When I tell people I make my career in organic agriculture, they assume I am a farmer. They ask me what I grow with a curious tilt of the head. Since I am in my sixth decade, they cannot imagine me tilling, hoeing, or harvesting anything but sweet peas.The truth is I know next to nothing about farming except that it takes a multitude of diverse skills, a strong constitution, and an affinity for working alone with the soil. At heart, you must be a gambler, tending the earth with no financial guarantees. The crop is either good or bad, and the market strikes just right or not.
I have spent many a dusty hour bumping along fields and orchards with organic farmers across the rural globe. So, I do possess a few insights.
It’s Important to Identify Your Niche
Begin by identifying the products that thrive in your geographical locale and if there’s a market for those products.
Depending on where you live and what resources are available locally, some potential possibilities might be: growing organic produce for people in a particular area, raising livestock or poultry for meat production, practicing sustainable agriculture with a focus on reducing environmental impact, and producing honey and other bee-keeping products.
A good place to start is USDA Market News, which provides price and volume data for commodities and products grown and certified to USDA’s National Organic Program standards.
It’s not a complete list of crops, but it can give you an idea of what’s being paid to the farmers in this data report.
Is Organic Livestock Management for You?
Livestock provide an additional income stream and can help distribute your workload through the year. But animal husbandry is a big step to take that has a huge learning curve. You might also need to understand agricultural terms that might be useful to your new practice, like animal incinerators, plant and animal diseases, or pest effects. See what I mean! Organic dairy, egg and meat production aren’t for the faint of heart.
Organic livestock enjoy a better quality of life and provide consumers better nutritional choice with little risk of antibiotic exposure.
Find the Right Land
The first step to starting a successful farm is finding the land. The crops or livestock you intend to grow will determine how much land you need. Even more important is access to water and yearly rainfall. Many places in the West are struggling with drought and diminished groundwater. What will you grow if water is scarce?
One of the biggest hurdles to transitioning land to organic or buying land for a farm is securing the funds to make it possible. There are a few options for financing your farm. You can use a loan from the bank, get an investor to invest in you, or raise money through crowdfunding.
These resources from Rodale Institute are also helpful for navigating the options. From USDA programs and grants to private and state loans, there are creative options to begin farming.
Navigate Organic Certification
USDA offers great advice on becoming certified to organic standards—how to adopt organic practices and select a USDA-accredited certifying agent.
The cost of certification can be offset by USDA’s Organic Certification Cost Share Program that provides reimbursement for 50% of a certified operation’s certification costs, up to a maximum of $500 for each certification you have.
Plan Your Success with Reliable Resources
The National Young Farmers Coalition is dedicated to growing the community of young farmers, ranchers, and supporters across the country
Rodale Institute offers webinars, online resources, workshops, and consulting services.
Midwest Organic & Sustainable Education Service MOSES is a nonprofit that promotes organic and sustainable agriculture in the Midwest with education, resources, and expertise.
What Does it take to Be a Farmer?
My observations tell me that farmers are a special breed of human. They must embrace learning and be an expert at a multitude of things: how to farm, run a business, manage employees, and market products.
Farmers work long physical hours, usually full of grit and courage. They possess a love for stewarding the planet and our food supply.
Give the next farmer you encounter your gratitude for their service. Or perhaps consider becoming one yourself.
But who am I to say?
Hi there! Thanks for reading. I included links within this post. I make a little money for some of these referrals, and the FTC wants you to know that. If you know me personally or have been a longtime reader, I hope you also know that I only recommend companies that I believe in. Live well, friend.