MENU

So You Want To Be A Farmer? Start Here

Getting a grant or finding a loan to start a farm can be daunting, but resources abound for those who long to live a life on the land.

By Jason Jenkins

Atop a wooded ridge in the Missouri Ozarks, the buzz of a portable sawmill breaks an otherwise silent scene on a frigid Friday afternoon in January. Sawdust mixes with freshly fallen snow as John Moore of Climax Springs pushes the bandsaw’s blade through an oak log felled on his 9-acre property.

Nearly 2,000 miles away in Shasta County, California, James Moller also is his working on his property. Instead of cutting lumber, though, he’s moving his family’s Angus cow/calf herd. The creatures amble into a lush grazing paddock on the 1,100-acre ranch that he currently leases from his grandfather.

At first glance, the two men’s stories seem disparate. One is attempting to live the life of a homesteader. The other is trying to carry on his family’s ranching heritage. A closer look, however, reveals common ground. To make ends meet, both currently hold day jobs away from their farms. Yet they are bound by the same desire — to make a living from their agricultural endeavors.

Whether working 4 acres or 4,000 acres, a career in agriculture requires determination and resilience. For those getting started, numerous technical and financial resources are available. The U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends that new farmers remember the “4 Ps” — Purpose, Plan, Product and People.

#1: Find Your Purpose

The desires that drive people toward careers in farming are as varied as the enterprises they undertake. Before jumping in, would-be farmers should step back and take a practical look at the rigors and demands of the farming lifestyle.

Moller was quite aware of the long hours and economic challenges of agriculture. As a seventh-generation cattleman, he grew up raising livestock but moved away from the ranch when he went to college. After his father passed away four years ago, he and his wife, Starlin, decided it was time to go home. He left a job with the University of California, Davis, and today is a manager for a strawberry company.

“We felt to would be better for our two boys to get out of the city life ... and come back to the country.”Click To Tweet

 

“We felt to would be better for our two boys to get out of the city life in the Sacramento area and come back to the country closer to family,” he says. “I’ve been around cattle my whole life.”

Seeking a simplified rural lifestyle also appeals to Moore, who has traveled the globe as a horizontal construction equipment operator in the U.S. Army. Once he retires from military service, the Missouri native and his wife, Yeonghee, have every intention of living off their land — beginning by building a home constructed from lumber harvested from their property.

“My wife is from South Korea, and the Korean culture is closer to nature,” he says. “We Americans allow so many resources go to waste. By homesteading, there’s a lot to be learned and enjoyed by living life a bit simpler and using those resources.”

#2: Make A Plan

Crafting a well-defined business plan — one that details what you hope to do and maps how you expect to succeed — is a crucial step for every beginning farmer. The plan should define what agricultural goods you intend to produce and the equipment, inputs, land and labor required to do so. It should detail financing and account for the unexpected such as market fluctuations and adverse weather. It should also include plans for personal, non-farm needs as well as insurance, retirement, savings and succession.

“Do your research and have a plan before you start,” Moore says. “And just assume everything will take one and a half to two times longer and cost you one and a half to two times more than you think.”

“Assume everything will take one and a half to two times longer and cost you one and a half to two times more than you think.”Click To Tweet

 

A number of local, state, provincial and national programs exist to assist new farmers, and many of these provide online resources specific to agriculture and small business. One particular resource, FarmAnswers.org, is a national clearinghouse for the USDA’s Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Grant Program, including several key business planning guides. Programs targeting certain groups — including women and veterans — also exist to offer additional opportunities in agriculture.

For most starting up in agriculture, securing financing is one of the largest hurdles. In the United States, agricultural loans for land, equipment or operations are available through lending institutions such as Farm Credit and federal agencies including the USDA Farm Service Agency, USDA Rural Development and the Small Business Administration. In Canada, the Canadian Agricultural Loans Act is a loan-guarantee program that new farmers can access to establish, improve and develop their operations.

For the first three years of their cattle operation, the Mollers have utilized operating loans through the USDA’s Farm Service Agency. They currently own about 50 mama cows and manage an additional 50 for another producer.

“If you buy 50 cows to start, and they’re $1,000 to $2,000 each, you’re looking at anywhere between $50,000 to $100,000 just in the cows,” Moller says. “You’ve got to lease the land and then add in variable costs of hay, grain, mineral and vaccines. You need money for all this, plus you better have a little extra money around in case Mother Nature decides to throw you a curveball. For instance, most years, we put up 500 bales of hay. But last year due to colder weather and a hailstorm, we only put up about 150 bales. We had to buy five truckloads of hay to keep the cows fed.”

Depending on location and individual circumstances, many types of programs exist to help with the purchase of equipment. Moller plans to take advantage of the Carl Moyer Memorial Air Quality Standards Attainment Program, which provides grants to encourage the voluntary purchase of cleaner-than-required engines, equipment and emission-reduction technologies. 

“Right now, I have a very old 100-hp tractor with 40,000 hours on it,” he says. “If I trade it in and use a new tractor for a minimum of 600 hours a year, they’ll grant me $30,000 toward that new compliant tractor.”

#3: Define Your Product

While it may seem elementary, identifying where to sell your products and who will buy them is crucial to agricultural success. Asking questions about your cost of production, potential markets and prospective consumers should happen long before you attempt to grow crops or raise livestock.

Thanks to a lifetime of experience in the cattle industry, Moller had a firm grasp on how to market his Angus calves in California. In Missouri, Moore is still considering how to monetize his agricultural acreage. He’s already sold acorns and persimmon fruit from the property, and he’s put his sawmill to use on custom jobs.

“Once we get the house built and we’re on the property all the time, we’ll be putting in a garden and a greenhouse,” Moore adds. “It sounds basic, but we’re really looking to get back to living simply.”

“It sounds basic, but we’re really looking to get back to living simply.”Click To Tweet

 

Other considerations include federal, state or local food-safety regulations, along with licensing requirements or ordinances pertaining to land use and agricultural products. Voluntary audits for Good Agricultural Practices or Good Handling Practices may also be necessary, depending on the agricultural enterprise.

#4. Gather Your People

Beyond rules and resources and resilience, building a support network is perhaps the most important component when starting a farming operation. Friends and family likely will become the core of this network, but it should extend to neighbors, other farmers and those who can provide expertise to help your new business along the way.

While they may be geographically widespread, homesteaders have built tight-knit communities. These groups often communicate online, and Moore says he regularly reaches out with questions as he builds his farm. Members of nearby Amish community, where simple living has never gone out of style, have offered helpful advice as well.

“I also have a neighbor, a Korean War veteran, who’s built two houses,” Moore says. “He has lots of experience and knowledge about things that he’s willing to share.”

“Building a support network is perhaps the most important component when starting a farming operation.”Click To Tweet

 

For Moller, his team includes his local Extension farm adviser, who assists him with irrigation water monitoring, and personnel at the local USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, where he’s participated in the Environmental Quality Incentives Program.

“Through that cost-share program, we’ve improved our irrigation system, replacing old concrete pipe with plastic,” he says. “We’ve also done more cross-fencing, trying to make more paddocks within our irrigated pastures so that we can utilize the grass better and give more time for growth between grazings.”

USDA, Extension and other agricultural professionals also can review business plans and offer sound advice for growing new farms. However, Moller says the one thing he needs most is more time.

“When you’re working your day job and trying to run cows, time is the biggest constraint,” he says. “But it’s what we want to do and how we want to live — being outside, taking care of the cows, the pleasant surprise of baby calves being born. I enjoy every part of it.”