While it's true that starting a farm from scratch can be an overwhelming idea, it's not impossible. It's a journey and having been there ourselves, we can confirm both the challenges and the rewards that come with it.
To help you along the way, we've compiled this handy 7-step tutorial that is based on the exact same method we personally used on our own journey into farming. In fact, the process in this guide allowed us to make a comfortable living on 1/3 acre of rented land; selling vegetables to the local community.
It helped us figure out exactly what to grow, how much to plant of each vegetable, and who would be interested in buying our produce all before we invested anything else than a little bit of our own time.
We will cover topics such as market analysis, crop selection, growing methods, and marketing. Don't skip any of the steps; they're all necessary for the following one to work.
Are you ready to turn your passion for gardening and sustainable living into a profitable business? Let's roll up our sleeves, and get our hands dirty, it's time to start a farm!
Table of Contents
Let's address the big elephant in the room.
Making a living growing vegetables for your community is hard. There's no sugarcoating it.
Having to start a farm with limited to no experience and with a tiny budget seem impossible.
Not to mention the potential loss of income.
Definitely if you're the breadwinner of the family, it's difficult to wrap your head around doing this for a living.
But it doesn't have to be difficult. In fact, what if you could start a farm without entirely depending on the income from it in your first years?
Although this might seem like a dream, you can start your farm without having to worry about experience, budget, or loss of income.
Did you know that on average, the majority of people that have no background in agriculture don't start making a living until year 3?
There's a common misconception that when it comes to starting a farm, it's either "I go all-in" or "I give up on the idea".
But what if instead of this we do it differently?
What if we follow a path that allows us to take all the time we need to learn the ropes? A way in which we allow ourselves the time to build up a community of people that are interested in what we offer? And even do it with a minimal amount of financial investment?
We can by starting a farm on the side.
In fact, there are 3 major reasons why you should consider starting a farm on the side, and slowly transition into this lifestyle.
Reason 1: Loss of income
People write to me all the time saying they want to start farming but are too nervous to do so. They're too worried about losing money and being unable to provide for their families if they try.
This is a legitimate worry, by the way.
There is a significant learning curve for anyone who has never managed a business or grown crops on a commercial scale. We can't take farming lightly.
But as an alternative to thinking of this as a call to immediately leave your job, you may start your farm on the side while still maintaining the security of your regular income.
Parallel to your usual job, you can begin to develop your farm in a controlled, steady fashion.
Start doing some research. Then, create a couple of beds and start growing some stuff. After that, start selling them or even giving it away initially.
Taking baby steps like these will not only help you get your feet wet but will also ensure that you don't have to give up any current sources of income.
And on the bright side, it will allow you to make the initial moves toward making your dream a reality, whilst growing your own food!
If you're the primary earner in your household and you have a 9-to-5 job now, don't quit your day job until you're 100% certain that your farm can support itself.
Reason 2: Limited experience
When we started our farm, we had very little experience with the business side of things.
Chances are that you have very little experience too.
You don’t necessarily come from a background in agriculture and you haven’t followed education on the subject.
Having no experience and limited knowledge about farming is a valid reason to be concerned if you consider starting a farm.
Nevertheless, if you start a farm on the side, there's nothing to be afraid of.
You can experiment until the cows come home and test and try a bunch of different things.
This will give you the needed experience, and more importantly, the confidence that you can actually pull it off once you’ve gained a certain level of expertise and feedback from your trials.
If you’ve never grown anything before, start growing something. If you’ve never asked people if they would be interested in some of your veggies, just ask them.
The worst thing you can do is not get started at all and look back at a later age with regrets that you didn’t even give it a try.
Keep it simple; grow a couple of crops, consume them yourself and ask if others are interested. You'll get the ball rolling from there.
Next to that, experience can only be gained through practice, but if you’re too afraid that you’re going to fail and you never take those first important steps, you’ll never get the experience you need.
Starting your farm on the side is a solid approach to help you get started on your farming journey.
Reason 3: Budget
The third reason why you should consider starting your farm on the side is the fact that you don’t have to invest a large amount of money into the required tools, infrastructure, and setup.
And that’s something a lot of people seem to struggle with as well.
You might be in the same situation.
You simply struggle to get the required funds to get everything you need to start a full-blown farm.
But, if you start your farm on the side, you don’t need the same amount of initial investment as someone that will do it full-time.
Think of it like this.
If you go all in, you’re required to make a substantial amount of revenue to support you.
That automatically means that you need quite some growing beds to support this.
With each growing bed your upfront costs will increase; you’ll need more compost, more seeds, more fleeces, insect netting, irrigation, harvest crates, cooling space, and a whole bunch of other things.
Whereas if you simply start small on the side, you can do it with a lot less.
Imagine starting with only a fraction of what you would need if you’d do it full-time.
It allows you to get started with just some of the basic things you’ll need and allows you to grow over time.
You can start by investing a little bit, make some money, reinvest it, make some more money, and continue like this.
If you’re afraid of a loss of income and feel comfortable knowing that you get your monthly paycheck, if you only have limited time available, if you have limited experience, and if you’re on a tight budget; starting your farm on the side is THE solution for you.
It will allow you to take your first steps toward making a living off the land.
Now, let's get into the steps.
This first important step in the 7-step process is all about creating a solid foundation for your farm.
Before starting your farm, you need to have clarification and validation.
When we started we were quite clueless. We just wanted to grow as much as possible, as diverse as possible, and hope that at the end of the year, we would have made enough revenue to survive.
Needless to say, this didn’t work out well for us.
What we did after this completely changed everything for us.
Rather than making the same mistake as we did, it’s better to approach it from the exact opposite direction.
You need to clarify and identify exactly WHO you’re going to serve, and WHAT you’re going to grow for them.
Once we started approaching it from this direction it literally changed everything for us.
Whereas first, we were second guessing every single move we made, after doing our research, reaching out to potential customers, looking at what crops they were interested in, how much they wanted and a whole bunch of other metrics, we were now able to come up with a plan that would allow us to serve those people and their direct needs.
I can’t emphasize enough how important this first step is.
It will literally allow you to become so crystal clear of what you’ll have to do, that your entire journey into farming will become much more attainable in a much shorter time frame.
So, you really need to clarify who your customers are, and you need to validate what they’re interested in on a weekly basis.
Next to that, you'll want to research and analyze your competition.
Who else is selling farm-fresh produce in your area? What are they offering and at what price? What are their strengths and weaknesses?
Knowing your competition will help you identify opportunities and areas where you can differentiate your farm.
Finally, you'll want to research the current trends in farming and how you can capitalize on them. Are there any particular crops or types of produce that are in high demand?
Keeping up with the latest trends can help you stay competitive and relevant in the market.
Remember, the more you know about your market, the better equipped you'll be to create a plan designed for your farms’ success. So don't skimp on this step!
Take the time to really dig deep and get to know your market inside and out. Gather as much information as possible, and use it to your advantage to make informed decisions to the best of your ability.
Another important task at this initial stage is to identify what you'll have to invest in to get your farm started and all the costs that are associated with it. I'll cover this in more detail in a dedicated blog post to the start-up cost on a small-scale market garden.
Once the foundation is in place and you’ve identified your customers, verified what you’re going to grow for them, and know roughly what you’re going to invest to get your farm up and running, it’s time for the second step in the process.
In this step, you’ll need to create a design for your farm.
Essentially you want to create a farm where all the elements are located in such a way that they minimize foot traffic, and optimize efficiency and practicality.
I remember working on a farm in Australia and we were picking mandarins at the time.
The way you pick it is you carry a harvest bag that’s attached to a harness, and every time the bag is full, you need to empty it into a large bin that’s standing in between two rows of trees.
It takes about 30 to 35 bags to fill up a bin, but at the moment when the bin was full, we needed to drive 15 minutes to the pack and sorting shed, replace the full bin with an empty bin, and go back to where we were harvesting.
As you can imagine, a 30-minute round trip with the tractor is a huge amount of time wasted.
This is a clear example of a broken link in the production line.
Broken links will cause you to lose unnecessary time, money, and energy. This negatively impacts the overall functionality and efficiency of your farm.
It would have been much better if empty bins were laid out roughly in the right locations in the alleyways so that as you’re filling up the bins, a farm manager or a dedicated person would pick them up a couple of times a day, and the sort and packing shed was centrally located on the farm, as to reduce moving back and forth towards and from this crucial element.
The same can be said for your own post-harvest station. The post-harvest station is one of the key elements on a farm where we spend a lot of our time. We are constantly moving produce from and to this place, so it better be as centralized as possible, as this has an immediate impact on the profitability of your operation.
And this can all be fixed with a simple design and clear organization.
It doesn’t have to be difficult. You can do it on a piece of paper or on your computer, whatever you feel most comfortable with.
Make sure to have a design in place that allows you to optimize your day-to-day operations on the farm and be sure to include all the important elements such as a post-harvest station, storage shed, walk-in cooler, tool shed, greenhouses, growing beds, etc.
With a well-designed farm, you'll be able to maximize your yield, minimize your costs, and create a beautiful and functional space that you'll be proud to call your own.
After creating your farm design, it’s time to develop your first crop plan.
Creating this plan is an extremely important step that is going to ensure that you will have your crops ready for sale during each week of your growing season.
A well-thought-out and well-developed crop plan will make your life as a farmer a whole lot less stressful.
In fact, after developing your plan, you basically never have to worry again about what you’ll have to do during each day of the growing season.
You’ll know exactly what to grow, how much to grow, and when to grow it.
With a simple look at your agenda, you’ll be able to see: “Oh hey, today I have to prepare bed 3 in plot 5 so that tomorrow I can plant 5 rows of radishes in it”, or “Today I have to sow 5 trays of lettuces in the nursery so that a month from now I can transplant them in plot 6 in bed 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7”.
I cannot emphasize the importance of having such a detailed plan.
With just a quick look at your plan, you’ll know exactly what to do.
Now when it comes to crop planning, I want you to remember one extremely important thing: you have to base your crop plan on the foundational research that you’ve done in step 1.
This is the key step that will pretty much ensure that every single crop that you’re going to grow is going to be sold to your customers.
And that’s what we really want to achieve.
We don’t want to be in a situation where we grow tons of a single crop, and we don’t have a market for it, therefore losing out on all the revenue that we could have made.
There’s nothing worse than having to throw perfectly fine vegetables away on your compost piles because you didn’t properly plan the production in line with the demand from your customers.
Think about what crops tend to do well in your region when making your planting decisions.
Next to that, always consider the needs and wants of the local community, as well as the potential demand for organic or specialty foods.
When planning your crops, it is essential to take into account both the available space and the available resources. Find a balance between maximizing profits and minimizing costs.
If you want to learn more about how to create a garden plan that is specific to your climate and the size of your garden, we're currently in the pre-sale phase of our new online course that shows you step by step how to create one. You can find it here.
After developing your first crop plan it’s time for the next step and that’s to prepare your plot of land and create your growing beds.
When it comes to creating your growing beds there are a variety of strategies you can use, but one of the strategies that stick out of the rest and gives the best results in the shortest time frame is the no-dig method.
With the no-dig method, we’re essentially smothering out all of the existing vegetation, allowing us to pretty much instantly get started with a clean slate. It's a method of growing vegetables without disturbing the soil through tilling or digging.
Instead, a thick layer of organic matter is added to the surface of the soil, which is then left to decompose and improve the soil structure.
Definitely, if you’re on a tight schedule, you’re working a 9-5 job and have limited time to devote to farming in the beginning stages, through using this technique you’re gaining a huge amount of time down the road.
No-dig growing beds are very well known for the fact that they address one of the most troublesome tasks on the farm directly at the roots, and that is weeding.
Weeding is something that far too many farms are struggling with, and is a task that does not have any measurable return on investment.
This means that for every minute you spend weeding your beds, you’re losing money.
With the no-dig strategy, you can take care of this problem, BEFORE it becomes a problem.
Sure the high compost inputs at the beginning are significant, but this is just an upfront investment that will allow you to save time and money down the road.
On top of taking care of the weeds, the high organic matter input from the compost will start to directly feed the soil food web, that in turn will be able to make previously unavailable nutrients, available again to plants.
Preparing your land using no-dig methods has many benefits, such as:
- It helps to maintain the natural structure of the soil, which can improve the health of the microorganisms that live in the soil and help plants to grow.
- It helps to reduce erosion and compaction.
- It helps to retain moisture in the soil, reducing the need for irrigation.
- It helps to keep the soil organisms protected and fed, improving fertility over time.
Essentially this strategy will allow you to tackle several problems at the same time, and allow you to focus on learning how to grow your crops and sell them to your customers.
This is where the real work begins, and where all of your planning and preparation come to fruition.
I still remember to this day the first seeds we sowed, the first seedlings we transplanted, and the beautiful bounty of healthy crops at the end of their cycle.
Honestly, there’s nearly nothing more rewarding than being able to grow your plants from seeds into amazing crops, and then provide these crops to happy customers.
This process alone is what makes farming already worth it. Being able to provide your community with the crops that you’ve grown really gives a feeling of purpose.
But although growing crops is one of the more rewarding tasks of the farmer, it does come with a set of challenges. Every crop is grown differently and each requires different growing conditions.
What works for me on my farm, doesn’t necessarily have to work for you on your farm. With just a slight variation in climatic conditions, everything can change.
Having said that, annual vegetable crops are surprisingly tough plants and basically grow themselves. Your only task is to give them the best possible growing conditions (and most of that starts with the soil).
Next to that, it's important to follow the crop plan that you created in step 3. Make sure that you are planting at the right time, in the right place, and using the right methods.
Initially, it might make you a bit nervous to grow your crops (it sure did to us!), but there’s nothing to be afraid of.
Growing those first crops is an important first step that is going to allow you to pursue your dreams and give you the knowledge and confidence that will allow you to make a living off the land.
Once you’ve grown your crops it is time to market and sell them.
This step is all about getting your farm's produce into the hands of consumers, whether that's through farmers' markets, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs, or direct sales to restaurants and grocery stores.
If you’ve taken the time to do the necessary upfront work, you’ll notice that the marketing and selling of your crops will be pretty straightforward.
Since you’ve done your homework and identified an estimated demand with your potential customers, the selling part becomes surprisingly simple.
But no matter who you’re going to sell to, an important part of achieving success with the marketing and selling aspect of farming is the way that you promote and present your farm and your produce to your customers.
That’s where branding comes into play.
Essentially your farm is a brand, which is a representation of your core values.
The message you share with people, the way you offer your produce, the quality of your crops, and your customer service.
These are all combined aspects that make up your farm brand.
You can look at your brand as the personality of your farm.
Whenever you’re marketing and selling your crops to potential customers, they will want to know WHO they’re doing business with, and WHY they should buy from you.
Is it because of convenience, quality, or relationship? Do you offer organic vegetables, have a lot of diversity, or are you specialized in a certain category of crops?
The way you position yourself in the market is directly going to attract your perfect customers, AND equally important, repel the ones that are not a good fit for your farm.
If done properly, branding can help a lot with your success as a farmer.
You should be able to clearly deliver your message, which will help a lot with building a connection and strong customer loyalty.
Another important aspect of marketing is pricing, determining the right price for your products that will allow you to make a profit while still being competitive. This will depend on several factors such as the cost of production, competition, and the demand for your products.
When it comes to selling your crops, it's important to be flexible and willing to adapt to changing market conditions. For example, if demand for a certain crop is low, you may need to find new ways to market it or consider growing a different crop.
Ultimately, your goal is to create a supportive community of individuals and families, that share the same values as your farm represents.
If you’re able to do that, there will be no such thing as competition and you’ll get a sufficient share of the market, whilst serving the people that resonate most with your values.
At this point, after setting up your farm, growing your crops, and selling them to your customers, it becomes a matter of measuring, analyzing, adjusting, and repeating the process
In order for us to make a living on a small farm, we need to know the tasks that we’re doing are profitable.
If we don’t do this, we won’t be able to optimize our production systems based on the data, feedback, and experience we get.
With actual hard-won data in hand, we’re now able to make data-driven decisions, that will allow us to adjust our future planning on the experience that we’ve gained.
And that’s the key step to optimizing your farm to profitability and ultimately will allow you to farm for a living.
Analyzing the performance of your farm involves looking at various aspects of your operation, such as crop yields, costs, and revenues. Keep track of your expenses, including labor costs, and compare them to your income.
This will help you to identify areas where you can potentially reduce costs and increase your profits.
I remember in our first growing season that we had quite a significant drop in lettuce head sales during the month of June and July.
We were like: “What’s going on? Why are our customers suddenly buying less lettuce from us? Is it the quality? Is it its shelf life? Like, what’s going on?”.
We then went out and started asking our customers why they didn’t want lettuce anymore.
Turned out, many had a small garden of their own and around June and July, they were happily eating lettuces from their own garden.
This was quite an eye-opener for us.
We paid close attention to this, and you can bet that in subsequent seasons, we decreased lettuce production for those customers and diversified our output more to meet their needs.
This step is crucial in order to keep track of your progress and make sure that your farm is on the right path. With regular analysis, adjustments and repetition, you will be able to identify what works and what doesn't and make the necessary changes to ensure the long-term success of your farm.
This simple yet often overlooked step of the process is the key step that largely is going to determine whether you’re going to make it, or whether you’re going to struggle on your journey into farming full time.
Starting a farm from scratch and making it successful takes a lot of hard work, determination, and a bit of creativity.
And I hope that sharing the 7-step process we've personally followed, can help you build a farm that is not only successful financially, but also something you can be proud of.
Every action you take along the way—from researching potential markets to analyzing data, making adjustments, and repeating the process—will help you create a farm that thrives for years to come.
Always keep in mind that success in farming is a process, not a result; with enthusiasm, hard work, and a willingness to learn, you can start a farm and make a living off the land.
Take your farming journey one step at a time and work your way towards a simpler life, reconnected to your roots.
PS: A couple of years ago I made a video about this subject which also covers the 7 steps, including some additional information that we didn't cover here. You can watch the video here: