“Determination gives you the resolve to keep going in spite of the roadblocks that lay before you.” –Denis Waitley.
Farmers are a ruggedly determined lot. The farmers whom I know personally, are full of vim and vigor, and while obstacles may sometimes get them down on occasion, typically these challenges do not hold them back for long.
Even so, farming is not for the faint of heart. It’s a labor intensive job, with long hours, and little opportunity for vacations. In this, the final installment of our “Establishing a New Farm” series, we’ll take a look at some of the challenges facing beginning farmers, the solutions that some farmers have come up with to overcome the obstacles they have been faced with, and receive the recommendations offered from our voices of experience–the 3 farmers whom I interviewed for this blog-post series.
If you missed the first 3 parts you can click on the links to go read the articles: “Establishing a New Farm: Where to Start & How to Prioritize“; “Tools & Investments“; and “Innovation, Resourcefulness, and Creativity in Farming“.
New Farmers Today
Thanks to the growing public awareness of food and farming, the interest and enthusiasm for organic, local, and sustainably produced food–also referred to as the “good food movement”–has created a new opportunity for young people like myself to break into the field.
The young men and women pursuing careers in agriculture today have a different profile than those of past generations. We come from a diverse range of backgrounds and experiences; the majority of us are embracing the sustainable movement and utilizing sustainable growing practices. Many new farmers today did not grow up on a family farm, or their families may have abandoned rural living in favor of the cities generations ago–so pursuing a career in farming is a return to their roots.
The dominance of large farm enterprises has transformed agriculture over the last 50 years, making operating and owning a family farm much more difficult than it once was. All over the world farmers today are facing similar challenges, and with an aging population of veteran farmers, the need for these new and beginning farmers to succeed is becoming painfully clear. Yet prospective beginning farmers are faced with expensive prices for farmland, high start-up costs, and lenders that are more than a little reluctant to take a risk on a new and untested agricultural venture. Even the increased interest in local foods having created a strong market for the products these new farmers have to offer, may not be enough to overcome these obstacles entirely.
The National Young Farmers Coalition Surveys Beginning Farmers
According to a 2011 study performed by the National Young Farmers Coalition, the top 2 challenges facing young and new farmers today are lack of capital, and a lack of access to land.
More than 1000 farmers from all over the United States were surveyed, and the resulting report indicates:
- 78% of farmers ranked “Lack of Capital” as their biggest obstacle to farming, with 40% ranking “Access to Credit” as the biggest.
- 68% of farmers ranked land access as their biggest challenge.
- 70% of farmers under 30 were renting land, while only 37% of farmers over 30 are renting.
When asked what was most effective in supporting their farming efforts, the farmers surveyed sited the following:
- 74 % ranked apprenticeships among the most valuable program for beginners.
- 55% ranked local partnerships as their most valuable.
- 49% ranked CSA as their top program.
Download the study in it’s entirety by clicking here.
Despite the fact that the USDA’s Farm Service Agency offers loans to beginning farmers, current loan rules disqualify even experienced farmers with good credit more often than not, and small loans are hard to come by. What’s more, debt from loans are often a hindrance to farming success because they increase a farmers’ overhead expenses.
For real estate loans to purchase farmland, FSA loans take too long to process–30 days to qualify, and up to a year to receive funding, and to top it all off–the FSA’s $300,000 limit doesn’t get a farmer very far in today’s real estate markets.
Even if these beginning farmers are able to overcome the land and capital hurdles, it can be difficult for small growers to find markets for their crops. Many of the existing farmers’ markets are already saturated, and establishing new markets isn’t always an option. Wholesale markets demand quantity and a consistent supply, which small farmers can rarely offer.
Obstacles not mentioned in the survey, but I feel are worth pointing out are those related to the unique situation each individual farmer find him or herself in.
Land – These can be problems posed by the land the farmer is working–poor soil conditions, for example–shallow top soil, or rocky conditions.
Water – Can present a challenge to the farmer–either he has too much or too little, or poor access. Irrigation equipment is pricey, wells are even more so, and everything in farming is dependent upon water for growth and prosperity.
Legalities – Offer another set of hurdles to be overcome; there are zoning regulations, permits and licensing required by law for some types of farming and distribution of product.
Family – Having your significant other on board with your farming schemes can make the difference between success and failure; working around the schedules of small children, or incorporating youngsters into daily farming chores is possible, but even this can be challenging at times.
Principles – Organic farming is much more labor intensive than the industrial method, and certification is an expensive and demanding proposition. It’s up to the farmer to make that commitment, accept the challenges that come with it, and hold true to his values.
Overcoming the Challenges of Farming
Despite the obstacles and hurdles that new farmers face, they are increasingly successful in their endeavors thanks to their own innovation, resourcefulness and sheer determination. We find ways to make it happen, we lease land rather than buying, we recycle and repurpose old materials to create the tools and equipment we need, and we are successful.
Voices of Experience
I asked 3 farmers what their biggest challenge was in starting their own homestead or farm, and how they overcame them, here are their responses, along with their recommendations for new farmers, based on their experiences:
Teri from Homestead-Honey
The biggest challenge for us as a family with 2 young children (ages 3 and 6) has been trying to start a homestead from scratch with literally NO infrastructure. It is such a romantic ideal to buy a piece of raw land and build it all yourself, but it is very time and labor-consuming. There are also so many details to consider–Where do you get your water? What about phone or internet? Electricity? Driveway? Where will you sleep while you build? How will you prepare food?
Fortunately, my husband is a skilled carpenter, we couldn’t have done this without his skill. We also are both avid backpackers, so have a skill-set that is very appropriate for “roughing it”. We were able to draw upon 13 years of homesteading experience to guide us in making good decisions. And finally, we tried to involve our children in the creation process as much as possible. They have helped us plant trees, build a sheet mulch garden, and care for chickens. Our homestead has truly been a family effort.
To new farmers, Teri offers these recommendations:
Learn as much about homesteading or farming as you can before beginning. There are countless blogs, magazines, apprentice and volunteer opportunities that will connect you with knowledge and experience.
- Having mentors is invaluable. When we were starting to raise dairy goats, we constantly consulted with neighbors who had raised goats for years. Their wisdom kept us on the right track and helped us trouble shoot as needed.
- Its so cliche, but true–remember that everything takes twice as long as you think it will, and is twice as expensive. We have saved a lot of money doing it ourselves, but even with out own labor and using a lot of reclaimed materials, our house and homestead still cost money. Lots of money. Eventually, these investments will pay off, but be sure you are realistic with your finances.
You can find Teri blogging about homesteading and Waldorf-inspired homeschooling at Homestead-Honey.com. Check them out today to follow along with their homesteading journey!
From Jennifer at the Black Fox Homestead:
Even though we moved only 40 miles east of where we lived, the gardening climate was entirely different. Things grew differently here than they did in our backyard in the city. There was quite a steep learning curve that we did not anticipate.
The wind was another issue. There were no surrounding homes or buildings to buffer it. We overcame this by scaling back on our plans for a huge garden and simply focusing on the basics, learning what would grow and how to grow it well. To deal with the wind we planted a windbreak around our home and part of our garden.
Jennifer advises new farmers:
Go slow. You don’t have to do it all, or do it all at once. Choose one skill and master it before moving on to another. Beware of those in the media who make it look slick and easy. Know that growing your own food may be the hardest thing you will ever do; but it is the most rewarding thing you will ever do. Network with others of like mind, make friends with your neighbors.
Check out the Black Fox Homestead’s blog and follow along with Jennifer as they continue to grow their farm and market garden.
At Snakeroot Organic Farm, Tom says their biggest challenges were:
the loss of our farming mentors
- “starting from scratch”
- not the greatest of soils.
- not a lot of space for expanding our growing area.
- no readily available irrigation water.
- we were both 50 years old.
Based on his experiences, Tom offers this advice to prospective new farmers:
Think about the things that will take the longest to mature, like fruit trees, and start those right away. Make sure you have markets for what most of you grow. In each new venture, start small so you can fail small. Visit other farms–and/or talk to other farmers at market–to trade information; everyone has info to trade, even if it’s just the perspective of a noobie. Open more ground than you can use as soon as you can afford to; green manure it until you grow enough to need to crop it.
To learn more about Snakeroot Organic Farm in Pittsfield, Maine, check out Tom’s website!
New Farmers Persevere
Despite all of the hurdles and challenges, more and more people are stepping away from the mainstream for a career in farming. New farmers view the farming lifestyle as a physically engaging and fulfilling career that guarantees independence and leadership. Careful planning, creative use of resources, along with determination and perseverance will help new farmers overcome all challenges and see us through to success.
What do you think? Did I miss anything during our 4-part series about “Establishing a New Farm”? Feel free to share your thoughts below!