our own land.
Problem is, going from "what if" to reality takes more than calling up a real estate agent and swapping your pantsuit for Duluth Trading Company’s “heirloom gardening gear.” Breaking into farming can be hard. “Really hard I would say if you don't have experience,” says Rebecca Thistlethwaite, a farmer, author, and sustainability consultant who regularly helps farms adapt their business models to beat challenges or grow their businesses.
Beyond long hours of physical labor, there are also failed crops and tricky-to-obtain USDA organic certifications. Even finding land to grow on can be a challenge.
But that doesn’t mean you’ll be stuck growing potted cherry tomatoes on the window ledge of your apartment forever. Shaking off the concrete confines is possible, if you’re willing to get your hands dirty (pun intended).
First comes experience
For all its “simple” appeal, managing a farm is deceptively complicated. Thistlethwaite recommends that aspiring farms invest in some real-life training. “If a person can go apprentice or volunteer on other farms, that is a great place to start,” she says. “Book learning or university programs only go so far—hands-on experience is most critical,” says Thistlethwaite.
Many community-supported agriculture farms—farms backed by small investments from local community members in exchange for a share of the crops—offer volunteer programs. Smaller urban farms often offer weekend training programs and volunteer opportunities as well. Would-be farmers can even go whole hog and sign up for a longer internship.
Inglewood Farm in Alexandria, Louisiana, dates back to 1836. Starting as a typical Southern plantation, Inglewood transitioned to sharecropping, and then to leased land. Today, it is a blossoming family-owned operation producing organic produce and grains, pecans, dairy, beef, pork, and even honey. Inglewood, like many family farms, offers an internship. The farm gets the benefit of more hands on deck. Interns get the benefit of a fully interactive educational program from a centuries-old operation—and a small salary.
Farm interns can learn everything from choosing the right seed to managing a CSA to developing community programs all while also getting hands-in-the-dirt experience.
That experience can be invaluable. “We had two interns who are now selling in the same market as us,” says Lee Weeks, operating manager for Inglewood. For them, that competition is a good thing. Inglewood farmers are passionate about Louisiana and the evolution of organic farming techniques. “We want to share that [knowledge]. We’re trying to develop a local food system, where the money is staying here in Louisiana and not leaving for other organic growers in California,” he says.
Aspiring farmers who can’t commit to a formal internship can still gain a lot of insight by reaching out to the farming community. “Read lots of books, but talk to a lot of farmers, too,” says Thistlethwaite. Independent farmers are often happy to share their knowledge. For instance, with only 20 operating organic farms in Louisiana—and only half of those growing produce as of 2015, according to Country Roads, Inglewood is a regional leader. Weeks offers classes about organic farming techniques to local farmers. “It’s part of our vision. We invite farmers out all the time. We’re developing a model that shows you can make money growing like we’re growing,” Weeks says.
For new farmers, deciding whether to rent or buy land is the first step. Thistlethwaite typically recommends renting in the beginning, especially for young farmers who need to test out their commitment levels. “You can reinvest profits back into the operation rather than a large mortgage. It also gives you breathing room in case you decide to scale back, change enterprises, or even move if need be,” she says.
But renting can come with a host of challenges. Of the 911 million acres of farmland nationwide, 354 million acres are leased out. Some 50 percent of that rented farm land is controlled by 7 percent of the landlords, according to Successful Farming magazine.
According to Successful Farming magazine, nearly 50 percent of the landlords have never farmed themselves, which can make working with them when you do need to adapt or grow your business model a challenge. For farmers who do rent, Thistlethwaite recommends communicating with the landlord often. Discuss everything from land development plans to intended farming tourism —and get everything you can in writing.
On the other hand, buying has a few big benefits, but comes with greater risk. “Buying land really locks you in for a while, but on the positive side it allows you to invest in infrastructure, fencing, and other key assets that build your business. Plus, it builds equity,” she says.
Planting the first crop
Once the land is secured, deciding what to grow (or raise, if livestock) is the next big decision.
Many newcomers are attracted to USDA certified organic crops grown according to rigorous chemical-free standards, free-range livestock raised in natural conditions, or hormone-free livestock raised and processed without antibiotics. While achieving those goals can net a higher price at market, getting there isn’t easy.
For Inglewood, transitioning to organic was a slow and careful process. “We took little sections. Started with the pecan orchards and then designated 14 acres of land for vegetables and transitioned that into organic,” says Weeks. While the process ensured the farm could keep up with production demands, it was also necessary. Unless you can prove the land you’re farming on hasn’t been chemically treated in at least four years, getting a USDA organic certification requires that kind of time.
“From the last time any chemicals are used through three years, the land is in a transitional phase. It isn’t certified organic until that fourth year,” says Weeks. “That transitional phase is the most difficult for organic farms because you have to figure out how you’re going to survive economically.”
While the land can be farmed during the transition, farmers must keep up organic standards without actually being able to sell produce with an organic label, cutting into potential profits. “It’s a challenge,” he says.
There’s also the chance crops could fail. A sudden freeze, drought, or flood can wipe out months of work—and months of profits—a difficult reality for beginning farms already working within slim profit margins. Of course, farmers can also make mistakes.
To lower the risk, Thistlethwaite recommends budding farmers scale back a bit, starting with a small patch of land they can easily manage. “You don't want to reproduce errors in bulk. Better to err in small numbers,” she says.
Going to market
Finding the right customer base—and the right price—can depend largely on the local market. To hedge their bets, many small farm operations sell the season’s harvest through a variety of channels.
Inglewood Farm has a multi-platform operation it has honed over the years. On site, the farm hosts a market, where customers can buy produce and Inglewood brand products like pecan oil made from the farm’s pecan trees. The farm also participates in off-site markets and sells wholesale to restaurants as well as local grocery stores and the organic giant, Whole Foods.
While selling directly to consumers may seem like the best way to maximize profits, it requires a broad set of non-agricultural skills, including everything from knowing just how to display homemade jams at a market booth to posting gorgeous produce photos on Instagram and Snapchat.
Direct-to-restaurant sales can also be a daunting prospect. While more and more chefs are investing in locally grown produce, dairy, and meats, ordering is still a tricky process. “Right now, if a chef wants to order, say, a salad mix, he picks up his list of farms, calls the first one on the list, and asks for the mix. If they don’t have it, he keeps going down the list until he finds it,” says Weeks. He’s actually developing a physical hub where central Louisiana chefs and farmers can discuss goods, make purchases, and get to know each other.
Recently, small farms have been turning to community-supported agriculture as a way to both bolster investment revenue and build a loyal customer base. With CSA, customers essentially buy in to the season in advance. Farmers take those profits, invest them into their farms, and pay the customers back in a steady stream of locally grown produce and goods, typically delivered on a weekly to monthly basis throughout the season.
Joining the CSA ranks can also give farmers a change to connect with their customer base. Inglewood Farm goes beyond the typical produce box by including uncommon produce for the area like rainbow chard or kohlrabi in each order. “You get a box of what we consider seven to nine of our very best items we’re growing at the moment. We also always put one or two things in there that you’d probably never buy at the grocery story, and we include some information on what it is and recipes,” says Weeks. Going the extra mile helps the farm stand out to customers.
But CSAs can be a challenge for first timers. If a crop falls victim to an early frost or the farm doesn’t grow as much as anticipated, the farm may not be able to keep up with the demand. “CSA is great for more established farms maybe three to five years into their operation. I don't recommend starting with a CSA when you are a beginning farmer. It is a huge commitment and a written contract with your customers that you may not be able to meet in the first few years,” says Thistlethwaite.
Going to market is one thing, actually selling your product is another. Aside from worrying about attracting customers, new farmers have to know when to throw in the towel on unprofitable crops.
When Inglewood Farm transitioned to organic they tried growing certified organic food grade wheat, a novel crop for Louisiana. But the novelty didn’t translate to sales.
“There’s not a big market for organic grains in the South,” says Weeks. “There are no organic mills. Nobody that wanted just the wheat berries.” The farm was able to sell small amounts to urban restaurants, but not much else. “We found some buyers in the Northeast and out West, but the freight was prohibitive.”
In the end, “we sold it for feed,” Weeks says, noting that they haven’t totally given up on the idea yet. Inglewood’s operation team is considering buying their own mill and grinding the grain themselves.
Building a community
Many would-be farmers shoot for locations like the San Francisco Bay Area or upstate New York, hoping the easy access to farmers markets and local restaurants will make things financially breezy, but looking for land in a popular, high-demand area can be expensive and exhaustive excursion. For would-be farmers without a ton of financial resources, Thistlethwaite recommends looking in less popular areas where land is cheaper, and getting a bit farther away from the closest major city to keep costs even lower. Often, farmers are able to build a community—and a stable customer base—through smaller nearby towns.
Inglewood Farm, roughly four hours from New Orleans, has become known for much more than growing crops. At the farm’s weekly market, neighboring farmers often stop by to sell their goods in the parking lot. Customers make the trip not just for the produce, but for the events. “It is really quite a day every Saturday. Last week we had pick-your-own strawberries. Next week we’re having a 4K run through the farm,” Weeks says. Visitors can take a hayride out to see the “chicken bus”—a school bus converted into a chicken coop—or visit the on-site nature preserve. If you stick around, they host pig roasts and farm-to-table dinners, too.
And sure, hosting events moves produce and sometimes generates additional revenue, but for Inglewood Farm—and many small farms like it—there’s more to it than that. It’s about bringing the community together. Farming is undoubtedly a tough business, but if you’re longing to escape the city and willing to get a little dirty, it may be just what you’re looking for after all.