You need the land to get the money. But if you don’t have the money, how do you get the land? Starting a farm is more like a juggling act than a straight path. Check out the resources below for guidance on the essentials in farm start-up.
Updated Spring 2016.
THE BUSINESS PLAN
A solid business plan is fundamental to starting a farm. Not only is it essential for talking with potential lenders, it will guide you through thinking about your operation from the initial visioning to production plans to marketing and profits.
Building a Sustainable Business: A Guide for Developing a Business Plan for Farms and Rural Businesses, a comprehensive guidebook for developing your business plan, is available from SARE online for free.
Specifically for organic producers, but applicable to any future farmer, Richard Wiswall has 30 years of farming experience to back up his approach in The Organic Farmer’s Business Handbook. The book includes a CD with financial spreadsheet templates.
Accessing affordable credit and capital to start a farm is the biggest hurdle for beginning farmers. Develop your financial literacy for farm businesses and find loan options available specifically for beginning farmers with these resources.
Check out Affording OURLAND: Financial Literacy for Young Farmers [PDF link] from Agrarian Trust and The Greenhorns to learn about land access, traditional and creative ways of acquiring land, and a variety of approaches for financing.
Get familiar with the fundamentals of financing via ATTRA’s Financing Your Farm: Guidance for Beginning Farmers
Fearless Farm Finances, published by the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service (MOSES), provides easy-to-use financial management tools for new and beginning sustainable farmers.
Navigate beginning farmer financing options with the Center for Rural Affairs’ funding sources site.
The Center for Rural Affairs’ Guide to USDA Farm Service Agency Beginning Farmer Loan Programs offers excellent guidance for FSA programs targeted to the new generation of family farmers.
After you have reviewed some of the above resources, contact your local Farm Service Agency for information about low-interest loans available through the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Finding the right 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 International Farm Transition Network has a directory of land link programs organized by state. Check it out to find programs matching you with farmers and landowners looking for the next generation to work their land.
Land for Good helps new farmers secure farmland in New England. Check out their guide, Where do I Start? Acquiring Land to Farm [PDF link] and their resources page for helpful tools, including their online manual for their FarmLASTS Project with the University of Vermont.
The Farm Service Agency’s Transition Incentives Program (TIP) Net is a tool that connects retiring landowners and beginning farmers and ranchers.
Once you have found potential farmland, you will want to assess what crops, livestock and infrastructure the land can support. Visit the USGS’s Web Soil Survey for information on soil types. Contact your local Natural Resource Conservation Service center for help in identifying what natural resources are available and what stewardship activities you should incorporate.
THE PRODUCTION PLAN
There are some great tools available to help you determine what to grow, where, and which markets to take your farm-fresh products. Most of these tools are tailored to diverse vegetable operations, but can also provide a template for managing other types of cropping operations.
Clayton Carter’s open source crop planning software is available for free.
Dan Kaplan of Brookfield Farm in western Massachusetts has a series of spreadsheets for developing CSA production plans from greenhouse to harvest that are very affordable and widely used.
Sunseed Farm also shares their crop production planning spreadsheets.
Georgia Organics offers some terrific resources for farmers, including crop and rotation planning.
AgSquared is a cost-effective record-keeping system that was created specifically for small farms.
For a variety of free downloadable and low-cost print materials, SARE offers a wide range of practical books about crop rotation, cover crops and much more.
Deciding what to produce is rooted in what you enjoy doing and what you are good at growing. But, it is also necessary to have an honest and thorough understanding of your markets. The following resources can help you determine what crops yield, both in weight and profit, and will help to create a solid marketing plan.
The USDA Agricultural Marketing Service provides daily reports on the price and sales information of farm products. Select from five program areas and choose the report most suitable to your needs.
If you are interested in comparing organic to conventional prices, check out the Organic Price Report from the Rodale Institute.
Enterprise budgets help you determine exactly how much time, resources, inputs and equipment are needed to produce a single crop. These are very effective for determining what you can grow based on your capacity. Vern Grubinger’s book, Sustainable Vegetable Production from Start-Up to Market, offers an excellent, practical approach.
Also, the Beginning Farmers website has a collection of resources available for enterprise budgeting (scroll down to the second half of the page).
Capital investments are some of the most important decisions beginning farmers will make during the farm start-up phase. It is highly recommended to talk to farmers in your network to learn about the choices they have made and why. In addition, they can inform you about suppliers and dealers they know and trust, and may be part of an equipment-sharing cooperative that you could join.
Check out Roxbury Farm CSA’s article, How to Purchase Equipment, for a great overview of what equipment you might need and how to determine what to purchase.
SARE’s publication, Steel in the Field, is a practical, concise, easy-to-read guide to tillage and cultivation tools for cropping systems. Download the free PDF version from the website.
Not finding what you need? Request one-on-one assistance from our Farm Advocate, Jennie Msall, by filling out our Online Request for Assistance form or by calling 1-800-FARM-AID (1-800-327-6243). Farm Aid staff are happy to listen and help you however we can.