Resource Guide

Beginning Farmers

Beginning farmers face many obstacles to starting a profitable farm business. Three of the largest obstacles to success are land access, funding, and practical training and experience. Success with any business requires a realistic plan. The plan at minimum needs to address these three areas plus a realistic budget that demonstrates a reasonable return on investment.

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The Business Plan has many useful resources including Farm Business Planning links and tools. These resources can help you develop a farm business plan. The University of Minnesota offers a free online farm business planning tool to help you develop your farm plan. Part of that plan will involve the incorporation of enterprise budgets to have a realistic expectation of earning potential of various crop choices you want to produce on your farm. The Beginning Farmer website does list several sources of enterprise budgets, but current information can be difficult to obtain.

The Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program has a comprehensive guidebook for developing your business plan called, Building a Sustainable Business.  SARE offers this guidebook for free in PDF format in both English and Spanish forms. A printed book can be purchased in English.

Some of the best sources of current enterprise budgets and other financial management information are often found at the Extension Service of the Land Grant Universities in your state.  If the Extension Service does not have current enterprise budgets available your local County Extension office may be able to help you access that information from another source.

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General Learning and Mentorship Opportunities

The Greenhorns’ Guidebook Series has several free resources for beginning farmers including one called “Getting into Farming.” Previously mentioned, also has an extensive array of resources, publications, events, forums, and other tools for beginning farmers. Also, NCAT-ATTRA has a great website specifically for Farm Start-Ups.

The USDA can be a valuable partner for all farmers but particularly beginning farmers. They have a robust website focused on How to Start a Farm.  This site explores what it takes to start farming and to find resources, particularly within the USDA, to help guide you on your way. They know that new farmers can get overwhelmed by all the USDA programs and to help address this concern each state has a Beginning Farmer coordinator to help answer questions and direct you to USDA programs you may benefit from.

Before you can access any USDA program or loan you need what the USDA refers to as a “Farm Number.” The Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI) has a detailed explanation of why you need a Farm Number and how to obtain one. Once you have this number you can set up a self-service USDA account to expedite paperwork and store records.

Internships, Apprenticeships, Incubator Farms and Other Informal Training Opportunities

Hands-on, experiential learning is essential for gaining skills and knowledge. For people interested in entering farming as a career, apprenticeships and internships provide practical hands-on experience to learn about production, marketing, and business management. In addition, the relationships developed between mentor farmers and mentees often continue to help beginning farmers throughout their careers.

Search by state to find farm apprenticeship opportunities in your area with the ATTRA Sustainable Internship and Apprenticeship Database.

Other places to find jobs on farms and with food and farming organizations include: Good Food Jobs, Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF), and Sustainable Agriculture Education Association.

Farm incubator and apprenticeships programs offer great opportunities to receive training, guidance and experience through a structured program that often includes business and financial planning, technical assistance, and cooperative marketing. The New Entry Sustainable Farming Project maintains a national listing map of farm incubators and apprenticeship projects.

For informal training the Cooperative Extension System (CES) is an extremely valuable resource. Their objective is to empower farmers and ranchers of all sizes to meet the challenges they face, adapt to changing technology, improve food safety, prepare for and respond to emergencies, and protect our environment. They have local and state Extension Agriculture Specialists, Food Scientists, Farm Management Specialists and Environmental Scientists who can provide technical assistance and direct you to resources to meet specific educational needs you may have. Every state has at least one Extension program associated with the Land Grant Universities within the state and they can be found on this searchable map.

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Land Access

Access to land is obviously a prerequisite to starting a farm. Finding the best land to build your farm business is critical to success. The following resources will help you search for land, understand land tenure issues, and assess what land features are appropriate for different types of agriculture.

The first place we suggest you look is the Farmland Information Center. They have some great tools to help you navigate the often-difficult process involved in assessing suitable farmland. Penn State Extension has a very good Farmland Assessment Checklist to help you ask the right questions about potential farmland.

Leasing land can be a way for undercapitalized farms to get started but it is important to have a formal lease that allows you to utilize the land in a way consistent with your plan. For instance, if you plan to grow perennial crops or need livestock fencing you need a lease agreement long enough to make it profitable to invest in the plants or infrastructure needed to be successful.

The Center for Agriculture & Food Systems has a farmland access legal toolkit that can help beginning farmers navigate the often-complicated topic of leasing farmland. In addition to leasing farmland information, they also have resources to help farmers access, transfer, and conserve existing farmland. Another great resource on this topic is Farm Commons. They are a fee-based organization but have many free resources on this and many agriculture legal topics.

Land for Good is another very helpful organization related to farmland access issues you are likely to face. In addition to information similar to the previous links they offer a decision making tool called Accessing Farmland Together for those who are seeking to farm with others in a cooperative arrangement. These cooperative farming agreements offer many potential benefits to all parties, but they often add another layer of complication that needs to be considered before the legal arrangement is finalized. This is true for both leased and purchased properties.

An innovative opportunity from the USDA for farmers with land in the Conservation Reserve Program is called the Transition Incentives Program (TIP). TIP offers assistance for landowners and operators, as well as opportunities for beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers. It provides landowners or operators with two additional annual rental payments on land enrolled in expiring Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) contracts, on the condition they sell or rent this land to a beginning farmer or rancher or to a socially disadvantaged group. This incentivizes current landowners to assist aspiring farmers get started.

When farmland has been identified it is critical to assess the land’s suitability for various agricultural purposes. The USDA has a valuable online tool called the Web Soil Survey and can provide detailed information about the soil on any property within the United States. Also, depending on where you are purchasing or leasing farmland it may be a good idea to test for environmental contamination.  Check with your local County Extension office or your state’s environmental management department for suggested testing needs. You may also consult with the USDA-NRCS office for advice on testing. The primary concern with most farmland would be the so-called “Forever Chemicals” known as PFAS chemicals. The University of Maine has been a leader in this area and they have produced a Guide to Investigating PFAS Risk on Your Farm.

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Accessing affordable credit and capital to purchase and start a farm is the biggest hurdle for most beginning farmers. You should spend time developing your financial literacy for farm businesses and understand loan options available specifically for beginning farmers.

The National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT-ATTRA) offers many resources for beginning farmers including how to finance your farm. The purpose of this publication is to lay out several financing options available to beginning farmers to start a farm, and to illuminate the step-by-step process of applying for a loan.

Many beginning farmers turn first to the USDA Farm Service Agency (FSA) for funding. The FSA makes loans to farmers using federal money set aside for this purpose, including a portion of loan funds designated specifically for beginning, military veterans and traditionally underserved farmers. In addition to direct loans, FSA can guarantee a loan made by a bank, meaning that if the farmer is unable to repay the loan and defaults, FSA will step in to repay the bank.

Beginning farmers should spend time researching FSA loan options before approaching them for a loan. The USDA has a great resource called the Loan Assistance Tool to help navigate the various loan options available. It is also helpful to learn about FSA direct and guaranteed loans from what unbiased farmer supporter organizations have learned. One of the best resources on this topic was created by the National Young Farmers Coalition called FSA Loans Guidebook. Likewise, the Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI) has several resources for Navigating FSA programs including advice on obtaining FSA loans.  Their web based information is freely available to all and they provide one on one technical assistance for Farmers of Color in the Southeast.

Beginning farmers often seek grants to provide startup assistance and are soon discouraged by the lack of unrestricted grant funding. Most granting agencies have specific goals in mind and farmers’ goals may or may not align with those goals. Ambrook offers an online search tool that allows for state-based searches for funding and grant opportunities. This is a free search, but they also offer greater levels of service for a fee you can research on their website.

Many state departments of agriculture have loan and grant opportunities listed on their websites. For soil conservation, value added food projects, meat processing, energy and environmental conservation grants and cost share opportunities the USDA has some of the best opportunities. The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) has a great publication called Growing Opportunity: A Guide to Sustainable Farming Programs available in English and Spanish. These publications list the many funding and grant opportunities currently available through various USDA agencies.

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Connect with Farm Aid

Farm Aid is constantly searching for national, state and local grant opportunities for farmers and we can do a personalized search for you if you complete the Request for Assistance Form and provide us with some details about you and your farm goals.

Lastly, you can request one-on-one assistance from our Farmer Services team by calling 1-800-FARM-AID (1-800-327-6243).  Farm Aid staff are happy to listen and help you however we can.

Also check out our Online Directory of farm service organizations and Farmer Hero stories for additional inspiration and ideas.

Updated March 20, 2024

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