Starting a Farm: Dreams vs. Reality

It's been four months since we closed on our property, and in that time period I've learned a lot about the realities of starting a farm. Here are some of the issues I've encountered and my suggestions for overcoming each one .  

Starting a farm can be overwhelming

When most people think of starting a small market farm, their initial ideas revolve around beautiful gardens, livestock, conscious farmers market goers and picturesque days spent working in the dirt. What is rarely thought of is all the paperwork, insurance, financial forms and record keeping practices that must be implemented before the 'fun stuff' can begin. 

Many of our buildings are in need of paint and repair. It's hard for someone like me, who takes pride keeping his home and property looking tidy, to deal with the fact that I can't afford to do all these projects right away, but I'm learning. 

Many of our buildings are in need of paint and repair. It's hard for someone like me, who takes pride keeping his home and property looking tidy, to deal with the fact that I can't afford to do all these projects right away, but I'm learning. 

The solution - take a step backwards and outline all the ideas for your farm. Come to terms with the fact that you can't do everything right off the bat (I had a hard time dealing with this) and learn to be O.K. with it. Just because you can't start raising pigs now or repaint that old barn doesn't mean it'll never happen. A solid 5-year business plan can help you map out all your dreams and keep track of progress towards those goals. 

Find a balance between work, personal life and starting your farm

This was another tough one for me. As soon as we finished fixing up the house on our farm, I immediately starting working on multiple farm projects - planting a cover crop, restoring our chicken coop, starting the high tunnel application through NRCS and purchasing a few dozen day-old chicks. For two months I spent every spare minute I had on accomplishing these tasks, as the scope of each project was much larger than anticipated. I began to feel like I was missing out on quality time with my wife and son.

Lunch with my little buddy.

Lunch with my little buddy.

Since then I've learned that it's better to focus on building one segment of your farm or business before moving onto the next. I decided to postpone restarting our produce CSA for 2016 and get the poultry aspect of our operation up and running. Taking this approach ensures that each enterprise is functioning properly (and profitably) before moving onto the next.  

Avoid debt at all costs

While I don't believe profitability should be the sole reason someone gets into farming, I do believe that it is important for the farm to be profitable. If it's not, you're going to quickly find yourself very unhappy in a very deep hole. Avoid this pitfall by keeping good financial records from the very beginning. If starting small, you can create simple excel spreadsheets to track debts and credits. Larger operations may want to consider investing in accounting software. 

Avoiding debt also means not biting off more than you can chew. For example, raising a dozen pigs may look profitable on paper, but unless you can sell that meat at the right price, you could end up taking a loss and be further in the hole than when you started. Know your markets and how much you will sell your product for before starting any new endeavor or project - this ensures that you can make a profit and continue to reinvest in a lifestyle you love.