How to Start a Small Farm in 10 Steps

You don’t need a lot of land to have a functional and profitable farm. Whether you’re thinking 1 acre, 10 acres, or maybe a bit more, there’s a plan that will fit your goals.

  • Identify a farming niche that fits your personality.
  • Research the markets within that niche.
  • Determine profitability.
  • Ballpark your startup costs.
  • Find a deal on land (purchase or lease).
  • Set up non-permanent infrastructure, the minimum needed.
  • Produce quality products in a healthy and clean environment.
  • Quantify waste products and find a use for them.
  • Consider complementary systems that will benefit each other.
  • Improve your soils and/or breeding stock every year.

Where to Start?

My first question to you would be whether or not you have property or access to someone else’s property you could use. If so, then we’re going to be looking at the property to see what can be done with it.

Land acquisition is the biggest hurdle to starting a farm on any level, so if you have already gotten past that, we’re going to need to really look at the land you have to see what can be done with it. Alternatively, you can look at land in your area and consider the different things that can be done with each area.

Spend some time driving around looking at the land in your chosen area, and look at the types of farming operations going on. Look at the state and condition of fields and pastures. Observe the terrain. Just look at a lot of farms. Also, if you’re not already, start watching a lot of farming videos on youtube.

The Three Niches of Farming

Farming can be boiled down into three primary categories. They are: Field crops, Produce, and Livestock. All productive farms specialize in something, but most farms will find it beneficial to include other options on the side.

Field crops such as corn, wheat, hay, and soybean are the least valuable thing to grow. Growing these grains for bulk sale to grain buyers is a joke. Hay isn’t worth a lot either. Currently, the average farmer makes $350 to $400 per acre of commodity field crops. That’s not enough for any small farm.

Plus, you’d still need to either buy equipment to plant, and harvest, or pay someone else to do it. Livestock is far more valuable per acre than bulk grains. Livestock takes more regular tending and you have to buy and like;y maintain your own breeding herd of livestock.

The best thing about livestock like pigs, cows, and chickens is that you can sell them directly to the consumer. That really bumps up the value of the product.

If you work with a custom meat processor (not USDA inspected and certified) you can sell whole animals or shares of animals to your customers, then take their animal to the processor. then you deliver it to them when it’s done. If you’re really nifty, you can custom process yourself. That’s what I do.

Custom processing allows me to slaughter and butcher an animal that someone else owns. It does not allow the meat to be re-sold or for me to butcher then sell individual cuts of meat.

Produce is usually considered the most valuable per acre of any farming, or at least has the potential to be. I made about $3,000 on less than 1/8 acre of produce this year. That’s $24,000 per acre of value. Fresh, high-quality produce is worthwhile, but it takes more time to sell a wagon of vegetables than a dozen cows.

Pesticide-free is a niche in the produce industry that I decided to fill. It’s working.

Finding Markets Within a Niche

Those are the three niches. There are smaller, more specialized niches within those niches. Such as grass-raised, grain-free beef. Pasture-raised rabbits and chickens are getting more common. Organic fruits and vegetables, or in my case, pesticide-free produce allow me to sell at a premium over others’ produce.

In the hay world, there are specialty hays as well. Timothy, red clover, or alfalfa may sell at a premium if it’s not common in your area, especially if you can get into the per market. Folks will spend a lot on a box of clean, chemical-free hay for their pet rabbit or guinea pig, but that’s a hard market to get into.

Also, consider the sales outlets and opportunities out there. The only two things you should consider are either selling direct-to-consumer or selling wholesale through a single middleman. Forget selling to large bulk buyers who then send the products through various other storage holders and distributors.

The closer to the consumer your sales are, the more money you as the farmer makes. For us, we sell at the farmer’s market and we do deliveries in town once a week.

I sold most of my produce at the farmer’s market and while I can demand a high price, the clientele is limited. So advertising what I can and making deliveries for a slight surcharge made good sense.

Other options may be selling to restaurants or grocery stores, but as a small operation, it may be hard to get those contracts, and they tend to be very demanding.

It’s hard to ballpark profitability until you’ve dipped your toes in the water. That’s okay. Give it your best guess and step cautiously.

Determining Profitability

You’ll need to have an idea of how much you could make. Look around and ask around about the value of various farm products. Find out how much people are paying for a butcher-ready pig or cow, and what organic or grass-fed goes for a well.

For produce, go to the grocery store and look at prices. Remember that most of the in-store produce is rather old and mid to low-quality. You can usually get significantly higher prices on fresh produce. For example, potatoes sell locally for $0.80/pound but I sold mine for $1.50/pound and sold out.

Find out how many animals per acre you can have without negatively impacting the land, and how much feed you may have to buy for them. then figure approximate dollars per acre per year, and dollars per animal per year.

For produce, common figures fall between $5,000 and $30,000 per acre in gross sales opportunity, depending on the value, quality, and quantity of what’s grown.

The last part is to figure out where these market or sales opportunities are. Are they nearby? Are they 2 or 3 hours away in the big city? That’s something you’ll have to figure out.

My startup cost was $20 for seeds and fertilizer. Later, spent $2,000 clearing trees, $400 on irrigation, $300 on tools, and $150 for a greenhouse.

Ballpark Your Startup Costs

If you want to raise animals, what type of fencing and shelters do you need? start writing down the amount and cost of materials needed to set up land the way you’ll need it. Electric fencing is by far the cheapest fencing option and it’s easy to move around when you decide to change something.

Light-weight animal shelters that can be moved when needed are cheaper and much handier than building a barn. Find the cheapest options you can and write down the cost of materials. Figure the cost of livestock and feed. If you aren’t planning on pasture-only feeding, figure out the year’s feed expenses.

Do you need any equipment? Tractors are nice but are expensive and often completely unnecessary on a very small farm. Do you have a truck or a van? A vehicle with a hitch will pull wagons, drag stumps, and more. Even a small passenger car like my Toyota Carolla will carry 1,000 pounds of feed in the back.

Find out the minimum you can get away with and add up the cost to get started. Starting small is fine, and is usually the wise choice.

Find a Deal on Land (purchase or lease).

Farming, even small-scale, is highly land dependent. In the beginning, it’s probably a great idea to look for decent land to lease. For example, the cheapest land in my area is running $5,000 an acre. Cleared, tillable land runs closer to $8,000 an acre. I can rent/lease decent cropland for $100/acre per year.

My neighbor has a 9-acre field that he rents out to a local farmer. It’s usually plated with either corn or soybean every year and is decent land. He’s offered to rent it to me for $900/year. That actually would make startup feasible if I wanted to try growing my production.

It’s a lot less risky than paying $70,000 upfront. Not only is that a lot of cash, that’d be stupid to spend on a business model that I haven’t tried and tested yet. Sending too much upfront is probably the largest reason why new startup farms fail. Don’t run up debt. Don’t look for investors. Just start simple.

Now, my neighbor’s land doesn’t have available irrigation. That’s a big downside if I wanted to grow produce. And, while the soil is “decent” compared to other fields, it’s nowhere near the quality of soil in my 1/4 acre market garden. It would take several years to start to build up the soil like I did here.

Something I can do would be to plant pumpkins and sweet corn. Those could be planted with a push-powered seeder and left alone all summer. Then I’d have to spend August picking and selling sweet corn and October selling pumpkins. It might actualy be worth it to me.

The problem with leased land is that it’s not yours. Any improvements you make to it will be thrown out when you leave the lease. One way to get by that is a long term lease (5-10 years) with a failure clause. You and the landowner agree that as long as you can maintain profits, you will continue the lease.

For me, I wouldn’t want to lease land long-term without the option to buy it at market value sometime during or at the end of the lease, as a point of the lease contract. If I had a 5-year lease with the failure clause, and an option to buy it at the end of the lease, I’d be more willing to spend time and money improving the soil and perhaps adding infrastructure.

Most landowners who lease out farming land are only interested in field crops. Smaller landholders are more willing to lease out an acre of so for market gardening. Some people are going to be willing to work with you on livestock, but many are scared off because of how some livestock farms are run.

If you do want to raise ani mal son leased land, be sure to tell the land owner how you will prevent things like overgrazing, manure swamps, and an overall nasty environment.

I build a lightweight greenhouse using mostly scrounged materials. It cost me $150 in plastic and nails.

Set up Non-Permanent Infrastructure, the minimum needed

Starting a farm by building a barn is usually a bad idea. Barns are expensive and you haven’t proved that your business model will actually work. Plus, you’re probably going to drastically change things as you actually figure out what’s working for you. Permanent infrastructure locks you in with fewer options.

That applies whether it’s building pens, animal shelters, or installing irrigation. Start with the absolute bare minimum and find the cheapest option within that. What’s the most multi-use, versatile, and affordable option to start with?

I built this table out of pallets and t-posts to hold seedlings and to serve as a produce wash station. It cost me nothing.

For example, If you need fencing, electric fencing with t-posts is the cheapest by far to set up. It’s also lightweight, easily moveable, and works for all livestock. Of course, you’ll need electricity for that. Another would be simple animal shelters that can be moved, either dragged or picked up with a tractor.

I put in irrigation in my 1/4 acre garden and 1/4 acre pasture this year. Being not too far from my house, I installed a hydrant off my main water line and ran 100-foot garden hoses to a series of impact sprinklers that mount on t-posts. It cost me about $500.

Other folks recommended me to install underground drip lines which would have cost five times as much. I found a simple, cheap option that not only saved me from the drought but it can be repurposed to another piece of land with little effort.

Unlike most pigs, mine are raised in a clean and pleasant environment. Word gets around and people like that.

Produce Quality Products in a Healthy and Clean Environment

The key to small farm success is direct-to-consumer sales. To do that, you need to have a high-quality product that impressed the consumer. You also need a farm that doesn’t scare away the consumer. Large farms tend to work to keep the consumer as far away as possible. You need to invite them in.

People expect a clean environment. Even if you don’t have customers coming directly to your farm, if your place is known by the smell as people drive by, no one will want to buy your beef or pork. If you are plowing the life out of the land and pouring on chemicals like syrup on pancakes, word will get around.

You need your products to be all-around quality, and you need to have an appearance of a clean, quality farmer. If you are selling produce at the farmer’s market, be gentle with it, wash it well, keep it from wilting, and don’t wear your mucky boots and filthy overalls.

Honestly, when I’m selling produce, I dress more like a grocer. I wear clean clothes and a clean apron. I also keep a towel tucked in my belt in case my hands get dirty. Things like that help. If you or your farm has the appearance of being unkept, why should people expect your products to be any different?

If you want to convince people to exchange their money for your goods, give them a quality product and make them feel comfortable and confident that yours is indeed a better product. Having a pleasant farm environment an inviting people in builds trust with your customer base.

Manure is a valuable waste product.

Quantify Waste Products and Find a Use for Them

Every business has waste. Most of the time, it’s a lost opportunity. In a farm setting, waste of every type is valuable for something. Wasted produce can be composted for added soil fertility. it could be sold to another farmer as feed, or fed to your own animals.

We raised pigs and chickens over the summer on a diet of 50 percent unsellable produce. The animals got good use out of the produce, it was a good source of vitamins, minerals, and a little energy. I got the benefit of healthy, well-fed animals to sell, plus they gave me manure to use.

If you have excess manure, look for a way to use it, or look for someone nearby who needs some manure for their field. Whether dealing with manure, old produce, rotten vegetables, or refuse from butchering animals, is can all be piled up and composted and compost tends to sell fairly well.

You may even be able to simply sell things to a composter if there is one in the area. There are lots of options. But really, the best option is finding some use for your waste within your own farm operation. If you have a lot of waste produced over the summer, consider getting chickens, pigs, or a cow or two.

When you find a way to repurpose waste within your farm operation, it will allow you to do more within your own business. If you are growing on the land, everything possible should be going back into the soil.

My chickens layed eggs, and fertilized this pasture, which fed my rabbits, which made manure for the garden.

Consider Complementary Systems that will Benefit Each Other

Raising livestock and growing some crops is a great example of this. I can grow produce, which produces waste. Feed the waste to my chickens, which produce eggs and manure. The manure goes back into my soil as fertilizer and organic material. That’s a great system and it’s exactly what I do.

I even take it a step further. I have a mobile chicken pen that I run through the garden during the off-season. That way, I don’t even have to shovel or haul manure. During the growing season, I use the chickens to fertilize a little pasture area.

That pasture area grows grass which we use as a mulch in the garden, and as food for the rabbits, which we eat and sell. They also make manure which goes in the garden. We raise and butcher pigs.

The pigs eat waste produce (they still need some pig feed), give us pork from the ones we keep and dollars from the ones we sell, and we have both the manure and butcher refuse left over as waste products that go back into the soil. It’s a fairly rounded system.

I call this stacking function. One thing leads into another and makes the next simpler and easier. Plus, it’s a very circular process where very little is being thrown out. The only things that leave my farm make me money one way or another.

Good soil is hard to come by. Don’t waste it.

Improve Your Soils and/or Breeding Stock Every Year.

In the job description of farming, there is the creed to increase and to build up the world around us. A farmer works to do good things, to add to the quality and value of what he manages. If you don’t do that, you’re not a farmer but a parasite.

Any fool can take a good thing and abuse it until it’s run into the ground. A good farmer can take a mediocre thing and turn it into a great, pleasant, and profitable thing. That’s the part of being a good steward that God has called farmers into.

Soil depletion is the most common farm folly. Plowing, tilling, over-fertilization, compaction from driving tractors, and over-harvesting all deplete the soil’s natural fertility faster than it can rebuild it. Very few farm fields have good-quality soil. Most have no topsoil at all.

Examples of overharvesting would be growing wheat and taking away not all the grain but also the chaff, or growing corn and cutting down all of it to make corn silage. Hayfields, being cut so much, usually have the absolute worst soil quality and natural fertility. Soil needs things added to it.

Organic, carbon-based material needs to break down on and in the soil to add humus which collects fertility and holds water in the soil. I add as much as I can to the soil. Manure, plant stubble, grass clippings, fallen leaves, leftover produce; everything that I can put in the dirt goes in the dirt.

There are a lot of things that will benefit the soil but break down too slowly to put right on the soil, it plugs up the rake and makes it hard to hoe weeds. Those things go in the compost pile. Animal guts and hides, sunflower stems, brush, and cardboard; they all decompose and then get spread across the soil.

I’ve been doing this for a few years now and as a result, I now use about 30 percent less fertilizer because of the soil’s ability to hold on to these nutrients and to create its own natural fertility.

Good soil needs a healthy microbial life. Unfortunately for that, fertilizer, fungicides, and pesticides all significantly reduce the number of healthy microbes in the soil. Use them with reserve and caution.

A mixed cover crop of clover, turnip, radish, and oat, among other things.

The last part of soil conservation and improvement is cover cropping. Cover cropping is planting an easy crop in bare soil that is done for the year. Bare soil is dead or dying soil. If I finish my tomato harvest in September, I will plant something like turnips, oats, wheat to fill in the space.

Come spring, anything that survived the winter is killed off with a hoe and the soil prepper for planting my main crop. Cover crops add to the soil organic matter, prevent erosion, improve soil biology, and don’t need fertilizing. They will scrounge around at what’s left and turn it into natural fertility.

Usually, cover crops are cool weather plants, because that’s when most are not planting the main crop. Radish, turnip, wheat, oats, and peas are good options. A mix of at least three different things is considered much more well-rounded at improving the soil more completely.

Honestly, basically anything will work as a cover crop. I often use a mix of random old seeds, be it corn or squash, or beans, as a cover crop. I’ll use whatever is cheap or whatever I already have. Cover cropping is a science and an art, but for starters just remember; just fill the soil with plants, quickly.

This all goes against current common practices of tilling deep, clearing fields, and spraying with multiple chemicals. Fortunately, some farmers are understanding what they can do and are working for a long-term result instead of short term increases that will eventually ruin the soil.

The same goes with animals. Animal husbandry is largely an unrecognized art. At its heart, it’s simple. Just select the very best animals for breeding, not eating. Traditionally, the best were selected for selling to the butcher because that brought a better price. But, that hurts the herd.

The three basic principles of breeder selection are:

  • Don’t breed animals with problematic temperaments
  • Don’t re-breed animals that have low fertility or problems giving birth
  • Don’t breed animals that have obvious health problems or are often sick

Each one of those can go deep into its own study, If you want to find more bout breeder selection for a specific type of animal, there are books and numerous studies on the matter.

Do your best to take care of your animals and then select you breeding stock from those that thrive within your methods. Now, I realize that a lot of farmers don’t breed their own livestock and just buy them young. That can be fine. It’s just another expense on the books and it can be tough to know the quantity of the animals.

If you’re going to raise animals, consider the common feed items, then consider the lesser common, alternative options. For example, I raise pigs. Most people will tell me that I need to buy a ground, formulated pig feed from the feed mill. That’s expensive.

I buy whole corn and whole oats cheap locally and ferment it to improve the protein and vitamin content. Then I give them a pile of leftover produce or wild-grown greens to add more vitamins to their diet. According to my results, it works well. That saved me 50 percent on feed costs.

I also planted some sunflowers along the edge of the property. Sunflower seed is very high in protein and energy and it helps to boost up the pig’s diet in the early stages when they need more. If you have the space, consider growing some feed crop like sugar beet, alfalfa, Jerusalem artichoke, corn, or sunflower.

Even growing just a little of your own feed will help you save money, which is essential in the beginning. Spend your dollars where they matter most. Start small so your mistakes will also start small. Keep things simple. Do what you can and learn all you can. Study to show yourself approved. Be a good farmer.

I hope this article helped you. It’s kind hard to write one article and tell you everything you may need to know. If you have any questions, feel free to ask in the comment section below.

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Jordan

I practice what I preach. Here in rural west Michigan, me, my wife, and 5 young kids work together to grow food, raise animals, and grow aninmal feed on just 1 acre. I teach homesteading classes locally, and help people where I can.

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