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Many of us enter the agricultural profession in search of a deeper purpose. We want to cultivate nutritious food while also improving the local and global ecosystems. And indeed, why not try to earn a livelihood by doing something useful, like growing nutritious food for the community? That seems like a win-win scenario to me.
But know that if you want to go from gardening on a small size to farming on a commercial basis, or if you have never farmed or gardened before but really want to earn a living off the land, there are many factors to consider.
In order to earn a livelihood selling locally produced products, you must ensure that there is sufficient demand in your region. What you need to do is figure out who you'll be selling to, what kinds of crops you'll be growing, and how many of each you'll need to produce to meet your end objective.
You need to put money into tools and equipment that will help you manage your farm more efficiently. Planning your earnings and keeping meticulous records of all your farming activities is essential. And if you really want to make it work, you'll need a great mindset and a strong will.
However, the most important thing is that you find pleasure in growing your own products. Many new farmers enter the industry with big aspirations, such as producing 100% of their own food and selling the surplus to nearby grocery stores or their neighbors.
But in the end, if you want to farm as a profession, you need to prepare for it. If you like being outside, working with your hands, and cultivating food, then farming may be your best option for making a living.
It for sure is never boring and every day you'll be challenged with a variety of tasks.
If you want to establish a farm, it's not a smart idea to just plant a bunch of different crops and hope for the best. Rather, you should prioritize profit while making plans. You need to have a firm grasp on your end goal(s) and your strategies for getting there.
Typically, you may begin a farm in one of three ways:
1. Start your farm as a side business, where you keep your full-time job and work on your farm in your free time.
2. Start your farm as a part-time business, where you reduce the amount of time you work at your current job and devote more time to your farm.
3. Start your farm as a full-time business, where you save enough money to survive for at least a year without any income and devote all your time to farming.
There are advantages and disadvantages to each approach, and the one that's right for you will depend on your specific circumstances. If you want to learn to farm quickly, however, going into it full-time is your best bet since you'll have all the time in the world to devote to building your farm, tending to your crops, and mastering other essential farming tasks. This approach carries the most danger.
It will take you considerably longer to get your farm up and running and learn the ropes if you just farm in your spare time and on the weekends, but this approach is less risky since you will still have your paycheck from your nine-to-five job.
Do some careful financial planning to maximize your farm's potential earnings no matter what course of action you choose. Establish an exact sum that you need to make in order to accomplish your objectives. You may then develop a production strategy to help you achieve this monetary goal.
On our farm, we researched who was buying what and where, then designed a production plan that would meet our goals and the needs of the community.
Overall, it's important to know how much money you need to make, who your clients are, and what the real demand is before you design a production system for your farm.
Often when I talk to new, beginning, and aspiring farmers about farming, they try to do a little bit of everything and end up experimenting with way too many things. They start growing 30 different types of vegetables, a couple of pasture-raised chickens, food forests, some cows, and let's add a little bit of honey in the mix. And I get it because we've made this mistake ourselves.
When my wife and I got back from our travels and our overseas work on many different farms, we wanted to apply everything that we had learned. We wanted to have orchards, food forests, ponds, vegetables, animal systems, bees, and a bunch of other stuff.
There was no real structure and no plan, and what ended up happening is we got ourselves a piece of land and invested quite a large amount of money into features that would never bring us any revenue. We just wanted to create a paradise and sell any surplus we were going to get.
Basically, we were dreaming.
As you can imagine, we quickly had to reevaluate the way we were doing things, and that's when we decided to go full-time into market gardening as this type of farm has one of the lowest barriers to entry with one of the quickest returns on investments.
Therefore, my tip to you is to start small and start with income-generating enterprises like market gardening and then grow from there. You can always add additional enterprises later on to your farm that might be more in line with your ideology, but when you're just starting out, you need to focus on revenue-generating tasks.
Next to that, if you’ve never farmed before, whether on your own or for someone else, it's a big learning curve to grow certain crops, implement systematized work, and handle all the business aspects of it.
Start with a small piece of land, pick a handful of familiar crops that you know are in demand (by doing market research), start growing them, and sell them to your customers.
Start building up trust and relationships with your customers and build up a reputation with the quality and freshness of your produce, but above all, focus on generating income as quickly as possible.
One of the most important factors in successful farming is the relationships you build with your customers. This is where we as small-scale farmers can distinguish ourselves from large-scale agriculture.
The way we as small farmers can compete with them and all the imported produce is by providing a local community with the best of the best. And when I say that, I mean this literally in terms of everything: your produce, service, representation, intimacy, the personalization... like every single thing.
When it comes to building relationships with your customers, the first impression counts.
I remember when we first presented ourselves to our potential customers during the market research phase to find out what the actual demand was, we made sure that we always looked clean and presentable. A little shave, clean nails, and decent clothing can go a long way toward a first impression.
After we had identified who we were selling to and what we were going to grow, we started growing our crops and selling them to our customers.
This is where quality and freshness come into play and the way you communicate with your customers. This is where you can make a big difference.
First of all, the quality of your produce has to be top-notch. After all, you can be as nice and likable as you want, but if your product is not at the level where it should be, eventually people will turn elsewhere. From there, it's all about being genuine, honest, and transparent.
Whenever the opportunity allows it, get to know the names of your customers and show sincere interest in them and their lives.
Get to know the name of their kids, their hobbies, and their interests, and before you know it, you might even gain a new friend. Building relationships like this will give your customers a personal connection to you and the food they are eating - the food that you've grown for them.
What also helped us a lot with building the relationships we have with our customers was to share the story of our farm and why we got started farming in the first place.
Now, obviously, when doing this, you don't just go to people and start sharing your story, your values, and what you stand for. Instead, let the conversation naturally evolve, and when customers start asking questions, get the ball rolling from there.
Another great way to build those important relationships is to have an open-door policy.
We allow customers to come and visit the farm on predetermined dates and times to buy their produce directly from the farm or just for a visit and a chat. This way, they can get a feeling for the farm, the work that we do, and see for themselves how we produce our crops, including the amount of care and attention we put into growing these for them.
It's one thing to imagine the way the food is being produced, but being able to see it with your own eyes is something different entirely.
Now, I do want to say that if you do allow people to come and buy directly from the farm, be very clear about when it's the best moment for you as the farmer to allow them to visit to buy the produce. The last thing you want is to have a chat several times per day for half an hour when you've got things that need to be done.
One thing we found out is that if you're able to build strong connections with the people in your area and you build a loyal customer base, you don't have to compete as much on price and you don't have to worry that much about competition.
Before starting to grow, investing in tools, or anything else, it's crucially important to do a little bit of upfront research. Get to know the demands in your area and specifically, identify who your main customers will be. Look for the possibilities in your area and figure out which market streams are saturated and which ones are in need of your products.
Whether you're going to sell CSA shares from the farm or sell your produce at local farmers markets or to chefs, you need to have a good idea of whether you will be able to reach your financial goals with the demand in your area.
One way to do this is to make a list of potential customers within a radius of your farm that you're willing to drive and deliver your produce to. Then make a list of potential crops that you're going to grow.
With these lists in hand, survey your potential customers to quickly identify the estimated demands for certain crops in that area and who your best customers will be.
Besides getting to know the demands in your area, talking directly to your potential customers allows you to spread the word about your farm and start building essential connections.
For farmers markets, a great way to identify what is in demand is by looking at what other farmers are growing and observing what's working well for them and what's less in demand. Go to several farmers markets in your area and make sure to visit them at the beginning and end of the day.
Keep notes of the crops that are selling well and how much they're selling for. Even better, buy produce directly from potential competitors to get the full experience and observe and analyze everything they do well and what might be lacking.
Having a basic understanding of what the demand is in your area for certain crops will allow you to create a production plan that is aligned with that demand. So, before you do anything on your farm, start by identifying your market streams first and identify the crops that are in demand so you won't end up growing crops that no one wants.
When you're just starting out, it's much better and easier to start farming on a small piece of land so you can get your production systems, weed management, and overall day-to-day tasks under control, as opposed to farming a lot of land in total chaos.
When we started, we only had 1500m2 of land (about a third of an acre) and I'm really glad we did.
If we had started with let's say half a hectare (about 1.2 acres), I don't know if we would have been able to keep up with all the production and management that goes into farming this amount of land.
Starting with just a small piece of land allowed us to implement our growing and management systems, and really helped us concentrate on learning both the production and business side of farming without getting too stressed out.
Start off by growing anywhere between 10 to 25 different crops that you know are in demand, and really concentrate on getting to know how to grow these crops to a good end result that your customers will love (and you are proud to sell).
Once you've got these handfuls of crops under control and know how to grow them, you can then start venturing out into growing even more crops for your customers.
Also, when you start a farm, remember that you don't have to start with the craziest infrastructure, tools, and equipment.
Sure, you need some basic tools and the right infrastructure setup, but you don't need a greenhouse to get started. You don't need a paper pot transplanter to get started and you certainly don't have to invest in a walk-behind tractor when you get started.
I've written an article that goes into the exact tools, equipment, and infrastructure that we used to get our farm up and running on a budget, which you can find here. To not repeat myself, I won't go into detail here on the exact things you'll need to use, but basically, it's all about starting with the right tools from the get-go.
This will allow you to get started quickly and efficiently.
One of my biggest errors when I first started out farming was the lack of notes that I was taking on the numbers, the crops, and the things that were happening on the farm. I somehow always seemed to be too busy or I would extend it and say I'll do it after or later and finally never did it. Big mistake.
If you want to know how profitable a crop is, how many days to maturity, the characteristics of different varieties from the same crop, the pest problems during different parts of the year, and a thousand other things, you need to keep track of everything.
There are so many moving parts on the farm and trying to remember every single thing is an impossible task. If you don't write it down, you will forget it.
Make simple spreadsheets for production, tracking your revenue, how much you are selling of what, what did you grow too much of and what did you not have enough of...
Writing down every single piece of data into simple spreadsheets will allow you to optimize your production systems with every growing season.
Ever since I started really analyzing the data from the farm, I realized that some crops were simply not making enough money. We quickly took out those crops and replaced them with something else. This is just a small example of the benefits of tracking.
Being successful in farming largely comes down to your planning, tracking, and how well you adapt your plans to fit your needs and the needs of your customers.
You can turn your dream of starting a farm into a reality with the right amount of enthusiasm, effort, and commitment. With any luck, you'll find our seven suggestions to be a helpful guidepost along the sometimes-rough road of farming.
Keep in mind that farming is more than just a means of making a living; it's also a way of life that brings you closer to the earth.
Although difficult, the benefits are immeasurable. Don't rush, think things through, and accept failure as a learning experience. Actually, hands-on experience is undeniably better to theoretical study.
So, put on your boots, roll up your sleeves, and let's make that farm happen! Happy farming!
And if you prefer to watch a video on this subject, feel free to watch this next: